Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Questions and Answers

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” The closing words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensational musical Hamilton, these questions haunt both characters and audience from the moment they’re introduced in the first act. In the final scene after Hamilton’s untimely death, they receive a poignant answer: his wife, Eliza, who devoted the fifty years of her widowhood to shaping his legacy.  As a family historian I find it awkward to wrap this question around someone whose story has been continually told, however imperfectly, when we are working to bring attention to the forgotten, but not inconsequential experiences of our families.

But Miranda has taken up this challenge, too. His first musical, In the Heights, provides a more universal answer to the same question by dramatizing the struggles of his own community, the Latino residents of the barrios of Upper Manhattan. Heights’ main character is Usnavi, a young bodega owner in Washington Heights, who doesn’t know where he fits – New York City, where he lives, or the Dominican Republic, which he left as a baby? Trying to hang on in a city squeezing them out, the characters of In the Heights are the opposite of the historically hyper-aware Founding Fathers of Hamilton. They feel powerless.  And yet, Usnavi’s final revelation about his obligation to his community is not so different from Eliza Hamilton’s determination to ensure her husband’s legacy:

Yeah, I’m a streetlight!
Chillin’ in the heat!
I illuminate the stories of the people in the street
Some have happy endings
Some are bittersweet
But I know them all, and that’s what makes my life complete
And if not me, who keeps our legacies?

If not us, who keeps our legacies? Yes, in a small way, many of us have a sense that we are fighting apathy and forgetfulness in our own families when we reconstruct our family history. But my concern is a larger one, best articulated by Henry Louis Gates in an interview I quote often:

All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian’s footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.

So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and … Wanda Sykes and John Legend … we’re adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that’s the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.

 Illuminating our family’s past adds to the broader scholarship on the American experience when we recognize the public value of our private work.  All our discoveries, at the very least, “add specificity to the raw data.” Plenty is known about the Jewish community on the Lower East Side, for example, but the work I did tracing my Davis ancestors through their frequent moves and changes in profession provides a detailed example of Eastern European immigrants who arrived relatively early, but never established stability. Our best work, however, can exceed this minimum threshold to open up whole new areas of the database no historian has discovered. I’ve experienced this personally during my current project to tell the story of my Hepps ancestors in the steel town of Homestead. In embarking on this research, I thought acknowledging their role in their hometown’s Jewish community was just one facet of the story. But, it turns out, the story of the Homestead’s Jewish community is the one that was missing all along. Homestead’s history has been written often, but never with an acknowledgement of the contributions of the town’s Jewish residents, and the history of Jews in America continues to neglect the narrative thread of small-town communities. Tracing the lines of my Hepps family’s descent led me to this twice-neglected dataset.

On one level, my research has been enormously satisfying. I’ve put the lives of my ancestors in context and come to thoroughly understand their stories. When Usnavi affirms, “I know them all, and that’s what makes my life complete,” I know I have earned that feeling of completeness, too. But what about the incomplete accounts historians have produced about the places and people that have become so dear to my heart? They were not excluded out of malice, but their absence leaves a hole in the record no one else sees and no professional historian is likely to take up. The void in my identity I sensed as a wondering child seems trivial compared to this one.


Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton

I hear “Who tells your story?” as a call-to-arms, because (to paraphrase another theme of the musical) if history hadn’t had its eyes on Hamilton, his wife’s efforts might not have been enough.  As satisfying as the end of the musical is artistically, it’s not enough for me to know that this one man, Alexander Hamilton, has his legacy secure.  Who will illuminate the stories of people who did not found nations? Who will write our ancestral communities back into the narrative?  Everyday people like Usnavi.  People like us.

08-2-29 In The Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi in In the Heights

The untapped potential of family history lies between Hamilton’s “Who tells your story?” and Heights’ “I illuminate the stories.”  History does not have its eyes on most of our ancestors any more than it does on Margaret Cho’s, Wanda Sykes’, or John Legend’s – or any more than it would on a woman like Usnavi’s adopted grandmother, a woman beloved by her neighbors, but anonymous to the world at large. “Abuela, I’m sorry,” Usnavi raps in the show’s closing moments when he decides not to return to the Dominican Republic. “I ain’t goin’ back because I’m telling your story,” he declares ecstatically, finally sure of his place. In the original cast album it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda who raps these words, and I hear in his voice not just Usnavi’s excitement, but his own: with his first outing on Broadway, he’s put the story of his people before the entire world.  When In the Heights closed on Broadway, Miranda freestyled at curtain call,

One day you’ll be somewhere Midwestern
Somewhere chillin’ in some outer theater lobby
Some little high schooler’s gon’ be playin’ Usnavi!
So I want all a’ y’all to grab this —
That little white kid is gonna know what a Puerto Rican flag is!

His prediction has since come true, and his community’s flag has waved in the unlikeliest of corners.  But what about ours?

“Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” Through In the Heights, I’ve come to hear the ethereal last lines of Hamilton as transcending both Hamilton and his wife, to whom they are literally addressed. As the company sings these words, Eliza stands at the very edge of the stage, backed by the whole cast, all of them facing us, the audience, head-on. The previous three hours have shown us that history can be reclaimed and given a new relevance. Now they are asking, will we rise to the challenge?

Are You “Dun” Researching Your Ancestor’s Business?

If you’re in business today and considering partnering with another company, you might rely on Dun & Bradstreet to acquire “commercial data…on credit history, business-to-business sales and marketing, counterparty risk exposure,…lead scoring” and other business metrics for “more than 235 million companies across 200 countries worldwide.”  You might be surprised to discover that such a modern-sounding company, addressing what seem like contemporary business challenges, dates back to 1841, when the company’s founder “[created] a network of correspondents who would provide reliable, objective credit information to subscribers.” (source)  The company’s name became R.G. Dun & Co. in 1859 after an ownership change, and a merger with a competitor produced Dun & Bradstreet as we know it today.  Despite all the name changes, the company’s mission has remained remarkably consistent.

What has changed is the size of the database and the nature of the companies included.  In the early 1900s, when the database of ~1.5 million merchants first included my great-grandfather, it reflected a time when most businesses were synonymous with their proprietors, making researching the businessman and researching his business nearly identical activities.  From this period two sets of historic R.G. Dun & Co. records are accessible to researchers, making it possible to gain far more insight into our ancestor’s business activities than the usual names and professions we find listed on genealogical records.

Reference books

The first set of Dun records are reference books which were published by a subsidiary called The Mercantile Agency, which maintained offices in many commercial cities.  Local agents worked to identify all the “merchants, manufacturers, and traders” of the vicinity in order to “[supply] information in detail as to the antecedents, character, capacity, and credit of Business Men throughout the civilized world.”  Four times a year, they published an updated list of all these men (and sometimes women), organized by city and state and coded with their business type and credit rating.

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

A fairly complete run of these reference books is available at the Library of Congress, covering 1859-1966.  Most of the books are only available as physical books, which must be requested in advance, but the 1900-1924 run is on microfilm, with two reels per edition, or eight reels per year, all of which are stored on-site.  If you know the city and state in which your ancestor was located, it is easy to wind to the section for that state, then to the town within that state, and then scan the town’s list for your ancestor’s name.  In this way I was able to pinpoint one great-grandfather’s entry into the liquor business and trace another great-grandfather’s relocation from one state to another.  For those ancestors I can’t identify when they lived where, using the books to solve such mysteries would be tedious-bordering-on-infeasible.  But they could solve these mysteries if only they were scanned and OCR’ed.  Federal censuses come every 10 years in the U.S., city directories are at best annual, but these books, remember, came out four times per year!  Imagine the kind of granular data available to you if your ancestors were included!

The question you may be asking yourself, then, is whether your small-time merchant, manufacturer, or trader ancestor warranted inclusion?  And the answer to this question is what I find most remarkable about these books — yes!  I reviewed the microfilm from 1900-1914 for Western Pennsylvania, and saw even the tiniest of towns listed with their one or two local merchants.  For Homestead, PA, where I had already compiled merchant lists from censuses, city directories, newspaper records, and synagogue records, I saw that these books covered even the smallest mom-and-pop shops.  These records are not “best of” compendiums; they aimed and succeeded in being truly comprehensive.

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.)

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.  Scanned from the microfilm at the Library of Congress.)

While the businessmen lists appear to be objectively complete, the subjective nature of their credit ratings makes them less trustworthy.  Having such familiarity with the businesses of Homestead, I was surprised to see that merchants held in high regard by the town’s paper, or whose other activities suggested personal wealth, were given low credit ratings.  It’s clear that one’s rating and success do not correlate in an obvious way.

Agent reports

How the agents arrived at the credit ratings is illuminated by the second set of R.G. Dun & Co. records.  These are the agents’ detailed field reports with the information they collected about each businessman they researched.  Another businessman or bank could order this full report if they needed to know the specific information that went into the credit rating printed in the reference book.

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same AS AN AID, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same as an aid, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be strictly confidential; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

These records are much harder to get a hold of.  Very early handwritten records from 1841-1891 are available at the Harvard Business School library, but they are off-limits to genealogists.  No one I’ve spoken to, neither reference librarians, nor the current-day D&B employees I’ve contacted, knows where the later, typewritten records are.

The early agent reports consist of handwritten volumes divided by state and indexed by the last and first names of the people included.  It proved too challenging a system for me to review all the merchants of Homestead or even Western Pennsylvania as I had intended, but I was able to look up the individual merchants whom I had previously identified from other sources.  The entries I read were fascinating and colorful.  Somehow the agents gathered detailed information about whether each businessman paid his bills on time or owned real estate, what were the his character and net worth, and how he and his family members were connected to each other’s businesses.  Multiple entries were recorded over many years, tracing the cycle of a person’s fortunes.  All of these notes served to answer one question:  If you loaned this person money or sold him goods on credit, what was the risk you won’t get your money back?  For example:

  • About a peddler in 1882, “Does a pretty [fair business], but not in a position to be sued if not disposed to pay…Not in the market for credit.  Cash only suggested.  Could not force collections.  Said to have means but in such shape could not attached.”
  • About “a peddler traveling with his pack upon his back” in 1882, “He has a [modest] line of credit at home.  Is considered honest and manages to do a fair [business] is inclined to be a little slow of late.  He is not thought to be worth much and should buy sparingly.”
  • About a tailor in 1883, “His financial responsibility limited and the trade in some instances go cautiously, selling him on sharp 30 days.”

