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The GenealogueThe Genealogue

Genealogy news you can't possibly use.

AncestryDNA and a Possible Faux Pa: Part Deux

2012. december 28. 23:34:00

My mother's genetic journey began with one mystery, and led to another.

My mother's late father was a Cyr, but the family had long suspected that he was fathered by his mother's eventual second husband, a Levesque. The most pressing reason for my taking an autosomal DNA test was to find evidence of her father's paternity. I had researched both the Cyr and Levesque pedigrees, and hoped that among my genetic matches would be a cousin whom I could tie to one of the branches of one of these trees.

That mystery has since (tentatively) been solved, but another popped up when my AncestryDNA results came back. As I discussed in my earlier post, the results showed no evidence of my French ancestry. I speculated that the test could have missed (i.e. misidentified) my French genes, or else my grandmother could have been unfaithful. When AncestryDNA opened to the public in early November, I ordered a test for my mother, and two-and-a-half weeks later the results were in.

Recall that this was my "Genetic Ethnicity Summary":


My mother's summary is a bit more interesting:


Her mother was born to Finnish immigrants; her father was Franco-American. I've concluded that the Finnish/Volga-Ural came from her mother, along with the Eastern European and some of the Scandinavian. The rest came from her father. The test didn't recognize her Frenchness, though almost all of her matches who shared their family trees were of French-Canadian ancestry. In fact, two of her matches were 4th to 6th cousins through her Cyr line, making it less likely that her biological grandfather was "Grampa Levesque."

One mystery was fading, but the other deepened. Was her summary reflecting her father's "deep ancestry," or was it simply mistaken?

It wasn't AncestryDNA that helped me solve this mystery, but its rival 23andMe. I was able to apply that company's recently announced Ancestry Composition feature to test results I had previously obtained for my maternal uncle. To a point, the feature is similar to AncestryDNA's Genetic Ethnicity Summary. Beyond that point, AncestryDNA's weaknesses become apparent.

Ancestry Composition provides three resolutions: Global, Regional and Sub-regional. Sub-regional Resolution gives a summary much like AncestryDNA's:


This shows at least some French ancestry, which is better than AncestryDNA did for my mom. But notice that, whereas AncestryDNA assigned 99% of my mother's DNA to more or less specific regions, 23andMe assigns only about 77% of her brother's—the rest is labeled "Nonspecific European" or "Unassigned." 23andMe also seems hesitant to recognize Scandinavian ancestry. Obviously AncestryDNA is the better company!

But wait. I always try to be careful when expressing genealogical conclusions to couch them with words like "probably," "apparently," or "possibly." How certain is AncestryDNA of its conclusions? It provides confidence percentages for DNA matches, but not for its ethnicity calculations. We are told simply that the latter results are held to "an extremely high standard of accuracy," and (by implication) should not be doubted. Why not? Because SCIENCE!
There are a few reasons why your ethnicity may not be exactly what you expected:
  • Your genetic ethnicity may go back further than your family tree.
  • While your ancestors lived in a certain country, there may have been genetic influence from other places.
  • You don’t necessarily share common DNA with all of your ancestors.
In other words, if our conclusions don't match your expectations, your expectations were wrong.

Blaine Bettinger quotes a concession that I can't find on the Ancestry.com website:
Right now, your genetic ethnicity may not look quite right, with some ethnicities under or over-represented. As scientists gain a deeper understanding of the data, our prediction models will evolve to provide you with more accurate and relevant information about your family history.
The website concedes only that the ethnicity summaries "may update over time as new genetic signatures are discovered," and that they might someday be able to show "more granular ethnic regions." It promises refinement—something less than correction.

To be clear, my issue isn't with the quality of AncestryDNA's prediction models, but with the presentation of its predictions. To present a prediction without qualification is to imply that we should trust that prediction without reservation. "A hard rain's a-gonna fall" is a very different statement from "There is a 60 percent chance of precipitation."

