A flea market find

I found this photograph at the Alameda flea market yesterday morning. It was raining and vendors weren’t out in force. This one stall caught my eye as there was a table set up with old photograph albums for sale, as well as a box of random, single pictures of mainly unidentifiable individuals.

I decided to buy this one. A pretty random purchase, but there is information on the back that could help identify all of these people. It includes a location, which should help to narrow things down.

Why would I want to do that? Well, just some genealogical fun, that’s all. What would be the right thing to do with the photo if I identify living family? Return it to them?

Ancestral vibes – a curse on those who sent this to the flea market!

The newsagent in the newspaper.

No ancestral search on someone who kept a shop would be complete without a search in the local newspapers of the time. Thankfully the Linlithgowshire Gazette, from Friday 17 December, 1909, had an advert for Mr Adam Edgar and his wares. I would like to know if he sold that very postcard from the previous post in his shop!

The Family Shop

Postcard showing my great-grandfather’s name, Adam Edgar, above his newsagent’s shop in Linlithgow, Scotland.

This is the family shop. It’s not the only shop that has ever been in my family. But it does have the honor of being on many postcards. My Great-grandfather, Adam Edgar, had a newsagent in Linlithgow, a small, historic town about 20 miles from Edinburgh. The focus of many of these postcards wasn’t his shop, of course. The imposing building with opposing staircases in the left of the picture is the Burgh Halls of Linlithgow, originally constructed in the 17th century. A little way away from the Burgh Halls, set above Linlithgow Loch, are the remains of Linlithgow Palace, the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. There were and still are many reasons to put Linlithgow on a postcard. Adam Edgar’s shop was situated on “The Cross” – an open space in front of the Burgh Halls containing an ornately-carved stone fountain. (Interesting fact – the fountain was carved by a one-handed stone mason). The fountain is another famous landmark in Linlithgow and yet the photographer missed it in this picture. The statue in this postcard is an anomaly – it doesn’t appear to be there anymore and I haven’t been able to find anything about it online.

Adam Edgar and family in the 1911 Scottish census. Image courtesy of National Records of Scotland.

Adam Edgar was a “tobacconist” according to the census. In our family the shop was always referred to as a “newsagent.” In reality he probably sold newspapers and comics, tobacco products and possibly some more general items. My granny was his daughter “Katherine” age 4 in the census. (Her name was usually spelled with a “C”). The family lived above the shop. In 1911 there were 3 Edgar children. Another 3 were born over the next few years. Another family shopkeeper was visiting them on the day the census was taking – Catherine Fairbairn. Her shop was a “fancy drapery shop”, in Jedburgh in the borders of Scotland. As a fancy draper, Catherine (auntie Kate as she was known in the family – she was my granny’s maternal aunt) – sold fabric for dressmaking as well as buttons, ribbons and other haberdashery items. Auntie Kate’s reputation in the family, (at least amongst her nieces and great-nieces), was that of an unwelcome guest. There are considerably ruder names that they called her. She was a “spinster” (unmarried woman) for all of her life and seemed to enjoy bringing misery and criticism into family gatherings. Hopefully she was not making too long a stay at the Edgar house in 1911.

I spent many happy days visiting my granny in Linlithgow as a child. In her later years she lived a stones-throw from 10 The Cross where her father’s shop had previously been. With a quick spin on Google street view I can see even stop by now and see that the shop is currently a barber. The Google street view lets us look squarely into the shop in a way that the old postcard never can.

10 The Cross as it is today. Image courtesy of Google Streetview.

True Confessions of a Scottish Genealogist in Salt Lake City

True confession one –  None of my direct ancestors were born in the US. Not one.

True confession two – despite preceding statement, I find myself in Salt Lake City this week attending an Advanced Methodologies course run by the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (or SLIG).

I have lived in the US for 17 years. This week I am up to my eyeballs learning about land records, tax records, military files and pension records, the underlying laws that triggered the creation of certain records, to name a very small selection from the course content. That’s a fairly bland description of a course which is steeped in detail and so rich in information that much of it will take weeks or months to digest.

So what’s in it for a gal from….Scotland?