Not all were assessed so critically, though most of the small-time merchants I was researching were.  A couple more positive examples:

  • A man with a highly-regarded feed store in 1884, “is spoken of as a very reliable close going man.  Strictly honorable in all his bus. dealings.  Owns property in the 19th ward.  Does a very snug [business]. Pays his bills promptly.  Making money and knows how to take care of it.  [Estimated worth] 5 to $8,000.”
  • About a wholesaler in 1881, “In [business several years] – [should] be [doing] well + [thought] to hold his own at least.  Active + [attentive,] [regarded] honest.  His father failed some [years] ago + it was the impression that he was connected with it – this had the effect of impairing his [credit].  We hear no complaints as he was credited [small amounts] by some here. Is [worth] at least 2-3 [thousand] $ now worthy [modest credit], though a little caution [should] be used in granted large [credit].”

Some entries betray the latent biases of the period. My particular interest was in researching Jewish merchants, who were easy to pick out since agents took care to note this characteristic — sometimes benignly (“a Jew”), and other times insinuatingly (“a very close Jew”). One merchant, agents noted repeatedly, was called “Jew John” by his neighbors (his name was Leopold).  “Not in favor here,” one agent summarized about him.  Though it’s impossible to know just what put the agents off men like “Jew John,” the cumulative effect of their field notes gets at a certain reluctance amongst by the establishment to trust people not like themselves in business matters.  And yet, as difficult as such raw material is to read with its transparent racial, religious, nativist, and even socioeconomic biases, it certainly adds insight into the challenges such men faced in trying to overcome these prejudices.

(Researchers are not permitted to photograph these books, which is unfortunate, as the entries are written in difficult handwriting with numerous abbreviations (all of which I replaced in my transcriptions for readability).  Please forgive any errors.  You can see a couple photographs of other Dun records here, if you’re curious.)

Research opportunities

Unfortunately, I am not yet able to complete the circle of research.  While I have the credit ratings for the Homestead merchants for whom I’ve been able to compile detailed biographies, I haven’t been able to find the internal reports for anyone from that time period, Homesteader or otherwise.  Do the internal reports match up with the pile of evidence I’ve collected from other sources?  If not, why?  Is it because the agents, coming from outside of the community, couldn’t truly penetrate the complex social dynamics that made it possible for men who seemed like the Other to gain acceptance?  Is it because the agents only interviewed men like themselves, who had a vested interest in raising the status of men in their own networks and lowering the status of their competitors from other backgrounds?  Is it because by ignoring informants from marginal groups, the agents overlooked the role of ethnic support systems in advancing the members of their own group?

These elusive, later agent reports are a critical missing piece in my research.  Despite years of looking for untapped sources, I have not been able to find anything even remotely comparable to the unfiltered assessments of the early agent reports. I crave this level of insight into how the community I am researching was really regarded by outsiders.

So — my immediate goal is to interest someone, anyone in digitizing the printed, quarterly reference books.  Their genealogical value is significant, and their layout makes them well-suited to search engines already commonly used.  Update January 2022:  Mission accomplished!  The Library of Congress just posted the digitized volumes for 1900-1924 (the microfilm portion).  The earlier years, 1859-1899, should be added starting in spring 2022. Thank you to Natalie Burclaff at the LOC for championing this project and to everyone else at the LOC who made this happen!

My secondary goal is to continue to dig for the internal reports, which I believe are still held by Dun & Bradstreet.  Selfishly, I need them to complete my personal research into the merchant class of Homestead.  But if Dun & Bradstreet were open to donating their reports to an archive with fewer research restrictions attached, the unique observations they record could allow family historians to see their merchants ancestors from a new angle.  Wouldn’t you love to know if your ancestor made his fortune by selling “[dry goods] + made up Underwear…on the [installment] plan” to “‘Fancy Women’ [hereabouts]?!”

Further Reading

These records have formed the basis of many fascinating and remarkably in-depth studies.  Here are a couple on early Jewish merchants that make me salivate over the possibilities of what these records might contain for the community I am researching.

Genealogy is Hacking

Since this year’s RootsTech wrapped up, there has been some grumbling amongst the techier attendees about the relative dearth of technical sessions this year compared to RootsTech’s early days.  And yet, the conference drew by far its largest audience, showing that changes which troubled a minority appealed to the overwhelming majority.  These conservations about RootsTech’s evolution got me thinking about whether there really is such a divide between genealogists and technologists.  As a member of both groups, I’ve long seen an overlap in how good genealogists and good technologists work, because we’re all hackers.

