Saturday, January 28, 2017

DNA: What should I do with it?

DNA is all the rage in genealogical research these days. The expense of DNA testing has dropped significantly while the accuracy has increased substantially. As more and more people offer their samples untilfor testing, the databases increase, thus presumably increasing the accuracy even more. Combine the voluntary samples that we family tree searchers submit with the not-so-voluntary sample submitted by law enforcement agencies worldwide and you have a very large database of information.

Information, however, does not become actionable (as a retired CIA officer I know called it) that information is assigned some value. Today, I will show you what information my DNA results have given me and what I do with it to make it actionable, if anything.

I grew up pretty much knowing my roots were in Great Britain and Ireland. Though my search has clarified many false understandings - whether of my own misunderstanding or from misinformation given by my ancestors - my general search has been and continues to be in that part of Europe. 

When I received my first DNA results a few years ago, results which continue to be updated, albeit with minor changes, as the DNA database increases, I was fairly surprised to read the information. 
  • Before I continue, let me tell you I am a retired federal investigator, not a DNA scientist. I have not spent a lot of time studying the whys-and-wherefores of genetic science, through I did take many related science courses in college.
Here is what what AncestryDNA says about my genetic past, by percentage, high to low.

Great Britain (34%)

  • Primarily in: England, Scotland, Wales
  • Also in: Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy

The history of Great Britain is often told in terms of the invasions with different groups of invaders displacing the native population. The Romans, Anglo-Saxon, Vikings and Normans have all left their mark on Great Britain both politically and culturally. However, the story of Great Britain is far more complex than the traditional view of invaders displacing existing populations. In fact modern studies of British people tend to suggest the earliest populations continued to exist and adapt and absorb the new arrivals.

Europe West (33%)
  • Primarily in: Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein
  • Also in: England, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Czech Republic
The Europe West region is a broad expanse stretching from Amsterdam's sea-level metropolis to the majestic peaks of the Alps. Geographically dominated by France in the west and Germany in the east, it includes several nations with distinct cultural identities. From the boisterous beer gardens of Munich to the sun-soaked vineyards of Bordeaux and the alpine dairy farms of Switzerland, it is a region of charming cultural diversity.

Ireland (28%)

  • Primarily in: Ireland, Wales, Scotland
  • Also in: France, England

Ireland is located in the eastern part of the North Atlantic Ocean, directly west of Great Britain. A variety of internal and external influences have shaped Ireland as we know it today. Ireland’s modern cultural remains deeply rooted in the Celtic culture that spread across much of Central Europe and into the British Isles. Along with Wales, Scotland, and a handful of other isolated communities within the British Isles, Ireland remains one of the last holdouts of the ancient Celtic languages that were once spoken throughout much of Western Europe. And though closely tied to Great Britain, both geographically and historically, the Irish have fiercely maintained their unique character through the centuries.

The first thing that surprised me was that Ireland was not combined with Great Britain. The more I thought about it, however, it made sense. Millions of our ancestors, mine included, hail from Ireland, not England. Considering the expanse of the British Empire and the political nature of Great Britain over history, not separating them out would have skewed the numbers to an almost-meaningless degree.

But still, that leaves 5% of my DNA from what Ancestry's DNA calls "trace" areas: Africa (2%); Eastern Europe (2%); and Asia (1%). Though these percentages are low enough individually to be considered scientific chance, taken together, the 5% raises questions in my mind, especially considering the diversity of the findings:
  1. Why do I seem to have a greater "tie-in" to Africa than any other geographical area, including one very close to my primary area? As far as I know, I am 100% Caucasian.
  2. How can I have as much African DNA as Eastern European?
  3. If not by chance, which ancestors of mine began the journey from the African Continent to the European Continent? When? And why?
These are  two of the many questions I look to resolve. Perhaps the answer is related to mathematical chaotic behavior. Perhaps merely scientific chance. And because the nomadic nature of humans over time is more or less documented, perhaps some of my very-distant ancestors, those that I have not even begun to think exist, came from Eastern Europe or Northern Africa.

Who knows? The search is the reason for the journey!

