Articles about genealogy.

Twiss DNA

I now know a small chunk of one of the pairs of my 11th chromosome comes to me from my great great great great great grandfather, Peter Twiss. He was born in 1718 in Massachusetts.

I recently had my DNA tested in the hopes of connecting with previously unknown relatives. There were two goals in this. It’s always nice to meet new people who have similar interests. But, having DNA validation of a relationship documented by paper is a nice confirmation that the paper is correct.

The challenge is that while DNA can tell you that you are related to someone, it doesn’t tell you how you are related. You need to dig through the trees yourself and find out where they overlap. If your tree isn’t deep enough or broad enough then finding that overlap may be impossible.

That’s been the problem for DNA matches on my mom’s side. We can trace our trees to Sicily but I don’t yet have enough breadth to the tree to find a connection. For my father’s side there’s more hope. Most of his ancestors have been in America for at least 200 years and some are documented back to the beginning of the 1600’s. Though I don’t have as much breadth to the tree as I’d like I do have some.

As it turns out I had just enough to find my match with someone. Our tree overlapped at one point, a woman named Elizabeth Twiss who married John Giles. Elizabeth Twiss was the sister of a Peter Twiss (b. 1718) who was my fifth generation great grandfather.

I contacted the match and she agreed that this was the likely connection. This makes us 7th cousins, a relationship much more distant than the 4th cousin predicted by the matching software. The odds of us having such a large amount of common DNA from such distant ancestors is not impossible though the odds are against it.

For me it confirmed a section of my tree where the paper trail was particularly thin. If I only ever confirm one connection via DNA this was an incredibly useful one to validate.

I now know that if I match someone else on that particular segment of chromosome 11 that I either match to someone on that line between me and Peter Twiss or the person is a match on my mom’s side but odds are surnames and other tools will show which fairly quickly.

I definitely need to broaden my tree and document sibling lines more completely. The odds of finding a common ancestor depend on having enough sibling info. I’ve always entered sibling info when I had it but now I need to go document the children of those siblings and follow the lines forward for a few generations to create enough “hooks” for the matches to catch.

It’s A Small World

It’s only been a few years since I learned that I had any ancestry in Maine. My paternal grandmother was born there but I had always incorrectly assumed she was born in Massachusetts since that’s where she was when I came on the scene. That turned out to be a bad assumption as both her parents have fairly deep Maine roots for as far as I’ve been able to trace them. I don’t know how any of them got into Maine, whether it was coming south from Canada or heading north from elsewhere in New England.

My paternal grandmother’s mother was named Helen Knight (or sometimes Fannie night; I’ve never been able to determine which was the first and which was the middle name). I learned who she was in mid-2009. Lauri mentioned that one of her mother’s best friends was named Knight and wouldn’t it be funny if I was related to them.

It turns out she was right. It I am related to them! The husband of Lauri’s mother’s best friend is my second cousin once removed. I just nailed down the connection last night. My cousin’s grandfather, Arvander Knight, is my great grandmother’s brother. Their parents were William Knight and Elizabeth Warren.

What makes this even stranger is that I was almost related to them on two lines: Knight and Marson. Arvander seemed to have bad luck with wives. He married three times. My cousin is descended from the second wife, Annie McCloud. However, Arvander’s first wife, a woman named Rose Alice Marson was the brother of John Franklin Marson. John is significant here because he married Helen Knight and the pair of them are my great grandparents.

Arvander was physically separate from Annie in both the 1900 and 1920 census (I haven’t found him in the 1910 census). By 1930 he’s in California married to his third wife. It was only by working with some information provided by my cousin’s wife that allowed me to connect Annie and Arvander together through their children’s movements. Once I had that connection everything else fell into place. We called the newly found but already known cousins and confirmed some data with them.

I found a cousin I’d met a year ago and had heard of for two years before that. If it hadn’t been for the connection between them and Lauri’s mother I’d have never known they were there to look for.

Talk about a small world!

Reunion 10.0.2 Offers Partial Map Fix

An update to Reunion 10 was released today and one of the fixes allows manual placement of the map pin when geocoding locations. This is a welcome change as the automatic geocoding doesn’t always provide the right choices (particularly when using historical place names). Unfortunately, if the geocoder doesn’t come up with any choices, we don’t get any option for map pin placement. So, while it’s better, it still makes it impossible to fully utilize the feature without jumping through hoops.