I told the class during introductions on Monday that I did not expect to find any of my ancestors in any of the record sets we would be investigating this week. I remain 99% confident that this is the case. The only direct ancestor known to me with even the vaguest of connections to the US was my great-grandfather. He worked for Andrew Carnegie for several years, in Scotland. The Carnegies kept a summer residence in the north of Scotland called Skibo Castle. My great-grandfather, a composer, music teacher and a church organist of the highest proficiency, was employed by the Carnegie Trust in Dunfermline, Scotland. One of his duties was to travel to Skibo in the summer and spend 6 – 8 weeks there as the official organist. (Andrew Carnegie loved organ music and had a full church organ installed in the grand hallway at Skibo). My great-grandfather, an educated man, spent some evenings mingling with the house guests, although he himself was definitely an employee. He kept a diary for many years and wrote about his brief encounters with some of the visitors, including Booker T Washington. If any of these influential visitors similarly kept a diary, perhaps they have noted encountering my great-grandfather within them. Perhaps those are languishing in an archive somewhere and I will come across them one day.

Perhaps I will eventually find someone on a collateral line who came to the US as an early immigrant and left their mark. I certainly have distant cousins in the US – DNA has already shown that. Most of these I have not been able to link to a shared ancestor back home – yet. Perhaps I have distant cousins who ended up in the 79th New York Highland Regiment. The Regiment recruited more recent immigrants of Scottish descent as well as Scots who had left home and were already well-established. The regiment reputedly took part in 27 campaigns during the Civil War. Initially they wore full kilt regalia, including a somewhat oversized white fluffy sporran. Presumably they realised the impracticality of the kilt get-up, and switched to tartan trews. Supposedly, the US government  would not pay for this uniform and they ended up wearing some variation of the Union blue uniform.

79th Highlanders in full kilt regalia. Who was going to pay for that?

Guided by the erudite presenters of this course, I am now able to create a strategic plan for how to further research a collateral ancestor of my own in the US, who served in the military, or left a will, or petitioned Congress, or is mentioned in a quit claim deed, or left a record of actions they were involved in. This will be fabulous knowledge to take back for client work. I may have to wait a little longer before I am able to work on any more personal connections.

A paper trail for Kate Ann Holmes – Dobney – or Phillips?

The continuing story of verifying the identity of a grandfather. To read the story from the beginning, click here.

One of the first things that should be checked in the search for a mother’s unmarried name in England from 1837 to 1917 is the GRO (General Records Office) index. It’s simply the fastest way to find out a maiden name. It can then be checked against other records. Because I didn’t do that in this case, it took us a while to figure out the connection between Kate Ann Holmes and the Tilbury family. (I say a while. Once it was suggested to me that I check the GRO, it was solved within minutes. Rookie error!)

Women’s maiden names can be problematic in genealogy. Fortunately, collections holding vital record sets for mid-to-late 19th century England are reasonably complete. Unfortunately I had made an assumption about Kate Ann Holmes based on a few census records. Due to this I had erroneously assigned her the maiden name “Dobney”.

Here she is in the 1881 census, listed as a grand-daughter of William Dobney, chimney cleaner:

And here she is in the 1871 census, also listed with the Dobneys:

As she was born around 1867, the 1871 census was the first one in which she was enumerated. One instance of a child staying with grandparents could simply mean that the child was a visitor to the house on census night. Two instances, a decade apart, implies that the arrangement is more permanent. Who were her parents and where were they?

The record of Kate Ann’s marriage to Thomas Jenkins Holmes in 1889 listed her father’s name as Henry Phillips. Based on the two census records shown above, I had assumed that Kate Ann’s mother’s maiden name was Dobney, and that Kate was living with her maternal grandparents. I did some research on Ann and William Dobney, but could not turn up anything about them.

Kate Ann’s baptismal registration confirmed again that Henry Phillips was her father and her mother was Sarah Phillips. With my fresh assumption in hand, I searched for any record of a Henry Phillips marrying a Sarah Dobney. Again, nothing. I simply could not identify the parents of Kate Ann Phillips.

One assumption can have a catastrophic run-on effect, sending the search off in all sorts of wrong directions. I wasn’t able to shift my analysis about Kate Ann’s grandparents until I consulted the GRO index.

A recent digitization project has made the index to historic births and deaths highly searchable. The project covers birth registrations from over 100 years ago and death registrations from over 50 years ago. Through a series of mandatory and non-mandatory fields, I was able to pull up a list of females by the name of Kate Phillips born around 1867. (The database allows a 5-year-window for searching by selecting a target year plus up to 2 years either side.) This search returned 35 possibilities.

As there is a search field to add a second forename, I added “Ann”. This time it returned only two results:

Birth index results on the GRO for Kate Ann Phillips

One of them had the mother’s maiden name as Tilbury. I knew this record was likely to be our Kate Ann Phillips as the registration district (Newington) matched her place of birth given in the 1871 census. Also, the district that she was enumerated in for the 1871 and 1881 censuses was the civil parish of St Saviour in the Parliamentary Borough of Southwark. A quick investigation showed that the registration district of Newington had been abolished in 1870 and merged with the district of St Saviour, Southwark. Just for good measure I checked that the registration district of Shaftesbury, the place of birth for the first girl on the list, is a good 100 miles or so away from this area of London.

