Harry Bittner, b. 1886, d. 1900

“Obituary,” Daily Freeman Tribune, (Webster City IA)
28 Feb 1900, p. 8, col. 3.

Working with Orphan Train Riders is a roller coaster of emotions. I cannot imagine a little boy or girl just 5 or 6 years old, standing on the platform of the train station having adults look them over like cattle–some wanting to be accepted by a family and some just wanting to go home. The families wanting farm help, or care givers or children they never could have.

This is a short story of Harry Bittner’s short life, just one of the 35 boys who got on that train in New York, traveled to Hamilton County, Iowa in August of 1890. [1]

In that year, the Children’s Aid Society made three stops in Hamilton County, Iowa, to distribute children, in August, October and November.[2] The program was based on the idea that children without parental care would benefit from the bucolic rural life in the Midwest. Many of these children had living parents.[3]

Harry was in the group of 18 children, 14 boys and 4 girls who arrived in Webster City, Iowa in August. The town had been anticipating their arrival for a couple of weeks and had formed a committee of townspeople to accept applications for the children, of which more than 60 were received.[4] Hiram Olmstead and his wife was probably one of the applicant families. Whether they had made a “reservation” for a child ahead of arrival or if Harry was selected randomly on that August day is not known.

Hiram Olmstead (b. 1826) and his wife, Lucy, had migrated from New York where they were born, to Illinois and finally resided in Hamilton County, Iowa by 1880.[5] In 1890, advancing in years and with children of their own mostly grown, the couple received the boy, Harry Bittner, age 4. Things must not have gone as anticipated. Harry was very young, the Olmsteads were elderly. After about 18 months, Harry Bittner found another home with Charles and Harriet Young, also of Hamilton County.[6]

There he resided until his death in February 1900 at age 14. We know little about his short life. The Youngs were obligated to send him to school and to give him room and board. We assume they did. We don’t know the chores Harry was supposed to perform. We do know the family was Baptist and Harry became confirmed and accepted the Baptist faith just prior to his death.[7]

Harry appeared in one census, the 1895 Iowa state census as a 9 year old.[8]

Iowa State Census, 1895,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: accessed 20 December 2020), Hamilton County > image 311 of 681, Charles Young household; citing State Historical Society, Des Moines.

Three newspaper articles outline his death and provide an obituary of his life.

“…For a few days he had been feeling poorly, but was usually very rugged and healthy. In the night he arose and was walking the floor, and a member of the family gave him medicine, but a few moments prior to his death.”[9]

The story of the Orphan Train Rider Harry Bittner is just one of the 34 stories I am researching.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: I am a believer in DIY context. As I was researching an Orphan Train Rider (OTR) who was adopted into my family, I was impressed with the amount of newspaper coverage of their arrival and their lives but the lack of identification. Small town newspapers believed that everything was news! I wanted to know what happened to this little ones removed from an urban existence and thrown into rural Iowa. There is much I cannot find documentation for; however, I can tell the stories of those that appear in the records in Iowa.

1 Iowa Genweb, “Orphan Trains to Hamiliton County,” http://iagenweb.org/hamilton/misc/orphantrains.html;
2 “E. Trott of the Children’s Aid Society…,” The Freeman (Webster City, Iowa), 3 September 1890, p. 5, col. 3; Kendell Young Library, Webster City, Iowa. The article says the train arrived “last Friday,” making the date of arrival 29 August 1890. Also, “Ten boys and three girls…”, The Freeman (Webster City, Iowa),15 October 1890, p. 5, col. 3; Kendell Young Library, Webster City, Iowa. Date calculated to 9 October 1890. Also, “The third and last party…” The Freeman (Webster City, Iowa),21 November 1890, p. 5, col. 3; Kendell Young Library, Webster City, Iowa. Date calculated to 20 November 1890.
3 Ron Grossman, “The Orphan Train: A NobleIdea that Went Off the Rails.” Chicago Tribune, 19 July 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-flashback-orphan-train-children-separated-immigrants-0722-20180718-story.html
4 “Boys Wanting Homes,” Webster City [IA] Freeman, 24 August 1890, p. 4, col. 5.
5 1880 U.S. census, Hamilton County, Iowa, population schedule, Webster Township, ED 104, page 3, household 26, dwelling 28, Hiram Olmstead household; NARA T9, roll 342.
6 “Obituary,” Daily Freeman Tribune, (Webster City IA) 28 Feb 1900, p. 8, col. 3.
7 Ibid.
8 Iowa State Census, 1895,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org, accessed 20 December 2020), Hamilton County > image 311 of 681, Charles Young household; citing State Historical Society, Des Moines.
9 “Harry Bittner who has been making his home…,” Daily Freedom Tribune (Webster City, Iowa), 26 February 1900, p. 8, col. 3.

My “Moments of Change”

As you think about your genealogical journey, what are the “Moments of Change”–those opportunities that you took and which made a significant difference in the quality of your genealogical work? I had four. These are my “Moments of Change.”

Moment of Change #1:
In 2002, I decided it was time to place my bits and pieces of information that I had gathered on my family for a couple of decades into a genealogical computer program. I did a “do-over.” I took all my evidence I had gathered on 144 ancestors, and source by source entered it into my brand-spanking new genealogical program. Looking at my information with fresh (and more educated) eyes was very revealing.

