Hey, Cousin!

As many of my long-time readers know, I count genealogy as one of my hobbies. A few weeks ago for Orthodox Easter I travelled up to the hometown of my late grandfather. There I get to see people to whom I’m related as many of us can point to ancestors from the same few villages in a small geographic cluster in the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia and Poland. In other words, we’re all cousins.

But as xkcd shows, so are we all. And that means you too, cousin.

He’s my cousin too.

Happy weekend, cuz.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Waiting for the Family Tree

I spent the past weekend in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on a brief holiday to go watch some minor league baseball. That explains the lack of posting the last few days. (Housekeeping note, this coming weekend is Orthodox Easter, so I’ll be on holiday for that as well.)

Whilst in Harrisburg I did other things besides watch baseball because minor league games are so much faster now. (Maybe more on that in another post.) So after a Sunday afternoon match, I grabbed my camera and went for a walk about town. Mostly I photographed buildings and things, but at one point I came upon a gentleman sitting reading a paper on a bench.

Except it wasn’t a person; it was a statue.

Entitled “Waiting”, the statue portrays a bespectacled man reading a newspaper with a briefcase and an upturned brimmed hat sitting neatly atop said briefcase. (I’d show you the photo, but it’s still on my camera waiting to be downloaded.)

I was curious what the man was reading. Was it relevant? Did it say something important? Or was it lorem ipsum or placeholder text?

As it turned out, the paper told the story of a founding family of Harrisburg via article headlines. But on the front page, we had a nice little family tree diagram. And that’s what makes this anecdote germane to this blog.

But what does it say?!

I cannot read the specific details, nor did I want to. The paper was angled downwards, light was fading as the sun was setting, and this was backlit enough already.

The sculpture dates from 1992, making that headline the most recent article. From that, I will probably be able to do some of my own research and create my own version of that family tree, because I could not read it and now I’m curious. But what appears to be happening is primarily the ancestors of one line of one person’s—this gentleman’s?—parents. But critiquing it further is complicated by the illegibility of the chart.

Of course I should point out that the point was probably not a legible genealogical descent chart, but rather to in a quick visual show the person in particular comes from a long line of people, presumably public servants all or most.

Credit for the piece goes to the sculptor, Seward J. Johnson Jr.

Slaveholders in the Halls of Congress

Taking a break from going through the old articles and things I’ve saved, let’s turn to a an article from the Washington Post published earlier this week. As the title indicates, the Post’s article explores slaveholders in Congress. Many of us know that the vast majority of antebellum presidents at one point or another owned slaves. (Washington and Jefferson being the two most commonly cited in recent years.) But what about the other branches of government?

The article is a fascinating read about the prevalence of slaveholders in the legislative branch. For our purposes it uses a series of bar charts and maps to illustrate its point. Now, the piece isn’t truly interactive as it’s more of the scrolling narrative, but at several points in American history the article pauses to show the number of slaveholders in office during a particular Congress. The screenshot below is from the 1807 Congress.

That year is an interesting choice, not mentioned explicitly in the article, because the United States Constitution prohibited Congress from passing limits on the slave trade prior to 1808. But in 1807 Congress passed a law that banned the slave trade from 1 January 1808, the first day legally permitted by the Constitution.

Almost half of Congress in the early years had, at one point or another, owned slaves.

Graphic-wise, we have a set of bar charts representing the percentage and then a choropleth map showing each state’s number of slaveholders in Congress. As we will see in a moment, the map here is a bit too small to work. Can you really see Delaware, Rhode Island, and (to a lesser extent) New Jersey? Additionally, because of the continuous gradient it can be difficult to distinguish just how many slaveholders were present in each state. I wonder if a series of bins would have been more effective.

The decision to use actual numbers intrigues me as well. Ohio, for example, has few slaveholders in Congress based upon the map. But as a newly organised state, Ohio had only two senators and one congressman. That’s a small actual, but 33% of its congressional delegation.

