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Forensic Genealogy: Seeing With New Eyes

So much fascinating information is locked away old family photographs, documents, and stories just waiting to be brought out. All that's needed is a few new tools and some creative curiosity.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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The real act of discovery is not in discovering new lands but seeing with new eyes.1

"I always knew my family was from another planet, now I have proof." With this, Colleen Fitzpatrick concludes her book Forensic Genealogy. And while she is not herself a forensic scientist, she has a remarkable science background and studied forensic science at U C Berkley. In a way, Fitzpatrick has come full circle in applying her love of science to genealogy.

"When I was young, I always liked talking to older relatives," she said. "And I was drawn to the natural environment." Later, Fitzpatrick found she was good at science when she won a high school science fair. "The culture doesn't steer women toward science," she laments. Yet that first success set her on a path toward earning a B.A. in Physics from Rice University and a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Duke. It was not a straight path—life rarely is. After graduating from Rice, Fitzpatrick taught school in Switzerland and backpacked the country, learning French and German along the way. She went on to become Senior Scientist at Spectron Development Labs where she served as the Principal Investigator on the NADA Lite Laser, the first laser on the space shuttle. Fitzpatrick founded Rice Systems and spent the next years contracting for the government and writing proposals for small business.

A native of New Orleans, Fitzpatrick's early fascination with older relatives came full circle when brought her talents to bear hosting a web site on RootsWeb. She became interested in applying the scientific method to genealogy; ultimately publishing her book, practicing what she believes is the "creative part of investigation."

It is this creative inquiry Fitzpatrick hopes to encourage and bring out in others. And while I may not personally want to measure the length of shadows to determine the time of day a photo was taken, she has taught me to look deeply and think creatively to see more than meets the eye.

So what is forensic genealogy and how can it be used in everyday research? For one, I think it is simply a new way of thinking about a familiar problem. And thinking differently about something allows us to see it with "new eyes," finding perhaps, what we had not seen before. Much we may be doing already, instinctively; the difference may be in doing it systematically, with greater objectivity with a little more "creative investigation." Specifically, forensic genealogy can help you identify and date old photographs, make data comparisons across generations, and understand better your genetic inheritance. I will cover a few points of what I see as most practical for the everyday genealogist.

Identifying and Dating Old Photographs.

Fitzpatrick believes relying on older relatives to identify old photos is not the best advice, simply because they aren't always there to ask, and you are left with a pile of forever unidentified photos. She believes a little creative curiosity can go a long way toward helping you identify the who, what, when, and where of an old photo.

She also believes clothing is not a reliable indicator for dating photographs. In earlier times, people did not update their wardrobes as we do now. For average folks, the same clothes could be worn over many years, and hand-me-downs from one child to the next were a practical necessity. Keeping in mind the social context in which a photo was taken, may help you to better appreciate which aspects of the photo are candidates for investigation. Fitzpatrick maintains a better way to date photographs is to look beyond the subject to the setting.

In the book, Fitzpatrick provides a brief history of photography, which is informative in itself, but more importantly emphasizing the value of creative research. As part the process, Fitzpatrick encourages readers to use the vast resources of the Internet as your library of information, allowing you become informed on a variety of subjects relative to your research. Here how it works:

  • Find what is unique in the photo. Look deeply into the picture. "Filter out the generic and focus on the specific." In other words, disregard for a time, the more common and non-descript items such as clothes and furniture, and focus on things that make the photo unique: house numbers, automobiles, signs, advertisements, etc. Focusing on what is unique may help you determine a time, place, or family member that might be represented in the photo.

  • Make a list of objects to identify. An effective approach for identifying photos is to make a list of everything you see in the photograph, then go down the list in an attempt to identify and date each item through creative research. Something you may not think very important could actually end up holding the keys to what you want to know. When was that old cash register in use. What can I learn by magnifying the labels on those old bottles. What is the make and year of that car parked at the curb? The more you know about each object, the more you can narrow the options and zero on your answer.

  • Combine and compare data. Utilizing other resources such as plat maps, city directories, and old catalogs (to name a few), can aid your research. You will also want to compare what find with what you already know (or suppose) about the photo, the family, the location, the time period, the event, etc. Family histories, family tradtion, and and the full range of typical home sources can help illuminate a photo. Fitzpatrick also suggests creating a timeline for each object or fact, laying one timeline on top of another, to narrow that little window of possibility you seek.

Finally, don't forget to look on the back. Even if the subjects in the photo are not identified, look for other notes, dates, places, or photographer information. Knowing the photographer, you may be able to learn where a photo was taken and within what time frame. Also, look at how a subject is framed in the photo—is is it off-center, are people cut out of the photo? Such details can suggest whether the photo was taken by a professional or amateur, someone in the family, perhaps. And if you find it is an amateur photo, that knowledge combined with the historical knowledge of photographic styles, can also help date a picture. For the forensic genealogist, a pencil mark on the back of photo, the pattern of its perforated edges, a manufacturer's stamp, the sequence of numbering can all be clues to the sensitive eye.

