Why diversity matters for online genealogy service providers

Diversity. It’s a word that packs one heck of a punch. It has the power to evoke passionate reactions across the conservative to progressive spectrum of thought. For clarity, in the course of this article, when I refer to diversity I speak of the diversity of experiences in ancestral and family history research. 

I began my ancestry journey around a decade ago. Like any novice, back then, I made some basic assumptions about that journey. I expected to have a magnificent tree composed of distinctly different family branches. Then I discovered my Quaker, Puritan, and Scots-Irish frontier ancestors…ancestors who married their cousins over and over and over again due to reasons of religion and/or isolation. 

I still have a magnificent family tree. It’s just a tree with many, many inter-locking, deeply entwined, and linked branches. It’s not a unique tree by any means. It’s the kind of tree that is actually fairly common for Americans with deep colonial era roots. However, the big online genealogy services have a product in the form of online family tree building which doesn’t reflect this. It’s a dissonance that can be exceedingly frustrating for reasons I’ll cover in a bit. This is one example of genealogical diversity based on cultural differences.

A number of my colonial female ancestors married young. They were far from unique. I know that 14 or 15 was a very young age for an ancestor to begin having children. However, for a Scots-Irish girl in the Appalachian Mountain region, that was just part and parcel of every day life: marry young and starting a family. Automated error messages from family tree building sites informing me that these girls in my family were having children ‘before their child bearing age’ aren’t really helpful. That was the world they lived in back in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  My 20-something times great-grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII of England), was 12 years old when she married Edmund Tudor. She was a mother by 13 years old. 

Now, I’m happy this is no longer the case. Today, girls and young women have options a 17th Century girl could have never dreamt of, less imagined. This is another form of diversity within genealogy: the diversity of basic life experiences, societal customs, and gender.

When I touch on the topic of diversity within genealogy it’s not about political correctness. It’s about a true, honest, and candid recognition of history – without prejudice, air brushing, or white washing the bits of history we don’t like; or would much rather forget. The only way I can truly glimpse my ancestors and ancestral kin is through seeing them in-situ, residents of the society and distinct cultures their lives played out within.

I hope these examples illustrate that I won’t be tackling the subject of diversity within genealogy along the lines some might have assumed I would.

The Moses Williams Family Tree Project

Following on from my previous article, Genealogy Challenge: Researching the 43 enslaved children of Moses Williams  (Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2017/03/24/genealogy-challenge-researching-the-43-enslaved-children-of-moses-williams-old-ninety-six-sc), this research project is well under way.  And again, my apologies for future gaps in publishing articles in the near future. Every time I sit down to outline an article, one of this project’s researchers finds a record that sends the whole team down the genealogical version of a rabbit hole. Writing tends to take a back seat. When it comes to genealogy, you have to ride whatever line of discovery which presents itself when it presents itself. You never know if you can ever return to a specific set of circumstances which led to a discovery trail should you decide to stop and return to the research later. When the ancestors point the way…we follow.

The Moses Williams project is composed of a few phases:

Phase 1: Finding the enslaved children of my 4x great-grandfather, Moses Williams (1756, York, Virginia-1884, Barnwell, South Carolina) in North Carolina and South Carolina, and tracing their lines of descent;

Phase 2: Identifying Moses’s siblings and extended family in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina;

Phase 3: Tracing his extended enslaved family’s line from Texas up through Tennessee and Kentucky, over to Virginia in the east, then south through Georgia. 

The probate records, tax records, and deeds of their Williams family enslavers (who were also their kin), form the bedrock of this research. We’re talking building a family tree of enslaved people within the depths of the American chattel slavery period. There will be no marriage records to consult. Other than a few mid-19th Century Mortality Schedule entries, there won’t be death records. Nor will there be Antebellum newspaper articles, unless one of these ancestors ran away; or committed some deed, usually negative, to warrant appearing in print. Nor will they have surnames. The rules of what we consider traditional genealogy do not, and will not, apply. 

The major family tree/ancestry services need to not only be transparent about this – they need to address this within their respective services, and the very coding that drives their respective platforms.

