Coming from OnBoard, January 2017

OnBoard: Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists is scheduled to publish in January 2017. We’re pleased to offer a preview of some of its content.

OnBoard Jan 2017 masthead


“The Role of Background Context in Document Analysis”

Most family historians have found documents that contain puzzling or unexpected information. Document analysis is an essential skill needed for successful genealogical research. Melinda Daffin Henningfield, CG, shows how expanding our research to include background context can help us to meet the first element of the Genealogical Proof Standard and to solve our family mysteries.

“Genealogy Ethics and the Call for Diversity”

Drawing from principles set out in the Genealogist’s Code,[[1]] LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, JD, LLM, CG, begins a conversation about the call for diversity in the field of genealogy. Her article explores a timely question of crucial importance to genealogy as a profession and to the diverse members of our community.

OnBoard publishes three issues per year. A subscription is included in annual associate fees and is provided to applicants “on the clock.” Subscriptions are also available to the general public for $15.00 per year (currently) through the BCG website, here <>. Issues back to 1995 can also be ordered online, here <>.


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry, 2014), Appendix A: The Genealogist’s Code, 45–48.

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

The dog that did bark

(Crossposted from The Legal Genealogist)


The Legal Genealogist (Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL) had an absolute ball last night giving a webinar for the Board for Certification of Genealogists, through Legacy Family Tree Webinars, on negative evidence.

It’s available online right now and for a few days will be free to review; afterwards, it’ll still be available for a small fee.


It’s true that negative evidence can be a tough topic, because even experienced genealogists can get confused about the exact distinction between direct, indirect and negative evidence in a particular situation.

negativeDirect evidence, of course, is information that appears to answer a research question by itself.1 The example I used was from the 1850 U.S. census of Yancey County, North Carolina, with the research question of “what did Charles Baker do for a living?” The census reports his occupation as High Sheriff.2 That surely gives us the answer, by itself, and so it’s direct evidence.

But if the research question is “where was the Baker family living when Rebecca was born?”, we have a different situation. The census does tell us she was born in North Carolina,3 so surely that’s where her mother was at that moment — but it doesn’t tell us that’s where the family was living at the time. They could have been just passing through, or visiting with relatives or friends.

So we’d need to combine the birthplace with other evidence of residence to answer the question and that — by definition — makes it indirect evidence: a bit of information that has to be combined with other bits to answer the question.4

Negative evidence is another beastie: it’s a “type of evidence arising from an absence of a situation or information in extant records where that information might be expected.”5 In the words of the Sherlock Holmes story, it’s the dog that didn’t bark — when it should have barked — if what we thought was true was in fact true.6

Sometimes we get confused when we search for something — say, a particular person in a census — and we can’t find him, so we think that’s negative evidence. Nope. That’s just a negative search — we don’t have any basis yet for drawing an inference about what it means that we couldn’t find him. Maybe his entry was misindexed. Maybe the census taker skipped over that household. We just don’t know — and we don’t have a basis for speculating.

And sometimes — sigh — we get confused and think that evidence that negatives a proposition — that tends to disprove it — is negative evidence.

As — sigh — I did when one question came up at the end in the Q&A.

The question was whether DNA results could be negative evidence, and, in my answer, the example I used of a case that could be negative evidence… isn’t.

The example I used was a YDNA test. My Shew line from North Carolina against another Shew-Schuh line from Virginia. We had every reason to believe, based on the paper trail, that the Philip who disappeared from the records of Virginia right around the time that my Philip appeared in the records of North Carolina was one and the same Philip.

But YDNA testing thoroughly disproved that working hypothesis. Looking at just the very top level YDNA results — the haplogroup, or which branch of the male human family tree the test takers are sitting on7 — it’s not so: the Virginia line has a haplogroup of R, and my Shew line has a haplogroup of I — and you can’t have two lines descending from the same common male ancestor with two different haplogroups.

That’s not negative evidence.

It does in fact directly answer the research question: “Are the two Shew lines related through the direct paternal line?” The dog did bark — we got an answer to our research question. And the fact that the answer is in the negative (“no, they’re not”) doesn’t change it from direct evidence to negative evidence.

There may be situations where, perhaps, DNA evidence might be put in the negative evidence category. If so, however, it’s not going to be in any case where the DNA test merely disproves a research theory. Any time a test can directly show a relationship (“yes, two people are related”) or debunk a theorized relationship (“no, two people aren’t related, at least not in this way”), it’s direct evidence — even when the answer is no.