Friday, January 27, 2017

It is like a journey in a foreign country, isn't it?

Sometimes, I divert to a far corner of my family tree just for a short visit. 
It is far from where most of my efforts are - validating what I know about my maternal and paternal grandparents and their parents - but I do from time to time to stay enthused.
In my research, I primarily use the huge databases at other connections (who, as I have written before, does not compensate me for any of my work; my blog is not monetized and I pay for the membership) and from time to time, I am contacted by someone else doing research on their own family trees. Some of them think we are related and I have never found that to be true. 
One fellow I met about 2 years ago keeps popping up because he appears to be related, though neither of us has figured out how yet. One of his close relatives is related to one of my grandfather's brothers. (I am not naming names to protect his identity; he does not know I write a blog and has not given me consent to include him.) 
This morning while I was scrounging around in that faraway, dusty corner of my family tree, I came across a name in my own tree who has his last name for the first time. You know the kind of "distant relative" because you have them yourself ... the daughter of the 2nd spouse of the son of my fourth cousin 3 times removed... 
My poor brain has no idea what to do with that kind of information, but the mere fact that I have seen a last name from modern time I recognize is enough to keep the spark going. Perhaps one day we will validate the information enough to call each other 'Cousin.'
It could happen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

More details, please!

I began this blog as a way to describe in some detail how I climbed the branches to my own family tree. So far, I have not done such a good job in the "some detail" department, so I will remedy that now as I describe how I hope to learn the middle name of the person I think is my <3rd?> great-grandfather, JOHN J BURKE in my tree.

In case you have not read my previous posts - and you should - I learned many facts that conflicted mightily with what I thought I knew growing up. For example, whereas I thought all four of my grandparents were early-1900's immigrants, I quickly learned that was not at all true. My maternal grandfather, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE, was a native-born Wilton, NH, citizen, and his wife, my maternal grandmother, NINA LILLIAN THOMPSON, was a native-born Canadian. Both do appear to have their roots in Ireland.

Digging up those roots is the journey I am on now, starting with his father, JOHN RICHARD BURKE, whose name is verified through several documented sources

My first step in any new clue is to investigate United States Census reports, if any. These are generally reliable sources of information as long as one understands the limitations that might exist because of name spelling, house occupants, census taker's penmanship, and legibility of the online document itself.

As an aside, recall that I use as my primary source, though there are many others, and I am not compensated in any way by them for using their databases; I pay for it all.

When I am there, however, I do not use other subscribers' trees and rarely follow those 'shaking leaf' clues because I have found them to be inaccurate and often full of information or merely copied from someone else's tree...often mine...and not verified. I have, however, found a few reliable member sources online; in fact, there are three with whom I share information and clues pretty regularly, but I prefer making my own judgements about those clues.

Knowing that my maternal grandfather was staying with one of his two daughters, my only maternal aunt, in Alomogordo, New Mexico, where she was working as a teacher when he passed away on 28 Jan 1963, at the age of 72, and that he was born in Wilton, NH, in 1891, I began looking for his father in the first census report where he would have appeared. That was the 1900 Census. I was successful finding JOHN RICHARD BURKE listed as the head-of-household, married to a woman named BERTHA JULIA BURKE, my maternal grandmother. Others in the household included:

An 8-year old boy named John F Burke;
A 7-year old boy named James E Burke;
A 3-year old boy named Edward H Burke;
A 53-year old woman named Mary Raymond; and,
A 32-year old woman named Annie M Raymond

Digging a little deeper into the actual census record itself, I learned more about those names.

The census report contains clues to help validate or fill in gaps in the information, like birthplace of the individual being recorded, marriage year, if any, years married, father's and mother's birthplace (particularly critical for early immigrants), citizenship for those not native-born, and home in the year of the census (1900). Neighbors shown in the census report can be a good source of validation, so I look there, too.

Using the three photos, I validated that JOHN R BURKE is my 2nd great-grandfather, that Mary Raymond matches the relative found elsewhere in my family tree, and since the name was not familiar to me before, it added ANNIE M RAYMOND to my search.

