Individualistic Immigrants

As many of you know, genealogy and family history is a topic that interests me greatly. This past weekend I spent quite a bit of time trying to sort through a puzzle—though I am not yet finished. It centred on identifying the correct lineages of a family living in a remote part of western Pennsylvania. The problem is the surname was prevalent if not common—something to be expected if just one family unit has 13 kids—and that the first names given to the children were often the same across family units. Combine that with some less than extensive records, at least those available online, and you are left with a mess. The biggest hiccup was the commonality of the names, however. It’s easier to track a Quinton Smith than a John Smith.

Taking a break from that for a bit yesterday, I was reminded of this piece from the Economist about two weeks ago. It looked at the individualism of the United States and how that might track with names. The article is a fascinating read on how the commonness or lack thereof for Danish names can be used as a proxy to measure the individualism of migrants to the United States in the 19th century. It then compares that to those who remained behind and the commonness of their names.

But where are the Brendans?
But where are the Brendans?

The scatter plot above is what the piece uses to introduce the reader to the narrative. And it is what it is, a solid scatter plot with a line of best fit for a select group of rich countries. But further on in the piece, the designers opted for some interesting dot plots and bar charts to showcase the dataset.

Now I do have some issues with the methodology. Would this hold up for Irish, English, German, or Italian immigrants in the 19th century? What about non-European immigrants? Nonetheless it is a fascinating idea.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist Data Team.

My Family Shrub?

One of the main objectives of my long weekend in Boston is to research my family history. Usually when you do that kind of research you see familiar visualisation forms: trees. And in this book on a New England ancestral family, I saw trees. But the problem is history is never as neat and clean as we would prefer it to be. Or at least as I would prefer it to be. And this is the tree I discovered for my ancestor George, the guy labelled N-1.

People need to stop naming their kids the same old names. It can make my research a pain in the arse.
People need to stop naming their kids the same old names. It can make my research a pain in the arse.

Normally family trees are direct lines of descent. But here the problem is that the current research cannot clearly state who the parents are of George. He can be one of two Georges, one the son of Francis and Tabitha and the other of Timothy and Elizabeth. So instead of a single trunk, we have more of a shrub-like set of parallel branches with lots of leaves.

But what I really liked about this graphic is that, one, it appears to have been made by being typeset on a typewriter instead of some fancy design software (the book was printed in 1984). And then for the researcher like me, the author took care to remove the names of people inconsequential for this particular line of enquiry. It shows the Georges of interest, including the known cousin labelled as C-1, and their parents but omits siblings. It is a very nice touch. (And made my life easier.)

Credit for the piece goes to Henry L. Bunker.

Genetic Ancestry Results

As I stated earlier this week, I spent the first half of the week in Wisconsin research my family history. And I really will try to get to it next week. But, beyond the vital records and recorded stories, I am also intrigued by how our ethnic histories break down genetically. That gets us to today’s post from xkcd.

Genetic results
Genetic results

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Organising Western Lands

A few weeks back I looked at my ancestral family’s land grant in Wisconsin. Unlike land on the East Coast that was surveyed and organised by pioneers in different colonies using different sets of rules, after the formation of the United States, surveyed land was organised into townships that had subdivisions. In this blog post I found about the subject, there are several diagrams and maps that explain just how this system worked.

How western lands were organised
How western lands were organised

If you’re curious about how western land was organised, its worth a quick read.

Credit for the piece goes to Living History Farms.

What It Means to be Black in the US…Census

As I said yesterday, I’m up in northern Wisconsin. But sometime later today I should be starting a long drive back to Chicago. So let me continue with one more piece of genealogy- and information-related content that is especially relevant given recent events. Vox posted an article a couple of days ago that looked at the definition of black via census options. Of particular interest is the supplemental  or sidebar information: whether you could choose your own race or whether it was chosen for you by the enumerator.

A history of choices
A history of choices

Maybe it’s only a coincidence that the 1890 census records went up in flames.

Credit for the piece goes to the Vox graphics department.

Researching the Family History in Ashland, Wisconsin

I’m presently off in the northern reaches of Wisconsin, Ashland in particular, researching part of my family’s history. To aid me in understanding just how this frontier-following family moved over one century, I put together a crude map and a timeline to give me context (and jog my memory) while searching through files in the courthouse.

The movements of the Spellacy family
The movements of the Spellacy family

I am calling the map a migration map. It shows the locations where family members moved to in 1849: Sheboygan (from New Brunswick, Canada). And then how they quickly began to disperse, but slowly head north to Ashland County, before most ultimately headed to the West Coast. (My direct ancestors are that group near the bottom that move back to the in-laws original home of western Massachusetts.)

What I struggle with keeping in mind is that here we are looking at a perfectly rendered and understood map of modern Wisconsin. But in 1849, the state was but one year old and most of the towns to which this family would be going were only a decade or so old and still very much frontier towns without amenities. (Which is why I imagine the women of the family stayed in Milwaukee until the settlements in the north were, well, settled.)

To the right is a timeline. The details are not terribly important and in fact it is poorly designed. But, it was quick to make and will hopefully help me keep the names straight and the places for which I am looking top-of-mind.

Put the two together and you have an example of how I create visualisations for myself just to help me with my own work and research.

The UK’s Genetic Clusters

I always enjoy the combination of two of my interests: data visualisation and genealogy. So this BBC article that references a Nature article piqued my interest. It looks at the distribution of DNA across the United Kingdom and identifies different cluster areas. The most important finding is that the Celts, i.e. the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall are not a single genetic group. Another finding of interest to me is that the people of Devon are distinct from both Cornwall and Dorset, Devon’s bordering regions. That interest is because my New England ancestors largely hailed from Devon and Dorset.

The colours don't imply relationships, for what it's worth
The colours don’t imply relationships, for what it’s worth

Credit for the piece goes to the Nature article authors.