They also claim stability improvements though since the release of 10.0.1 I haven’t had the program crash on me (10.0.0 crashed early and often).

Hopefully another update will address this last outstanding map issue.

The Patrick Connolly Mysteries

A couple of years ago I found out that one of my great great grandfathers was from Ireland. That was essentially all I knew about him. His name was Patrick Connolly and the earlier mention I find of him is a marriage record in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1840’s. I connected to him through the census and marriage records of his daughter, Sarah, my great grandmother.

Though I had Patrick and his family in three mid-19th century census takings, he then vanished from my sights. There were three records that could have been for him, a marriage in 1879 (his first wife died fairly young) and a 1900 census and 1903 death record. Those three records were for the same person but were they for my Patrick?

The 1900 census said he was a naturalized citizen so I went in search of his naturalization records. There was one that seemed probable but while it gave me a firm birthdate, none of the other records give an exact birth date. But it also said he was from the county of Dublin. Interesting but not conclusively linked to either set of Patrick records.

I finally hit on the idea of contacting the Salem Public Library and the kind librarians there did a search for an obituary. Though very brief that obituary was enough to connect the early and late records together. The census, marriage and death records were for one Patrick Connolly and that was my great great grandfather!

I still have nothing to confirm the naturalization record is for him but the circumstantial evidence seems strong. I’m hoping I can use the parent names listed on his death certificate and the birth place and date listed in the naturalization to connect them together. That will depend on finding a record of his birth in Dublin County. I’ve no idea what my odds are for that but that is where the mystery will take me next (virtually if not physically).

A Quick Look At Reunion 10

Just as I had lost hope that Reunion 9 would ever be updated, version 10 was released. Given that I just recently did a comparison of Reunion 9 to RootsMagic 5, I figured I ought to do a short note on how Reunion 10 compares.

It’s certainly prettier than Reunion 9. Instead of a main family card window with a lot of auxiliary windows flowing around it, there is one window with two sidebars. This makes it a little easier to find things. Navigating around the tree is easier and this feels generally improved to the way things were before.

One of my biggest hopes was the program would be less modal when editing. This is a bit true but you can still only edit one individual at a time. This continues to be a major weakness in most of the desktop genealogy programs I have used. Unfortunately, to make matters worse, Reunion 10 forgoes version 9’s “save” and “cancel” buttons with a single “done” button. This wouldn’t be a problem on its own except that it doesn’t implement the multilevel undo that needs to exist when it is otherwise impossible to cancel an edit. Editing has now become significantly more dangerous in Reunion 10 and this is a major step backwards in data safety.

One of the major features missing in Reunion 9 was mapping and version 10 adds this in. You can geotag using a name look up or by entering coordinates directly. Unfortunately, you can’t geocode by selecting a location on the map directly making the feature much less useful than it would have been. It’s a step in the right direction but it’s not complete enough to be particularly useful. On the plus side, place management has become much easier with the ability to drag and drop to merge places.

Source management hasn’t changed. The application still lacks any concept of master source or repository (the latter is a major oversight). It has the same, very flexible, template system that version 9 has and while it is quite flexible, there isn’t much help with standard template formats.

Stability has taken a large step backwards. Reunion 9 was very stable and I can’t recall it ever crashing on me. Reunion 10 crashed three times in the first hour of usage.

Reunion continues to be the most capable of the Mac genealogy applications but it’s glacial update rate and its rigid conformance to one-at-a-time editing make it a tough recommendation. There really isn’t anything on the Mac that is as user-friendly or as capable but it continues to force the user into an editing model that feels like a straight jacket. While Reunion 10 is a major upgrade over Reunion 9, it doesn’t feel big enough given the time between updates. It feels rushed out the door and given how long they’ve had to work on it that doesn’t inspire confidence.

If it sounds like I have a love/hate relationship with it, that’s certainly true. It’s pretty good and it could be utterly fantastic but the few things it gets wrong continue to drive me crazy.

Comparing RootsMagic to Reunion

It seems kind of odd to compare Windows and Mac genealogy apps. But, these two apps seem to be the best or at least among the most used for their respective platforms.

I’ve been using Reunion 9 since 2009. There is much to like about it. It’s powerful and capable. I don’t think there would be much argument that it is the most powerful of the Mac genealogy applications. While that isn’t saying much by itself since the state of Mac genealogy apps is rather woeful, Reunion is generally quite good.

