Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I Need Your DNA!

In the past, all that genealogists wanted from possible cousins was their family tree. But since the advent of DNA testing, made available to everyone at an affordable price thanks to companies like  FamilyTreeDNA, "23 You and Me" and Ancestry, we now want suspected cousins to hand over their DNA!

Genealogists welcome the opportunity to further explore ancestry that DNA testing gives us, and we have trouble understanding why everyone doesn’t jump at the chance to take advantage of this new and wonderful technology.

On the other hand, we all recognize the assaults on privacy that are an everyday nuisance in our modern society. So when we cold-call a possible cousin, we have to be prepared for a cold reception. At the very least we may be seen as a solicitor, or we may be suspected of scamming or perpetrating identity theft.
No Soliciting, 10 June 2007, Marcus Quigmire from Florida, USA, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Bennett Greenspan speak at a conference sponsored by the South Carolina Genealogical Society about one of his experiences asking a possible cousin to take a DNA test. He had met Alan Greenspan, at a conference. When they chanced to meet at the beginning of the event, Alan, seeing Bennett’s name tag, said “Oh, we might be related.”
At the end of the conference, Bennett caught up with Alan and asked him if he would take a DNA test to see if they were indeed related. And very politely, Alan declined.

When we brave a cold call to a possible cousin, how can we minimize the chances of having the person immediately hang up and maximize the opportunity of having a conversation? Before you can get to the point of asking someone for something, you must first give the person a reason to listen to you.

I think here is where I should tell you my qualifications to be writing this guide to persuading people to share their DNA. Before I made my first call, I decided I would pay for the test if my target would agree. You may decide to negotiate when you begin “courting” a possible relation. I started with my brother, Roy Spears, about four years ago. This took a little work as my brother wasn’t sure about the privacy of DNA testing for genealogy. But when his questions were answered, he agreed to be tested. After my success with my brother, I decided to seek DNA from my paternal first cousin, with whom I had had no contact since we were children. In this instance, I needed more time to develop a relationship before I could hope to have a chance to get a “yes” to my quest.

When my brother’s DNA results came back (I used FamilyTree DNA as my testing company), I had two matches: “Frederick Johnson” and “Asa (Carl) Atkins.” I didn’t realize until later that matches other than “Spears” (my birth surname) are a red flag.
It wasn’t until Sallie Atkins, the wife of Carl, e-mailed me that I had a big surprise. Sallie said that she had been studying the Atkins and Johnson families for over thirty years, and she had come to the conclusion that her husband and my brother were both Johnsons! We became friends and decided to look for a living Johnson from this line so we could check his DNA against my brother and her husband.

We were fortunate in that our Johnson/Atkins/Spears ancestors lived in a small town so the number of Johnsons I had to call was manageable. Actually it was the second person I called who turned out to be the one!! It took the combined efforts of Sallie and I (and two personal visits) to form a relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. But eventually he agreed to take a DNA test, and the result confirmed Sallie’s conclusion of how we were related. Both her husband and my brother (and me) are Johnsons!! 

From this auspicious beginning, Sallie and I have recruited more possible cousins to share their DNA with us in the cause of tracing family lines and seeking to solve puzzles that have challenged researchers for decades. So far we are at 7 successes out of 7 tries!

In addition to my track record on obtaining DNA tests, my second qualification is a skill I possess. I have been told by many people that within a few minutes of meeting them, they feel comfortable talking with me. I think it safe to say that this ability is paramount to gaining a person’s trust.You may wonder if this is something you have to born with, but I believe anyone can learn to put people at ease through practice. Now let’s talk about the steps to follow in a DNA-seeking scenario.

Woman Talking on the Phone, National Cancer Institute, 
July 1990, image is in the public domain.
You dial the number of a possible cousin. When the person picks up the phone, you have just a few moments to separate yourself from “nuisance” cold-callers. With a smile on your face (even though the person can’t see you, a smile affects your tone of voice and your manner in a positive way), say your name, that you are studying family history, and that the two of you may share a common ancestor. Then wait for a response. If the person seems at all interested, move to step two.

