Ancestry.com’s Grip on Genealogy: Finding Free Alternatives

In case you’ve missed out on pop culture the past few years, genealogy is currently in vogue.  Crafty marketing attempts spearheaded by Ancestry.com dug out a nice corner of the short American attention span, with big TV commercial and Internet advertising pushes and a TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? that digs into the family histories of celebrities.  It’s became part of the reality show landscape, and millions of people try their hand at family research every year.  Casual genealogists can be forgiven for thinking at Ancestry.com is the entirety of the field, considering how Ancestry has made itself the go-to brand name.  But the family history giant is not free, and luckily is not the be-all and end-all to family history.

Why Does Ancestry Charge?

The reality is that Ancestry is undertaking a very costly endeavor by digitizing historical documents.  I once interviewed for a position as part of the project chain that brings these documents to the website so the average user can find them.  Ancestry.com works out exclusivity deals, where they partner with government and private institutions to scan the documents.  This takes a lot of time and manpower.  So the deals protect their investment.  Essentially, Ancestry.com does the grunt work and they’re granted X number of years to be the exclusive home to the documents.  Hence why you have to pay to access the 1940 U.S. Census.  It can be frustrating if you’re broke or can’t justify a monthly fee for a hobby, but it’s understandable why Ancestry.com works out these deals.  

The other big perk is obvious.  Ancestry.com can be a one-stop shop for casual genealogists.  They do host a ton of information and images that help researchers, and boast a fairly active community of researchers.  There are limits to what Ancestry knows, and finding relevant information can be a pain sometimes.  Fear not, there are alternatives out there!

Free Alternatives to Ancestry.com

My personal favorite is Familysearch.org.  Run by the Mormon Church, it’s a really breathtaking attempt to corral all of the family history in the world in one place.  And it’s entirely free.  The only problem you might run into is the fact that access to some documents is restricted to pay sites.  Usually the information is still there, but you won’t be able to see the actual copy of an image to verify.  

If you’re looking for transcripts or data, but not the original images, Familysearch.org is fantastic.  I’ve been using it for years and it’s helped me start new research into branches of the family tree.  I still use it to do quick searches to see if anything new has been digitized relating to my ancestors.  This is, without a doubt in my mind, the best free source for genealogy information.

There are other websites, of course.  Mostly narrow in interest.  If you type in a Google search, you should be able to find a database, even if it’s small, of information relating to military ancestors, literary accomplishments, government documents, etc.  This is where the field of “big” history can often cross paths with genealogy.  For instance, there are a plethora of sites that list rosters of military units.  Websites like SpanAmWar.com list rosters of Spanish-American War units, for instance.  They are not always complete or accurate, but they’re a great place to start.

USGenWeb.org is another great site for county and town histories, though the content is very hit and miss.  Some areas will have a lot of information, other counties or towns won’t.  It all depends, and very little of it seems to be complete, but again, it’s a great place to run a quick search and see what pops up.

Library and Archival Research

This is the least feasible for most researchers, but I feel I still need to include it.  Local libraries usually have a genealogy section, with family history books, government documents, cemetery lists, church histories and newspaper on microfilm.  Get familiar with the microfilm machine, it will be your friend.

But most people don’t live where their ancestors lived, and local libraries have limited resources.  They simply don’t have everything.  Regional archives and university libraries can be huge helps in this regard.  They often have digitized collections, if you can’t visit them, and they’re usually very helpful and friendly. 

This is probably the most rewarding way for an traditionalist like me to dig up information.  The Internet makes research easy, but there’s still something wonderful about holding a 150 year old book in your hand and seeing the name of an ancestor written down.  Consult with libraries and archives in the regions where your ancestors lived.  They usually have an online catalog or a page where you can see what they have in their holdings.  Identify things of interest, feel free to email the librarians and archivists for advice or questions, and then plan a trip.  You’ll be glad you did.

Find Genealogy Help

You can always find the help of a professional genealogist at ProGenealogists.com, but you’ll have to pay.  They’ll conduct long-distance research for you, or you can always shoot me requests for research in the Mid-Michigan area.  I’m familiar with the resources around there and would be more than happy to work something out to help you go further back in your family tree.