Your first thought may be to bristle at the comparison.  Hackers are evil geniuses who steal your emails, selfies, and credit card and social security numbers for fun and profit, right?  Well, not exactly.  For one thing, they’re hardly required to have genius-level skills anymore, with so many tools freely available and so many under-protected systems there for the taking.  But more importantly, they aren’t always evil, either.  Paul Graham, a well-known tech investor, articulates how most programmers would define the term:

To programmers, “hacker” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not… When you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s…called a hack.
The Word “Hacker”

Graham goes on to explain that hacking predates computers, giving examples of people who cracked safes not to steal anything, but just for the curiosity of discovering how the device worked and the intellectual satisfaction of having solved the puzzle.  “Show any hacker a lock,” he writes, “and his first thought is how to pick it.”

Some years ago I met Paul Graham and had to give him an example of something I hacked.  My first thought was, who, me?!  But I’m the textbook example of a goodie-goodie!  I like to think I have as much curiosity as the next person, but I’d never dream of channeling it in such ambiguous ways.

And then I realized:  I hack history every day!  As a genealogist, the locks I pick aren’t on doors, safes, or firewalls — they’re on time itself.  The system I reverse-engineer is the by-product of the fundamental human impulse to keep records of our existence.  The lives of our ancestors intersected with these record-keeping systems — military, governmental, religious, fraternal — that took down their information long ago and are often still out there preserving it.  A good genealogist knows how to find those intersections, and if the records of those intersections survive, s/he can provide answers others would consider irrevocably lost.  A good genealogist makes the system give up its secrets.  (And in case it isn’t clear, I present this analogy as someone who researches family history and writes code in equal measure.)

My uncle said to me after his parents, my grandparents, passed away, “I guess we’ll never know where their parents came from,” and within a month I had a pile of records — primarily censuses, ship manifests, and bank records — documenting the immigration stories of all of four of his grandparents, my great-grandparents.  If you’re a genealogist, you know that this research isn’t impressive.  But my uncle’s eyes welled up when he read stories he had given up on ever knowing.  Rediscovering my family’s immigration story — towns, dates, even original names that I, too, had once believed lost — was the moment I gave myself up to genealogy forever.  I cracked the system once.  I needed that fix again.

After years of looking, this ad is the only one I've ever found for my great-grandfather's business. It appeared in a program for a dramatic evening organized by a local Hungarian organization. "This is absolutely unbelievable," my father wrote when I sent it to him. "I can't imagine how you possibly found this." (Source: Archives of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, Collection No. 22, Box 22, Folder 4.)

This ad, in a program for a dramatic evening organized by a local Hungarian group, is the only one I’ve ever found for my great-grandfather’s business after years of searching. How could it have been so profitable with no advertising?!  “I can’t imagine how you possibly found this,” my father wrote when I sent this ad to him. (Source: Archives of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, Collection No. 22, Box 22, Folder 4.)

Last summer a cousin sighed, “I wish I could know how our great-grandfather made his fortune.”  Naturally his rumination became my challenge.  Like any hacker, my natural impulse is to prove I can pick this lock, too, but it’s a much harder one.  I had no easy clues to start with, no letters, journals, or bank statements someone threw into an attic.  And the kinds of genealogical records that opened doors before turned up little this time; his ship manifest is missing, the pivotal 1890 census is gone, and the town’s city directory, by its own admission, bothered little with poor “Hunkies” like my great-grandfather.  But they revealed just enough for me to see the shape of the story I must fill in.  Somehow my great-grandfather went from delivering liquor for a local wholesaler in the 1890s to building and running his own hotel in the early 1900s.

So off I went, considering every possible way such a man would have intersected with the record-keepers of his time.  Old newspapers tell me he appeared in Pennsylvania’s annual license court for a judge to decide if he was fit to sell liquor; does the county have transcripts recording his testimony?  Deeds show me when he bought the land for his hotel, and Sanborn maps suggest the timeframe when the building went up; does the borough have building permits?  Tax records?  Voter rolls?  What about records from before he made the leap — peddling licenses, bank loans, personal loans, credit reports?  The more I press on, the more I see that — to paraphrase Daniel Mendelsohn — the records are not so much lost as waiting.  I ask clerks to show me ledgers covered in dust and archivists to escort me into rooms closed to the public, and I wind my way, literally, through miles of microfilm.  Through sheer dint of effort, I will make the past give up what secrets it retains.  I have already gleaned some; ’til I got started, no one living even knew my great-grandfather had started as a teamster.  This discovery is satisfying, but it is only the beginning.