Let's compare AncestryDNA's approach with 23andMe's. Just above my uncle's Ancestry Composition percentages is a drop-down box that allows me to adjust the estimate.


Standard Estimate is the default, but I can also see a Speculative Estimate and a Conservative Estimate. Here's the speculative estimate of my uncle's ancestral ethnicity:


Based on this estimate (and assuming a genetic Maginot Line that kept out any German genes), he's at least a quarter French, which seems closer to the truth than 3.3%.[1] Even when speculating, 23andMe leaves a sizable chunk of his ancestry somewhat vague (though the "Nonspecific European" portion has shrunk considerably). The company provides a white paper that explains exactly how they arrive at these estimates, and what "speculative," "standard" and "conservative" mean. (Briefly, they indicate 50 percent, 75 percent and 90 percent "confidence thresholds.") Scroll down to the "Testing & Validation" section and you'll see that French and German ancestry is by far the most difficult to determine.
In the worst case, the French & German population, the recall is 7%, meaning that 93% of the actual French & German DNA was not labeled as such.
Scroll back up and you'll learn that "Finns are so distinct from other populations, they actually get their own reference population in Ancestry Composition." So, my mother's ancestry demonstrates the best- and worst-case scenarios for identifying specific European ancestries.[2] I would not have learned this from the AncestryDNA website. When your competitor is educating your customers, that's a problem.

With the introduction of the Ancestry Composition tool at 23andMe, there is one less reason to recommend AncestryDNA. I hope that Ancestry.com is reconsidering its decision to "dumb down" its test results, and will begin providing more and better data for us to evaluate. It needs to pull its scientists out of the lab to tell us where these percentages are coming from. What reference populations are they using? How confident are they in their estimates? I would rather be confused by too much information than by too little. Blind me with science!

[1]The Iberian ancestry fits with my uncle's Y chromosome haplogroup, which is most prevalent on the Iberian peninsula and southern France.

[2]Having such distinct maternal and paternal ancestries provides an opportunity to distinguish which of each chromosome pair comes from the mother, and which from the father. (In labspeak, this is part of the "phasing" process.) 23andMe's new tool lets me view which of my uncle's chromosomal segments come from which part of Europe. The Eastern European shows up as part of his X chromosome, indicating that it came from his Finnish mother. I'm also able to see that those segments identified as Scandinavian in every case share a chromosome with those identified as Finnish. That means that these Scandinavian genes (if phased correctly) most likely came through Sweden rather than Normandy.

AncestryDNA and a Possible Faux Pa

2012. június 13. 20:45:00

Having received free admission to the AncestryDNA Beta and gained some knowledge as a result, I feel obliged to offer a review of the service.

Through my father, I expected my genetic ancestry to be about 47% British Isles, 3% Dutch. Some portion of my British genes might in fact be Scandinavian, due to the notoriously indiscriminate dating practices of Vikings. But barring some non-paternity hanky panky not reflected in the records or family tradition, my father's heritage is pretty well settled.

My mother's family was even more a settled fact. Her mother was the child of Finnish immigrants. mtDNA tests taken by me and a maternal uncle were both consistent with a Finnish maternal ancestry. My mother's father was French, and her brother's Y chromosome is consistent with a French paternal ancestry. So I expected my genetic profile to come back 25% French and 25% Finnish/Scandinavian (the Finnish/Swedish border being historically permeable). Imagine my surprise when I received these results:


WTF! Pardon my French, but . . . where's the French?

Let's say my paternal ancestry accounts for the 36% British Isles, maybe 3% of the Uncertain, and perhaps 11% of the Scandinavian. (My scant Dutch ancestry might have been classified as Uncertain, or else misidentified as British Isles; Vikings also left some genetic traces in the Netherlands.) That leaves me with a maternal genetic ancestry which is 16% Finnish and maybe 31% Scandinavian, 3% Uncertain. Which leaves me uncertain who the hell that guy was that I used to call "Grampa."