It allows you to define custom events, create source templates, link to media, create multiple kinds of notes, generate many charts and reports, autocompletes fields and even gives you control over what gedcom tags are associated with each event type.

There’s an awful lot that Reunion gets right. But, what does it get wrong?

It has no mapping functionality. There is no way to visually see how events and people relate geographically within the program.

The source template functionality is useful but isn’t very portable. If you export your sources as “structured” (with each source field as a separate gedcom field) the odds are good that no other program will import most of that information. If you export it as “flat” (with all the fields concatenated together) it doesn’t format then nicely and makes it hard to read and parse.

Reunion lacks the idea of concept of a master source or repository so it’s impossible to really organize sources. On the positive side, it make the citation process very easy. You can drag from a list, select a recent citation from a drop-down or enter a number. It’s easy to get a list of all the events that use the citation.

Most windows in Reunion aren’t modal with the major exception of the data entry for a person. Because of this you can’t have two or more people open at the same time. If you are updating a family of five for a census, it would be nice to open all five and do the data entry together. Reunion forces this to be a linear process: open person 1, edit, cite, close, open person 2, edit, cite, close, and so on.

I’ve been looking for a good online home to share my research, both with family and other interested parties. The gedcom files that Reunion produces are generally not imported without loss of data, particularly with source and note information.

Finally, Reunion hasn’t had a major update in the three years I’ve been using it. In one sense that’s a tribute. It just works. But, nothing new has come along and they’ve done nothing to address any shortcomings. They say they are working on Reunion 10 but won’t offer any insight into when it will be available or what it might contain.

Despite those problems, it generally outclasses the other major Mac app, MacFamilyTree. MFT is slicker from a looks perspective but has a very clumsy UI and drops a lot of information on gedcom imports.

Because of those limitations I took a look at RootsMagic 5. I didn’t really want to run a Windows app, but I’ll use the best tool for the job. I know a lot of people think highly of RootsMagic.

Compared to Reunion, the RootsMagic UI fees less polished (and Reunion could stand a fair bit of polishing itself). It has a late ’90’s Windows feel to it. To be fair, this is coming from a Mac biased person but I tried to be as objective as I can.

RootsMagic suffers from the same modality problem as Reunion. I can only edit one person at a time. Worse, when editing a person I can’t open any other windows (save for a few that are opened from the editing dialog itself and they are themselves modal). Sigh. One big hope was dashed.

On the positive side, RootsMagic can check (some) of your place names for correctness and you can also enter place details. It’s likely that no other app will understand the exported place details but that’s more a statement about gedcom interoperability than either RootsMagic or Reunion.

RootsMagic can also geocode place names and show them on a map. You can show all the events at a place or all the places for a person. But, the UI is fairly ugly. There is also no easy way to look for migration paths over time.

RootsMagic place checking is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to know you misspelled a county name or that this county didn’t exist in 1847. But, if you are geocoding from the place list as I am having done an import from Reunion then it offers up the standard, modern place name. You have to pay attention rather than blindly accept this if you want to preserve your historically accurate place names (“Province of Massachusetts Bay” vs. “Massachusetts, United States”). Even so, it’s a feature that shows a great deal of promise and hopefully they will expand upon it in the future.

RootsMagic claims that citations are a major strength and they seem to be. They provide templates following the Evidence Explaned format and allow you to specify whether a citation is primary or secondary and the quality of the citation. Great stuff!

Unfortunately once you choose a template you can’t change it without reentering a new citation and then having to re-cite wherever it was used. Reunion gets that right even though their template system isn’t as useful out of the box. This means that I am stuck with badly formatted sources unless I go back and re-cite everything and that’s a challenge for a database with 800 people in it. It’s a major disincentive to switch.

RootsMagic imported the media links from Reunion and allowed me to specify a new directory for the images and in a few moments all my images were re-linked! This was unexpected and very nice! I know Reunion can do a similar thing because I moved my images to a new disk and it was very easy to relink them though I’ve never had reason to do an import and see if the links were preserved.

One of my problems with Reunion’s gedcom exports is that event comments are generally not imported by other apps. RootsMagic did import them but as event notes. It would be possible to move them manually into RootsMagic event description field which most other apps do seem to import. That would be a nice thing though a bit tedious to accomplish since I’ve used comments extensively in Reunion.

RootsMagic has extensive reports and charts but many things that need to be active parts of the UI and buried in reports. Getting a list of what events use a citation can only be done through a report and not through an active UI element that would let me navigate through them and make changes. That’s a bit clunky at best.