From here, I slowly and steadily make steps up my tree, validating information and following new name-clues as I go. I am still looking for validation of my 3rd great-grandfather because I do not know his middle name; that is the brick wall I have encountered on this side of the tree.

But you know what? It does not diminish my excitement or the fun of the search. That is what genealogy is all about!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

New domain, no other changes

My new domain,, went into effect yesterday and my genealogy blog (this one) now appears there. I will continue to post updates with the link on Facebook because I have less knowledge about Internet domains than I do about genealogy!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Complications and Care

While working on my family tree, specifically on the brick wall I have encountered with my maternal grandfather, I wanted to write about one of the major difficulties one can experience in genealogy...similar and common foreign-based names. For clarity, let me list the three most recent ancestors I have been working on.
  • JOHN FRANCIS BURKE - my maternal grandfather. I have birth and death certificates for him, so the information is reliable.
  • JOHN RICHARD BURKE - his father, my first great-grandfather. I have the death certificate for him and have been searching for another validating document, but I am fairly confident of his relationship, even not really knowing the name from my childhood.
  • JOHN J BURKE - his father, my 2nd great-grandfather. The 'J' is probably James, but I have to validate that.
My second great-grandfather is the major brick in my wall so far. I do not have a middle name and have not found any valid documentation for him yet. Until I ascertain his middle name, finding anything will continue to be difficult. There are many John Burkes on the maternal side of my family and without a middle name or other specifically identifiable information, I get "hints" from all over the United States and all over the world. Some of my John Burke's are born in Massachusetts, some in New Hampshire, some in Ireland.

The Irish connection is what I have been researching. According to an Irish blog to which I subscribe,  the name Burke may come from Richard Óg de Burgh who was the second Earl of Ulster and third Baron of Connacht in the 13th and 14th centuries. Richard Óg means Richard the Young, either to distinguish him from his grandfather Richard Mór or because he was a young man in 1270.  I am far, far from determining if there is a familial connection between that Richard and any John in my family. In fact, I have not even found enough definitive clues to help me figure out the middle name of a US resident in the late 1890's.

My primary source of information is the United States Census reports. Normally, they will provide valuable clues to names, dates, locations, and such to help an investigator determine who is who and where at what time. Unfortunately for me, the census reports for John J Burke have not yet provided a middle name. The task is much more challenging because as I said, "John Burke" is a very popular Irish name; there are many of them in my tree and in the towns and states I am looking at.

That is both the challenge and the fun of genealogy. This obstacle is a very clear example of why validating information from other genealogical sources is important to creating as accurate a family tree as you can. I see other family trees with all kinds of conflicting information when it is very clear that birth years would prevent a relationship, for example, or other inconsistencies. Many people just copy/paste those shaking leaves into their tree and call it a day. I do not do that, as frustrating as it can be some days.

Like today!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

So how do I do what I do?

How I Got Here

One of the perplexing matters for anyone starting their search of their family history is how to start climbing their family tree. Since this blog is about my journey, I will tell you about me. Yours may be different; you may or may not know both parents' names; you may have accurate, highly-detailed records about your grandparents and their history; you may have a family Bible or other holy book; you might only have a diary or scrapbook. Or like me, you only have some photos, some with notations on the back, many without, and a few letters to and from your ancestors.

We all come to the table knowing certain things about our family that we have been told since childhood. Since I assumed I knew basic information about my extended family, I was no different. I will start there, I thought, and move quickly up the family tree getting to my distant ancestors in Ireland and England. It seems so easy to do, what with the myriad genealogy 'family tree' sites on the Internet, some available for free. In many ways, it is. No longer is travel to distant countries required and often one does not have to send away for a copy of a birth or marriage certificate. But how much do you really know?

Keep in mind my previous career was as an investigator, so finding and verifying information before taking them as factual is important to me. It did not take long to see how much work I had in front of me, that things were not going to be as easy as I thought. My early efforts very quickly turned up information that conflicted with what I had always thought I knew. Much of what I thought I knew, for example, about my maternal grandparents turned out to be wrong. What I had been told about my paternal grandparents was confusing and incomplete. Even what I learned about my own father's military service in World War II was much more detailed than anything he told me.

