About "Good to Know: A Genealogist's Guide"

A multi-discipline approach to genealogy - A genealogist's way of working generally encompasses several different fields of study at once, thus the more well-rounded your genealogist is concerning various disciplines of study, the better that genealogist will be able to locate your ancestors, and maybe even tell you a little about what they were like.

This blog will discuss what types of things are "Good to Know" for a genealogist or for anyone researching his/her own family tree.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Part IV: Get to Know Another Occupation

When I started doing genealogical research, I was working on a degree in criminal justice.  In fact, my final few credits for my degree was an internship.  I figured I could do a genealogy internship.  I went to the head of the Criminal Justice Department with a prepared proposal stating how genealogy had a lot in common with studying law and how genealogy is mainly focused on researching the legal documents that remain after that person has died.  It worked, and I completed my internship and got my criminal justice degree with honors.  

While doing the internship, I discovered I had a knack for this "genealogy thing".  After all, I grew up with a genealogist father, so it was already something that pretty much surrounded me (some of it literally surrounded me as there is a huge printout covering the entire dining room wall containing the work my father completed on our family tree). 

The more I learned from my father concerning when to look where and what records were available, the more I loved it.  I also noticed the overwhelming amount of similarities there were between genealogy and criminal justice: it's not just what I told the head of the criminal justice department about.  For instance, there are several types of evidence from witness statements to documentary evidence & forensics while, in genealogy, there's witness accounts (such as a bible record written by an ancestor at the time), there's documents such as deeds & wills and there's DNA testing.  In criminal justice, there's an unknown criminal that police attempt to locate using what evidence they've gathered and, in genealogy, there's an unknown ancestor we search for using what data has been provided by the descendant & uncovered through research.  Both the genealogist and those on the case to find a criminal need to build a case using the evidence they gathered.  Although the burden of proof is much stronger in the criminal justice system, the way of thinking and analyzing the evidence is very similar. 

The Case
When presented with a case, the detectives/investigators need to be completely unbiased, just like a genealogist.  They can't begin an investigation with the goal of proving what they want to be proven or placing guilt on the guy they want to be guilty, they have to be open to the possibilities and must strive to reach the truth, not just the truth they want.  The same is true in genealogy.  One example would be if you wanted a genealogist to find you a Revolutionary War ancestor so you could get into the DAR or the SAR.  The genealogist couldn't just look and accept only the evidence pointing toward that conclusion, they have to take everything into account, whether it points to a Revolutionary War ancestor or not.  The police might want a certain person to be guilty of a crime, but if some of the evidence doesn't support that, they have to admit that and reassess.  In either occupation, we can't let our wishes and hopes get in the way of the facts.  Genealogists, detectives & investigators must go where the evidence leads them, not to what any preconceived notion they might have had will take them. 

Reliability of the Evidence
At a crime scene, there are usually pieces of evidence that can be gathered to aide in finding the culprit.  Genealogists are much like crime scene investigators (CSIs) and police detectives in this way.  We gather what evidence has survived the test of time in order to find that unknown relative, and just as the police and CSIs, we must evaluate the evidence as to it's reliability.  
A police detective might get several eyewitness statements that conflict each other.  Not every eyewitness is reliable.  When it comes to forensics though, the results found (like DNA) are pretty much irrefutable.  What isn't irrefutable is how they interpret those results.  They may say, "Well we found suspect X's DNA on the scene, so he must have killed the victim".  Interpretation is always done by humans, and humans are imperfect.  Just because his DNA was at the scene, it doesn't mean suspect X was the murderer, or even at the scene for that matter.  All there is absolute proof of is that his DNA was at the scene.  Who knows how it got there.  Perhaps someone was attempting to frame suspect X. 

Thinking this way can be a great help when searching for our ancestors.  Interpreting evidence without thinking of all the possibilities can easily lead you reach a faulty conclusion.  It's a a mistake many have made in genealogy as well as the criminal justice system.  Although it's unlikely for an  innocent man end up on death row because of a faulty conclusion made in genealogy, it's still good to be careful to avoid making faulty assumptions of what the evidence tells us.  It makes us better genealogists. 

When I come to a specific conclusion through analysis of the data, I face it head on.  I act like I am in a debate and was just told this conclusion by my competitor.  Then, I try to poke holes in my analysis of the evidence trying to think of any way possible that it could be wrong.  If I can poke holes in my conclusions, I go back to the research and close those holes up. 

What happens if the CSI does not document where the evidence came from?  Well, the chain of evidence is not maintained for one.  It also likely can't be used to prove the case and it won't hold up in court.  If the case wasn't solved and goes cold, when the next detective picks up where they left off, the evidence gathered without proper documentation gives them nothing.  The same happens with genealogy.  If we don't have source citations, whatever we gather cannot be used to prove our case.  Also, if another genealogist wants to pick up where I left off, they'd have proof of nothing because they can't check the sources if there are no source citations.  This is particularly true when it comes to joining a genealogy related organization such as the DAR, SAR or The Cincinnati Society.  They require source citation because they will be checking your work.  They have to make sure the work was done correctly and the conclusions you came to make sense.  If you don't have source citations, you won't get in to any of these organizations. 

Criminal justice is just one example that is filled with people who have several different occupations: detectives, investigators, forensic technicians, criminologists, crime scene investigators, etc.  When you get to the court/trial stage in the criminal justice system, there's also people such as the prosecutor, defense attorney, judge & court reporter.  

My suggestion is to get to know someone who has one of these occupations so you can learn what it is they do and how they think.  Personally, I know that my background in criminal justice has been an invaluable resource that has greatly added to my ability to do genealogical research and analysis.  What are some other occupations that could help you in the field of genealogy?  How about getting to know an archaeologist, one who's focus is in the area and time period in which your ancestors lived?  I'm sure they would have a great deal of insight into what the day to day life of your ancestors would've been like.  They've probably had the opportunity to hold in their hands, artifacts from that time, set foot inside the fallen walls of a home built by someone similar to your ancestor, sifted through their 200 year old garbage.  You can learn a lot about people by what they threw out.