In the very early days of this project, I went the old school pen and paper route

A working example of diagramming information about enslaved people from documents

I diagramed  the movement of enslaved people from one Williams family member to another. Every deed, every Will, every estate inventory, and every tax record citing enslaved people received it’s own diagramed work-up. I would make notes linking individual enslaved people from transaction to transaction. I had dozens of sheets of paper in no time at all. Which was fine for me. However, I needed to share this information with an entire research team. Creating a PDF document from dozens of scanned pages wasn’t going to cut it. 

This project needed to go online. It also needed to be accessed, added to, edited/corrected by all of the researchers in real time. Everyone needed access to add vital research records, leave notes, or comments for the other researchers to see. The team also needed to post queries for the other researchers to follow up on. We also needed to see Moses’s family members within a family or group context to better enable us to make important connections.

Enter Ancestry.com. It made sense to build this very unconventional tree using Ancestry:

  • All of the research team were Ancestry.com members;
  • The majority of records we would need were on Ancestry; and
  • Having a public project tree would mean it would be easily discoverable by Williams family descendants who might have missing puzzle pieces to contribute.

I knew this would be an unusual family tree from the beginning. Typically, genealogists work from the present backwards through time. This tree works from the past to the present. On the majority- European side of the family, the tree starts with the family’s immigrant ancestor, John Williams, Sr, who arrived in Virginia during the early years of that colony. He is the anchor ancestor. From him, we can trace the movement of enslaved people from one generation to the next within the family. Well, we can once my contact in London can find a copy of John’s colonial York County, Virginia Will in the American Colonial Records Archive in the British National Archives. Sadly, the original in Virginia was either destroyed or lost.

I will readily admit I was stuck on how I wanted to add enslaved people to this tree. Ancestry.com wasn’t built with this in mind. I made all manner of outlines on paper. I wasn’t happy with any of them. Three very long phone conversations with Ancestry.com didn’t shed any light on how I could tackle this either. While the people I spoke to at Ancestry were pleasant and curious about the project, none could offer any suggestions as to how I could accomplish it. Basically, they thought it was impossible.  

Present me with ‘impossible’ and I’ll take that as a personal challenge to find a work-around solution. My solution might not be elegant or pretty…but it will get the job done. It’s what I do.

Providentially, I received an invite to join a Facebook group called The Beyond Kin Project (https://www.facebook.com/beyondkin). This ingenious project encourages and facilitates the genealogical documentation of enslaved populations. It has growing participation from descendants of enslavers, people who want to share vital information that will assist descendants of enslaved people, to support their descendants’ genealogy research. Descendants of enslaved people also share the documents they have found during the course of their research. By the way, I would like to give a shout out to Donna Cox Baker, one of this project’s co-founders. Donna has a brilliant genealogy blog that is well worth checking out: The Golden Egg Genealogist via http://gegbound.com.

Beyond Kin had an ingenious methodology for tackling adding enslaved people into an overall family tree format on Ancestry. My synapses were fired up. Once I understood the project’s approach, I was able to easily adapt it for the Moses Williams Project.

I’m not going to get into the step-by-step approach on how to build a tree like this one. You can see the Beyond Kin methodology on their website and Facebook group. Suffice to say it shares the same basic challenges as the Moses Williams Project. There is no straightforward way of tackling these problems. Both projects do the best they can will the tools available at the moment.

I will do a “how to” guide for our project once I work out some of the technical foibles, glitches, and eccentricities of creating a tree like this on a service like Ancestry. Suffice to say it’s a long, labour-intensive, time-consuming, and complicated process. For now, the current project team is getting the research job done.

Let’s look at two working examples from our tree below:

Here we have Daniel Williams, a man (and a direct ancestor) whose descendants in South Carolina figure so largely in the story of my 4x great-grandfather Moses Williams and his family. The first part of Daniel’s page looks like any other ancestor’s page on Ancestry. There are his vital details. His parents are there (one note: his father shouldn’t be cited as “The Wealthy Welshman”. This is an historic Williams family error. We’ve left this mistake in the project tree for the simple reason that this is how he’s referred to by many of his descendants. While an error, it makes him easy to identify among a staggering number of John Williams in the family).