Overall though, the general pervasiveness of slaveholders warrants the use of a map to show geographic distribution was not limited to just the south.

Later on we have what I think is the best graphic of the article, a box map showing each state’s slaveholders over time.

How the trends changed over time over geography.

Within each state we can see the general trend, including the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The use of a light background allows white to represent pre-statehood periods for each state. And of course some states, notably Alaska and Hawaii, joined the United States well after this period.

But I also want to address one potential issue with the methodology of the article. One that it does briefly address, albeit tangentially. This data set looks at all people who at one point or another in their life held slaves. First, contextually, in the early years of the republic slavery was not uncommon throughout the world. Though by the aforementioned year of 1807 the institution appeared on its way out in the West. Sadly the cotton gin revolutionised the South’s cotton industry and reinvigorated the economic impetus for slavery. There after slavery boomed. The banning of the slave trade shortly thereafter introduced scarcity into the slave market and then the South’s “peculiar institution” truly took root. That cotton boom may well explain how the initial decline in the prevalence of slaveholders in the first few Congresses reversed itself and then held steady through the early decades of the 19th century.

And that initial decline before a hardening of support for slavery is what I want to address. The data here looks only at people who at one point in their life held slaves. It’s not an accurate representation of current slaveholders in Congress at the time they served. It’s a subtle but important distinction. The most obvious result of this is how after the 1860s the graphics show members of Congress as slaveholders when this was not the case. They had in the past held slaves.

That is not to say that some of those members were reluctant and, in all likelihood, would have preferred to have kept their slaves. And therefore those numbers are important to understand. But it undermines the count of people who eventually came to realise the error of their ways. The article addresses this briefly, recounting several anecdotes of people who later in life became abolitionists. I wonder though whether these people should count in this graphic as—so far as we can tell—their personal views changed so substantially to be hardened against slavery.

I would be very curious to see these charts remade with a data set that accounts for contemporary ownership of slaves represented in Congress.

Regardless of the methodology issue, this is still a fascinating and important read.

Credit for the piece goes to Adrian Blanco, Leo Dominguez, and Julie Zuazmer Weil.

Updated DNA Ethnicity Estimates

Earlier this year I posted a short piece that compared my DNA ethnicity estimates provided by a few different companies to each other. Ethnicity estimates are great cocktail party conversations, but not terribly useful to people doing serious genealogy research. They are highly dependent upon the available data from reference populations.

To put it another way, if nobody in a certain ethnic group has tested with a company, there’s no real way for that company to place your results within that group. In the United States, Native Americans are known for their reluctance to participate and, last I heard, they are under-represented in ethnicity estimates. Fortunately for me, Western European population groups are fairly well tested.

But these reference populations are constantly being updated and new analysis being performed to try and sort people into ever more distinct genetic communities. (Although generally speaking the utility of these tests only goes back a handful of generations.)

Last night, when working on a different post, I received an email saying Ancestry.com had updated their analysis of my DNA. So naturally I wanted to compare this most recent update to last September’s.

Still mostly Irish

Sometimes when you look at data and create data visualisation pieces, the story is that there is very little change. And that’s my story. The actual number for my Irish estimate remained the same: 63%. I saw a slight change to my Scottish and Slavic numbers, but nothing drastic. My trace results changed, switching from 2% from the Balkans to 2% from Sweden and Denmark. But you need to take trace results with a pretty big grain of salt, unless they are of a different continent. Broadly speaking, we can be fairly certain about results at a continental level, but differences between, say, French and Germans are much harder to distinguish.

The Scottish part still fascinates me, because as far back as I’ve gone, I have not found an identifiable Scottish ancestor. A great-great-grandfather lived for several years in Edinburgh, but he was the son of two Ireland-born Irish parents. I also know that this Scottish part of me must come from my paternal lines as my mother has almost no Scottish DNA and she would need to have some if I were to have had inherited it from her.