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Bias in History: Old Views of the Spanish-American War Die Hard

Every once and a while I did through old text-books from my history classes.  Re-selling them is a pitiful experience, and rather than lose a downright silly amount of money by doing that, I kept them.  A good historian, after all, needs a good library.  I’ll admit that sometimes I find the study of history to be frustrating.  To really find an untouched topic, or approach it in a new way, is extraordinarily difficult these days.  The historian thrives on arguing with other writers, and lately I’ve been having trouble finding anything worth arguing about.  Until I found my old copy of Readings in American Military History, a collection of essays edited by James M. Morris.

I remember these essays as being very influential for me.  They were assigned undergrad reading, so in a lot of cases they were my introduction to some real historical arguments.  But now that I’ve advanced, one essay in particular stood out to me as either poorly researched (no footnotes, so I can’t tell) or biased in such a way as to render the entire interpretation moot. 

“Our First Southeast Asian War” by David R. Kohler and James Wensyel seeks to draw parallels between the Vietnam War and the Philippine Insurrection.  I’ll admit, when I first read this essay years ago, it formed the basis of what I knew about the Philippine Insurrection and to this day I regale people with superficial comparisons in conversation.  But now I wonder if maybe this whole interpretation is wrong, and my doubt stems from the authors citing flawed theories early on in their essay.

You can’t talk about the Philippine Insurrection without prefacing it with the Spanish-American War.  Kohler and Wensyel do this, but they promote the theory that the war was brought on by yellow journalism and business interests, a leftist interpretation that has fallen out of favor because…well…there isn’t any evidence that yellow journalism influenced anyone in authority, and the business interests were against war.  Further, the authors seem to pin the blame for the war on America.  With regards to pre-war negotiations over the revolution in Cuba, “Spain initially rejected the humiliation of surrounding its arms in the field but then capitulated on all points.  The Americans were not satisfied.”  The rest of modern scholarship, since the ‘80s, has emphasized President McKinley’s patience.  He was so anti-war he alienated members of his own party like Theodore Roosevelt.  When he declared that “I have exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition. . .at our doors,” he really meant it.  Spain had indeed made concessions, but never carried them out.  Spain was overwhelmingly two-faced during the whole proceedings.  In reality, then, McKinley was far more justified in giving up on diplomacy than Kohler and Wensyel make it seem.

I haven’t finished re-reading the article yet, but I’m pretty skeptical and disappointed already.  It seems that the Spanish-American War just can’t catch a break in the eyes of historians.  Kohler and Wensyel seem geared up to carry an outdated leftist interpretation of the Philippine Insurrection.  I’m not familiar with anything else these two have written, so maybe I’m way off the mark here in my judgment, but it makes me wonder just how accurate some of our conceptions of the Philippine Insurrection may be.

 

Bias in History: Old Views of the Spanish-American War Die Hard

Every once and a while I did through old text-books from my history classes.  Re-selling them is a pitiful experience, and rather than lose a downright silly amount of money by doing that, I kept them.  A good historian, after all, needs a good library.  I’ll admit that sometimes I find the study of history to be frustrating.  To really find an untouched topic, or approach it in a new way, is extraordinarily difficult these days.  The historian thrives on arguing with other writers, and lately I’ve been having trouble finding anything worth arguing about.  Until I found my old copy of Readings in American Military History, a collection of essays edited by James M. Morris.

I remember these essays as being very influential for me.  They were assigned undergrad reading, so in a lot of cases they were my introduction to some real historical arguments.  But now that I’ve advanced, one essay in particular stood out to me as either poorly researched (no footnotes, so I can’t tell) or biased in such a way as to render the entire interpretation moot. 

“Our First Southeast Asian War” by David R. Kohler and James Wensyel seeks to draw parallels between the Vietnam War and the Philippine Insurrection.  I’ll admit, when I first read this essay years ago, it formed the basis of what I knew about the Philippine Insurrection and to this day I regale people with superficial comparisons in conversation.  But now I wonder if maybe this whole interpretation is wrong, and my doubt stems from the authors citing flawed theories early on in their essay.