What we do as genealogists isn’t always intellectually demanding.  There is a tremendous amount of brute force in a reasonably exhaustive search (though there is in programmatic hacking, too, only one can automate such tasks).  But just as surely as there is artistry to hacking (see Graham’s essay Hackers and Painters), there is artistry in knowing how to dance from record to record.  You have to know how to frame a question clearly and precisely.  You have to know how to determine what sources are out there.  You have to know how to bend the sources you find to your will.  In Jewish exegesis, there is the p’shat, the surface meaning, and then three deeper levels of meaning.  Genealogical records aren’t as many-layered as scripture, but if you can’t get beyond the p’shat, you’ll miss most about what a record is telling you — and more importantly, where it is pointing you next.  Part of moving beyond the p’shat is having a sufficient command of the period you’re researching.  Even this most indigenous aspect of historical research has an analog in hacking.  “Great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head,” Graham writes, “so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it.”  Similarly, a great genealogist doesn’t see a record in isolation, but as the product of the historical circumstances that created it and link it to other such records.  Though we genealogists push ourselves through long periods of semi-engaged searching ’til we find the needle in the haystack, those periods are framed by a creative, considered approach not unlike how a hacker assesses his or her mark.

In Star Wars the rebel alliance discovered that the Death Star had an unprotected opening through which it could be destroyed.

In Star Wars the rebel alliance discovered that the Death Star had one small, unprotected opening through which they could destroy it.

Genealogists and hackers are united in their delight in cracking seemingly impenetrable systems.  So many of the qualities Graham articulates about great hackers are what I see in the best genealogists I know — a love for their work, a marked preference for interesting problems they can learn something from, and a special ability to focus.  Both groups take on inherently imaginative work, engaging in it cyclically based on shifting levels of inspiration.  In sum, we demonstrate a similar work ethic as we pick at our respective locks, trying to open doors others consider impossible to budge.

You may or may not see yourself in this analogy… yet.  I pointed out at the start that today plenty of wannabe hackers lack the qualities Graham articulates — script kiddies, this lesser group is called, after the scripts they run without understanding just to see what havoc they can wreak.  Here, too, I see an analogy with genealogical research.  Digitization has come so far that it’s easier and easier to fall into the trap of being a “search kiddie,” just typing your ancestors’ names into online databases to see what’ll come up.  Script kiddies are beholden to the scripts better hackers share; search kiddies are beholden to the records others choose to put online.  Sometimes those records get you where you want to go; they were more than enough for me to give my uncle the answers he was looking for.  But if I had believed those records were the beginning and end of what remains from the past, I’d have believed my great-grandfather’s early years in the U.S. were entirely lost.

There’s one more quality about good hackers that applies equally to good genealogists:  a sense of wonder.  You have that, too, wherever you are on the genealogy learning curve.  The wonder about the past that got you started in family history is the same wonder you need to apply to researching more creatively.  There is much more information out there than you realize, waiting for you to discover it.  The heart of hacking is “[doing] something so clever that you somehow beat the system,” so embrace your innate curiosity and start hacking those historical records.  For many of your most pressing questions, it is not too late to find answers.

On Margarine, Microfilm, and Chance Meetings

RoostTech 2015 is now one for the history books.  As it was my fourth RootsTech, much of my time was spent reconnecting with genealogy friends about research progress and life changes.  But even though the conference itself is now old hat for me, I still managed a couple firsts:  researching in the Family History Library and visiting Ancestry’s offices in Provo.  My main regret — other than not managing to find everyone I had hoped to say hello to — is that I had to leave early to attend a meeting Sunday morning regarding the future of the cemetery my great-grandfather helped found.  Talk about competing genealogy priorities!  🙂

But let’s not dwell on the negative.  Here are some of my favorite moments from the conference:

Surprise Cousin Meeting

My newest margarine cousins and me!

My newest margarine cousins and me!

RootsTech 2015 marked the third time I gave a presentation about the Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk, my ancestors who went to jail for selling margarine as butter in violation of federal law.  The first time I gave the presentation, I met my margarine cousin Zach for the very first time — he turned up unexpectedly at that conference just a couple hours before!  I invited margarine cousins Bob and Bernie to my second margarine presentation, but at first they said they couldn’t make it — until that morning they changed their schedules!  We met for the first time just minutes before my talk started.  And the same thing happened this time with Sheryl and her family — a regretful decline turned into a surprise first-time meeting in the exhibit hall just a couple hours before the start time!   At the end of the talk when I pointed her out to the rest of the audience, they gave her a round of applause.  It was a memorable moment for us both — for her, learning about her family’s crazy history in such a formal way, and for me, having yet again the fun of watching a cousin’s reactions to the story in real time!  Truly, my margarine moonshining ancestors are the gift that keeps on giving in so many ways.

Taking questions after my class about my margarine moonshining ancestors.

Taking questions after my class about my margarine moonshining ancestors.  I still can’t believe it’s not fiction, either, though I’ve been researching these guys for almost 4 years!

Amazing Researcher Connection

It’s been one of the greatest delights of my life to introduce not only my far-flung margarine cousins, but also my closer relatives to the amazing history I’ve been uncovering.  But like many of you, I’m almost always the one who is doling out information.  Especially as my area of focus narrows, I started to believe I had moved beyond a place where a fellow researchers could assist.

One of the records I shared.  (Advertisement from The Homestead News, 9/5/1896.)