I can think of three possible explanations:
  1. My French grandfather wasn't French.
  2. The test results are wrong.
  3. My grandmother fooled around.

1. My French grandfather wasn't French
Not likely. He didn't often speak French, but he did curse in French. He was born in Presque Isle in northern Maine, and all of his known ancestors came through the French regions of New Brunswick and Quebec. He was either French or the mastermind of a very elaborate hoax.

2. The test results are wrong
Possibly. AncestryDNA is still in Beta, so refinements and improvements can be expected. But could they have mislabeled a quarter of my genetic makeup? Could my French genes somehow have been misidentified as Scandinavian and/or British? Others have been surprised by the nonFrenchness of their AncestryDNA results, and many have noted an apparent overestimation of Scandinavian ancestry. So maybe when the Francophobic Viking lover in AncestryDNA's laboratory is discovered and fired I'll get fresh results that will again make my grandfather French.

3. My grandmother fooled around
Well, Grampa fooled around, but that's not relevant to this discussion. When I told my mother about the test results, she was unexpectedly pleased. She had always felt more Finnish than French, and the percentages do suggest that her biological father could have been Finnish/Scandinavian. (If her mother did fool around, it was probably with another Finn.) Her siblings looked more French than she ever did. She is now on the waiting list for a $99 AncestryDNA test of her own, which she hopes will confirm that she is 100% Finnish/Scandinavian. Once she has those results (and after we've given AncestryDNA some time to refine its process), she'll broach the subject with her maternal aunt—likely the only person alive with knowledge of any possible extramarital activity.

My criticisms of AncestryDNA are the same that have been leveled elsewhere. The superficial presentation of test results makes it impossible to know what parts of my genome I share with each of my "Member Matches." Further, I have two matches in the fourth-sixth cousin range, but I can't contact them through the site without an active subscription.* (One of my matches' username is her first and last name, which allowed me to identify her and through some stalking snooping ingenious genealogical research determine that she is my fifth cousin once removed. I was able to identify the other match as well (she uses the same username on Twitter), but haven't been able to find a common ancestor.)

I join the chorus asking that AncestryDNA make raw data available and test results portable, i.e. let users export their data and upload it to third-party sites. The graphs and maps are pretty and all, but some users want to get under the hood and get their hands dirty. Being matched with a previously unknown fifth cousin and finding that our pedigrees intersect gives me some confidence that the science behind AncestryDNA is sound. But allowing experienced genetic genealogists to compare the raw data from this and other tests would go a long way toward establishing widespread confidence in a service that is, so far, a black box.

*I have been offered 6 months free access to "Ancestry Connections" which would allow me to contact them, but will paying customers be offered this deal as the service moves out of Beta? I can understand restricting access to member trees and other features, but shouldn't potential cousins be allowed to make contact without continued contributions to Ancestry.com's bottom line?

A Contrary Code of Conduct

2010. április 29. 8:35:00

Like Thomas MacEntee, I think a GeneaBloggers' Code of Conduct is long overdue. From now on, any blogger wishing to appear in my Genealogy Blog Finder must adhere to the following guidelines:

  1. Follow best genealogical practices at all times. Or else learn to fake it like the rest of us.
  2. Hateful language will not be tolerated unless directed at people I also hate.
  3. When attacking religions, lay off the Mormons because you'll probably need their help someday.
  4. Politics should never, ever be discussed on a genealogy blog because Obama is the Antichrist.
  5. Always give proper attributions for the stuff you rip off from better blogs.
  6. Your grandchildren are not as cute as you think they are, so stop writing about them.
  7. Never accept money or gifts from companies in return for favorable reviews of their products without first offering to cut me in.
  8. As Ernest Hemingway once told my grandfather over a bottle of absinthe while celebrating the liberation of Paris, "Do not embellish your family history to attract readers."
  9. Periodically post your blog's traffic statistics so those of us with more visitors can feel superior.
  10. Ask for help when you need it. But don't ask me to help you move, because I'm busy that weekend.
Note: Being listed in the Genealogy Blog Finder constitutes membership in the community and acceptance of the preceding terms. Retroactive membership fees of $50 per year may be sent via PayPal to the email address in my profile.