Another occupation would be a sociologist (mentioned in my previous post).  A sociologist could give you great insight into how your ancestors thought and what decisions they might have made.  How about getting to know a historian who's focus is on the area and time of your ancestors or an anthropologist?  How about someone who has studied the history of transportation, medicine, meteorology, politics, theology, law, economics, fashion, photography or technology?  There's a whole world of occupations out there that, when the knowledge of which is combined with your knowledge as a genealogist, can really add to how you go about your research and analysis & how you look at the way your ancestors lived.  With social networking being what it is now, it's also fairly easy to find someone who has one of these occupations.  There's also courses on several different subjects you could take at your local college or university, or even free on iTunes U.

Helping Each Other 
Getting to know others in different occupations can actually be beneficial in another way.  After learning more about each others' professions, you might be able to find ways that your knowledge of your own profession can be of help to the profession you're learning about.  For example, I've thought of a few things that could help the field of criminal justice, using my knowledge in genealogy, and vice versa.

Genealogy helping Criminal Justice
It's obvious that DNA is deeply intertwined with both genealogy & criminal justice.  Sometimes, you can combine methods used in the two.  For instance, police sometimes find themselves with their alleged criminal's DNA: evidence found at the scene of a crime that has been confirmed through other pieces of evidence to have belonged to the person who committed that crime.  The problem is when none of their databases has that suspect's DNA in their systems.  If they have nothing to match it to, they can't catch their suspect.  Also, when there are no eyewitnesses for the crime, they have no idea what that suspect looks like.  

In genealogy, we know about certain inherited traits & how certain parts of DNA can help tell us what other people in the world share those parts of DNA with us.  Going back to the police's DNA conundrum, why not take the DNA they found at the scene and use it to help describe what their suspect looks like.  Granted, it won't tell you if he/she has long or short hair, but it will give them more than what they had prior.  An excellent special on PBS called "African-American Lives" (also "African American Lives 2") hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. helped identify where in the world their guest's DNA could be traced back to (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa).  If the DNA the police have in evidence indicates that their suspect's DNA also originates from Sub-Saharan Africa, it's likely the suspect is black.  There are also other inherited traits they could look at: likelihood of a cleft chin, detached earlobes, red hair, etc.  Finally, there is the concept of checking to see if the suspect's DNA is likely related to someone who is known to the police.  You know all those DNA web sites where you can swab your mouth and send it in and you can check to see if anyone else shared your DNA?  Why not use this concept in the criminal justice system?  Maybe a family member is in one of those DNA databases the police have in their system.  If they can find a relative (who knows the suspect), you're that much closer to getting that suspect in custody.

Criminal Justice helping Genealogy
Facial Recognition Software is currently used by many in the Criminal Justice arena as well as some businesses that need strict security (e.g. casinos).  Why not use facial recognition software to help with genealogy?  Here's my idea: a facial recognition program integrated into the image search of a search engine (e.g. Google).  You could scan a photo of an ancestor, upload it to the web, then the web can search for the face that's in your photograph throughout the entire internet.  Perhaps you don't know who's in that photo or there are more photos of that same person somewhere else on the web that might identify the subject.  Wouldn't it be nice to know who that person was and have more pictures of them to share with your family?  How about incorporating aging software as well?  The criminal justice system uses aging software with missing children cases to see what that child might look like 5 years later if they still have not located him/her.  If aging software is incorporated into a search engine along side facial recognition software, you could scan a photo of your 35 year old ancestor, upload it to the web, locate and positively identify a photo of that same person at 5 years old or even 75 years old.  Neat, huh?


  1. wow,you have fantastic ideas. I was inspired for a ton of comments.

    I especially like your face recognition software. when I saw the relatives in Germany, it helped explain the head shape my grandfather and his siblings had. I have wondered how much changes the spouses bring each time to the looks.

    Great ideas.

    cCuld the pattern on our finger tips be hereditary? Just wondering.

  2. Interesting information.


  3. I'd like to thank you all for your comments. They are much appreciated.

    As for the intriguing question raised by "a rootdigger", I am not aware of any research into whether fingerprints had an hereditary aspect to them. I do know that identical twins do not have identical fingerprints. They are, however, similar to one another, I believe, more so than one of them would be to a parent.

    When evaluating whether a specific trait is genetic or not, some point to the nature vs. nurture debate, but since we all develop our unique fingerprints in the womb, it would seem to be all nature and no nurture.

    When those in the field of criminal justice attempt to match a fingerprint from a crime scene with those on file or in a database, they do so by selecting various points on that print and matching those points up with the ones on file. In order to hold up in court, there is a required number of points that have to match which vary by jurisdiction.

    Each fingerprint is made up of various features that include ridges, grooves and swirls. The "points" mark some of these and where they are located on the print in relation to one another.

    Since it appears fingerprints are "nature" rather than "nurture", it would seem they are genetic in some way. If we're thinking of genes in the dominant v. recessive sense, it's certainly plausible that one or more of these features of fingerprints could be inherited. For example, perhaps multiple swirls on a fingerprint is a recessive trait while a single swirl is recessive.

    Great question! I hadn't thought of that before.

  4. I know this post is old, but I just found your blog reading another one, clicking a link, following a comment, clicking on a new blog, etc. You know how it goes in genealogy, we get way off track when it comes to googling and blogging and using the internet. I just wanted to let you know I enjoyed this post very much, and it got me thinking (which is always good!) It's nice to know there is another Heather doing genealogy blogging!