1. See Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tennessee : Ancestry, 2014), 66.

2. 1850 U.S. census, Yancey County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 450(A) (stamped), dwelling 975, family 967, Charles Baker; digital image, ( : accessed 4 Dec 2016); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 407.

3. Ibid., Rebecca A. E. Baker.

4. See Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, at 70.

5. Ibid., at 71.

6. See A. Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” Strand Magazine (July-December 1892) IV: 645; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Dec 2016).

7. ISOGG Wiki (, “Haplogroup,” rev. 4 Oct 2016.

BCG Webinars for 2017

The Board for Certification of Genealogists is proud to announce its webinar line-up for 2017. All webinars will be broadcast by Legacy Webinars, and held on the third Tuesday of the month at 8pm Eastern. The webinar schedule is as follows:

– 17 January – Michael Leclerc, CG, “Writing up your Research”
– 21 February – Karen Stanbary, CG, “Weaving DNA Test Results into a
Proof Argument”
– 21 March – Rebecca Koford, CG, “Are You My Grandpa? Men of the Same
– 18 April – Rick Sayre, CG, CGL, “The Genealogy in Government Documents”
– 16 May – Debbie Parker Wayne, CG, CGL, “MAXY DNA: Correlating mt-at-X-Y DNA
with the GPS”
– 20 June – Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL, “Beating the Bushes: Using the
GPS to Find Jacob Bush’s Father”
– 18 July – Angela Packer McGhie, CG, “Analyzing Documents Sparks Ideas
for Further Research”
– 15 August – LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, JD, CG, “Analyzing Probate Records of
Slaveholders to Identify Enslaved Ancestors”
– 19 September – Tom Jones, PhD, CG, CGL,”When Does Newfound Evidence
Overturn a Proved Conclusion?”
– 17 October, David Ouimette, CG, CGL,“Databases, Search Engines, and the
Genealogical Proof Standard”
– 21 November – Malissa Ruffner, JD, CG, “Research in Federal Records:
Some Assembly Required”
– 19 December – Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL, “The Law and the Reasonably
Exhaustive (Re)Search”

President Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CG, says, “The Board for Certification of Genealogists is excited to offer this webinar series that supports our mission to provide education for family historians. These webinars will address genealogy standards for research. By promoting a uniform standard of competence and ethics, the BCG endeavors to foster public confidence in genealogy.”

To register for any of these webinars, please visit our page at Legacy Family Tree Webinars:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. For more information contact:

View BCG’s past Legacy webinars at and For more information on BCG’s education opportunities, please visit:

Cari A. Taplin, CG

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

Diverse Communities: Finding Irish Immigrant Origins

Finding Irish Immigrant Origins

by Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS[1]

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and most people who research them hope to eventually learn from where those immigrants came. Successfully identifying an Irish immigrant’s point of origin depends on factors such as the immigrant’s religion, occupation, relative wealth, social prominence, migration path, and place of settlement; the period of immigration; and unique qualities of the given name and surname.

All the commonly used sources should be considered when tracing an Irish immigrant, but the usefulness of some of those sources may be limited:

  • Many poor famine-era Irish settled in cities and did not own property, and therefore might not be found in deeds, real estate tax rolls, or probate records.
  • Arrival and naturalization records from the period in which the majority of Irish immigrants came to the United States contain less detail than those for later periods.
  • Most Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. Depending on the diocese, Catholic sacramental registers may be in local custody with access restricted to parish staff. Locating and using church records, therefore, can be challenging.
  • City dwellers with common names are difficult to distinguish in directories and censuses, as many of them had similar occupations.

Irish places of origin are sometimes mentioned in obituaries, carved on grave markers, or listed in sacramental registers. While many vital, census, and military records state only “Ireland” as a place of birth, occasionally something more specific is found. Some researchers may never discover a source that names the place of origin; others may encounter multiple records identifying the place.

Irish immigrants typically had close ties to their places of origin. They identified with their townlands or towns. They may have settled near and socialized with other people who came from the same area. In some cases this was a result of “chain migration,” where later immigrants chose a place of settlement based on information received from those who went earlier. Frequently, the earliest immigrant in an Irish family was a young, single woman who could find employment as a live-in domestic servant—and therefore was able to save most of her earnings to pay for passage for another member of her family.

When no source is found naming an Irish place of birth, records related to the immigrant’s network of associates should be explored. An immigrant’s siblings, cousins, or other relatives may have settled in different areas and created different types of records that provide helpful information. A family member who was well-to-do may have been able to afford a grave marker naming a point of origin. A poor relative may have been admitted to an almshouse where records document a place of birth. Even searching for known family members who remained in Ireland can help pinpoint an immigrant’s roots.