I made some “rules” about the database:

  • I would never import a GEDCOM into my database. If it was important enough that I wanted to include that information, I would manually enter it. (I adhere strictly to this rule)
  • I would always cite my sources.
  • Every source that supported, or conflicted, with a decision would be included. Some have 12-15 source citations. For example a birth might have all the censuses, BMD certificates and multiple obituaries. (Today I have 88K citations for 13K people.)
  • I devised a system of filing so I could find any source within 5 min…..actually, I can find anything in about 2 minutes or less.
  • I would treat my research no differently than an academic who is doing original research–because I am!
  • I got more serious.

Moment of Change #2:
I decided to take ProGen Study Group. I don’t know where I heard about it, but it seemed like a good idea. I really hadn’t thought about taking clients, but isn’t that what you did? I was included in a stellar cohort, PG 19 Tuesday, that has opened their own businesses and/or gone on to leadership positions in various local and national genealogical organizations.

I threw myself into the assignments, offered and received critiques from the others, and completed the course in April 2014. Some takeaways from that course:

  • While I thought I wanted to take clients, what I really wanted to do was lecture and teach. I shifted my focus midway in the program.
  • The later assignments revealed my love of writing research reports, initially identified in Grad School. I took my genealogy skills of researching primary materials to Grad School and Grad School taught me to read (not skim) for content and write with an academic tone.
  • I started thinking about receiving the credential of Certified Genealogist from the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). This process was one of “no, I don’t need it;” to “why would I want to do that?”; to “well, why not?” It never was a blinding passion.
  • I started going to conferences, and institutes.
  • I got more serious.

Moment of Change #3:
I took Tom Jones’s class “Advanced Methodologies” at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I walked in thinking I was an advanced researcher and walked out a beginner–really. Dr. Jones showed me what I didn’t know. It was a humbling experience.

  • The homework exposed me to regions of the country and eras I had never worked in.
  • He laid out principles for the best genealogical work; ones I try to emulate every day.
  • He was available to answer questions. There were times he couldn’t contain himself and a touch of derision would enter his voice because of the naiveté of my question–but I was tough.
  • I got more serious

Moment of Change #4:
I decided to pursue certification, but this decision was not an easy path! There was little information and no support, except with friends were were operating in the same (perceived or real) “vacuum.” When I looked at portfolios at the BCG desk, I decided not to pursue certification because I could never be that perfect.

I decided to journal my certification journey and created this blog ‘Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey.” I thought maybe some people would find my musings helpful, and probably funny, as I stumbled along. I also thought I was taking a risk–why was no one else doing this? Did I miss something in the BCG Application Guide that said I couldn’t talk about what I was learning or how I learned it?

I thought it would be helpful to others to know the quandaries I had; I didn’t realize it would be helpful for me to know others were feeling the same way. Some observations on writing of my blog:

  • It was a risk.
  • I became a better writer, the more I wrote (duh!).
  • I explored issues I never would have otherwise.
  • I began to hear from others, CGs and not, about what a good service I was doing.
  • It gave me an outlet for describing some of my “discoveries,” which usually were just good practice.
  • It led to the founding of the Certification Discussion Group, of which I am most proud. It, too, was a risk.
  • I got more serious.

I received the credential of Certified Genealogist in January 2017. I was thrilled. At that moment, I realized I now needed to show others that I was worthy of the honor. I got serious.

So many of my “moments of change” were ones of education, either formal or informal. You, too, will find a path that works for you. There are some basic takeaways, however:

  • Your education as a genealogist will be continuous, whether you receive the credential or not.
  • Assessment of strengths and weaknesses is important. While you want to make sure your strengths are current, strengthening your weaknesses is imperative. don’t pick the “safe” topics; pick ones that will stretch your genealogical skills.
  • Don’t use “I need more education,” as an excuse not to submit a portfolio. You will always need more.
  • Writing the portfolio is an education in itself.

Assessing your own strengths and weaknesses is a first step. Are you just “getting the idea” that perhaps your casual approach to genealogy can be “ramped up” to a different level, or perhaps you already think you are pretty careful with your work and you want to strengthen a weakness? Or, are you somewhere in-between? All are OK–we have all been there. But, the assessment is key to determining your next steps.

Let me know your “Moments of Change.” Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: I wrote and distributed a survey to the Certification Discussion Group alumni (n=422), to identify where they were in their personal journey. Report of that survey is almost complete. I only go out of the house for doctor’s visits (last visit was very positive on all counts) so I am writing a lot. I just started a DIY context study on Orphan Train riders in Hamilton County, Iowa and I am working on a presentation on the three riders that show up in my database. I had 2 articles accepted by the Swedish American Genealogist, one just published in June issue (yes, they are late) and the next scheduled for the September issue. Launched our latest CDG classes for 2021.1 (winter)–60 eager students. Rebuilt the website for the CDG attendees. (It needed it–even the attendees were complaining!)

What is YOUR Genealogical Legacy?

I was recently asked, “What kind of impact do you think a career in this field makes?” I answered it slightly differently than asked. “What kind of impact can you make as a genealogist?”

The holidays are for family and friends and I hope you are celebrating sensibly in this time of pandemic. These holidays also make me think of holidays in the past and the impacts others have made on me. Our families make the largest impact, but I want to address the impact of each of us in the profession of genealogy.