Ménage à Trois in a Test Tube Revisited

2010. április 19. 20:50:00

I first wrote about scientists producing human embryos with the DNA of three people in 2008. The new issue of Nature has an article on the researchers' progress.

The British team carrying out the study used fertilized eggs donated by couples undergoing fertility treatment, and which were unsuitable for in vitro fertilization (IVF). At this early stage the sperm and egg nuclei, which contain most of the parental genes, have not yet fused. The researchers removed these nuclei and transferred them into another fertilized egg cell which had had its own nuclei removed.

As very little cytoplasm was transferred with the nuclei, the transfer left behind almost all the mitochondria from the donor egg.
Neurologist Doug Turnbull doesn't think a contributor of mitochondria should be considered a parent.
Turnbull compared mitochondria to the power source for a laptop. “All the characteristics of the computer are stored on the computer. We’re just changing the battery,” he said. [Link]
For genealogists, it's a bit more complicated than that. Mitochondrial DNA has become a convenient way to trace maternal ancestry, and that only works if the DNA was contributed in the natural way. Someday we might have to distinguish between OEM batteries and those provided by third-party manufacturers.

Genealogy: Another Reason for Your Family to Hate You

2010. április 10. 7:18:00

Not only is genealogy a worthless pursuit, it can lead to family discord.

Illegitimate children, hidden affairs, troubled finances and deceit all await those determined to piece together their family's past, found Dr Anne-Marie Kramer of Warwick University.

When she interviewed more than 220 people across the country who had looked into their past, she discovered it had led to conflict with relatives in more than one in eight cases. [Link]
So, in about 7 out of 8 cases, family history research did not lead to conflict. Those are pretty good odds. And the odds might be even better, as there's no telling from the article what exactly constitutes a "conflict," and whether these conflicts can be fairly attributed to genealogy. Some of the problems described here and elsewhere—neglecting family, pestering reticent relatives—are more about being unpleasant human beings than about making unpleasant discoveries. Someone who neglects her children because she's obsessed with genealogy would probably do the same if obsessed with Sudoku. And someone who badgers a relative for information is probably a jerk in his non-genealogical life as well.

As for uncovering secrets, I love finding illegitimate children, hidden affairs, troubled finances and deceit in my family. (I'm certainly not British enough to ever be disturbed by the discovery of an ancestor's "previously unknown humble origins.") All four show up in the family of one of my grandparents. In fact, we're planning a DNA test to settle a paternity question in the family. No conflicts here, just questions waiting for answers.

There are families with legitimately disturbing secrets, disclosure of which would embarrass or anger the living. And I have no problem with Dr. Kramer warning of the (meager) risks. Personally, I'd rather know an unhappy truth than live in happy ignorance, but if others want to cling to myths, that's up to them. That said, in some cases discretion should keep us from publishing the truth. But nothing should keep us from ethically discovering and recording it.

Every Family Has a Story, And Yours Probably Sucks

2010. április 8. 1:02:00

The Times has another of those "genealogists are (and should be) only interested in famous ancestors" articles, this time by Sathnam Sanghera.

Genealogists also have a habit of remarking that “every family has a story”. But it’s not necessarily a story worth telling.
Given the huge number of worthless family stories in the world, how fortuitous that Sanghera found his own worth telling.
And before anyone points out the hypocrisy of a memoirist slagging off genealogy, life writing and genealogy are completely different. One being the equivalent of an interest in music, the other the equivalent of an interest in hi-fi equipment.
No, one is the equivalent of the narcissist who talks of nothing but himself, the other the equivalent of the empathic person who shows legitimate interest in the stories of others. You know, the kind of person who might actually buy and enjoy Sanghera's memoirs.