You can’t talk about the Philippine Insurrection without prefacing it with the Spanish-American War.  Kohler and Wensyel do this, but they promote the theory that the war was brought on by yellow journalism and business interests, a leftist interpretation that has fallen out of favor because…well…there isn’t any evidence that yellow journalism influenced anyone in authority, and the business interests were against war.  Further, the authors seem to pin the blame for the war on America.  With regards to pre-war negotiations over the revolution in Cuba, “Spain initially rejected the humiliation of surrounding its arms in the field but then capitulated on all points.  The Americans were not satisfied.”  The rest of modern scholarship, since the ‘80s, has emphasized President McKinley’s patience.  He was so anti-war he alienated members of his own party like Theodore Roosevelt.  When he declared that “I have exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition. . .at our doors,” he really meant it.  Spain had indeed made concessions, but never carried them out.  Spain was overwhelmingly two-faced during the whole proceedings.  In reality, then, McKinley was far more justified in giving up on diplomacy than Kohler and Wensyel make it seem.

I haven’t finished re-reading the article yet, but I’m pretty skeptical and disappointed already.  It seems that the Spanish-American War just can’t catch a break in the eyes of historians.  Kohler and Wensyel seem geared up to carry an outdated leftist interpretation of the Philippine Insurrection.  I’m not familiar with anything else these two have written, so maybe I’m way off the mark here in my judgment, but it makes me wonder just how accurate some of our conceptions of the Philippine Insurrection may be.

 

Book Review: The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert

With sixty-three pages of endnotes and boasting a sixty-one page index, Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War is a meticulously researched book, a powerful example of “bottom-up” history.  Clocking in at 828 pages (not including the endnotes and index) The Holocaust is a heavy book, both in weight and in content.  But if you’re not a professional historian don’t let the page length scare you off.  It reads easy and you don’t need a strong background in the topic to follow it.  In fact, aside from Night by Elie Wiesel, this is the only book on the Holocaust I’ve ever read to date.

Gilbert comes to the table with a personal stake in his subject.  It’s hard for someone writing about the Holocaust to stay distant and neutral in any case, but Gilbert reveals in a brief passage that a distant relative of his died in the hell of a concentration camp.  In fact, the entire project doesn’t try to be anything more than an accounting for as many Jews as possible. 

One of his favorite sources was a man named Emanuel Ringleblum, a man who took it upon himself to record as much as he could of the Warsaw ghetto and his life at Pawiak prison.  Ringleblum, like several other Jews mentioned in The Holocaust, knew that the experiences of the Jews would shock most of mankind.  Like the scribes of old in Jewish memory, he hoped to write and record the Jewish trials and tribulations.  His accounts are extraordinarily detailed and give us a good picture of life in the ghettos.  His letters were found in a glass jar near a crematorium.  Ringleblum didn’t survive the war. 

Wherever he could Gilbert interviewed survivors, trying to continue what Ringleblum and others began during the dark years.  The Holocaust is short of context but great in detail.  Gilbert actively tries to include the names of as many Jews as he can.  And in one paragraph he appeals to the readers to help find relatives of a Holocaust survivor who continued his search for family into the 1980s.  This is both a great strength and a weakness of the book.  It feels almost wrong to say this, but Gilbert records deportations, arrests, beatings conducted by the Nazis at every turn and it isn’t always a good thing. Gilbert also includes the names of every Nazi guard and sympathizer whenever he knows it, the reverse side of his recording of Jewish names.  By identifying the criminals he places blame and guilt and removes the impersonal façade that sometimes comes along with war crimes.  But often times the Nazi tactics didn’t change.  The Nazis were often predictable and routine in their executions and harassment.  So at times The Holocaust can be repetitive.  But as a historical tool to preserve the names of the victims and the criminals, this book is remarkable. 