My life work is in architecture. I never thought about a “legacy” until I was leaving The Ohio State University after having served as University Architect/AVP for 12 years.  On the day I left, I identified over 40 major projects that our office had been engaged in during my tenure. That’s a lot of physical “legacy” on a campus.

My next career move took me to the University of Washington, School of Medicine. I never thought about legacy there either, until the last year I was there–2016. My boss said I had changed the physical face of the School of Medicine by bringing good design to our School. I was thrilled.  The public face of the university’s SoM was visible and it was good. 

So, now I devote my life to genealogy. What is my genealogical legacy? (FYI: While I can see the end of my genealogy career, it’s not the “train in the tunnel.” Don’t write the obituary yet!)

I think a person chooses a personal focus that interests them. That doesn’t mean that one consciously picks a focus so you leave a legacy.  Any choice can be the vehicle for making a difference in other people’s lives. But you, working with other people, can make your legacy–not buildings and not a database and probably not paid work. You cannot know what will be impactful in a positive (or, unfortunately, a negative) way until at least time has past and in my case, at least 10 years.

I didn’t leave much of a legacy in my younger years, so I think age, maturity and knowledge imparted to others OVER TIME “makes a difference.”

It is not what we keep, hold or horde that will define our impact, but rather the wisdom and knowledge  we generously give, with no expectation of return.

The latter part of that statement is important. We have to give with a generous heart.

This is not to say we should give away research time or presentations. We deserve to be paid for what we do and paid appropriately. But, my volunteer work as president of the Seattle Genealogical Society will mean more to me than any client I have had. The establishment of the Certification Discussion Group means more to me than the actual submission of my portfolio. And the CDG will mean even more if it continues after my involvement is over.

The genealogical friends I have and have yet to meet are ones I cherish. And the fact that I have been able to do what I love to do–genealogy– while sharing that journey with them, has made a difference in MY life, if not their’s. 

Happy holidays,


What I have done since the last post (which was scheduled for today but written a week ago.): Gaining a focus on Orphan Train Riders. I have three that were adopted into my family and their stories are fascinating. Sent out a survey to all CDG alumni and so far we have a 63% return. Not bad! Wrote postcards for TX, GA, CA, FL and others to get out the vote and trimmed up an article for publication.

My Writing Challenges

I have never considered myself a great, or even a good writer. I just want to be a better writer.

This summer I took the Tom Jones’s “Writing and Publishing for Genealogists” class at the Institute for Genealogy & Historical Research (IGHR).1 Our pre-class assignment was to submit a genealogical work sample of 500 words. Halfway through the class he asked us to edit the document and submit to him. Tom then edited the work of each class attendee.

Humbled. Again. By “Yoda” Jones.

I decided to take that document and assess what he changed.

Here are my discoveries–some of my most common issues:

  • Avoid the use of the passive voice (was, is, to be).
  • Avoid the reference to the record set in the narrative. I thought I didn’t do this. Wrong.
  • Avoid repetition. I repeat information stated just a couple of paragraphs before. I must learn to trust the reader.
  • Avoid weak active verbs, like “do” and “get” or their variations.
  • Think about verb selection. Many of my verbs, even if active, require a preposition to complete them. I should instead select verbs that send the same message, but do not have the preposition attached.
  • Avoid extra words at the beginning of a sentence. I often want to “ease” the reader into the paragraph, by using unnecessary phrases like “Therefore,” or “According to the ….” or “Having ridden the train…”
  • Avoid naming people unless they contribute to answering the research question. It confuses the reader. Generic labels can be used instead, e.g. sister, the farm hand.
  • Use the word “apparent” to describe family structure or relationships that are implied but not stated, e.g. pre-1880 censuses. (But, you only have to use it once.)
  • Edit your work by reducing the number of words. Each remaining word brings a higher value to the sentence. Words that “take up space” have no value–delete them.

Not all of these are horrible; not all are to be avoided at all costs. I am trying to be cognizant of these issues as I write. Hopefully, my writing will improve.

My initial work sample for the class was 503 words. After the self edit, the sample was 429 words. Tom reduced it to 383 words–24% from the original! If you are working on an article or your portfolio, think about what you would do if you had to take 25% out of your document. Wouldn’t each word gain in value? Wouldn’t that be better?

Why not start your own list? What are your common writing problems? My list is taped to the wall I face as I type this post.

Or, pretend your editor has told you to remove 25% of the content, otherwise they cannot publish it—what would you do?

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since I last blogged: I am on a roll lately with my posts. I just seem to have a lot of subject matter right now. Hope you all had a happy and COVID-free Thanksgiving and plan ahead for a safe Christmas.

1 You can find out more about registration for the 2021 classes at IGHR and Tom Jones’s writing class at https://ighr.gagensociety.org.


Numbering! Maybe You Don’t Have to Buy “the Book”

The Kinship Determination Project (KDP) seems daunting to many who are writing their portfolio.1 In the previous post we covered the formats one could choose. Another aspect of the KDP that causes concern and questions is the numbering of the work. Perhaps this is heresy–maybe you don’t need to buy “The Book”, much less sleep with it under your pillow!2

“The Book” I am talking about is Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, the Bible for numbering formats.3 And while I think it should be in everyone’s library, for this exercise you will need it only for the definitions of the various elements I am deleting or keeping.