This is the point where you want to show the person that you respect his/her time. Ask if this is a good time to talk. If the person says that it isn’t a good time, ask if you might call again. But if the person signals that it is okay to keep talking, then do so! It’s important to strike while the iron is hot!!

Step three is where you establish a connection between the two of you. Here’s where you have to be well prepared and know the family line backwards and forwards that you believe the two of you share. Start by asking, “Is this your father’s name?” And go up the
ancestor chain to the great grandfather. Most people won’t know the names of their ancestors past their grandfather, but you may get lucky.

Now that you have the person’s attention, you need to establish some common ground. After all, sharing an ancestor 50-100 years ago may not mean much to a non-genealogist. Before you even make the call, consider some things you might share with the person: locality in the US, job status (working or retired), field of work, children/grandchildren. Talking about these topics can help start a relationship.

As you come to the end of your call, offer to send a family tree or a photo of a common ancestor. Ask if the person has any questions.
Sometimes people have a family story they have heard over and over and wonder if it is true. You may not know if the story is authentic, but it gives you something to look into and raises your standing with the person.

I believe that getting people to say yes to a DNA test is a lot like getting people to yes to many things in life, including coaching a little league team, attending a charity event, or agreeing to chair a church committee. In 2006, Brian Clark started a popular blog on marketing that is still going strong. Dean Rieck, a recent guest writer on Copyblogger, wrote a post called  “Six Ways to Get People to Say ‘Yes’”, where he explains compliance triggers – six things you can do to get a person to comply with your request for a DNA test.

One of the triggers Mr. Rieck discusses is “reciprocity”: if you do something for someone, the person feels more obligated to return the favor. So you start with offering to send some family information. Another trigger is “liking” – Mr. Rieck reminds us that people are more likely to comply with a request if they know and like you. That’s why you want to be patient in your  DNA-seeking. Remember, it’s hard to turn a “no” around, so don’t ask too early. Take time to build a relationship.

In conclusion, although DNA testing has changed the world of genealogy research in a dramatic way, it behooves all of us to remember that this tool doesn’t replace other research avenues (including vital records, land, census and court records.) Instead, DNA testing is one more arrow in our research quiver.
Also, in order to make use of this wonderful tool, we have to learn how to persuade those who possess the DNA we need to agree to take a test.

Categories: DNA

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Counties Have Genealogies, Too

If we look at the meaning of the word “genealogy” online, on the Merriam-Webster site, we find several definitions, including:
“an account of the origin and historical development of something”
This definition is helpful  because it makes us aware of the broader meaning of the word “genealogy” that includes more than just people. When we research the genealogy of our ancestors, we have to remember
that geographic places (rivers, streams, mountain peaks etc.) and man-made places (towns, counties) also have genealogies.

View from a bridge over the Smith River, Fieldale, Henry County, Virginia., MarmadukePercy, 24 April 2010, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Melinda Kashuba has written a very helpful book (the author is updating the material for a new edition) for genealogists, Walking With YourAncestors,
Used by permission of author 
that teaches how to use maps and geography to research the comings and goings of our forebears. We learn a very important fact in this book: counties in America (during and after colonial times) were not fixed. Rather they were fluid. Often counties divided and then divided again, forming new counties. Some counties get eliminated in this process.

What were the reasons for these changing boundaries? Kashuba gives several reasons. If you have traced ancestors during colonial times in America, you already know about land speculation. In Kashuba’s words:

New counties were carved out of sparsely populated regions for the purpose of promoting settlement because being part of an established county rather than unorganized territory was thought to be an effective selling point.” (p. 43)

Another reason for an existing county to be divided is explained by Kashuba:

Residents often promoted separating into a new county, particularly when the trip to their current county seat was especially onerous. The ideal trip from the outlying hinterland to the county seat and back would be about a day’s time. Smaller counties were often created to satisfy these complaints by residents.” (p. 43)

This desire of residents to have a county seat nearby is of great significance to genealogists. The way that residents could let their desires be known is by petition to the legislature and thus a record was created!