All I knew for sure were the names of the four people directly above me in my tree: my parents and grandparents, whose names I named in the previous chapter. That is all. Just their names.

How I Did What I Have Done

Like many people do, I started with free genealogy sites. After spending some time on some of them, I ended up choosing the largest, as the place I would put my energy. Because I knew where their information came from, I trusted their database; that was a critical part of my own decision making. I eventually paid for a worldwide membership, but I first started by entering my father's name. I deduced that entering my own would not provide much since I am alive and a lot of genealogical information is not publicly available until some time after a person's death.

I chose to enter my mother's name because she passed away long enough ago that I hoped to find information I could use as a starting point...and I did! I found his father and his mother easily, so I put in my mother's name and discovered the same information. But that is where the easy part ended. I remember that right away, my search started turning up information that conflicted with what I thought I knew. Here are some details:

I always thought that all four of my grandparents were immigrants, my maternal grandparents coming from Ireland and Scotland, and my paternal grandparents from England. According to my childhood, I was a second-generation American.

I quickly learned that was not true.

By entering my maternal grandfather's name, JOHN FRANCIS BURKE, and following some of the shaking 'leaves' that uses to show a new clue, I confirmed that he was married to a woman named NINA LILLIAN BURKE neé THOMPSON (which I knew; she is my grandmother) and that he was born in Wilton, NH.

He was not an immigrant, but a native-born USA citizen. Talk about shocked!

Verify, Verify, Verify!

That one fact pretty much blew up my entire childhood memory bank, but it also made me curious about what else I thought I knew. My search has proven to be challenging and arduous. Keep in mind my ancestors left no documents for me to use and I grew up the son of a USA diplomat in foreign countries, away from grandparents and extended family.

Let me take a break from my tree and list some questions a professional genealogist who I asked for help gave me. These questions have been invaluable. Answering them challenging, as it should be:

  1. What records have you located for your ancestor?
  2. Have you found him on a US Census?
  3. Where was she living at that time?
  4. Are there other ancestors with the same last name living there at that time, perhaps on the same street?
  5. Have you located a marriage record?
  6. Was he of age when he got married or was parental permission required?
  7. Did she live in a state that required a marriage bond? If so, who cosigned the bond?
  8. Did he own land?
  9. Where did the land come from? Was it inherited or purchased from a relative?
  10. Is your ancestor found on any tax lists?
  11. What year and in what county did your ancestor first start paying taxes?
  12. What other ancestors with the same name are alive at the same time in the same area?
  13. Have you located a probate file for your ancestor?
  14. Is a parent or sibling listed as the executor of the estate?
Lastly, the professional genealogist gave me this one important tracking clue: When trying to work back another generation, it is good genealogy always to collect every piece of information about the generation I have already identified.

Using, it is easy to click on a shaking leaf, read the clue, and put the name and information in your own tree. Doing so is a very bad idea! The name might be the same, the place might be familiar, and it might have the sound of truth, but until it has been verified, you just do not know how accurate the clue is. Filling your tree with unverified information can lead you down paths that are not helpful to you or others.

My own journey has really stopped at my maternal grandparents. The difference between what I know and what I cannot verify is what genealogists call a 'brick wall.' I will share some of the brick walls I have encountered about the paternal side of my tree next time. I cannot go farther until I break down these walls.

Until next time, thank you for reading. I hope some of this is helpful and is giving you a picture of how I do what I do.

DISCLAIMER: I am not compensated in any way for providing the active links above to the service I use.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Who is who in this tree?

As promised, in this post I will name names.

But things are rarely as easy as they seem. So far in this chapter of my story, I have made many formatting changes and content revisions, which is to be expected considering this is a written document. In the interest of getting a product to the 'finished' stage, however, I finally decided on what you are about to read.