I’m at a bit of an impasse. RootsMagic does some things that Reunion doesn’t. Its gedcom exports seem (I haven’t tested exhaustively by any means) to be somewhat more interoperable than Reunion’s. But, it’s UI is a fairly big step back from Reunion’s thanks to being more modal. It’s source management is impressive but it gives you no help on migrating to it.

To best utilize RootsMagic I would have to spend days, if not weeks, fixing citations and converting notes to descriptions. The only incentive I have for doing that is that online sites seem to consume RootsMagic gedcoms better than Reunion gedcoms. I’m not yet certain that it is worth the effort. The problem is the longer I wait the worse the problem becomes as my Reunion database grows.

Rebecca Nurse Homestead

Photos from the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers. Rebecca, my 8th great grandmother, was one of the 19 innocent people who were victims of the Salem Witch Hysteria.


Photos from the Old Burying Ground and Jason Russell House in Arlington. One of my ancestors, George Southwick, was killed at the Jason Russell House during the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

A Maine Mystery

In August 2009 I was in Maine with Lauri. We were visiting her family. I took the opportunity to visit the Maine Archives to see if I could find some info on my great grandfather, John F. Marson. I didn’t know much about him. From the census, I knew he was born in 1854 in Pittston, Maine. In 1860 and 1870 he’s still in Pittston but in 1880 he’s in Phillips. In 1920, he’s in Avon, in 1910 he’s in Strong and then in 1920 and 1930 he was back in Phillips. That was the last record I had for him. I didn’t know when or where he died. Then I found a grave transcription at NEHGS for a John F. Marson at Sampson Cemetery in Phillips. That seemed like it could be him.

At the archives I managed to find his death record that said he died on September 5, 1941 in Phillips. This matched what the grave transcription record said so it seemed worthwhile to see if we could find this cemetery.

The only catch was the directions. I had no idea when they had been written so how much had the roads in the area changed? Doing a web search for Sampson Cemetery didn’t turn anything up. But, the directions seemed clear so off we went. We drove back and forth on the main road through Salem, Maine which was supposed to lead to this cemetery without finding it. We spoke to some people, one of whom had been a cemetery caretaker for the area decades ago. He didn’t recall a Sampson Cemetery but said that there was a place that matched what we described and gave us some directions.

We still didn’t find it and gave up and got lunch. During lunch, I pulled out my iphone and started googling. Had I though of those searches before, I’d have saved a bunch of time. John Marson’s grave was listed on A Few Cemeteries in Maine and this showed that Sampson Cemetery was actually Sand Hill Cemetery and gave better directions.

We ended up going back a couple of days later and found the grave. If I’d any doubt that we found the right John Marson it was eliminated when we saw the graves of Verne and Ola Huntingdon nearby. I have photos from the 1930’s of my father’s family at Verne and Ola Huntington’s place including photos of John Marson there. I’m not sure what the connection between the families was but it was clear this was the right John Marson.

Now comes the mystery. John Marson’s grave was off by itself with a fairly large gap between it and other graves on the same row. His grave had flowers that looked fairly recent. The mystery is who left them. It looks like John Marson and my great grandmother Helen split up at some point after 1891 though I don’t know exactly when. Though I know Marson’s whereabouts from the census, I’ve no indication he married again. His grave is solitary with no spouse or children nearby. So far as I know, my grandmother was his only child. Who left the flowers?

A Year of Genealogy Research

Just about a year ago I began some research into my family tree. I’d been wanting to do it for some time but didn’t know where to begin. Then in February 2009 my aunt passed away. She was the last remaining sibling to my father. When I read her obituary I learned things about the family I didn’t know. This provided the catalyst to begin though it took a month before my schedule would permit any attempts.

I decided to take advantage of a 14 day free trial at ancestry.com. I didn’t expect to find much. I didn’t know anything at all about my great grandparents and though I had birth and death dates for my maternal grandparents I only had the names of my paternal grandparents. It wasn’t much to go on.

To my surprise, I got an “ancestry hint” on my paternal grandfather. This indicated that there were two “historical records” that could refer to him. When I looked at them I found they were from the 1900 and 1910 census. I had no idea how much data was in the census. Neither was in the part of Massachusetts I had expected. The 1910 census was in Phillipston, not too far from where I had been expecting but the 1900 census from from Peabody.