The other downside from this “bottom-up” approach to history is that context is sometimes missing.  The agency of humans in the Holocaust can sometimes be lost. Hitler seems to be mentioned only a handful of times, as are Himmler and Eichmann.  Sometimes it seems almost as if the Holocaust was a string of random acts of violence.  And The Holocaust could have used some more detail when discussing inconsistencies in Nazi behavior.  I would have liked to have known why small acts of resistance on the part of Jews could result in instant execution sometimes, and drawn out deportations in other instances.  Gilbert could have tried to explain these instances.  Were the Germans at one site short on ammunition?  Were they more humane than at others?  Was there no standard operating procedure?  To use another example, Gilbert doesn’t explain why it took a relatively long time to put down the Warsaw Uprisings.  To be fair, the subtitle of the book makes clear this is a book about the Jewish experience, not Nazi procedures.  Still, a little more detail might have shed more light on Nazi motivations at the camps. 

The holes in his research become clear when dealing with the Jewish resistance movements.  While he spends several chapters dealing with the subject, the reader never gets a good feel for how the movement operated outside of the ghettos and concentration camps.  Gilbert includes lots of examples of Jews escaping from the camps or the death trains and marches, but there isn’t a whole lot of context.  The reader gets the feeling that each Jew was on his or her own in the world, which was true in a lot of cases.  But there were active partisan groups, and I’m sure in 1985, when the book was written, there were plenty of survivors with whom to talk.  If Gilbert wanted to write a definitive history of Jews in Europe, as the subtitle suggests, he could have done more with the forest partisans or with the Jews serving in Allied armies.  Still, among historians Gilbert’s The Holocaust is considered definitive, and overlooking the limitations of the narrative is easy.  The book is more detailed and more powerful than many other books I’ve personally read about massacres and genocides.

If you’re new to the Holocaust, read this book.  If you’re an experienced World War II hand, read this book.  At the time of its publication it did more for Holocaust research than most other historical works.  To this day it remains the definitive account of the Jewish experience, though other works undoubtedly have elaborated on events Gilbert glosses over.  Gilbert does an admirable job recording the names of Jewish victims and preserves their memory wherever possible.  He does a great service to the Jewish people, continuing what the victims themselves started by writing in journals and on scraps of paper.  Even greater is the service Gilbert does to mankind as a whole.  We may say “never forget,” but Gilbert gives us the tool to make sure we never do.

American History Periodization: Time for New Definitions?

I’m about to drop a bomb on you.  Ready?  History is everything.  When I first started studying history in college my professors liked to emphasize this. Apparently they thought that the general public thought of history in very limited terms, namely dates, great leaders and wars.  The process of studying everything from a historical viewpoint never really “started.”  It’s always been there, but it accelerated (here in America at least) in the 1950s and ’60s with the New Left and a focus on racial history, women’s history, environmental history and the like.  Now the study of history is a badly fractured field.  (Cue my Jerry Seinfeld impression) Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But it does lead to super-specialization that hurts the field as a whole, perhaps more than specialized study helps.  One of the more traditional ways to study history as been periodization.  That is, the breaking up of history into digestible bits of time.  

Periodization is a very fuzzy thing.  Historians love to be revisionist, and to strength or shrink periodization forms the basis of several seminal works.  Historians have long argued over when the Roman Empire really collapsed.  Should we count the collapse of the western empire?  Or should we count the fall of the Byzantines centuries later?  You get the idea.  In American history these debates are less frequent and there seems to be a more general consensus about periodization. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

The general gist of American history periods goes like this:  

  • The Colonial Era (ca.1600-1776): Britain colonizes what will become the United States, up to the Revolution.
  • The Revolutionary Era (1776-1789): The war, followed by the Founders creating a modern republic up until the creation of the Constitution.
  • Constitutional Era (1789-1815): Creation of the Constitution through the War of 1812.  Admittedly, I’m not sure if this is an accepted term or not.  This seems to be another vague era.
  • Era of Good Feelings (1815-1829): An era defined mostly by politics.
  • Jacksonian Era (1829-1837): Indian Wars and the democratization of American politics.
  • The Civil War Era (1840ish-1865): Another vague definition encompassing the careers of the people involved in the Civil War and the antebellum south.
  • Reconstruction (1863-1876): Rebuilding the South after the Civil War.
  • Gilded Age (1870s): Lots of political corruption.
  • Indian Wars and Expansion (1870s-1890)

And so on and so forth.  It’s messy and there are a lot of deviations depending on what sort of history you’re studying.  But here is my concern:  We need a good definition for the era of 1898-1941.  It contains the Progressive Era, the “Imperialist” Era, the New Deal Era, the Jazz Age, etc.  On paper, these things seem like they are quite different, but I contend that there are enough similarities to consider them all part of one long age.  