They Were Practically War Buddies

2010. április 3. 4:59:00

Chris Staats finds five degrees of separation between himself and George Washington. I think I can beat him.

I knew my great-aunt Gladys (died when I was 25), who knew her grandfather Lemuel Dunham (died when she was 10), who knew his grandfather Moses Dunham (died when he was 15). Moses served in the Continental Army under Washington for a couple of years, and was by his own account present at the surrender of Cornwallis. I would imagine he was in the front row and met the general himself, which would leave four degrees of separation between me and Washington.

If you think you can beat me, I preemptively doubt your evidence and ridicule your logic.

An Island Getaway-For-Good

2010. március 29. 22:49:00

It's a genealogist's worst nightmare: 800,000+ burials and only one marked grave.

Most New Yorkers don’t even know it’s there. Hart Island, near the popular summer spot City Island, is one of the world’s largest cemeteries, and the U.S.’s largest potter’s field, where the indigent and unidentifiable have been buried en masse since just after the Civil War.
At one time the island also housed a prison, a boys’ workhouse, a Nike Ajax nuclear missile silo, and for four months in 1865, it was a prisoner of war camp used to house captured Confederate Troops, more than 250 of whom died and were buried here. The only grave with a marker is that of an unnamed baby who died in 1980, New York City’s first AIDS casualty, buried in isolation. [Link]

99 and Holding

2010. március 27. 7:21:00

The consul general of Barbados in New York is obliged to visit local Barbadians who've reached 100 years of age on their birthdays. Mae Bishop will have none of it.

According to her birth certificate, she will turn 102 on May 16. But with the feistiness and independence that have characterized her long life, she has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that she has lived a century.
For Mrs. Bishop’s 100th birthday in 2008, the family held a party and allowed the previous consul general, a family friend, to attend. But it decided to respect Mrs. Bishop’s sensitivities by sending invitations that referred to “the 70th anniversary of her 30th birthday.”

Mrs. Bishop did quick work on the greeting cards she received that mentioned a 100th birthday, tearing out the offending number and leaving the rest of each card intact. During the party, Ms. Hylton-Springer recalled, her mother turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know what they’re going to do when I’m 100, because they’re making such a big fuss now.” [Link]

Disowning Myrtle

2010. március 19. 18:31:00

Via Nina Lentini's Life Without End:

She was born Myrtle Hart, at 85 Morrell Street in New Brunswick. However, as she would admit to anyone, she loathed the name Myrtle, so she would introduce herself by the name of Chris(tianne), her baptismal name, to which she finally changed legally at the advanced age of 81. [Link]

RIP April 17, 1917

2010. március 17. 3:17:00

Maine lawmakers eager to protect our privacy must be relieved that Elwyn W. Lancaster has passed away.

Elwyn had a remarkable memory for dates and numbers and was known in the community as the "Birthday Man." He loved to greet people by their birth dates as he sat at McDonald's. Often times, he would receive birthday cards signed only with birth dates. He could recite hundreds of birthdays, anniversaries and social security numbers. He was even interviewed by the local news station for this tremendous talent. [Link]

Needs a Vowel Removement

2010. március 14. 3:19:00

The proofreader of the Topeka Capital-Journal may soon be replaced by a 13-year-old.

A 13-year-old who began reading when he was in kindergarten won the 2010 Topeka Capital-Journal Regional Spelling Bee in the 25th round when he spelled "geneaology," the study of family history. [Link, via]

Another Genealogue Link Dump

2010. március 9. 1:34:00

Genealogy, American Style

2010. március 8. 22:58:00

Interesting discussion over at Genea-Musings here and here regarding the question whether an American of Colonial descent should be able to document his complete ancestry back ten generations.