One of the records I shared. (Advertisement from The Homestead News, 9/5/1896.)

And then an acquaintance approached me in the exhibit hall and said we needed to talk.  She had learned of one of my research projects through — of all things! — a proposal I submitted to the conference she is organizing, and that’s how she realized that our research interests overlapped.  It turns out that she has been working for many years on a friend’s tree, and his family came from the town I am researching.  More than that, one of his ancestors was top on my priority list for people to learn more about!  We were both giddy as we traded information — she shared records with me documenting the family’s surprisingly early arrival in the U.S. and movements around Western PA, and I shared with her newspaper articles, advertisements, deeds, and city directories documenting his life in some detail in the town in which he settled.  We each have taken a huge leap forward with the other’s info!

Incidentally, I discussed another resident of this town as a running example throughout my other class, “Story-Driven Research.”  Surprisingly, half the questions after the class ended were about the research itself, and not the techniques that went into it!  “Why do you know so much about a man who isn’t your ancestor?” was one question I received. I explained how much I learned about my great-grandfather by comparing him to his peers,  realizing that while he ended up as successful as they, he lagged behind them in getting there by a good 10-20 years.  “What do you intend to do with all this research?” another person asked, and while I stumbled over my answer, I was just gratified that anyone not from my town had an interest in my research at all!

Ancestry Tour

Friday morning I had the opportunity to spend the morning out in Provo at Ancestry’s headquarters.  Though I was there with a group for meetings, our host gave us a tour of the offices.  With signs like “Trees UI,” “Story Engineering,” and “Big Tree” denoting different departments, I could have spent a day learning about each team had it been possible.  (Their tech department seemed especially fun, having slightly modified all their signs, like “Tech Ops” to “Tech Oops,” “DBAs” (database administrators) to “DOAs,” and “Network” to “Notwork.”)  But the most jaw-droppingly awesome part of their operation was their digital production environment.  You, too, would have salivated over the rows of state-of-the-art machines and software to digitize every kind of record you could have possibly imagined.  Ancestry takes a lot of flack for outsourcing this work (including from me), but it’s clear that they do take on a fair bit of it themselves and have a number of QA processes in place to review what work the vendors have done.

Automated microfilm scanners.  See one in action here.

Automated microfilm scanners. See one in action here.

Rows of foot-operated book scanners.

Rows of foot-operated book scanners.

I spent the rest of the morning dreaming of the possibilities of all the records I would digitize… if only… After lunch in Ancestry’s cafeteria, the Shaky Leaf Cafe (!), I didn’t notice when the rest of my group was handing in their badges.  “I know what you’re up to,” my host joked.  “You want to sneak in here at night and digitize things!”

Actually, there were a lot of things from RootsTech I wish I could have taken with me.  To paraphrase an old tagline of a Jane Austen website I used to frequent, RootsTech is one of my havens in a world programmed to misunderstand an obsession with things genealogical.  Yes, I wish I had year-round, personal access to Ancestry’s state-of-the-art digitization operation :-), but more than that, the energy of the vendor hall, the excitement of swapping stories with fellow genealogists, and the endless learning opportunities are what I hope to carry with me in some way throughout the coming year.

RootsTech 2015

Hi, all!  It’s just about time for my favorite genealogy event of the year — RootsTech!  I’m particularly excited about the classes I am teaching this year, and I hope to see lots of you there!

The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk: How Curiosity and Persistence Uncover Buried Secrets: Thursday, 4:30 PM, Ballroom A. (RT1670)

The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk: How Curiosity and Persistence Uncover Buried Secrets: Thursday, 4:30 PM, Ballroom A. (RT1670)

My first class will use the amazing story of the Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk, my ancestors who were imprisoned for selling margarine as butter, as a framework for discussing how crucial it is to be curious and persistent if you want to make big discoveries about your ancestors. I guarantee you the talk will have you gasping and laughing as you learn about a wide range of sources and research techniques that will help you become better researchers, too.

heart shaped book

Conducting Story-Driven Research: Saturday, 10:30 AM, Ballroom I. (RT1680)

My second class is about how thinking like a storyteller, and not just a genealogist, can help you improve the quality of the family history you’re sharing with your relatives.  This class isn’t only for people who want to write their family history, but for anyone who wants to understand their ancestors’ lives better.  If you feel like you’re adding people and records to your tree by rote, you’ll learn something useful!

Hope to see many of you later this week!