First, I decided on content. The one rule and other conventions I will follow are:
  1. The one rule: Except for me, I will not name any living relative, which is easy enough and will not take away from my project. All people 'above me' in the tree are deceased; only my siblings, my children, and their children remain alive. To protect their privacy, I will not name them or give any identifiable information about them. 
  2. Birth names are used. Unless otherwise specified, a reader can assume a woman's married last name is the same as her male partner's. Example: My paternal grandparents, Fred and Minnie Wilkinson, shown below.
  3. Names, spellings, and dates have been verified by at least two separate genealogical source. Considering I have no written history from my ancestors, this has been a challenge. In some cased, determining the "correct" spelling has become a major focus of my journey, even though my family's names are very common and English-based. Example: My paternal grandfather, Fred Wilkinson, appears in some records as Frederick, though not enough to make me wonder if that was his true name; I always knew him a Grampy Fred and my father's name is Fred, not Frederick.
Without further delay, here we go up the tree, starting with me, my parents, and my grandparents.

James Michael Wilkinson; born 1949, Nashua, New Hampshire.
  • Siblings: Two brothers and two sisters; 
  • Children: six biological children; four step-children; 
  • Grandchildren: more than 10;
  • Great-grandchildren: None ... yet.
  • Since they are all alive, I will not identify any of these people.
Biological parents:
  • Fred James Wilkinson; born May 3, 1927, Wilton, NH. Died Aug 19, 1990
  • Beverly Lorraine Burke; born Nov 22, 1928, Nashua, NH. Died Oct 30, 1987
Maternal grandparents:
  • John Frances Burke; born July 4, 1891, Wilton, NH. Died Jan 28, 1963
  • Nina Lillian Thompson; born Oct 23, 1901, Quebec, Canada. Died Aug 30, 1979
Paternal grandparents:
  1. Fred Wilkinson (no middle name); born Jan 16, 1901, Yorkshire, England. Died Jul 27, 1993
  2. Minnie Batty (no middle name); born Mar 9, 1898, Lancashire, England. Died May 3, 1968 (she passed away on her son's (my Dad's) 41st birthday)
Keep in mind my main purpose for this blog is to describe in some detail how I learn and verify the 'leaves' on my own family tree. I am not a professional genealogist and everything I know I have learned by myself; I have not had any professional training. I am still learning!

Next time, I will explain how I learned about these relatives, the sources I used, and any roadblocks I encountered. The search becomes much more complicated and time-consuming as I move back into my past, but there is excitement, too, as I learn about relatives I never heard of in my childhood and those who were close to me when I was young but never met.

Until then, I continue my own climb up my family tree!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Why do this now?

According to professional genealogist Heather Wilkinson Rojo, there are two main Wilkinson lines in New England: the line from which she came and the line from which I came. Hers is much longer and much more New England-based; she can trace her ancestors back to the Pilgrims. On the other hand, my ancestors came to the United States in the wave of European immigrants in the early 20th Century.

  • The four family names in my Wilkinson family tree are: Wilkinson, from my father and his father; Burke, from my mother and her father; Batty, from my paternal grandmother; and Thompson, from my maternal grandmother. My paternal line came straight to the United States from England and my maternal line came here through Canada. Tracing those lines has been exciting and really changed what I thought I knew about my grandparents; learning the true story, of course, is part of the excitement.
  • After the death of my paternal grandmother, my grandfather remarried a woman he knew from Wilton, Alyce. Because she is not a "blood" relative, I have chosen not to consider Alyce in my own family tree...for now. 

So why am I doing this? Why now? The answer is simple and complex.

I am a 68-year old unmarried federal retiree. When I retired on December 31, 2011, I thought of ways to spend the rest of my life "not working" but doing what I wanted to do. I am not much of a television or movie fan and I read a lot, so I created a "bucket list" of skills I wanted to develop plus tasks and 'stuff' I wanted to do.

Learning to drive a truck was on the list and was the first new skill I learned. I grew up the son of a US diplomat in the Middle East, so traveling was really in my blood. It seemed like the traveling over-the-road in an 18-wheeler just fit and for four years, it worked...until the day I decided I had 'checked the block' and stopped. My last day driving a truck was October 17, 2016

After retirement, while I was "cleaning, clearing, and culling the herd, I found a shoebox (a real old-timey shoebox!) filled with pictures and mementos sent to me years ago after my only aunt, my mother's only sibling, passed away. My sister was the executrix of her estate and the box was addressed to me. The pictures were of people I did not recognize. Some of them had notations on the back with names I had heard growing up and I wanted to know who these people were to me.