The problems Randy brings up are rooted in our unique American history:

  1. Ours is a federal system of government. Any requirements for BMD registration were first imposed by 13 diverse colonies and their various governments, later by the states. These requirements have converged toward universal registration, but even today some states have policies that other states would never countenance.
  2. Ours is a secular nation. No state church means there is a bright line between civil and religious registration of BMDs, and no consistent policy among churches on registering them. (There are days when I wish all my ancestors had emigrated from Quebec.)

    Also, the penalties for skipping civil registration were less draconian than the potential costs of not inviting a priest to your wedding or neglecting to baptize your infant. The penalty for not reporting or recording a birth, marriage or death in Maine in 1844 was $1, and rarely imposed. That's pretty cheap compared to the twin threats of eternal damnation and mother-in-law disapproval.
  3. Ours was a country of frontiers. For much of our history land was settled before it was governed. This was true not only in the West, but even at the uninhabited fringes of long-settled states like Maine. BMDs here were recorded at the local level, generally with no requirement to report them to the county or state. If no local government yet existed, the events went unrecorded. Some couples traveled miles to the nearest incorporated settlement to ensure that their marriage intentions were recorded, but births and deaths in these families were recorded only privately, if at all.
In short, I agree with Randy that the chances of someone with deep American roots finding all 1,023 names in a ten-generation pedigree chart are negligible. The chances of finding these names through BMDs alone are zero. If your ancestors were African American or Native American, make that negative zero.

Who Does He Think He Is?

2010. március 6. 1:08:00

Neil Genzlinger's New York Times column on tonight's premiere of "Who Do You Think You Are?" warns potential family historians not to get their hopes up.

Some of us may take the genealogical plunge expecting cool family stories like the ones the celebrities get, only to find that we’ve been ordinary and uninteresting since we were living in caves.
My own tree, for instance, shows that, on my father’s side, Great-Grandpa Fred and Great-Grandma Elisa came to the United States from Germany on the same ship, the Noordland, in June 1889, apparently meeting onboard, down in steerage. That’s nice, but more legacy-conscious ancestors would have instead survived the Johnstown flood, smashed a Champagne bottle at the opening of the Eiffel Tower or refereed the legendary 75-round bare-knuckle fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, all of which took place that same year. [Link, via]
I can't tell which premise the writer bases his argument on: Does he believe that celebrities have more "interesting" ancestries than the rest of us? Or does he think that the celebrities featured on WDYTYA were chosen because their ancestors were not "ordinary"?

I've researched a few celebrities' genealogies over the years, and the conclusion I've drawn is that they are fairly representative of the population at large. Sure, there are some whose careers were founded on the careers of their ancestors (I'm looking at you, Drew Barrymore), but most sprang from stock as "ordinary and uninteresting" as that which gave rise to Neil Genzlinger. If the celebrities appearing on the show have interesting ancestors, it's only because every celebrity has interesting ancestors.

Of course, judgments of "interestingness" are subjective, and snobbery has had a place in genealogy from the start. But the vast majority of committed genealogists—the genealogists I know and whose writing and company I enjoy—are as pleased to find a turnip farmer in their tree as to find a king. If information on the turnip farmer's life is scanty, it's because it was never recorded. It's not because that information was not worth recording.

In place of Genzlinger's warning, I'll offer my own: If you intend to become a genealogist, leave your snobbishness behind. It will only get in the way of appreciating the lives of your dead ancestors and your living cousins.

Simpsons Genetically Predisposed to Seek Out Blue Beehives?

2010. február 23. 3:39:00

On last night's Simpsons episode, one of Lisa's paternal ancestors looked remarkably like Lisa's mother, who is related only by marriage to the Simpsons.