The year 1898 seems like a good jumping off point, as it marked the emergence of America as a nation with world-wide interests.  But the main issues of the day stayed similar throughout this era.  War, international cooperation, immigration, the foundations of modern technology like the automobile and the airplane, race conflict, the Roosevelts and labor movements all stayed fairly consistent during these years.  Politics, which often lend a defining influence to a historical era, stayed more or less the same from the 1890s up to F.D.R.

So what should we say about this era? I find my interests gravitate toward here but I find it difficult to describe to people what exactly it is that I study. It’s like a pre-modern, yet still modern, age.  A strange hybrid of old and new ideas.  Maybe the Whirlwind Era? Faced with tremendous changes the U.S. struggled to maintain a national identity rooted in tradition without being totally conservative.  

The term most often used for the era is the Progressive Era, but I’m just not sure that encompasses everything as well as it could.  And it certainly doesn’t cover the entirety in terms of years.

 

President Obama’s Fifth State of the Union Address: K.I.S.S. (Keep It Short, Stupid!)

The American Presidency Project does a fantastic job keeping a record of interesting stats relating to State of the Union addresses.  For instance, they’ve tracked the lengths of each State of the Union speech since 1966, and averaged them out.  President Obama ranks as the second-lengthiest speaker at 1 hour, 3 minutes, yet I personally find his addresses to be quite underwhelming.  For a man with a reputation as a great speaker, his State of the Union addresses are unusually dry and oftentimes lacking in any sort of real vision. To be fair, State of the Union (SOTU) speeches generally are less memorable, but usually the audience should walk away with a sense of purpose or knowledge about where the country is headed.  And in that regard, he usually fails to hit the mark.

President George W. Bush’s 1st State of the Union (SOTU) was memorable because it was the first after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  At just under 48 minutes, it was actually his shortest speech but perhaps his most compelling.  At a time of heightened crisis, Bush’s speechwriters chose not to overwhelm the audience with words.  Shorter speeches, after all, tend to pack more of a punch and stay fresh longer in the minds of the public.  President Ronald Reagan, a celebrated and warm speaker, kept his even shorter, averaging about 40 minutes per speech.

President Lyndon Johnson averaged about 54 minutes of talking time.  Only his 1967 speech was notably longer, at just over 71 minutes.

More revealing, perhaps, is that recent presidents, from Clinton through Obama, have lengthened their word counts.  Clinton routinely wrote 6-7,000 words, Bush 5-6,000 and Obama 7,000.  Yet the quality does not increase.  Perhaps Obama and future presidents would be wise to consider reducing the length of their speeches in both word count and delivery time in order to hold the interest of a public with a declining attention span and enable the people to really rally around an idea or a policy push in the future.  The older presidents often wrote length 15,000 word+ statements to be read to Congress, but that was a different age and audience.  As the State of the Union becomes more about show, about setting the stage for the president’s political party to win elections, it becomes less necessary to really go into great detail.  Perhaps President Obama could regain the attention of the American public if he pursued the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Short, Stupid!).

Book Review – Yanks by John Eisenhower

Sadly, John Eisenhower died only weeks ago, a fact I was unaware of when I picked up this book from my local library.  Yanks was the first book written by Eisenhower that I’ve read, and one of the few books I’ve read about the Great War.  At 352 pages, including the index and bibliography, the book is a quick read.  Perhaps a little too quick, as it tries to synthesize a great deal of information between the covers with a varying degree of success.