As Fitzpatrick says, "Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't." Some photo defy identification because they simply do not provide enough information. The goal is to reduce the number of those unidentified photos in your collection and hope a future collaboration may shed some light.

Creating Databases To Analyze Information

Fitzpatrick indicates a key forensic tool used by the FBI and others is a database that allows you to compare data and analyze information. She suggests building your own databases, using the information you have extracted from online databases and other sources. A simple Excel spreadsheet works, allowing you to sort data and view it in multiple ways. The goal is ease of comparison. If everything you know about your family is stored in standard genealogy software, which does not support such comparisons, or in notebooks stored neatly on shelves, there is no opportunity to look at your collected information side-by-side to detect trends, predict occurrences, or identify omissions.

And I like the idea of prediction based on patterns you see in the data. While a skeptic might view prediction as guesswork, it is a scientific tool that provides you with an avenue to pursue, suggested by the data itself.

Two types of databases are discussed, periodical and events databases. For the everyday researcher, the events database can be an invaluable tool. Multiple databases allow you to track information on a particular line, within a given family, or within a particular community. Here's how it works:

  • Use the right tools. While you can use a database program such as Access, an Excel spreadsheet is sometimes more readily available and works well as a database.. Even if you are not an experienced spreadsheet user, it doesn't take long to learn the basic principles. Each individual is entered on a separate line, with each piece of data for that individual entered on the same line, across the page in a separate column: first name, last name, age, occupation, etc. The spreadsheet allows you to sort data by column, enabling you view data in multiple ways to see patterns.

  • Creating a Periodical Database. A periodical database is comprised of data gathered periodically such as censuses and city directories. Fitzpatrick suggests city directories are prime candidates for a database, as they are more frequent than a federal census and the population is smaller. To create a periodical database for city directories you would enter on separate lines, all instances of your surname—related or not—for a given city directory, over a span of time. In separate columns, you would record individual pieces of data such as the directory year, first name, address, occupation, etc. The goal is to create a single database for multiple directories that allow observe the movement of families over time.

  • Creating an Events Database. Event databases are comprised of data gathered for individuals across a full range of life events, the most common being civil birth, marriage, death records, but it can also include where a family member joined the military, when and where someone appears in a census record—anything that helps you track a person's journey through life. An events database can be created for a specific family line or some other segment of your research. Each type of record contains a wide range of information that can be entered into you compiled database, once again, allowing you to sort and view the data in multiple ways. You may, for example, be able to sort the database by the name and birthplace to see a family's migration. The possibilities are endless, your curiosity is key.

Utilizing DNA to Inform Kinship

DNA is by definition a scientifically complex subject. While Fitzpatrick and others explain the whys and wherefores of DNA studies, that is not my purpose here. We may be most interested to know how DNA can be used to inform genealogy. DNA studies can be used to establish kinship between individuals such as the descendants and to identify individuals belonging to certain hereditary groups. In all, DNA studies can be absolutely fascinating and sometimes surprising. Two areas of DNA study, in particular, may be of interest to the everyday researcher: single name studies and non-paternity events.

  • Understanding single name studies. Simply stated, single name studies are DNA tests of individuals with the same surname, entered into a large databank to detect kinship. The test uses DNA from a man's y-chromosome to identify genetic markers, which have been passed from father to son. At last count, approximately 1,400 single name studies are now in progress worldwide. If your surname is not among them, Fitzpatrick suggests it's not as hard to start one as it used to be. Her reference for learning more about single name studies is In signing up for DNA testing, just be sure align yourself with a reputable company, one referred by a wide variety of respectable sources.

  • Understanding non-paternity events. A non-paternity event, cautions Fitzpatrick, occurs in every surname DNA study with the appearance of someone whose halotype [genetic makeup] is completely different from all others in the group. There are many reasons to account for non-paternity events; in the past, orphaned children were often taken in my neighbors or relatives and raised as their own and given the family name. Until recent years, legal adoption has been shrouded in secrecy, often the children themselves unaware they were adopted. And there are cases where a mother raises her child under he maiden name or under the name of a person who is not the child's biological father. Depending on the situation, such revelation can be disturbing news. Anyone participating in surname DNA studies should be aware of the possibilities. Genealogy is full of surprises, and can sometimes tell us more than we want to know.

Fitzpatrick concludes, "Genealogists realize that for every mystery that is solved, ten more take its place. Participating in a DNA study does not change this. No matter how many relationships are discovered through DNA, there will always be many more that remain hidden. Even those that are found might never be explained. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of any DNA study is not the large networks of cousins that are uncovered, but the residue of participants who remain genetically unconnected to anyone else in the study, with the exception of known family members."

In her own case, Fitzpatrick observes, she is enrolled in DNA studies covering both her father's and mother's sides, through the male DNA of her brother and her mother's cousin, respectively. "Yet I have not found a match on either side. There is only one conclusion I can draw from this, I have always thought my family was from another planet, and now it seems I have found the proof."

1Marcel Proust

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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