Back to the Future III had a similar problem. Writer/producer Bob Gale and writer/director Robert Zemeckis were once asked to explain how the same actress ended up in two branches of Marty's family tree:
Q: Lea Thompson plays Maggie McFly, Marty's great-great-grandmother, as well as Lorraine, Marty's mom. But Lorraine's family name is "Baines". Why did Lea play Marty's paternal great-great-grandmother, when she's really not part of that family? Is there something kinky going on in the history of the McFly family?

A: Lea plays Maggie because we didn't want to make a Back to the Future Part III without having Lea in it, especially in a "Mom is that you" scene! Of course, we thought about whether it made any sense -- obviously, Maggie McFly and Lorraine Baines cannot be blood relatives. But we did come up with a satisfactory answer: It's a well known adage that "men are attracted to women who remind them of their mothers." Clearly then, when Seamus married Maggie, that insured that the McFly men would have a genetic trait that attracted them to women who bear a resemblance to Maggie or Lea Thompson (even Jennifer is the same physical type!) [Link]

Don't Blame Stupidity On Your Genes

2010. február 22. 8:50:00

Who's stupider—Time columnist Joel Stein or his great-grandmother?

I found out through the 1930 Census that my father's father's parents paid $45 a month for a one-room New York City apartment for six people and they were the only ones on the block without a radio. My great-grandmother, when asked what country she grew up in, wrote "Poland," crossed it out and then wrote "Austria." These are countries that don't even border each other. I come from stupid people. You know how I know that? Because I had to look up whether those countries border each other [Link]
Um, is Stein aware that Poland was not an independent country when his great-grandmother was growing up? And that Austria then ruled part of Poland, and therefore she could have been born in both Austria and Poland without disrupting the space-time continuum? And does he really think that that was his great-grandmother's handwriting in the 1930 census? If so, can he explain why she had the same handwriting as all of her neighbors?

A Fecund Thumb in the Eye of the Nazis

2010. február 22. 2:10:00

Yitta Schwartz, who died last month in New York at age 93, left behind some 2,000 living descendants.

Mrs. Schwartz was a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, whose couples have nine children on average and whose ranks of descendants can multiply exponentially. But even among Satmars, the size of Mrs. Schwartz’s family is astonishing. A round-faced woman with a high-voltage smile, she may have generated one of the largest clans of any survivor of the Holocaust — a thumb in the eye of the Nazis. [Link]

More Paperwork Than a DAR Application

2010. február 20. 17:55:00

The Hawaii Health Department has to deal daily with birthers eager to see President Obama's "real" birth certificate, says spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

When Okubo told one writer they did not have a right to Obama's birth certificate because they were not related to the president, the person wrote back saying they, indeed, had a common ancestor.

"They said they have a tangible right to his birth certificate because they're descended from Adam," Okubo said, referring to the biblical figure. "We told them they need to provide some type of legal documentation." [Link, via]

The Real Timothy McSweeney

2010. február 9. 5:08:00

An odd and touching story by Dave Eggers, founder of Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency. His website, literary journal and publishing house bear the name of a mysterious man who shared his mother's maiden name.

She grew up in Milton, Massachusetts, one of five children, the daughter of an obstetrician, Daniel McSweeney, and his wife Adelaide Mary McSweeney.
When Eggers was a kid, his family started getting "strange mail" addressed to him and his mother.
These were usually notes written on pamphlets and other sorts of mail that required no postage. The messages were confusing, but generally seemed to be written by a man named Timothy McSweeney, who thought he was related to my mother, and who was hoping to visit soon. Sometimes Timothy would include train schedules and other plans. Sometimes they included drawings and diagrams. Usually the letters had a sense of urgency, as if after many years of searching for his relatives, he had found my mother and I, and wanted to reconnect as soon as possible.
Eggers, having appropriated the man's name for his publishing concern, learned a few years later of Timothy McSweeney's identity.
One day in Boston in 1943, my grandfather Daniel McSweeney delivered a baby. This baby was put up for adoption, and was adopted by another McSweeney family.
Timothy McSweeney grew up to become an artist, fell mentally ill, and was eventually institutionalized.
It was from this institution that he began to send letters. According to his brother David, he would search through city and state records, find names, and write to the people he found.