Now for about half of my paternal Irish ancestors, I know at least the counties from which they came. My initial thought, and still best guess, is that the Scottish is actually Scotch–Irish from what is today Northern Ireland. But I am unaware of any ancestor, except perhaps one, who came from or has origins in Northern Ireland.

The other thing that fascinated me is that despite the additional data and analysis the ranges, or degree of uncertainty in another way of looking at it, increased in most of the ethnicities. You can see the light purple rectangles are actually almost all larger this year compared to last. I can only wonder if this time next year I’ll see any narrowing of those ranges.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Update on Tiffany

Last month on another Friday I shared some graphics from a video by CCP Grey that looked at the origin and history of the name Tiffany. It’s a great video and I highly recommend it. But last week he published…an addendum I guess you could call it.

The piece takes a look at a research path he took for the video. It happened to involve some history and genealogy, two things I personally enjoy, and found it to be a fascinating insight into his research process.

All the paths don’t lead to Rome

The screenshot above hints at the idea that sometimes work is not linear and, especially when I’m doing genealogy work, there are often tangents and dead ends. In other words, to an extent, I can relate.

Happy Friday, all.

Credit for the piece goes to CCP Grey.

Tiffany

Happy Friday, all. We made it through another week of Covid, vaccinations, asteroids, and all that pleasant stuff. So let’s end with an upbeat note.

Over on YouTube there’s a channel I have long enjoyed, CCP Grey, who creates videos about, well lots of things, but sometimes really interesting historical, geographical, and political topics.

This week he released a video about Tiffany. As in the name Tiffany.

In addition to some great 80s aesthetics, the video touches on a couple of things that particularly interest me.

You see names are an important part of genealogical research. After all, almost all of us have names. (Some infants died without names.) Now in my family, on both my mother’s and father’s side I have a lot of Johns. In fact, I broke a line of five consecutive John Barrys. But occasionally a family will have a rarer or more uncommon name that allows you to trace that individual and therefore his or her family through time and space/place.

Grey tracks the history of the name Tiffany from its possible origin to some reasons for its popularity in the 1980s. And that includes some great graphics like this chart tracking the number of children with the name.

Thinking I need breakfast…

In the screenshot above you can see one thought he has on why the name took off in the latter half of the 20th century after languishing for centuries.

But he also examined the family history of one Tiffany and how that became important in the cultural zeitgeist. And to do so he used a family tree.

Family trees, with so many deaths in infancy

It’s a nine-minute long video and well worth your time.

I think what’s interesting to consider, however, is how this story could be told for many if not most names. There’s a reason they exist and how, by pure happenstance, they survive and get passed down family lines.

Though I have to say I did a quick search in my family tree and I have not a single Tiffany.

Credit for the piece goes to CCP Grey.

Biden’s English Ancestry Revisited

Last week I posted about an article in the BBC on the English ancestry of American president Joe Biden. And these types of article are a bit pro forma, famous person has an article about their personal ancestry with a family tree attached. Interestingly, this article did not, just the timeline I mentioned and a graphic as part of an aside on the declining self-identification as English-American.

And that, normally is it. Perhaps the article comes out with a few revisions upon the famous person’s marriage, birth of children, and more rarely death, but that is it. Yesterday, however, the BBC posted a follow-up article about an English family claiming kinship with Joe Biden. This article, however, included a family tree of sorts.

With some interesting spacing here…

This isn’t a family tree in the traditional sense, I would argue it’s the sort of chart genealogists would use to highlight two parties’ relationship to their most recent common ancestor (MCRA). But this chart does something odd, it spaces out the generations inconsistently and so Joe Biden appears at the bottom, aligned with the grandchildren of Paul Harris, the man at the centre of the story.

If you compare the height/length of the lines linking the different generations you can see the lines on Biden’s side of the graphic are very long compared to those on the Harris’ side. This isn’t technically incorrect, but it muddies the water when it comes to understanding the generational differences. So I revisited the design below.