The BCG Application Guide says that we have to “Submit a narrative genealogy, a narrative lineage, or narrative pedigree that documents and explains linkages among individuals through three ancestral generations–ascending or descending.”4 In a previous post I showed you– visually– what each of these types of presentation of your genealogy might look like and debunked a few myths along the way. It was obvious that using a narrative lineage reduced the amount of people needed to be covered, while still staying within the 150 maximum page count.

The BCG Application Guide 2019 (6th bullet, in section 6) states that “a clear, comprehensive [numbering system] format” needs to be used.5 Numbering Your Genealogy is the standard recommended for numbering the three formats of KDPs.

In the Genealogy Standards “Standard formats,” it states “Lineages… need not be numbered.”6 What does that mean to you, writing your KDP and writing it as a narrative lineage?

I attempted to number my narrative lineage for my portfolio and one judge said I did it wrong and another said I didn’t have to number my lineage at all! My conclusion was and is, “why open yourself up for criticism when you can avoid it?”

But what should you do?7

I like to think about my reader. What would make reading my KDP easier for a judge? I think the following would make it easier for a judge to read my descending KDP and reduce the numbering system interjections.7:

  • I would still separate the generations with the subsection titles “Generation One,” “Generation Two” and “Generation Three;”
  • I would not assign a sequential “individual number” to the first or subsequent people, because it is an easy format to follow;
  • I would not include the past generations in parentheses of the first person;
  • I would not include a “generation number” to the first or subsequent people. It’s obvious based on your subsection labels of the generations.
  • I would include a genealogical summary (that dense summary information about your person of interest) right at the top–born, died and married.
  • I would include the children’s list. This would list all the children and include their vital information. I interpreted that as meaning birth, death and marriage info. Others write much more. I use a table with hidden lines for my list of children–much easier then wrestling with Word tabs.
  • I would include the birth order number, the lower case Roman numerals which number the generations’ children.
  • I would include a + sign to indicate which child is the person of interest in the next generation.
  • And, of course, I would comply with all the other requirements of the Application Guide and the Rubrics which are not covered here.

You may disagree. You may include something I haven’t or take something out that I included. Your KDP might be set up as an ascending narrative lineage. In the end it’s YOUR KDP and you will decide what is best for your reader and your evidence. This is just what I would do– in retrospect.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: quarantined in place to a point where if I take out the trash, it’s a big deal!; had an article accepted at the Swedish American Genealogist for June 2021; started and completed a Certification Discussion Group–always fun and visited my daughter, SIL and their new daughter. (We “bubbled up.”)

1 The KDP is one element of the portfolio which gets submitted to the Board for Certification of Genealogists for the purposes of review in the determination of whether the credential “Certified Genealogist” should be granted to the submitter.
2 The need to place the “Book” under your pillow in an effort to absorb the information while sleeping was stated to me twice in a conversation on 18 November 2020 in a Zoom meeting.
3 Joan Curran, CG et al., Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families and International Kin, (Arlington, VA: National Genealogical Society, 2008).
4 The BCG Application Guide 2019, (Washington, DC : Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2019) item 6. Emphasis by the author of the book.
5 Ibid.
6 Genealogy Standards, Second Edition, (Washington, DC : Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2019) p. 39, item 72, second bullet. Why don’t they number their pages!
7 I do not speak for BCG, nor am I a trustee. These suggestions are what I would do and if I submitted this way I have no idea how the judges would view them. Your situation will be different and you will have to make that judgement about what to include or not on your own. I repeat: I do not speak for BCG.

KDP: Which Format System to Choose

This should be a short post.

The BCG Application Guide states that there are three formats you can adopt for your KDP. “Submit a narrative genealogy, narrative lineage, or narrative pedigree…”1

But what do those look like? Here are three diagrams of the systems. Note: the black rimmed boxes are the persons about whom you are required to provide “biographical information”;2 the green dots are suggested locations for the required two proofs;3 and the other smaller blocks are spouses or children.

Narrative genealogy: The narrative genealogy requires that you write the biographical information on every child in every generation. This is a descending format and starts with the oldest ancestor and comes forward.

Pedigree: The Pedigree format is similar to the Narrative Genealogy (above) only it is “upside down.” It starts with the nearest generation and works back in time….like a pedigree.

Narrative Lineage: The Narrative Lineage provides background narrative on a single person in each generation. Just by counting the boxes you can see there is less content for this method. This method can be either ascending or descending. I wrote my KDP using a descending narrative lineage.

So, which one would you choose? Since portfolios must be under 150 pages, it seems obvious that the Narrative Lineage has the least content, which allows for more pages to be devoted to other elements of the portfolio.4 Even the FAQs on the BCG website state that all are valid choices, but “most applicants choose to submit a lineage. It is generally less work.” The FAQ continues: the narrative lineage “provides plenty of scope for evaluation.”5

Also notice that you can choose an all male lineage, an all female lineage or “zig zag” between genders. You can use your own family, but it doesn’t have to be your direct line ancestors, e.g. I did a narrative lineage starting with my maternal great great grandfather, came forward to my great grandfather and then zigged over to a grand uncle.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last blog: I actually wrote this one after I had written the next blog on numbering your KDP (due out in a few days), but thought this should come first. I am zooming with people I haven’t seen for decades and I hope you are using this time to connect differently with those members of your FAN Club!