We also see Daniel’s wife and children. 

It’s the second half of his page where things become unconventional. Key records like Wills, estate inventories, and Deeds are added as spouses. We then change the relationship between the record and the enslaver it’s attached to from ‘spouse’ to’friend’. This removes any biological connection between the record/document and the person it’s attached to. The enslaved individuals associated with each record are attached to the relevant records they appear within as ‘children’. We then change the ‘childrens’ relationship to the document and the enslaver to a non-biological category, ‘guardian’. Creating duplicates, and then merging them, allows me to have a single page for each enslaved individual – and add them, again and again, for each and every Williams family member who held them in slavery. 

This approach allows the team to see each individual in context, see all of the Williams family members they were associated with…and the other enslaved people who they left behind as well as those who went with them to their new destination. 

Seeing them in this way enables us, and will continue to enable us, to identify who were part of their family; as well as identify those enslaved people who were not a part of their family.

For instance, a few things have already become apparent. There were two distinct groups of enslaved people who were kept within the Williams family. 

The first group were enslaved people who were always kept within the Williams family. Their descendants, and their descendants, were also held within the Williams family.  DNA strongly suggests the enslaved who continued to be held by the family were its blood relations.

The second group were enslaved people who were sold to people outside of the family. The team surmises these were not blood kin to the Williams family.  Deeds of sale are beginning to support this hypothesis. The enslaved people who were bought by the Williams from outside the extended family are tending to be the same enslaved people who were sold to people outside of this family.

The exception are the instances where a Williams died intestate, without a Will. Estate sales in this instance seemed to have been something of a free-for-all. However, we’ve noticed members of the immediate and extended family acquired specific groups of enslaved people when such an estate sale happened. They were buying enslaved people we either know, or strongly suspect, were their black relations. 

We wouldn’t be able to make these connections and associations without a family tree like this project’s tree. 

Daniel is a pretty straightforward example to illustrate. He has only one known document to work with thusfar: his Will.

Things become substantially more complex with his grandson, Maj. John Williams:

For starters, there are all manner of enslaved – related documents associated with John. Some of his Deeds were provisional – meaning they were never enacted – while others were finalized. It’s taking quite a bit of time working out which of his deeds were enacted and which ones were not. This is important in determing where enslaved people were at a given point in time. 

We can also see he seems to have held far more enslaved people than his father, Daniel. Working out which of these enslaved were originally held by the family in previous generations, and which were brought in from outside of the family, is going to take time. 

We also need to determine how the different groups of the enslaved would have identified themselves. Not all of them were Williams. I already suspect other family groups in the above image will include Caldwell, Martin, Griffin, Deloa(t)ch, Hightower, Higgins, and Smith family members.

Here’s another example, this time using an enslaved person’s Ancestry page:

One of the key pieces of information we add to an enslaved person’s page are the documents in which their names appear. We treat records like these like a census record. These documents usually have dates and locations.   For Cuba, for instance, her name first appears (for now) in 1833 as part of John W. Williams household. John, as it turns out, died intestate in Edgefield County, South Carolina. His widow, Ann Freeman Martin-Williams bought Cuba, and Cuba’s children, during the sale of her husband’s estate. 

We know that Cuba and her children were in Edgefield, South Carolina in 1833. And again in 1847, when Ann Freeman Martin-Williams died. And again in 1858, when Ann’s estate sold Cuba and her children to Ann and John’s three daughters. Knowing where each enslaver – family member lived pinpoints the precise location where Cuba and her children were living. It makes things easier when searching for Cuba’s children in the 1870 Census, the first census where formerly enslaved people are recorded in their own right.

Using a tree like this facilitates this kind of research like nothing else I can think of.

It’s why understanding, accepting, and supporting diversity in genealogy matters. There’s no getting around it. Online genealogy services are actively marketing to the descendants of enslaved people without really offering a more streamlined way for those descendants to grapple with building research trees. That’s just for starters. Like Native American genealogy, black American genealogy is distinctly different from European-American genealogy the further back in time we go. In many ways, when it comes to enslaved ancestors, each and every one is like researching an adoptee, or an orphan with no known ancestry. That’s another aspect of diversity within genealogy.