Now with more even spacing…

Here I dropped the photographs because, primarily, I don’t have access to them. But they also eat up valuable real estate and aren’t necessary to communicate the relationships. I kept the same distance between generations, which does a better job showing the relationship between Joe Biden and Paul Harris, who appear to be actual fifth cousins. Joe is clearly at a different level than that of Paul’s grandchildren.

I added some context with labelling the generational relationship. At the top we have William and James Biden, assuming they are brothers, listed as siblings. The next level down are first cousins, then second, &c. Beyond Paul, however, we have two additional generations that are removed from the same relationship level. This is where the confusing “once-removed” or “twice-removed” comes into play. One way to think of it is as the number of steps you need to take from, say, Paul’s grandchildren, to get to a common generational level. In their case two levels, hence the grandchildren are fifth cousins to Joe Biden, twice removed.

These types of charts are great to show narrow relationships. Because, if we assume that up until recently each of the generations depicted above had four or five children, that tree would be unwieldy at best to show the relationship between Paul’s family and Joe Biden. If you ever find yourself working on your family ancestry or history and need to show someone how you are related, this type of chart is a great tool.

Credit for the original goes to the BBC graphics department

Credit for my remake is mine.

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.

Kiss Me, I’m Irish

Or just shake my hand, because today marks the second St. Patrick’s Day spent in isolation. I am lucky, of course, because two years ago I spent the holiday in Dublin. One of those bucket list kind of things. There I ran into a(n American) friend who was coincidentally in town. Then the next day I took the train to Cork to visit another friend. If you don’t count weddings, I think that was the last big trip I took.

Two years hence, I am here in my flat alone on a holiday meant to be spent with family and friends. But in the last year, I made significant progress on my Irish genealogy. For part of that progress I took two additional DNA tests. So this St. Patrick’s Day seems like a good time to reflect on those tests.

For those that don’t know, I do a lot of genealogy work as a hobby. Primarily I focus on paper records, but DNA is an important piece of the puzzle. In a sense, it is the only record that cannot lie. It will reveal your biological connections to family that may have been otherwise lost. And it cannot be faked.

But that’s only true for your genetic matches. Those are the real power of taking a DNA test. I would bet, however, that most people initially take the tests for the ethnicity estimates. On a day like today, how Irish are you? How Irish am I?

That’s a lot of green.

Not surprisingly, I’m pretty Irish.

Of course, if you look at me, those Irish values do not quite equal each other. So what’s the deal? After all, the underlying DNA does not change from spit tube to cheek swab.

The first thing to know is that in one sense, ethnicity is, like so many things, a social construct. Super broadly, every individual is unique—except twins. Of course humans have spread across the globe and in that spread, certain regions have evolved incredibly slight differences between the populations. In addition to those genetic differences, the populations created civilisations and cultures. An ethnicity, in a sense, is a group of people who share that culture, civilisation, and genetic similarities vis-a-vis genetic differences across the world.

Importantly, within those groups, we still have differences. The Irish, for example, are known for freckles and red hair. But not all Irish have those traits. Instead, again super broadly, we say that for a group of people, a certain percentage will share a certain set of features. Consequently, within an ethnic group, you will still have variations and outliers. In some cases because generations ago a traveller from a different group entered the gene pool for some reason or another. And while the offspring might identify entirely with their new civilisation and culture, their genes don’t lie and a DNA test would reveal their traits from their ancestor’s foreign gene pool.

The second point to make is that Ireland is a fairly modern creation. Ireland did not exist as a sovereign state until 1922. Before then, the idea of Ireland existed. The country, however, did not. A better example would be German or Italian. Neither Germany nor Italy existed until the 1870s and 1860s, respectively. If you have “German” ancestors who arrived in Philadelphia in 1848, you don’t have German ancestors. You have ancestors from one of the various principalities or bishoprics comprising the German Confederation. Italy had the Venetian Republic, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and many others. Being Irish, German, or Italian is thus a modern construct.