Networks of associates extend beyond family. Witnesses, sponsors, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, and friends may have ties to the immigrant’s home. Some urban neighborhoods comprised people with common origins; some rural settlements were the result of group migration. Studying the history of the immigrant’s new home may provide general information, if not specifics, about a point of origin. Immigration history can also offer clues. For example, approximately two-thirds of the Irish who came to the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1814 were from Ulster province.[2]

Most of the population of Ireland remained in one location for generation after generation, so identifying a place in which a surname occurred historically can lead to successful identification of a point of origin. Some names, such as Kelly, are found all over Ireland, but others are found in specific counties or regions. If the immigrant’s family and associates include several people with surnames that can be linked to the same general area in Ireland, strong indirect evidence exists of a connection to that area.

Whether there is direct evidence about an immigrant’s point of origin, a few hints pointing to a general area, or no clue whatsoever, eventually Irish sources should be added to the research plan. As in United States research, records that are available and relevant depend on the specific situation: time period, location, religion, social status, and relative wealth. If a specific place is known or suspected, sources unique to that place should be pursued. Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and Ryan’s Irish Records include county-by-county lists of sources, and Flyleaf Press ( publishes a series of books addressing research in select Irish counties. Most Irish counties have one or more heritage centres staffed by people who are knowledgeable about resources for that area.

If little to no information is known about the immigrant’s home in Ireland, priority should be given to sources covering a large part of the population and having broad-ranging indexes, such as church records and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths.

Civil registration of vital events began in 1864 for all of Ireland,[3] and indexes cover the entire country.[4] Immigrants who left Ireland after the start of civil registration, therefore, can more easily be linked to their Irish origins than those who left earlier. Uncommon names are easier to work with and the more information that is known (about both the subject and his or her family) the better the chance for success. If an immigrant couple married in Ireland after the start of civil registration, then cross-referencing the surnames of the bride and groom in the index can sometimes point to an Irish area of interest. If the immigrant left before the start of civil registration, a search for records of siblings, cousins, or other relatives who remained in Ireland may prove worthwhile. Indexes are available through,,,, and the General Register Office of Northern Ireland.’s indexes link to images of the original records in many cases; additional images will be added in the future.

Church records cover a period prior to the start of civil registration, but finding and using the records is not always straightforward. Starting dates, coverage, and record locations vary. In rural Ireland, Roman Catholic registers begin about 1820, but most parishes have gaps in coverage. Presbyterian ministers were required to keep records beginning in 1819; registers predating that year are rare. Those from Church of Ireland parishes have earlier starting dates, but many were lost in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office.

Indexes and abstracts of Irish church records are available online. It is sometimes possible to locate a church record of a baptism or marriage when nothing more than names and approximate dates are known. For example, and offer indexes to collections of Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other churches. and provide indexes to digitized Roman Catholic registers found in the National Library of Ireland. Given their individual strengths and weaknesses, it is wise to check all known indexes.

Censuses for 1901 and 1911 are available for all of Ireland, but only fragments of earlier censuses survive. Existing census records may be searched using an index at the website of the National Archives of Ireland.[5]

Valuation records were compiled beginning in the nineteenth century. They were used to establish a uniform assessment of property to determine the amount of tax due. Records identify each holding’s occupier and immediate lessor. If an immigrant’s place of origin is not known, these country-wide tax valuation records can be used to identify places where the surname was found. John Grenham’s “Irish Surnames” tool allows users to search for civil parishes in which one or more related surnames appear together, offering a clue about possible origins.[6]

Sources and strategies for researching Irish immigrants in the United States are similar to those used for researching other immigrant groups, but identifying the immigrants’ points of origin can be more complicated than for later-arriving groups. Determining an immigrant’s Irish birthplace usually requires extensive research in U.S. records, studying the immigrant’s network of associates, and using indexed Irish records to pinpoint places of potential interest. Success sometimes comes quickly, but more often it requires hard work and careful analysis.


Suggested Reading


Falley, Margaret Dickson. Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research: A Guide to the Genealogical Records, Methods, and Sources in Ireland. 3 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1980.

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide. 4th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2012.

Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Radford, Dwight A., and Kyle J. Betit. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2001.

Reilly, James R. Richard Griffith and His Valuations of Ireland. Baltimore: Clearfield, 2007.

Ryan, James G. Irish Church Records: Their History, Availability, and Use in Family and Local History Research. 2nd ed. Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland: Flyleaf Press, 2001.

———. Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History. Rev. ed. Dublin: Flyleaf Press/Ancestry, 1999.

 Journals and Magazines

The Irish at Home and Abroad.

Published 1993–1999. For a subject index, see “Index to The Irish at Home and Abroad,” FamilySearch Wiki ( ).

The Irish Genealogist.

Published by the Irish Genealogical Research Society ( For a name index, 1937–2001, see .

Irish Lives Remembered.

Irish Roots.


Buggy, Joseph. Townland of Origin: Irish Genealogical Research in North America (blog).

Grenham, John. Irish Roots (blog).

Moughty, Donna. Donna’s Irish Genealogy Resources (blog).

Santry, Claire. Irish Genealogy News (blog).


General Register Office.

General Register Office of Northern Ireland.

Grenham, John. Irish Ancestors.

Irish Family History Centre.

National Archives of Ireland.

Irish Essay Writing Service.

National Library of Ireland.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

Santry, Claire. Irish Genealogy Toolkit.

Waldron, Paddy. Irish Civil Registration: How to Find Records of BMDs etc.


[1] With thanks to Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CG, and Suzanne McVetty, CG, FGBS, for their helpful suggestions. All URLs were valid as of 6 December 2016.

[2] Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 169–70.

[3] Non-Catholic marriages, however, were recorded beginning in 1845.

[4] Northern Ireland was formed in 1922. Beginning that year, vital records for the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are separate.

[5] “Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census fragments and substitutes, 1821–51,” National Archives of Ireland (

[6] John Grenham, “Irish Surnames,” Irish Ancestors (


The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.

Congratulations, Robert Johnson, CG!

Robert Johnson became Associate #1076 in June, 2016. A native of Minnesota he currently lives in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D. C.

Robert Johnson, CG

Robert Johnson, CG

Living in the mid-Atlantic area, he does research in that region, which is the home of many of his mother’s ancestors, folks who were mainly English, Scots-Irish, Irish, German and French-Canadian. He makes good use of his proximity to the National Archives. His heart, though, is in the Upper Midwest and his father’s Scandinavian ancestry which is Bob’s area of focus and expertise. He speaks Swedish and does translation work in addition to genealogical research. He has a J. D. degree and is a practicing attorney but will soon be moving back to Minnesota to be a full-time genealogist doing Scandinavian research. His business website is

Bob completed a host of courses before applying for certification: the Boston University Certificate Program; the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy Forensic Genealogy Institute (CAFG FGI); the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed); the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh (GRIP); and the National Genealogical Society (NGS) Home Study Course. He says the classes had an impact: “I have absolutely made numerous changes in how I present my work products and myself to clients over the course of preparation for acquiring certification.” When asked about the difficulty of preparing a portfolio, Bob replied, “I think the standards and emphasis on rigorous analysis gets you to 90%, but the last 10% is the art of the profession. Feeling sufficient confidence in presenting my work to judges for evaluation made the process seem harder for me.” But, his advice is: “Certainly ensure that you have done everything recommended by BCG, but then just do it—submit your portfolio. I, and many friends and acquaintances, stayed on the clock or in preparation, for far too long. I still would have preferred to wait until my portfolio and I were both perfect, but apparently even today that is at least a few weeks away yet.” Nevertheless, we see he has achieved certification.

Many genealogists have “former lives.” Bob says, “I have worked in law and history fields and both have been significant in helping me to develop analytic and research skills. I also trained as a chef, the skills of which have come in handy at a few society/association meetings where an injection of sugar is just the fix for overworked volunteers.” For him “genealogical research is like a great mystery where I get to act as the detective. I love that it is not easy and that I have to puzzle through new things, about which I have to learn. The combination of solo work backed by a network of supportive colleagues fits my employment temperament exactly.”

Calling himself an eternal optimist, Bob does not use the term “brick wall.” Bringing the standard of “reasonably exhaustive research” to mind, he looks at difficult research problems as projects that simply need more time devoted to them.

There are a few other things we need to know about Bob. “When not searching for ancestors who seem to try and avoid me, I am searching after birds that fly away from my attempts at photographing them, or I am stalking trout that swim away from my well-crafted and gently-cast flies. I am afraid to walk on the gratings on city sidewalks. And when I have the time, I read good books and watch terrible B-Horror films.”

Good luck with your transition to full-time genealogy, Bob, and congratulations!

by Nora Galvin, CG

The words Certified Genealogist are a registered certification mark, and the designations CG, CGL, and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.