Presumably, he saw my grandfather's name on his birth certificate and came to think Daniel McSweeney might have been his father, not simply the delivering obstetrician. And thus he sought out the children of Daniel McSweeney. [Link]
The real Timothy McSweeney died last month at age 67.

Gravestones Under Glass

2010. február 6. 20:26:00

Someday we might all be carrying bottles of liquid glass to the graveyard.

Spray-on liquid glass is transparent, non-toxic, and can protect virtually any surface against almost any damage from hazards such as water, UV radiation, dirt, heat, and bacterial infections. The coating is also flexible and breathable, which makes it suitable for use on an enormous array of products.
The war graves association in the UK is investigating using the spray to treat stone monuments and grave stones, since trials have shown the coating protects against weathering and graffiti. Trials in Turkey are testing the product on monuments such as the Ataturk Mausoleum in Ankara. [Link]

Annie Information Would Be Appreciated

2010. február 4. 18:03:00

The latest chapter in the Annie Moore saga involves the discovery of a photograph that may or may not show Annie and her brothers at Ellis Island in 1892.

Megan asks for help in proving the authenticity of the photo. My advice: check the back to see if their names are written there. Other than that ... I've got nothing.

Rome Was Far From Home

2010. február 4. 17:46:00

There might be a genetic reason that Uncle Mario prefers eating at the Szechuan Palace.

Some people of Italian ancestry, like me, might have a surprise in the family tree—a man of east Asian descent, who was living and working 2,000 years ago in the boondocks near the heel of the Italian boot. The discovery is the first good evidence of an Asian living in Italy during Roman times. [Link]

Salinger's Mom Born in Atlantic, Not Across the Atlantic

2010. január 28. 21:05:00

I do love correcting the New York Times:

[J.D. Salinger's] mother, Marie Jillisch, was of Irish descent, born in Scotland, but changed her first name to Miriam (the name, incidentally, of the wife who drives Seymour Glass to suicide) to appease her in-laws. [Link]
Not quite. His mother was the daughter of George and Nellie Jillich, born 11 May 1891 in Atlantic, Cass County, Iowa. Here she is in the 1900 census with her parents. They too were born in Iowa. I'm pretty sure that I've seen ship manifests which confirm Miriam Salinger's exact place of birth, but—like the Times—I am too lazy to double-check my sources.

The Times obit also says that J.D. "married a German woman, very briefly — a doctor about whom biographers have been able to discover very little. Her name was Sylvia, Margaret Salinger said, but Mr. Salinger always called her Saliva."

Dr. Saliva's full name was Sylvia Louise Welter. An article in this newsletter (pdf) discusses their brief marriage. The couple arrived in New York aboard the Ethan Allen on 28 April 1946. The manifest indicates that the doctor was a citizen of France, 27 years of age, born in Frankfurt-au-Main, Germany, and was fluent in English, French, German and Italian. No wonder he dumped her.

They Buried the Competition

2010. január 18. 5:28:00

The towns of Ponca City and Cross were both founded in Oklahoma's Cherokee Strip in 1893. Only one would survive.

Both aspired to be the county seat, and the war between them waxed so warm that several men bit the dust. Finally the mayor of Ponca City called a public meeting one night and urged the citizens to keep up the fight until they made Cross a cemetery.

It is thought by his remark that the mayor actually advised the destruction of the city and the people of Cross by winchester rifles, but if so his threat was not executed in this manner.
Ponca City gave a town lot to every owner of a house in Cross and paid for the moving, and in this way stampeded the residents of the rival town.

Nothing being left but the town site and schoolhouse, the bluff of the pioneer mayor of Ponca was made good a few days since when the council bought the town site for a cemetery and made the schoolhouse the residence of the sexton. [Link]