1 BCG Application Guide 2019, (Washington, DC : Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2019), section 6. The Board for Certification of Genealogists is the certifying body for genealogists and outlines the requirements for submission in the BCG Application Guide 2019.
2 Genealogy Standards, Second Edition, (Washington, DC,; Board for Certification of Genealogists) p. 70.
3 BCG Application Guide 2019, section 6.
4 Ibid. Application process > Portfolio size.
5 Board for Certification of Genealogists, website, (https://bcgcertification.org/process/faq/ : accessed 19 November 2020) Requirement 6: Kinship Determination Project > 4th bullet.

Ideas! Case Study Topics

Are you finding it difficult to identify a suitable topic for your Case Study? They may appear to all have direct evidence not in conflict or they aren’t solved yet.

First we need to look at the BCG Application Guide for the “rules” concerning the types of problems we have to address (you can find the specific language here) :

“Your presentation must use one of these techniques:
(a) assembling indirect or negative evidence or a combination of the two;
(b) resolving a conflict between two or more items of direct evidence; or
(c) resolving a conflict between direct evidence and indirect or negative evidence.”[1]

Your Case Study is a show case for your skills. Your decision as to which of the problems you will address in your Case Study will depend on your research question, and the evidence. The Application Guide continues with

“Supply a case study (proof argument) drawn fro your own research that (a) demonstrates application of the Genealogical Proof Standard and (b) resolves, in your opinion, a SIGNIFIANT problem of relationship or identity that cannot be resolved from uncontested direct evidence.”

The BCG Application Guide, 2019, (Washington, DC: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2019) no. 5.

When I started writing my Case Study, I thought my identified problem was an “easy one.” I already had solved it– I analyzed the christening witnesses; discovered some witnesses had traveled from outside the parish; researched the people from out of the parish; and came to the conclusion that my ancestor was from the same family. I predicted this problem would be a 10 page Case Study. Thirty four pages later, I had a Case Study for my portfolio. (Note: there is no requirement for length of the Case Study, other than it has to be a proof argument, complex enough to warrant multiple pages. I have seen successful 10 page Case Studies.)

I now know there are many other places I could have looked for a suitable problem. Here are some “idea ticklers” for you. While the ideas and the examples noted below all look simple, the result must illustrate your attainment of certain genealogical skills. The decision of one problem over another is your–the portfolio writer’s– decision.

Was XX in Virginia the same person as YY in Ohio? or Was GG in Jalisco State, Mexico, the same person as HH in San Antonio, TX? For example, is there a significant name change (Israel Nilsson became Israel Malmberg) or are there many “Bob Smiths” in the county he migrated from or to.

Family myths
Is the family myth about the identity of great gramps true? Did he really fight in the Civil War? Are we related to a famous person? Family myths illustrate a possible type of problem to consider. Myths can address identity or relationship.

Burned counties/ limited number of records:
If you have a situation of a burned county or just a record loss for whatever reason, this can also result in a suitable problem for your Case Study. The lack of records doesn’t have to be because of disaster, but could occur when someone migrates to the edge of the frontier. Perhaps the lack of a 1890 census creates a problem for you that might be suitable for a Case Study.

Pre-1880 family identification
Remember that family relationships in censuses prior to 1880 can only be implied (indirect evidence) by the censuses. Just because it looks like a individual/family doesn’t mean it is. Couple that with the pre-1850 tick mark censuses and you might have a problem worthy of a Case Study.

Common Names
Certainly someone with a common name is a candidate, especially if there are multiple folks in the same location with the same name. Chinese, Irish and Scandinavian individuals are good candidates due to their small number of available names and/or unexpected or unusual naming practices.

Females who marry ??
This may be a suitable problem as we often have individuals who we “lose.” Females are vulnerable because of the English/American tradition of women taking the surname of her husband. We can lose the women because we don’t have access to a marriage record or we have their married name but not her birth name. Without a marriage certificate or some other similar document that names her parents, a “lost” woman might be a good candidate for a portfolio.

Illegitimate births/MPE/Adoptions
Who are the mother/father of this person? The reverse is also true—you may think that you have identified the parents, but DNA is indicating that there is an misattributed parental event (MPE). Remember that DNA provides direct evidence you are in the right family, but cannot identify the person. also, the standards for permission have changed recently. See BCG Learning Center > DNA Resources for more information. https://bcgcertification.org/learning/dna-resources/

Mistakes you have made
Remember that time you said that GG and HH were the parents of YY and you discovered that they weren’t! This may make a good Case study. I identified parents of my Norwegian ancestor, only to work it more and find out the only evidence was the name of the father, which was a common name. I had identified the family incorrectly. This would make a good Case Study of conflicting direct evidence to identify the relationship of parents–two sets of possible parents….which one is correct? Or, who is the mother of ….?

Certain ethnic groups
African American, Chinese, American Indian and other ethnic groups have research problems, but for different reasons. Some rely on oral tradition or were held as chattel without standing as people resulting in records that lack identifiers (names, ages, relationships).