The Library of Virginia has an on-line, searchable database of legislative petitions.
You can find the title of a petition, the county it came from, the date it was filed and where it is located in the library. Unfortunately, you must go to the library in order to view the document on microfilm.

Facebook logo/icon introduced in April 2013, 19 April 2013, Facebook, Inc.
Wikimedia, in public domain.
Now, if you don’t live in Virginia, getting to the Library could be a problem. This is where belonging to a genealogical community is so valuable. Lincoln County GenealogicalSociety of WV has a group on Facebook, LCGS WV, where you can share information and ask questions.  Patty Butcher Tyler, a member of this group, transcribed two petitions, that she found in the Library of Virginia's legislative petitions collection, from Cabell County, WV residents, requesting a new county be formed. Both petitions, one dated 1840 and a subsequent one dated 1860, were sent to then Governor of Virginia, John Letcher (who served as governor from 1860-1864) in 1860.

Governor's House, Richmond, Va, Mathew Brady, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865, National Archives and Records AdministrationARC identifier: 524418, public domain.

These petitions are a godsend to genealogists because they can be used to place ancestors in a certain time/area. And their neighbors are also shown as signers of the petitions. Finally, we are so fortunate to have the original signatures of these petitioners. I am so lucky that my ancestor, Franklin Johnson, was one of the Cabell County, WV residents who wanted a new county.

Patty ButcherTyler first published an article, including some of the pages from the petitions, in the Lincoln Standard . Here is a page from the article showing the second petition with Franklin Johnson’s signature:
 Library of Virginia, Richmond, Legislative Petitions, Reel 32, Box 45, Folder 56 Petition of Citizens.

Now that we have seen how legislative petitions can be helpful for genealogists, let’s return to county boundary changes and see how these changes affect research. Melinda Kashuba cautions researchers:

To be efficient and successful in the research of a specific locality, you need to know what jurisdiction that locality fell under during the time your ancestor or research subject lived there. Your ancestor may not have traveled any farther than from his cabin’s porch to the well and back and spent his entire life in one place, but the territory he lived in became a county and that county became part of a state. Those county boundaries may have moved and shifted over time as new counties were added and old counties were abolished….Your ancestor may disappear from his county’s records, when in actuality the boundary shifted and suddenly he and his family were recorded in the records of a different  county.” (p. 42)

My Johnsons and their Franklin and Shelton cohort families lived near Peter’s Creek in Virginia in the 1780s to early 1800s. In order to see what county Peter’s Creek was in from the earliest colonial settlement to the 1800s, I needed a tool. AniMap is a database mapping program that “contains more than one million locations of: cities, towns, townships, courthouses, cemeteries (and geographic features) listing over 50,000 places no longer in existence.” (CD jacket of AniMap 3.0.2)

Used by permission of AniMap
When I plotted Peter’s Creek in Virginia in AniMap, here are the county changes I saw:
Charles City
Prince George

In AniMap, you plot a place and the program shows you the changing county boundaries of that place. A caveat is that minor geographic features or towns from two or three hundred years ago may not be in the AniMap database. If your feature is not in AniMap, chances are that another neighboring place will be in the database.

When you begin using AniMap, I suggest that you print out the manual (available when you install the program) to help you master the steps of “plucking” or selecting the place you want to know how the county changed over the years and “plotting” or placing that feature on the map.

An online database of geographic features is the Geographic Names information System (GNIS) at the United States Geological Survey.

USGS office, 30 July 2010, photographed by Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia, 
This database contains over two million feature names in the US and its territories. It's a great place to start searching for ancestral place names.

In this post, I have discussed the genealogy of counties in America and how important it is to know the county your ancestor lived in and to realize that the county may have changed several times over the years. In order to find an ancestor’s records, you may need to search in several counties. I have highlighted AniMap, a very helpful software program that lets you know with confidence the county your ancestor was in at what time, and GNIS, an online gazetteer.

Categories: document types, genealogy tools, genealogy groups, genealogy professional