So now it seemed as though the research was back on track. But if Kate Ann’s mother was Sarah Tilbury and not Sarah Dobney, I needed to identify her too.

One of my favorite DNA-related things of 2018

It’s been an exciting year for those of us involved in genetic genealogy. One of the most exciting (and to some, controversial) developments has been the use of DNA to break cold cases such as in the Golden State Killer case (as well as at least 20 others). There has been plenty of coverage of the methods involved, some of it sensationalist and downright incorrect. Law enforcement are now learning how to use the same techniques to identify suspects using DNA that genealogists have been increasingly using to identify lost family or biological parents (in the case of adoptees or mis-attributed parentage). Law enforcement agencies are learning these techniques, in most cases, directly from the genetic genealogy community. At the I4GG conference 10 days ago in San Diego,  law enforcement officials were in attendance to learn about the latest techniques and tools. We were also privileged to hear Barbara Rae Venter speak about her work on the Golden State Killer case as well as her previous, if less high profile work on the Lisa Jensen case and the Bear Brook murders. I’ve included two links here to Barbara’s work which are well-written and balanced accounts. Remember that this work is being done to crack cold cases involving violent crimes. Reading the attached articles may not be for everyone. There’s also an excellent podcast about the Bear Brook murders and how they linked to the Lisa Jensen case, if true crime podcasts are your thing.



A comparison of ethnicity results and why you should build a family tree.

This is my most recent admixture breakdown from Ancestry.com. On the right hand side you can see the areas that are “no longer in estimate.”  It’s worth noting that DNA does not recognize geographic boundaries, only DNA testing companies try to do that – an issue which often leaves people puzzling over their results. I’m not at all surprised to see that I no longer have 5% of my ethnicity under the Finland/Northwest Russia region. It was even less likely that I would connect in any way to the Iberian Peninsula so that is not a loss either. I would suspect that my “Ireland/Scotland/Wales” category is mainly Scottish DNA and I would be surprised if Ancestry ever broke this category out for me and started suggesting specific places in Ireland where my ancestors came from.

Living DNA analysis.

In 2016 I tested with the (then) very new LivingDNA company (graphic above). Their specialty is to isolate areas in the UK where your ancestors may have come from. It’s interesting to look at their map of suggested regions and see how my Ancestry DNA results appear to be converging around the same areas. From my paper trail I do know that the “top” areas in my Living DNA breakdown – Northumbria (27.5%), Central England (25.7%) and Aberdeenshire (11.9%) are representative of many of my known ancestors. In a breakdown of my deeper ancestry through Living DNA (graphic below), their chart encompasses most of the continental European ancestry that is suggested by Ancestry’s graphic.

Living DNA's analysis of where my ancestors may have lived 500 years ago.

So for me at least, the ethnicity estimates may be aligning. In this round of Ancestry updates I have heard various anecdotal complaints about the entire percentage of southern European, French or Italian ancestry “disappearing” from an estimate. It’s important to read all of the information that Ancestry provides when they make an update, which you will usually find on your DNA story landing page. This time around they have managed to address questions that may be specific to your update in a box beneath the new estimate percentages. There is even a thumbs up, thumbs down instant feedback capability, and they have developed a sense of humor in addressing some of the disappointment testers may face on receiving the new update. Noting that I had lost a small percentage of Iberian peninsula, they suggest that a common question might be “With my Iberian Peninsula region gone, should I quit matador school?” (Although the more serious question is answered in “What happened to my other regions?”).

As always with ethnicity estimates, updates and discrepancies from company to company, the important things to remember are:

  • This is an estimate of where your ancestors may have come from. The science is not currently advanced enough to “pinpoint” a location reliably beyond the continental level
  • Read the information that each testing company provides about how they test. Ancestry, for example, runs your sample for each region 40 times and gives an average percentage for each one. Each company has its own algorithms and reference panels. Your results will differ from company to company.
  • The relative matching features of testing companies are very accurate, although fewer people are interested in this as an outcome. If you are on Ancestry, consider adding a basic family tree to your profile and be open to people contacting you asking how you may be related. It may not matter to you, but you could be helping someone in the search for their biological family.

Philip Holmes – why every little match matters.