In my personal database, I have these types of problems making for suitable topics for a case study/proof argument. Many of these are already written up:

  • conflicting direct evidence to determine parentage: two different birth dates set in the 1700s in Sweden (subject of my portfolio case study)
  • Using indirect evidence to prove a French Canadian family named Beauchene changed their name to Oak when they came to the United States.
  • Using indirect evidence to identify immigrant: my great grandmother used the name Wennenga in the US but was born a Wientjes in Germany.
  • Using indirect evidence to identify parents: Actually I have numerous of these–all of them were “perceived” brick wall ancestors. When I discovered a rarely used Swedish record set that could (at times) identify relationships, I used it to extend these “end of the line” ancestors. (~7x)
  • Using conflicting direct evidence to identify parents: there was an obvious Norwegian parental couple who I identified as her parents as they were the only “visible” candidate. Turned out I was wrong.
  • Did “my” Michael Wood fight in the Civil War?– There are 12 or 13 Michael Woods in the Soldiers and Sailor Database and none of them served in a unit that was physically close to Michael’s residence in 1862.
  • and, who doesn’t have conflicting birth dates?

Principles apply:

  • Identify some 2 or 3 CS candidates, outline each and pick the one that seems the most promising;
  • Remember always prove the identity first before addressing the relationship;
  • it must be a significant problem that when solved illustrates your genealogical skills;
  • Keep an open mind. You may find that a client brings you a good question to address or even a photograph “asks” a question.

Happy hunting; stay safe.


Things I have done since the last post: I am keeping up with my goal of having an article published every year. I have had two additional articles accepted, but one needs to be edited severely. I have a reasonable article drafted for the New York Genealogical & Historical Register, but with some governmental offices closed I haven’t explored (yet) whether I can get some vital records. I am teaching another class of Certification Discussion Group (also revamped the website for the next class), promoted a mentorship program for CDG graduates who are OTC, presented for Legacy and am working on a new class on “Context!”

[1] The BCG Application Guide, 2019, (Washington, DC : Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2019).
this blog post has been modified twice:

  • to be more direct about DNA
  • to emphasize that any of the ideas presented appear simple, but your Case Study must be a “significant problem.” Only you can determine the level of complexity and assess whether that type of issue can showcase your skills.

Confirmation Bias

I am my best example of bad practices! In this case, confirmation bias. It created a false brick wall of my own making. Only recently did I see how it delayed the outcome of the right answer.

But, first, what is “confirmation bias”?

Confirmation bias is where you have some assumption of an answer to your question and you set out to prove it….you set out to prove it without thinking about what other answers there are to this problem.

Let’s say your research question is “Was John F. Smith the father of Mary Smith, b. 1895 in Avon County, MA? In this research question you are assuming the John F. Smith was the father and structured your question around John. Your research focus will be on the unknown father, John F. Smith. Having crafted your research question in that manner, you blithely set out to find all the John Smiths in Avon County, only to discover that no one had a child named Mary!

“I have a brick wall!” you wail.


You instead have committed confirmation bias.

Research questions should start with known information. Reword your research question to “Who was the father of Mary Smith b. 1895 in Avon County, MA.” Now, you have shifted the focus from what you didn’t know (the father) to what you do know (the year and place of birth of Mary). You also shifted your research focus from John to Mary.

Of course all the above is fiction, but serves to illustrate my point.

We can also commit confirmation bias any time we are looking for a DNA match for a bio-father. We see the same surname and decide that is the one. We can discover later, after making the “big reveal” to unsuspecting and proposed relatives, that the person changed their name when they, too, were adopted. And the real DNA link was the next person down on the list.

We can commit confirmation bias any time we assume an answer and set out to prove it without checking the other candidates.

I am my best example of bad practices. I have worked on and off for years hoping to identify the mother of Margareta Andersdotter, b. 8 February 1750 and her place of birth. I knew she was born in 1750 because the 1817 Swedish census said so. There were other sources that gave me a range of 1749 to 1753.

I committed confirmation bias by trying to prove she was born on 8 February 1750. I focused on that date and made the range of years I would look at extremely narrow. While I was working though all the possible parishes, I failed to notice the importance that one location had a year missing, 1752. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I decided to build a time line and things started falling into place–every activity of the family was revolving around 1752. Oddities in the records came into focus like I had just changed the prescription on my glasses! Those oddities could now be interpreted with more meaning, rather than just someone’s mistake.

The article is now submitted to the Swedish American Genealogical Quarterly for their possible publication.

Here are some things I do to help me avoid confirmation bias:

  1. I write up my problem ancestors in research reports. This consolidates my research in one place, including my research plan, my research log and my notes in one place. It focuses my mind on one problem, avoiding “bright shiny objects.”
  2. I work slowly. Some of that is because I am a mediocre analyst and it takes sometime for me to internalize the evidence I do have. I cite everything, which slows me down but reaps great benefits later.
  3. I work with hypotheses. My language reflects that the options are open. I work each hypothesis to prove it viable or not. It’s a “last man (or woman) standing” approach.
  4. I build timelines to help me see what I have and what I don’t have. I can see where there are gaps and overlaps.
  5. I assess every record set I use for completeness at a macro level (does it have that year?) and the micro level (is it missing pages)?
  6. I work hard at trying not to come to a conclusion too quickly. It closes doors to other options.