The 1900 Census in 1900

Censuses are the bedrock of genealogy.  More than any other record they track our ancestors through time as they grow up, get married, have children, suffer losses, move addresses, and change professions.  But for as useful as they are, they are frustratingly unreliable.  Why don’t people admit they’ve aged ten years from one census to the next?  Why do their names sometime differ dramatically from what they’re supposed to be?  Why aren’t countries of origin and dates of immigration consistent over time?  Despite being government records, we can’t take censuses at face-value without corroborating evidence, and so we spend an awful lot of time debating how the information they’ve recorded got so bolluxed up.

youmustanswerA trove of articles I’ve uncovered from The News-Messenger, the local paper of Homestead, Pennsylvania, sheds some light on these discrepancies from the perspective of the census takers in 1900.  It’s clear that everyone understood the odds were against the enumerators to get accurate information, but the paper went to great lengths to ensure that “Homestead will not be found in the [class represented] as obstructing the endeavors of the enumerators to get the exact truth in the information they seek” (5/2/1900).  It started by printing the census instructions several times to prepare readers with the list of questions they’d be asked and how to be sure of answering them accurately.  In case the instructions weren’t enough, an often hilarious article from May 17, 1900 resorted to dire warnings: Continue reading

When Once We Wrote Letters

Apparently one of the gifts I received when I graduated high school was this letter holder with stationary!  It never got even a day of use.  I found it buried in the closet in my childhood bedroom along with numerous other boxes of neglected stationary.  So much stationary!  Why had I needed so much?SONY DSC

Although I was on email for most of high school, it didn’t become the primary way I communicated until I went to college.  I scarcely noticed the transition, because it seemed simply a part of adapting to college, just another way in which everything about my daily life had been overturned in an instant.  Without a moment’s hesitation, I started exchanging emails with my parents and sister back home, my high school friends now dispersed around the country, and my new friends at school.  Other than the historic buildings, everything about college seemed modern and efficient, and so email took its place in my life as the modern and efficient tool college provided for us students to connect to the people in our lives.  The letter holder went forgotten, and soon, letter-writing, too. Continue reading

Baiting My Margarine Cousins

The story of my margarine-moonshining ancestors is the genealogical gift that keeps on giving.  One especially gratifying aspect is that from the beginning it has connected me to distant cousins — some of whom I’ve found, some of whom have found me, and all of us tied together not only by blood, but also by margarine.

Nikole and I posing with a storefront we just happened to walk by!

Nikole and I posing in front of a store we just happened to walk by!

It all began with my third cousin Nikole, who Googled her great-grandfather and came across the mug shot of him which I had posted online.  I’ve seen her three summers in a row during her family’s annual visit to New York, and this coming summer I will fly out to the west coast to attend her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and participate in the service!  Wouldn’t our ancestors be proud!

Other margarine cousin meetings followed.  Most exciting by far was my cousin Zach, who saw publicity for my margarine talk at IAJGS in Salt Lake City this past July and turned up most unexpectedly.  Meeting him got me thinking about all the ways we all can attract more cousins to us.  You don’t need to give a talk at a national conference about your family’s history to create good cousin bait online. You also don’t need to be a web whiz, nor do you have to worry about the privacy issues around making your whole tree public. Continue reading and 19th century German anti-Semitism

mocavoEarlier today I noticed something troubling on, a genealogy search engine recently purchased by  When you click “Search,” the second link in their navigation, you get to a critical marketing page (left) with screenshots showing how their search engine works.  The portion of the page outlined in red is reproduced below exactly as it I downloaded it from their site.

Notice the second listing, which reads, “We all know that Wagner, in his ‘Judenthum in der Musik’ thought Meyerbeer was a clever charlatan”:


Reading this quote, you might think little of it.  Who are these people?  Blah blah German I can’t read.  And, oh, how quaint that one dead guy called another a clever charlatan!

Would you be surprised to learn that this sample search result references one of the most important and well-known examples of German anti-Semitism leading up to the Nazi period?

  • This Wagner is Richard Wagner, a famous opera composer (you probably know his “Ride of the Valkyries”), who was also a notorious anti-Semite.  After his death, his music and ideas inspired the Nazis.
  • Meyerbeer is Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Jewish opera composer whose works were wildly popular in their time, but largely forgotten today.  Meyerbeer was an early mentor of Wagner’s, supporting him both musically and financially, but Wagner later turned on him, launching anti-Semitic attacks that were so accepted that Meyerbeer’s music stopped being performed.
  • Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) is a hateful essay Wagner wrote, attacking Jews in general and Meyerbeer in particular.  It is a seminal work of German anti-Semitism, containing statements that some consider to recommend annihilating the Jews.

All of this information is well-known to historians of this period, as well as musicologists.  The quote in the Mocavo image — “[This leading anti-Semite] in his [notoriously anti-Semitic essay] thought [a once-famous Jewish man whose reputation he destroyed] was a clever charlatan” — is factual; it repeats one of the milder criticisms Wagner lodged against Meyerbeer.  But now that you know its context — who these people were, the historical and cultural background to this insult, and most importantly, the legacy of this enmity — you see that the casual reference to this nasty bit of history is, well, strange for a cheerful product tour meant to tempt you into a free trial.