The last post on the search for Philip Holmes was, well, on the technical side. But, it served to illustrate a point. Finding family through DNA matching is not effortless fun. There is a huge learning curve at the start to figure out new language and resources to help understand what you are seeing when you open up your DNA results. What are centimorgans and why is the shared DNA at companies sometimes shown in percentages? Are segments important? Why does it say that a person is your second cousin when I know they are not?

It’s usually necessary to drill down through your match list to make something meaningful out of it. Smaller details such as which of your matches also match each other can be incredibly useful information. New techniques and tools for sorting matches appear with some regularity. There’s constant learning to be done.

How the X chromosome opened up this search.

You can’t see X chromosome matches at every site, but you can on Gedmatch, if you choose to upload there. Usually X matches are small and won’t help establish how you are related. However, when a female matches a male on X, it can feel a little like winning the lottery. This is what happened when Carol’s mom matched with someone on Gedmatch at around 40cMs, including a decent chunk of X (in this case, only 17cMs which some people would barely consider of the threshold of a decent match.) It meant she could only be related through that male’s mother’s side of the family. If we could get information from the match about their family tree, this could be an interesting development.

Luckily, Carol has a high success rate in contacting matches and asking them for information. It so happened that the match’s mother was the family genealogist. She was intrigued with the details of Carol’s search for Philip Holmes. Although she was pretty sure that the name Holmes was not represented in her direct ancestors, she gave us enough information for us to help build an accurate tree back to her 3rd great grandparents. From the size of the match, this is where we thought the connection should be.

At this point, the beauty of the X match kicked in. Based on its unique inheritance pattern, we knew that there were a number of her ancestors that we could discount. (Well, technically her son’s ancestors as he was the match). At great-great grandparent level, it meant there were only 5 surnames to consider. Even at great-great-great grandparent level, there were only 8 surnames that had to be consider. Given that we each have 32 great-great-great grandparents, that is a significant paring down of the possibilities.

To try and keep things straight, I downloaded a ridiculous-looking graphic from the internet so that I could mark the ancestors whose names we had to consider. I’ve edited the tree to protect the identity of the match, but this is what it looked like at the 3rd and 4th great-grandparent levels when I had completed that.

Boxall tree with x symbols for blog

I ran all of these surnames through the surname search on Ancestry but there really wasn’t any consistency to point me in a particular direction. This was hindered by the fact that many of Carol’s mum’s matches were distant and/or had no trees. It was frustrating, but I felt determined that somehow this match was going to give us a lead.

I had already made a few trees for a few Philip Holmes “potentials” – men who were around the right age to have been Carol’s grandfather and who were based in London. I poured over those too, looking for any of the surnames from the match tree. Again, there were none. So what now?

The answer proved to be this: I had to go back to basics. 

DNA evidence on its own does not constitute genealogical proof. Sometimes it may be all that is available to show a connection between two people. But that conclusion should only be made after a thorough search of related records.

I started reading through the records attached to one of the Philip Holmes possibilities and soon made two discoveries.

  • The ancestry for his maternal line contained a possible error that we had been unable to solve. His mother, Kate Phillips, was listed as the grandchild of a Mr and Mrs William Dobney  in the 1871 census. In the tree we had added her parents as Henry Phillips and Sarah Dobney, based on that census record. There were no other records linking her to the Dobney name, so the ancestral line was stuck there.
  • A close reading of the 1911 census record for Philip Holmes, (age 7), living with his parents in Hackney, showed that under the same roof there was an interesting occupant.  Emily Tilbury, aunt (relationship to head of household), aged 74.

And where had we seen that surname before? Right there in the tree with the daft X graphic.

Tilbury only tree

So, if we could connect that Ms Tilbury to the Tilburys in the match’s tree then surely, surely we had found our man.


The point at which I became a DNA geek.

The next part of the search for Philip Holmes involves a little bit of geekiness, and a slight detour.

At some point in the learning curve of using DNA matching in genealogical searches, I believe some of us cross the line from “enthusiast” to “geek”. For me I think it came when I discovered what is referred to as “the unique inheritance pattern” of the X chromosome.

The what?

Exactly. Not the kind of sentence I thought I would be writing when I first started delving into genealogy. Now it flows from the keyboard so naturally that I know I have moved into a different realm of understanding. I might even admit that I scare myself, ever so slightly, when I use phrases like that. I am not a scientist, a biologist or a geneticist, nor do I claim to be. In college I “majored” in English literature and language, which is probably why I can explain literary terms such as “trochee”, “synecdoche” or “enjambment” – (and which also likely confirms my place in geekdom).