I hope this has helped you. I suspect that I will commit this “genealogical sin” in the future, but I will (hopefully) catch it sooner.

Take care; stay safe,


What I have done since the last post. I am in Boston awaiting the birth of our next (and probably last) grandchild, Charlotte Emma Shannan. ❤

Review: “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access”

So many of us are lamenting the inability to obtain records in this time of closure. Many institutions we frequently use, such as  archives, libraries, courthouses etc are closed. On May 2020, the Board for Certification of Genealogists published their OnBoard newsletter with the lead article “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access.”[1] I know many of you receive this newsletter, but I also know that if you are not “on the clock” now (having submitted your pre-application for certification), are not an Associate, or do not have a subscription (you can do that on the BCG website) that you missed this important article.

(Spoiler alert! I give a great tip at the end of this post to overcome closures!)

Mr. Wilds begins by posing the question– can one submit a successful portfolio when the closure of many of the repositories we use prevent us from doing on site research?

Mr. Wilds then reviews all the elements of a portfolio and points out that only two require “reasonably exhaustive research, a requirement of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).”[2] Only the Case Study and the Kinship-Determination Project (KDP) require reasonably exhaustive research or RER. You can find the requirements for the KDP and the Case Study in the Application Guide.[3] You can find what standards the judges use to evaluate your portfolio using BCG’s published rubrics.[4] You can find the quality of the work ALL genealogists should aspire to by reading and applying the guidelines in Genealogy Standards.[5]

The article does a good job of taking the definition of reasonably exhaustive research and pointing out the qualifiers in each bullet of the definition–“at least”, “where possible” etc.[6] Alerting us to what RER is and, more importantly, what it is not.

I want to focus on recommendations for achieving RER in this time of closure.

  • Mr. Wilds states early in the article: “Depending on the research question, the GPS may or may not be able to be met using online research.”[7] The implication is to craft your research question so it doesn’t rely on information you cannot gather, i.e. perhaps using an identifier instead of a relationship question….conflicting BMD dates or participation in an event. For example, where was Michael Wood born?[8]  Combining information from pension packets I had gathered three years ago a location of birth in Canada was identified, but wrong. Recently, using only online resources I found the correct parish.
  • Present a problem you have already solved. This is a good recommendation no matter if the repository is open or not.
  • Perhaps you are making it more complicated than it needs to be. The Case Study doesn’t have to be 40 pages long–what if it were only 9 or 10? Remember the definition of a proof argument is “A documented narrative that explains why a genealogist’s answer to a complex genealogical problem should be considered acceptable.”[9] There is no page number goal. Short portfolios have been successful.
  • Don’t let “source snobbery” get in your way.[10] Relying on the on-site work you have done on the past and supplementing it with the terrific items that are online is a great strategy.
  • You can over prove your work; a good genealogist knows when to stop. I was advised that I had “over-proved” my Case Study.
  • Don’t let the closures of repositories keep you from writing up what you have. OK, you may find that you have to wait, but you will be well along with the writing, have identified exactly what you need and have put in a request. You may have the evidence in a closed repository but don’t use that as an excuse not to write up what you have.

My portfolio case study was of a 18th c. Swede, with conflicting direct evidence (birth date off by 6 years). The Swedes have marvelous records; the ones I would reasonably use were on line. I did check to see if others records would reveal corroborating evidence. I found that there were no records that would clarify the question better than the ones I already had access to online. I never conducted any  onsite research for my Case Study, nor have I ever visited Sweden. Again, I picked carefully. I consulted frequently with experts at the Family History Library on technical aspects, but you can do that now online with their “Communities” feature under “Help.”

My Kinship-Determination Project was set in the Midwest, where I had researched for decades. I thought I should do one more trip through the Midwest to “wring water out of the washcloth.” While I got great info on that trip and there are no regrets, only ONE citation shows up in the KDP that was gathered on that journey. Could I have submitted without it?–yes.

I predict that the number of complex problems we solve using only online information is going to radically increase in the coming years, due to the great records being placed online by FamilySearch (http://familysearch.org) and others.

Scott’s article does a great job of laying out the requirements and where the flexibility lies. I highly recommend reading it.

Here is the tip: Ask for the document NOW electronically. Anecdotally, I am hearing that many people are asking for and receiving their requested items from courthouses and governmental authorities. It appears that the staff are working, but not taking walk-ins. So a request placed now may even get expedited. If nothing else, your request will be at the head of the line when they do open.

Stay safe; stay healthy!


What I have done since the last posting: taught the latest Certification Discussion Group (if you are interested in what it is all about, sign up at http://theCDGseries.wordpress.com; wrote an article about emigration from Sweden based on the patterns of three small parishes; hosted a series of talks by certified genealogists about their portfolio journey on FB, baked bread and didn’t exercise. how about you?