Yanks is limited in scope to the experience of the American Expeditionary Force, a subject dear to John Eisenhower’s heart.  Eisenhower was the son of former President Dwight Eisenhower, who first cut his teeth in World War I, along with other World War II luminaries Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall and George Patton.  That means the brunt of the subject falls between the years 1917 and 1918, the months of American involvement in World War I.

The challenge of supplying and moving the American Expeditionary Force takes up a decent chunk of the book, but the fact that this challenge was overcome was a testament to General “Blackjack” Pershing’s determination and Major General James Harbord, who succeeded Pershing as head of the Services of Supply.  The creation of an American Expeditionary Force out of nothing, and its supply and growth along congested French roads and rail tracks was something of a miracle.  In this area Eisenhower excels at showing just how important this feat was in growing the strength of the A.E.F. and posing a threat to future German operations.

Eisenhower seems most critical of the American military leadership, especially among the older division commanders like Omar Bundy.  Unfortunately, the short length of the book prevents Eisenhower from going into great detail about exactly why he and their contemporaries deemed these officers unfit.  When he does deal with these issues, they are usually dealt with in a cursory manner which leaves the reader wanting more.

His portrayal of the American Expeditionary Force in battle leaves something to be desired as well.  I’ve read a great deal of military history, and Eisenhower falls prey to inundating the reader with unit designations over narrative.  By this I mean that he will describe a series of events in a battle, but sometimes forget to mention why a unit was in a particular location to begin with.  His description of the Sedan Affair falls prey to this, where some details are introduced but others left other which leaves an incomplete picture of how things unfolded.

On this last point I will reveal a little of my ignorance toward World War I.  I know what happened in most places, but am not familiar with the “cast of characters” like I am with the American Civil War’s Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and so on.  But it seems to me that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.’s experiences could have made an interest subplot in the narrative, yet he garners only a small handful of mentions, usually with no context.  Like his father, Ted Roosevelt, Jr. was an interesting man, and I assume his regiment would have had some interesting experiences as well.

Undoubtedly Eisenhower has a soft spot for the American Expeditionary Force, but he does lay a few criticisms at the feet of General John J. Pershing.  His criticisms never run too deeply, however.  Eisenhower accused Pershing of being too insistent upon maintaining an independent American command, even while admitting it was integral to American preparations for World War I continuing into 1919.  During his treatment of the final Meuse-Argonne offensive he blames Pershing’s stubbornness for unnecessary bloodshed, but Eisenhower never takes an overly critical view.  Clearly he was deeply impressed by the accomplishments of Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force in the face of stiff German opposition and logistical nightmares.

Despite Eisenhower’s fairly loving treatment of the A.E.F., in the end he doesn’t convince the reader that the Americans really had much impact on the war.  He doesn’t settle the ongoing debate over how important the American army was to turning the tide of war against Germany.  He admits in his epilogue that Pershing’s armies fought well, but doesn’t argue that they were in pivotal battles that destroyed the ability for Germany to resist.  In fact, the reader gets the impression that the American soldiers’ biggest contribution was the number of soldiers.  Britain and France wanted American soldiers to fill their depleted ranks, and while the Americans remained mostly in independent units, their numbers probably helped spread the burden of defense against German offensives nonetheless.  Their biggest contribution, Eisenhower argues, was that the A.E.F. grew stronger every day, unlike the British, French and German armies.  The threat of new offensives in 1919, backed by a muscular American fighting force under Pershing’s aggressive leadership, must have played a role in Germany’s call for an armistice in October of 1918.  Germany could have gone on fighting into 1919, but could not have won against an even stronger American force.

In the end, Yanks is a good read, but leaves something to be desired.  The details of the battles are not always clear-cut, and sometimes context is missing in discussions about operations.  Yanks doesn’t always succeed as an introductory read to World War I, despite its small size, and this can be disappointing, but at the same time it’s not overly complicated and the reader will finish the book with a better understanding of how American mobilized a large Army, sent it overseas and helped defeat one of the strongest militaries the world had ever seen to that point.

Further Reading about Yanks by John Eisenhower:

Yanks at Goodreads.com 

Review of Yanks by John Eisenhower at the New York Times.