Biden’s English Ancestry

We all know Joe Biden as the Irish American president. And that’s no malarkey. But, go back far enough in your family tree and you may find some interesting ancestry and ethnic origins and that’s no different with Joe Biden. Keep in mind that our number of ancestors doubles every generation. You have four grandparents, and many of us met most of them. But you had eight great-grandparents. How many of those did you know? And you had 16 great-great-grandparents, you likely didn’t know any of them personally. It becomes pretty easy for an ethnic line to sneak into your ancestry.

And in Biden’s case it may well be English. Although sneaking in is probably a stretch, as this BBC article points out, because his patrilineal line, i.e. his father’s father’s father’s, &c., is likely English. Of course back in the day the Irish and the English mixing would have been unconscionable, at least as my grandmother would have described it. And so it’s easy to see how the exact origins of family lines are quietly forgotten. But that’s why we have genealogists.

The article eschews the traditional family tree graphic and instead uses only two charts. The first is a simple timeline of Biden’s direct ancestors.

Biden’s patrilineal timeline

No, it’s no family tree, but timelines are a critical tool used by genealogists because at its core, genealogy is all about time and place. And a timeline has got one of those two facets covered.

Timelines help visualise stories in chronological order. I cannot tell you the number of family trees I have seen where people who create trees casually simply copy and paste data without scrutiny. Children born well after the deaths of parents are common. Or children born to parents in their 50s or 60s—perhaps not strictly impossible, but certainly highly irregular. And so to see Biden’s ancestors plotted out chronologically is a common graphic for those who do any work in genealogy, which my regular readers know is my hobby.

That alone would make the article worth sharing. Because, I enjoyed that graphic. I probably would have created a separate line for the birthplace of each individual, but I quibble.

However, we have another graphic that’s not so great. And once again with the BBC I’m talking about axis lines.

American ethnic origins

Here we have a chart looking at US ancestry as claimed in the US censuses of 1980 and 2000. But we do not have any vertical lines making it easy for readers to accurately compare the lengths of the various bars. Twice lately I’ve posted about axis lines and the BBC. Third time’s the charm?

We can also look at using these not as bars, but as line charts as I did in this re-imagining to the right.

First, we no longer need two distinct colours, though you could argue the English line should be a highlight or call out colour given its role in the article. Instead each line receives a label at the right and only the English line crosses any other, but given their point-to-point slope, it’s not confusing like a line chart with all years between 1980 and 2000 could be.

Secondly, the slope here of the line reinforces the idea of falling population numbers. The bar chart also shows this, but through a leftward movement in bars. The bar option certainly works and there’s nothing wrong with it, but these lines offer a more intuitive concept of falling numbers.

I also added some clarification to the data definition. These lines represent the number of people who reported at least one ethnic ancestry—at the time US census respondents could enter upwards of two. For myself, as an example, I could have entered Irish and Carpatho-Rusyn. But my own small sliver of English ancestry would have been left off the list.

Ultimately, the declining numbers of responses along with some reporting on self-identification points to the disappearing concepts of “Irish American” or “English American” as many increasingly see themselves as simply White Americans. But that’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, we have Joe Biden, the Irish American president, with a small bit of English ancestry. Those interested in the genealogy, the article also includes some nice photos of baptismal records and marriage records. It’s an interesting read, though I’m hungry for more as it’s a very light duty pass.

Credit for the BBC pieces goes to the BBC graphics department.

Credit for my reimagination is mine.

Difficult Descendancy Charts

The holiday break is over as your author has burned up all his remaining time for 2020 and so now we’re back to work. And that means attempting to return to a more frequent and regular posting schedule for Coffeespoons.

I wanted to start with the death of Diego Maradona, a legendary Argentinian footballer. He died in December of a heart attack and left behind a complicated inheritance situation. To help explain the situation, the BBC created what in genealogy we call a descendancy chart. You typically use a descendancy chart to show the children, and sometimes grandchildren, of a person. (You can also attach people above the person of interest and show the person’s ancestral families.)

This is an example of a descendancy chart from my research into an unrelated family.

The descendants of Samuel Miller

You can see Samuel Miller married Sabra Clark and had at least nine children with her. And I followed one of them, another Samuel, who married Elizabeth Woodruff and they had four children. In this version, you can also see Samuel the elder’s parents and siblings.

But Diego presents a complicated situation. He was married and had two children, then divorced. That’s not terribly uncommon. But he then went on to have potentially eight children with potentially five different women. (I say potentially because some of the claims are still working their way through the courts via paternity tests.)

The above type of chart works well with one couple. In my own family, I have at least one ancestor who had potentially two husbands (the second marriage has not yet been confirmed, but she definitely had children with two different men). And when we use this chart type to look at my ancestor’s descendants, you can see it becomes tricky.

Mary Remington’s descendants

Her children’s fathers can be placed to either side and then the children flow out from that. But whereas in the first chart we could see all nine children in one glance, Mary Remington had four and we only see two in this same view.

So how do you deal with one person who has six total relationships that have offspring?