I examined both of these documents and found that they could refer to my grandfather. How many people named Augustus Thomas could there be in early 20th century Massachusetts? His age on these census forms seemed plausible based on my father’s birth year. But there wasn’t a way to be sure because of the lack of other knowledge. Still, it felt right. There were no other matching census records coming up.

The most interesting moment for me was when I realized that since he was still living with his parents (being 13 in 1900 and 23 in 1910) that they, too, were listed on the form. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read “Frederick” and “Sarah L.” and saw them listed as “head” and “wife” with Augustus listed as “son.” There was a good chance that these were my great grandparents.

Ancestry then found a draft registration that had Augustus’ birth date and this matched up with the census records I found. I also found him in the 1930 census in the town of Petersham married to my grandmother and with my father and some of his siblings. This made sense as I knew my father had been born in Petersham. His age also matched up with the earlier census records. The odds seemed to be going up that I had located my great grandparents but it would be a while before I was certain.

That night I began following these hints that ancestry was showing me and before long I was back the 1700’s and much of the activity was centered around Salem. I began to wonder if my family might have some connection to the witch trials though I never believed it might really be true.

As it turns out, that idle musing was to get a kicked up a notch. One of the women that ancestry showed me as a direct ancestor was named Rebecca Nurse (born Towne). She was hanged in the hysteria even though she was 72 and a woman of known good character.

In the course of four to five hours I had covered over 300 years of history and found myself in 17th century Salem Village. To say it was surreal would be an understatement. I had never felt much connection with my family’s past because I was never exposed to it. My father’s family was from Massachusetts. My mother’s family was from Sicily. I was born and raised in Maryland. There wasn’t much family connection beyond my first cousins on my mother’s side. We had occasionally visited first cousin’s on my father’s side but that was a rare occurrence. Suddenly, I had a connection that went back to colonial America!

The only question was whether that connection was real.

The next day I went back to critically examine the data and found I had been far too trusting of ancestry hints that connected me with other trees. Much of the data was inconsistent or even impossible. I lopped off the tree at my great grandparents and started again. I also picked up a book on genealogy and began to educate myself on the process.

I reconstructed the tree on ancestry and again found myself with Rebecca and this time the data seemed believable. The only problem was that most of this lacked sources so I still didn’t know if it was real.

I next found the New England Historic and Genealogical Society and joined. I was hoping their databases would yield much of the source information I lacked. I wasn’t disappointed. Though their web interface was clunky and their image format non-standard, I was able to slowly work my way back.

I also contacted the Athol Public Library in search of the obituaries of my grandparents. The librarian there was incredibly helpful in getting me this data and my grandfather’s obituary confirmed that the census data was for him. I now had verified my starting point ensuring that I wasn’t heading down the wrong path.

Over the course a year, I’ve gone myself as far as their three Massachusetts vital records databases can take me. It hasn’t quite taken me back to Rebecca but it’s still back fairly far. On the line that ancestry says leads to Rebecca I get to a man named Peter Twiss. He was born in 1782 in Danvers. His father was also Peter Twiss (though it may have been Twist). His mother’s maiden name was Sarah Twiss so it appears that we had a Twiss/Twiss marriage. Unfortunately that’s where the database strands me. Peter’s father, also named Peter doesn’t have a clear lineage in this database. I’m hoping a trip to NEHGS to visit their library will help. It’s also possible that  a group called the Towne Family Association may have the data I seek.

Even if I never prove or even disprove my connection to Rebecca, it’s been an enlightening year. I’ve learned more about my family history than I ever thought possible. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • One of my great great grandfathers immigrated from Ireland making me 1/16 Irish
  • My paternal grandmother was born in Maine and only moved to Massachusetts later
  • My maternal grandfather actually went through Ellis Island twice

Things I’m working on:

  • Is the connection to Rebecca Towne correct?
  • Is the George Southwick who died in 1775 at the Battle of Lexington my 5th great grandfather?
  • Is the Eli Curtis Thomas born in 1843, the Eli C Thomas who died in the Andersonville POW camp in 1864?

I haven’t even begun the maternal side of my tree. My grandparents were born in Sicily and those records don’t appear to be online. Hopefully that will change. The Maine side of the family is also going to be a challenge because Maine didn’t require vital records to be kept until 1920. Though I’ve found some data, it will be tough to go beyond 1850.

I’m looking forward to what the next twelve months bring!

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