Sunday, February 6, 2011

Genealogy Seminar and "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Saturday was the second day of the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society and California State Genealogical Alliance weekend.  About 175 people from all over the Bay Area attended the meeting at the Santa Clara LDS church.  The presentations were "Land: Digging Deeper Online and Off" by Cath Madden Trindle, CG (stepping in at the last minute for Melinda Kashuba, who was not able to come), "Courthouse Records in Cyberspace" by Junel Davidsen, CG, "I Wish I Had Asked: A Guide to Doing Oral History Interviews" by Peggy Rossi, and "Spreadsheets in Genealogy" by Cat Nielsen.

Cath gave a broad overview of the different types of land records that exist, which types are likely to be found in which states, a glimpse into what can be found online, and archives in other countries.  Junel gave an online tour of several sites that have indices and actual downloadable scans of court records.  Her main point was that many government offices currently have records online, and more are likely to do so in the future, except in California.  Peggy outlined a series of steps to follow if you want to do oral history interviews with family members.  She explained the steps clearly, and I was happy to hear her emphasize the importance of transcribing the interviews and sharing them with other family members.  Cat talked about the utility of spreadsheets in analyzing information you have collected in your research.  She showed examples of spreadsheets with census data, city directory information, timelines, and studying all people with one surname in a given location.  While I learned something from each speaker, I think I enjoyed Cat's talk the most.  She had everyone laughing many times, and her tweaks on what you can do with spreadsheets gave me some good ideas.

After I returned home, I finally was able to watch the Vanessa Williams episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that I missed Friday night.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the tintype of her great-great-grandfather in his service file at the National Archives (I have to wonder if that was planted; I'm not saying it was, just that I wonder).  Both of the stories the producers chose to follow in her family were compelling and interesting.  But I'm confused by some of Dick Eastman's comments on the episode in his post of February 4.  He said he felt that Vanessa Williams was doing the research herself, instead of being fed information by professionals.  Um, did I miss that in the episode?  What I saw was the historian in Oyster Bay showing her the book with David Carll's enlistment and the land record, the archivist in D.C. showing her the already pulled service file of David Carll, the Civil War historian in South Carolina showing her around locations he had researched, the genealogist showing her the enlarged printout of the 1910 census with her family at the top of the page, the archivist at the Tennessee State Archives showing her the engraving and some information that had already been pulled, and ditto at the Nashville Public Library and the Shelby County Archives.  The only thing Vanessa Williams did herself was look at the 1870 census on (our obligatory product placement, specifically announced by Miss Williams herself before the screen shot).

Speaking of the look-up, I have gotten in the habit of double-checking what they show on TV to see if I get the same results.  I noticed that Miss Williams typed in "Carll" for the last name but that the census page showed "Carle" for the name.  I tested it myself a few minutes ago.  "Carll" will pull up the correct record, because both spellings are listed in the index.  But while the census page says that David Carll was mulatto, the results page for David Carll in Oyster Bay said that he was white.  Maybe will correct that?

While I'm nitpicking, there were some interesting mathematical errors in the dialog.  David Carll's enlistment record showed that he enlisted on January 3, 1864, and the Oyster Bay historian stated that blacks were allowed to enlist as of December 23, 1863 -- a difference of ten days.  But the historian said that David Carll enlisted "within the week" after he could do so.  Later, when they were looking at the record of Carll's land purchase, they said it was dated January 7, 1864, but Miss Williams said he bought the land five days later.  The last time I checked, 7 - 3 = 4, not 5.  Then when Miss Williams was looking at the 1870 census, she was musing to herself and said that David Carll was married before the war and enlisted for his family.  The oldest child in the household is 3 years old, which means he was born about 1866-1867, i.e., after the war.  Who is checking the continuity in the scripts on this show?

There was more, but I know -- it's entertainment.  I shouldn't be taking it this seriously.  It just seems that these are things that wouldn't be that difficult to catch, if someone was trying to do so.  Being more accurate is considered a positive thing in genealogy; why can't it be that way in a show (supposedly) about genealogy?


  1. Good observations - especially on the "math" of the show. As I watched the show, I was wondering whether it was my hearing or my math skills that were causing me to get different results!

  2. I just saw the show myself - and there was one glaring thing that stuck out to me. As she's going home to share her "discoveries" (i.e., the information that was handed to her on a silver platter), she says "My journey has come to an end." No! It's just starting. She's only gone back a few generations, she's still in the United States, she's only found 2 great-great grandparents. What about the other 14 great-great-grandparents and their families...and their ancestors? That line about her journey coming to an end left a really bad taste in my mouth, and I just wanted to reach through the screen and shake some sense into her.

  3. I agree, Carol! It would definitely appear that her journey has come to an end as far as the television program is concerned. It's also true that some people are happy with learning just a few interesting things about their families. Not everyone is driven to learn everything about their families that they can. But maybe one of Miss Williams' children will "catch the bug" and continue the research that was begun by the experts.

  4. Greta, thanks for your comments! I'm a math geek, so those numbers jumped out at me when they were talking. I was also watching the Webcast on the NBC site, so I could rewind and make sure I heard them right.


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