  • As an aside, my family and I left my parents' hometown, Wilton, New Hampshire, in 1959 when he was posted to Amman, Jordan. We only returned once or twice for 3-month home leave periods. During those times, I was put in school with other students I did not know. Even though Wilton was then and is now a very small town, I always felt like an outsider. As I got older, learning about my past became more important to me.
  • When we returned after my Dad resigned from Foreign Service, we relocated as a family to Lexington, Massachusetts, not Wilton.

About the same time that I found those pictures, began to ramp up its advertising budget as it branched out. I have been told that their executives saw a market in the Baby Boomer Generation - I was born in 1949, so I am an early Boomer. Somehow, I came across either one of their advertisements or a link to their site online. I clicked, typed in my grandfather's name, and my journey up my family tree began.

Next time, I will name names! Until then, thank you for reading and following along. If you have any suggestions of criticisms, please comment. As I said, I love reading. I read everything!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

My family tree - and why and how I do this

This is the kick-off entry to my new Wilkinson Family-related blog. I want to give you, my reader, some background and an sense of where I hope to take this.

First, me. I am neither a professional nor a trained genealogist. Like many others, I am interested in my own family's history. As I age, where I "came from" becomes more important and because my parents and grandparents left no written records of their own past - no family Holy Books, for example - I am left to my own devices on how to discover my past.

I come from two immigrant families, Burke/Thompson (my maternal line) and Wilkinson/Batty (my paternal line). From early childhood, I believed all four of my grandparents emigrated to the USA during the early part of the 20th Century, a time when millions of Europeans came here to settle and work. My grandparents came from England, Scotland, and Ireland and like many others, settled in Hillsborough County in southern New Hampshire in basically the Wilton-Peterborough-Lyndeborough town area to work in various mills and factories there.

My purpose is to describe what I have done so far and explain the steps, stops, stumbles, and roadblocks I, like every other person, have and will experience on my trek up my family tree. I have learned interesting facts that support and conflict with what I "knew" about them as I grew up. I will share those in later posts. I hope to inspire other beginner-level genealogists and anyone wanting to learn a bit more about their own history. I hope to trace my journey in some detail but there will have to be some parts left out. I will not clearly identify my children or grandchildren and will do what I can to protect the identity of any living person. That should be easy enough to do because most genealogy sites do not provide identifying details about any living person for obvious security reasons. Going back, however, I will be specific as to names, places, and details I learn. I am open to hearing from more experienced genealogists of all levels, professional or not. If you have tips, recommendations, corrections or other input on my posts, the Comment section is available for your use. I will read each one.

These details become critically important to validate anything one learns. After a 30-year career as a federal investigator, I know "facts" must be verified before they assume any credibility. As online access to genealogy records becomes more widespread, more people create family trees and begin populating them. Some are private and hidden. Some, like mine, are public and visible. The problem comes when a public, visible tree gets populated with inaccurate, unverified information and links. That inaccurate information then possibly gets shared with other family trees, thus spreading erroneous genealogical information. I have experienced that and hope to minimize my own sharing by validating what I can to the best of my ability and within the limits of my resources.

Climbing ones family tree is time-consuming and can be expensive. Depending on all sorts of external factors, the expense and time can be quite burdensome. I am retired and on fixed income, so I am not able to do what I really want to do: travel to Ireland and England to search records and places in person. My expenses come from paying for membership in genealogical record repositories and, from time to time, sending off for copies of documents the details of which are not included in online records I find.

For me, this exercise has become quite addictive. After having done this for a couple of years, I have a much better, though far from clear, picture of my grandparents. As I mentioned, my own ancestors left no records of their immigration and lives and I have precious few photographs. Following the clues to their journey has been frustrating, slow, and always exciting. In my own way, I hope to leave a trail for my own offspring to follow as they age. Hopefully, the trail of breadcrumbs I leave will stay in place and available for many years.