I am not saying that Mocavo holds or promotes anti-Semitic beliefs for including this image; repeating that someone once said something doesn’t mean that they agree with it.  What I am saying is that Mocavo clearly has no idea what they posted prominently on their site.  Otherwise, why would they have knowingly given attention to a statement of hate in an age where we still struggle with that hate?  Nor am I saying that Mocavo should remove this article from their database; on the contrary, I am glad they made it easier for everyone to learn about this period.  But there’s a time and a place for grappling with unpleasant history, and I‘m sure if they had known what this record meant, they would have organized their sales pitch around anything else from their enormous database other than a casual reference to proto-Nazi sentiments!  Having worked for Internet companies all my adult life, I know how many levels of people are involved in creating, approving, launching, and testing important marketing pages like this one.  This surprising image means that at many levels of their genealogy company, not a single person was at all curious about what this search result meant.

And that’s the larger lesson for all of us:  How often do we, too, miss references to bygone personalities and events?  Even when the records provide context for our ancestor’s life, how often do we fail to research the nuances to understand everything that the record is telling us about times gone by?  Clues for the circumstances of our ancestors’ experiences are all around us — hiding in plain sight like this Wagner quote — if only we would exercise our own curiosity to pick them out and investigate what they mean.


Movaco wrote to me to address my concerns.

We have already removed that image and will find a more appropriate example of search results very soon.

Let me also confirm that you are right to assert that Mocavo does not hold or promote anti-Semitic beliefs, and that we would never intentionally give undue attention to such hateful works.

The Four Days Isaac Fine Went Insane from Syphilis

"Alleged threats to kill Samuel Katz, a government witness, and an alleged attempt to bribe the same witness to prevent his testifying against Jacob and Max Goodman yesterday resulted in the arrest of Ike Fine." --Chicago Examiner, 6/15/1909

Chicago Examiner, 6/15/1909

With the help of my friend Alex, I’ve been painstakingly reconstructing the movements of my margarine-moonshining ancestors.  Isaac Fine was the one who threatened to kill and/or bribe a witness set to testify against a couple of them.  We ran into trouble tracing Isaac after the moonshining period.  The last certain mention of him we had was the 1920 census.  The 1930 census included his wife, Minnie, and their three children who weren’t yet married, but Isaac is not listed with them, though Minnie still lists herself as married.  Where was he?  Minnie’s death certificate from Brooklyn, 1932 also listed her as married, but did not list the name of her spouse.  Why?

Alex dug into the matter further and located a 1930 census record taken not far from Brooklyn for an Isaac Fine of the right age and country of origin.  This Isaac Fine was listed as an inmate of the Kings Park State Hospital, then a notoriously awful insane asylum.   The 1940 census had this Isaac still in an asylum, the nearby Pilgrim State Hospital.  If this Isaac Fine were mine, that would explain Minnie’s married-but-husbandless status.

There was another reason why I believe Isaac Fine could have gone insane, and it’s because I already had evidence suggesting what Isaac had gone insane from! You see, Minnie was married once before (though Isaac might not have known it, as the certificate for her marriage to Isaac lists their marriage as her first).  This earlier marriage lasted only two years, because her first husband died of syphilis!  Did he transmit it to Minnie?  Could Minnie have transmitted it to Isaac?  All these unlikely coincidences began to convince me that the hospitalized Isaac Fine was mine.


Part of the death certificate for Minnie’s first husband, who died in Manhattan Hospital on Ward’s Island, also a psychiatric hospital.  “General paresis” is a form of insanity caused by late-stage syphilis.

Guided by advice on RootsWeb, we decided that a death record would be the fastest way to connect this Isaac connected my family.  Alex contacted someone through Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness to look him up in the New York State Death Index.  Four days later, she reported that she could find no matching record.  But she did point out a 1920 census record from Stamford Hall Company, another area psychiatric hospital, that had an Isaac Fine whose details were consistent with the one we had been chasing.  As we already had our Isaac Fine where he was supposed to be in 1920 — at home with his wife and children in Brooklyn — it seemed unlikely he was in a psychiatric hospital at the same time.*

Her discovery from 1920 was what was required to end our own temporary insanity and stop trying to put my Isaac in an insane asylum.  We returned to our regularly scheduled research plan and looked up NYC death certificates, quickly finding a clear match for an Isaac Fine who died of a stroke in a regular hospital in Brooklyn a year after Minnie.  Further, a closer look at the reverse of Minnie’s death certificate showed that her death was reported by Isaac, whose address was the same as hers.  So, while we still don’t understand why he isn’t with her and his kids on the 1930 census, it doesn’t appear that insanity is the answer.

I heard a great talk at IAJGS last week by Israel Pikholtz, who reminds us that “engaging in wishful thinking” is one of the main ways genealogists leap to conclusions the evidence only partially supports.  For that reason Alex and I wasted time on a wild goose chase through the insane asylums of the greater New York area when the answer was exactly where we had originally expected to find it.  Well, it was fun for the four days it lasted, though I’m happier knowing that poor Minnie and Isaac, who had already been through so much, didn’t have to endure this as well.

Caveat Investigator

* Although, not impossible!  In the 1910 census two of my margarine moonshiners are listed twice — at home with their families and also imprisoned in Leavenworth — contrary to the instructions given to the census takers.

Previously in this series:
When Genealogy Severed My Great-Grandfather’s Pinky