The BBC opted for a vertical chart that uses colour to link the couples. Diego and his ex-wife receive a red line, and that link moves vertically down from Diego with the two daughters shown as descendants on the right.

Diego Maradona’s descendants

Each subsequent relationship with offspring receives its own colour and continues to move vertically down the page, linking the mother on the left to the children on the right.

What I find interesting is the inconsistency within the chart, however. At the end, with the unidentified women, we have two instances of multiple children. Santiago Lara and Magali Gil, for example, descend from one stem. But note at the top how Diego’s two daughters Gianinna and Dalma each receive their own stem. Is there a reason for combining the two children from one unidentified mother into one branch?

And why the vertical format? You can see in my two examples, we are looking at a horizontal format. It works well when I am working on my desktop. The format is less useful on a mobile. I wonder if the BBC knows from their analytics that most people access their content like this via mobile phone and created a graphic that best uses that tall but narrow proportion. Because the proportions do not work well when the article is viewed on a desktop.

The vertical descendancy chart here is an intriguing solution to show descendants from multiple partners in a single mobile screen display. I am not sure how useful it would be as a new form, because I am not certain of how many times we would run into issues of children from six partners, but it could be worth exploring.

Credit for the images from my examples goes to the designers at

Credit for the BBC graphic goes to the graphics department of the BBC.

Where Is That Pesky Mason–Dixon Line?

It’s no big secret that genealogy and family history are two of my big interests and hobbies. Consequently, on rainy days I sometimes like to enjoy an episode or two of Who Do You Think You Are (I prefer the UK version, but the American one will do too) or Finding Your Roots. So I decided to watch one last night about Megan Mullally of Will & Grace fame. Long story short, her family has a connection to Philadelphia (only one block away from where I presently live) and so I paid a bit of attention to the map.

Now, DRM prevented me from taking a straight screenshot, so this is a photo of a screen—my apologies. But there is something to point out.

Mason and Dixon would be disappointed
Mason and Dixon would be disappointed

The borders are wrong. So I made a quick annotation pointing out the highlights as it relates to Pennsylvania.

So many mistakes…
So many mistakes…

Credit for the piece goes to the Who Do You Think You Are graphics department.

The annotations are mine, though as for their geographic accuracy, they are approximate. I mean after all, I’m using Photoshop to put lines on a photograph of a laptop screen.

The Roaming Life of Rev. Dr. Stephen Remington

As many of you are aware, one of my personal interests is in genealogy and my family history. And sometimes, data visualisation can help make sense of my research. This past weekend, I was looking through some of my notes on my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a man named Stephen Remington.

One of the outstanding questions is who was his wife, a woman named Eliza Ann. Her surname might be either Garretson or Caustin. So I used a timeline of Stephen’s residences to see if any his residences overlapped with similar surnames. It sort of did, but not until after the year he married her. So still more work is needed.

But then I decided with a few tweaks I could actually plot out where he lived, because he lived all over. His earliest years are a bit of a mystery, because his parents are both unknown and they both died during Stephen’s youth.

Ridgefield was home to a small cluster of Remingtons. Were they related?
Ridgefield was home to a small cluster of Remingtons. Were they related?

In his earlier years he was what was called a circuit rider. Before there were large, dense settlements of people, the rural and frontier people relied upon essentially travelling ministers. The ministers had a responsibility for a small (sometimes large) area. And early in Stephen’s life his circuit riding kept pushing him north up the Hudson River with occasional postings back to New York City.

Rhinebeck is the town demanding my closer attention for Eliza's sake.
Rhinebeck is the town demanding my closer attention for Eliza’s sake.

Eventually, however, he ended up preaching in Massachusetts, where he separately earned his medical doctorate from Harvard University. He practiced medicine on the side for years. Then in 1846 he converted from the Methodist church to the Baptist church. He wrote about it in a notable book/pamphlet: Reasons for Becoming a Baptist.

From then he became an itinerant pastor, never staying at a single congregation for more than five years or so. He travelled from New York to Philadelphia to Louisville for several months then back to New York.

Evidently his time in Louisville was short, possibly because of anti-slavery views.
Evidently his time in Louisville was short, possibly because of anti-slavery views.

He preached as a Baptist for twenty-plus more years before finally settling in Brooklyn, where he died at the age of 66. He lived all over the mid-Atlantic, especially the Hudson River Valley. And while he returned to places over the years, notably New York City, he appears to have never stayed in one place longer than maybe five years.

That was a lot of places for Stephen to hang his hat.
That was a lot of places for Stephen to hang his hat.

As for Eliza, she died in 1850. But I wonder if she may be related to a cluster of Garretsons that lived in Rhinebeck, which included the famous Reverend Freeborn Garretson, a circuit riding Methodist minister.

The daughter born in Hartford is my direct ancestor. She eventually married a man in New York City with the surname Miller. Then, after having a son (my next direct ancestor), she upped and moved to Wisconsin and married another man with the surname Miller, who was not related to the first. There is talk of a divorce, but no record of it. Could she have been a bigamist? That’s a story for another day.

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.