The third point is that identifying anyone as any of these ethnic groups requires a baseline for a comparison. To do that, you need a reference population in the area you are going to define as Ireland, Germany, or Italy. But humans have migrated throughout history. Ireland was conquered by the English. Germans…well, let’s just say Germans have a history with conquering parts of Europe. And so you can see exchanges of genetic information among populations pretty easily. And over time, those genetic populations evolve.

Take those three points and add them together in admixture test and your results are really only good back to about 500 years. And even then, you may find yourself belonging to something incredibly vague and all-encompassing because, especially as with France and Germany, there’s been too much mixture to get so granular as to fit ourselves within the borders of modern political states.

In the above results, you can see my “Irishness” varies from 63% to 75%. Though, as far as I know 21/32 (66%) of my 3xgreat-grandparents arrived from Ireland. That’s why I say I’m 2/3 Irish. But, genetically, I may be more or less because those 21 might have English or Scottish ancestors. Ancestry says I may be 18% Scottish, but whilst I have ancestors who lived in Scotland, I’m not aware of any ancestors born and raised for multiple generations in Scotland.

And then that’s just how Ancestry defines it. Compare that to my results from My Heritage. Because of the aforementioned difficulty in separating out certain population groups, they lump the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh together. Add my Ancestry Irish and Scottish together and I have 81%, not far from My Heritage’s 85% estimate. Then look at my results from Family Tree. They estimate me as 75% Irish, but add in the 10% Scandinavia and I’m up to 85%.

That brings me to my last point about DNA tests. It’s probably fair to say that I’m something like 80–85% genetically from the British Isles/North Sea region. What about the other 15–20%?

You will often hear you receive half your DNA from each of your parents. And they get half from each of theirs and so on and so forth. I’ve had conversations with folks who take that to mean they get 25% from each grandparent and 12.5% from each great-grandparent et cetera. But that’s not quite true.

You do receive 50% of your DNA from your father and the other 50% from your mother. But that 50%, well that’s a sort of random sample from the share your parents received from their parents.

My maternal grandfather was 100% Carpatho-Rusyn. For generations, his ancestors lived, reproduced, and died in the Carpathian Mountains. If we received exactly half from each previous generation, I should expect 25% of my DNA from my grandfather. But Ancestry, which has the best representation of this small ethnic group, says it’s 17% (though they give it as a range of being between 2 and 27%). In other words, I’m missing seven percentage points.

And so if you take a DNA test and you know you have a great-great grandparents of Irish descent, you may only see a small fraction in your results. If your connection to Ireland (or anywhere else) is even further back, the result becomes smaller still. In fact, beyond 5–7 generations back, you may not even inherit any genetic material from a specific ancestor in your family tree.

But ultimately, for today, as I wrote in one of my very first posts here on Coffeespoons, back in 2010, on St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all at least a little bit Irish.

Hopefully next year we’ll be able to celebrate in person.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Armistice Day

Yesterday was Armistice Day, a bank holiday hence the lack of posting. So I spent a few hours yesterday looking at my ancestors to see who participated in World War I. It turned out that on my paternal side, my one great-grandfather was too old and the other was both the right age and signed up for the draft, but was not selected.

And so the only two that served were my maternal great-grandfathers. One served a few months in the naval reserve towards the end of the war. My other great-grandfather served for a year, a good chunk of it in France. This I largely knew from my great aunt, who had told us stories about how he had told her about blowing up bridges they had just built to prevent Germans from capturing them. And then how after the war he served as military police, arresting drunk American soldiers in France. But I had never realised some of the documents I had collected told more of the skeletal structure like units and ranks. Consequently, I decided to make this graphic.

All the timelines
All the timelines

Credit for the piece goes to me.