In a nutshell – we have 23 pairs of chromosomes (and that is one reason why there is a testing company called “23andMe”). The first 22 pairs are referred to as “autosomes”. The 23rd pair also have a scientific name but are more easily explained by calling them “sex” chromosomes. The chromosomes come in pairs because we inherit one from each parent. The 23rd pair will determine if we are male or female.

X plus X = female.

X plus Y = male.

For various reasons, genealogists researching DNA matches don’t often use matches on the X. But in certain cases it can be significant and exciting because of the aforementioned “unique inheritance pattern.”

The what (again)?

In an even smaller nutshell, (within the first nutshell?)…this:

X DNA inheritance

Females get an X chromosome from each parent, but males only get X from their mothers. This means, if you have a large enough DNA match with a male on the X chromosome, and you also share some autosomal DNA with the match, you have to be connected through his maternal side. Because X can’t be passed down from one male to another, that automatically excludes certain lines of his ancestors from your search.  You can only be related to a male match on the X chromosome through one of his ancestors marked in green in this chart.

X DNA male inheritance.

(This chart and the one before it were taken from the genie1.co.au website written by Louise Coakley. )

We can sit and wait for days or months on end, fiddling with the trees of 4th cousin matches, working down from their great, great, great grandparents through the generations, with collateral lines increasing exponentially as we go. Then one day, we wake up, check our DNA matches and discover that the one match that we have long sought to break the mystery has finally appeared. In this case it was a fairly measly-looking potential 4th cousin match that turned up on Gedmatch. He shared both autosomal and X DNA with Carol’s mum. Importantly, he also did not seem to be a matching kit for what we called “the usual suspects” in this search – a large group of people we knew to be connected to Carol’s mum’s side of the family. And because this match was male, it meant that potentially we would only have to consider that small selection of ancestors in green in the chart. Of course we would still have to work out if he connected to any ancestor by the name of Holmes in London at the beginning of the 20th century. How hard could it be?!

Philip Holmes – one man and his mule.

To go to the beginning of this story, click here. For the preceding installment about the information on the back of the picture, click here.

Photographic “evidence” part 2.

Sometimes when you are on the trail of a missing ancestor, you spend a lot of time messing about with trivia and tiny details, theorizing about a person’s life based on anything tangible that remains in your possession. Often this boils down to photographs without names, dates or locations marked on them.

The photograph of Philip Holmes was systematically dissected, element by element, in the hunt for any clue about his life. When all you have is a photograph of someone and no other information about what sort of life they lived, it is truly amazing how many lines of inquiry you can follow up – even when many of them may be dead ends.

For example: here is part of the photograph of Philip with red circles highlighting areas of interest – things that Carol and I both had questions about, things that might be significant in identifying him from all the other men called Philip Holmes.

Our thoughts related to these specific areas included:

  1. What significance did the animal have? Was it a working animal? Was it a small horse, a pony or a mule?
  2. Were those possibly tattoos on his arm, or simply odd markings formed from discoloration of the old photo paper?
  3. Philip is well-turned out – his clothes are clean and pressed, he is clean-shaven and well-groomed. What was his purpose in this location.? Working? Vacation?
  4. What is in the background and is it significant?


Philip highlights in photo

Some of these questions we simply mused upon, whilst others led to further investigation. I insisted that Carol send the photograph to someone with expertise in the history of working animals, especially horses. (Google will turn up a suitable expert for just about anything). The expert suggested that this was a mule, and passed our query on to her friend who was a “mule expert”. The mule expert did not have a lot to add to the conversation other than to confirm that this was indeed a mule. He suggested that the background might be indicative of mining in British Columbia around 1920. This was quite exciting, as there was a British Philip Holmes of interest who had traveled through BC and into the US. (After some frantic excitement, including going as far as to contact some of their living relatives, he was ruled out.)

The tattoo theory was interesting.  We were fairly certain at one point that if this was a tattoo, it was possibly a symbol like the caduceus – two snakes entwined around a winged rod, often mistaken or misused as a medical symbol. (The “actual” medical symbol is called the rod of Asclepius after the Greek god associated with medicine and healing. The caduceus is the symbol of Hermes, the messenger god.) Either one seemed like a cool tattoo!

There was nothing to suggest that Philip was involved in manual labor. There appears to be a structure in the background, possibly some kind of tarp shelter or even a campsite. The white objects could be some kind of hard hats like a miner’s helmet, or possibly a pith helmet.

Other than our flurry of excitement over a possible British Columbia connection, all the speculation served little purpose other than to keep the search alive and hopeful.

Meanwhile we diligently checked all of Carol’s mum’s DNA matches across various sites. One day, I was sure, there would be a new DNA match that would help solve the mystery.