[1] Scott Wilds, CG, “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access,” OnBoard: newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, May 2020, p. 9-11.
[2] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry.com: 2019) p. 1-2.
[3] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Application Guide 2019 (https://bcgcertification.org/process/app-guide/), sections 5 and 6. The Guide is a free download.
[4] Board for Certification of Genealogists, “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification,  revised 15 May 2019,” website  https://bcgcertification.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BCG-New-Application-Rubrics-2019.pdf. This document is a free download.
[5] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards.
[6] Wilds, “Portfolios in a time of Limited Access,” OnBoard, p. 10-11
[7] Wilds, “Portfolios in a Time of Limited Access,” OnBoard, p. 9.
[8] These are bad research questions and I know it. I need to add additional information about Michael to make him unique in the world.
[9] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Appendix D: Glossary, “proof argument,” p. 83.
[10] Thomas W. Jones, CG, “Skill Building: Perils of Source Snobbery,” Board for Certification of Genealogists, website (https://bcgcertification.org/skillbuilding-perils-of-source-snobbery/), originally published OnBoard, May 2012.


Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic: Part 2

Screen Shot 2020-04-19 at 9.40.23 PM.pngIn response to the previous blog post, a reader asked me to elaborate on what programs Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) started that didn’t work so well. Hmmmm. Let me give that a try.

You need to know I am my worst enemy….if there is a volunteer who is passionate about the idea, I will try just about anything. In fact, I frequently get ahead of the Board  with my own ideas, much to their chagrin. When the idea is finally vetted by others, I see the error of my ways and the concept is modified or dropped. I don’t view this as “personal.” Some ideas are ahead of their time and others may be late, but get launched eventually. Some do not have the right personnel engaged or circumstances made execution challenging. I would rather try something and have it not be successful (“fail” is too harsh a word), then to not have tried it at all

What I am trying to say is that none of the concepts noted below were “failures.”

CDG class free registration: I wanted to get the name of the Certification Discussion Group (CDG) in front of the ProGen alumni group at Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) in January 2020. I made a certificate and sent it to the organizer and then realized I had not asked the Board for approval. After much discussion in the February meeting (SLIG is in January.), the Board agreed to the reimbursement, but asked that I bring it to the Board in advance next time.
Concept: Obtain approval prior to proceeding and certainly with financial commitments.

Online classes: I personally think that we ought to have a full array of online classes for all types of genealogical researchers–beginning to advanced. In an effort to do so I solicited two different individuals to see if they were interested in teaching online. Both initially accepted. Teacher #1 and I put together a proposal for the Board, before I engaged the Education Director (very bad form on my part). There were legitimate reservations and concerns. SGS proceeded with one, but the other declined based on some reasonable stipulations of the Board.
Concept: Engage the proper genealogical society director before you go rattling off with some new idea.

Beginning online classes (we will not call them “beginning” ever again): We tried two online classes early on that are no longer given. I think the instructors had other commitments and we were inexperienced in how to ensure their success. With very little advertising we launched two–both had enough students the first time, but one failed to pull in enough students the second.  The instructor of the other course had family issues and could not continue.
Concept: You need to identify all the team members who will need to participate to make it a success. If they are max’ed out, effectiveness is hampered. It takes a team. This includes the Board, the registrar, publicity etc.

Under its own weight: We wanted a new website starting 6 years ago or more. What we had was so difficult to modify, it drove volunteers away. We fussed with using various platforms for YEARS, but it never got off the ground. We finally went very simple, no bells and whistles. In one year, we had a new website.
Concept: Sometimes rather than doing the tippy-top best–simplest is better.

External Funding: We apply for, and regularly receive, money from the County for operations. While it is relatively small, it is a big help. The past couple of years the County has bolstered their request for Seattle GS to give evidence of reaching out to diverse ethnic groups. SGS has a tendency to be white, older and middle class and above.
Concept: We have not internalized the advantage to SGS when we reach out to diverse groups. We need to do that. To date, we only know of one instance where our desire to be more responsive to diverse audiences has resulted in a less than enthusiastic response. We are trying again. We need to keep this on the forefront of our thinking and conceptualization for our audience.

External circumstances: We applied for and received a program grant to run a Japanese Genealogical Seminar (Seattle is 17% Japanese ethnicity.) I was the lead. I really wanted to come out of the seminar with a useful booklet of how to do Japanese Genealogy in Seattle. I got sick and had to depend on others to pull off the seminar which they did with great success, but the booklet never got put together.
Concept: Sometimes pieces have to be compromised for external circumstances. This idea sits there waiting for a focused person to develop and publish it.

Thinking something through to the end: In 2015, SGS put their documents in the cloud. This was and is terrific. What we didn’t think about was the next “layer” and the next. What did the filing system look like? What were the divisions?  Just because a Director “touches” a document, doesn’t mean it should reside in their folder! Should the Directors have folders at all–or should they be topical? How should documents be labeled?
Concept: We were so excited to get some of 98 YEARS of accumulated paperwork out of our space and get it cleaned up, just a little extra thought would have perhaps alleviated some issues we face today.

These are my personal opinions and not the opinions of others.  Let me be clear, it is not for want of dedicated volunteers to get the programs up and running. We have a great team on the Board. I could go on, but you get the drift.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post:  The highlights include: I attended the writing course with Tom Jones at the Institute for Genealogical & Historical Research (5 days of intensive learning). I was able to do this because they went virtual. Many events went virtual, e.g. National Genealogical Society 2020 Family History Conference and Federation of Genealogical Societies. You can still “buy” the conferences. I just submitted an article to Swedish American Genealogist on a problem I have worked on for years and have finally solved! And, the next series of the Certification Discussion group gets started in a couple of weeks. I am very busy; and rarely even have time for a nap!