This is especially true in a time when such services are specifically advertising their genealogy services to Americans with ancestors who were enslaved

https://www.ispot.tv/share/7cq8

https://www.ispot.tv/share/AZf4

https://www.ispot.tv/share/Am2o

https://www.ispot.tv/share/AHvt

The only advert we’ve seen that mentions that awkward “S” word is this advert:

https://www.ispot.tv/share/7drx

There is another reason for these services to truly address diversity. These are the category choices the team is faced with when adding enslaved people to our project tree:

The standard relationship definitions used by genealogy service providers don’t adequately address researching enslaved ancestors

None of the classifications in the image above are appropriate in defining the link between an enslaver and the enslaved. Doing the best we can with the tools we have via Ancestry, we use ‘Guardian’. It’s part of eliminating any biological links between an enslaved person and the enslaving family when no such connection exists. It’s the best classification to use in order for this project tree to work properly. However, it isn’t appropriate. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not just Ancestry. Every online family tree building site is like this. 

With a growing number of descendants of enslavers wanting to share information from records they have, for every project like the Beyond Kin Project and the Moses Williams Family Tree Project, and for every descendant of enslaved people who join a family tree building site due to marketing/advertising…this issue needs to be addressed. This is especially true when marketing ancestry services to specific groups of people. 

The question should always be, do we have a service that meets a specific demographic’s ancestral research needs? In other words, looking at your genealogy service through their eyes, and honestly assessing what their experience of such a service will be.

Diversity, in this instance, is about recognizing difference in genealogical experiences.  Plus looking at, and experiencing, the genealogy journey not from the service provider’s lens of its genealogy experience – but through the lenses of its diverse customer base. In this instance, I feel certain there are black genealogists, and black genealogy project founders, who would be only too pleased to act as consultants for the big genealogy services.   All these companies need do is reach out, and ask.

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5 Comments

Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity, slave census

5 responses to “Why diversity matters for online genealogy service providers

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to address this issue, and for your thorough research.

    • Thank you, Jen. And, of course, I forgot to mention that an easier approach would help descendants of slave holders. Hopefully, an easier solution would enable them to be more inclined to build a tree for the enslaved people within their family. I’m seeing a growing number of people on Facebook want to do this. They just don’t know how to do it due to technical barriers the various services have.

  2. Brian, this is a very compelling post, and you’ve clearly done a lot of very valuable work. I admire your determination and outside-the-box creativity in coming up with this work-around for trees including enslaved people and families; at the same time, I’m frustrated on your behalf by the injustice of it—i.e., that such contortions are necessary to build a tree for this family line. It’s not as though the Moses Williams family is unique in this regard; this is/was the reality of family and kinship structure for millions of Americans.
    Even I, whose family tree is the kind that Ancestry’s online trees feature is built to depict, find it a very inadequate tool. The deficiencies of Ancestry Family Trees which you have described in this post exponentially confirm my existing conclusion that there truly isn’t an online family tree system (or perhaps not even an offline one) that is flexible and robust enough to present ancestral lines properly. I’ve been formulating a vision of what a truly professional-standard online CMS and tree system would be, and soon will begin talking to developers about how it may be achieved. I’m bookmarking this post as a future point of reference for kinship structures that include enslaved peoples. If I can get this thing going, I may try to contact you in the future to seek more input on this aspect.
    Again, my compliments on the work you’ve done.

    • Derek, thank you. I’d definitely love the sound of your proposed CMS. The people behind the Beyond Kin project, and the people using it, would also be worth reaching out to. All working towards the same goals, and experiencing the same hurdles.

      I can also see me adapting this project to work out relationships between various early colonial families in Virginia (especially Jamestown and Henrico County), where so many records have been lost due to various battles/conflicts, and time. Research trees like the one I’m doing now for Moses, would be one way to work out those lost colonial family inter-relations.

  3. Pingback: The Moses Williams Family Tree Project: Update #1 | Genealogy Adventures

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