Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Best Friends Forever? Not Quite. The Original Bride Wars.

The best of friends, for a time: May Ellis (left)
and Emma Fallows (right) sitting on the back
patio of Emma's parents house
In the early 20th century, two young ladies, Emma Sarah Fallows and May Melson Ellis, were the best of friends. They met at teaching school, attended as many social events together as possible, taught at the same elementary school, and even lived together during that time. They were inseparable. But in 1913, something suddenly happened to cause a split between them, and their friendship never recovered. What was it?

My great grandmother, Emma Sarah Godshall (nee Fallows), left a wealth of information and photos of herself behind. Her family was somewhat wealthy and could therefore easily afford what was probably a Kodak Brownie, which they used to take dozens of candid photos of their family and friends that survive today. They were also frequently mentioned in the society section of their local newspaper, the Ambler Gazette in Pennsylvania, for some of the most mundane sounding notices sometimes. I can't imagine who at the time would have been interested in knowing about every vacation they took, for example, but I'm glad they reported it because these are the little snippets of information that give me insight into my ancestor's lives in ways most people don't get. And it's these mentions that could explain why Emma and her best friend parted ways so abruptly.

In September of 1904, sixteen year old Emma and seventeen year old May arrived at Millersville Normal School in Pennsylvania, what was then a teaching school. Today, it's called Millersville University and offers degrees in many subjects. May being a year older than Emma may have been a second year student, but for Emma it would be her first time living apart from her parents in a place were she scarcely knew a soul. It must have been daunting, but Emma was an outgoing girl by all accounts, and probably made friends quickly. Although we don't know exactly when Emma and May met, we know they were good friends by the time Emma graduated in June of 1907. After this point, Emma is mentioned in the paper as spending time with May almost every month, and I suspect the lack of reports of Emma's friends before this only had to do with the graduation milestone (there are always fewer social reports of children with less details).

May Ellis (left) and Emma Fallows (right) sitting on front
porch of Emma's parent's house

Emma (left) and May (right) at the beach in Ocean City, MD

The girls quickly became practically inseparable. May was from Delmar, Delaware, and Emma was from Wyndmoor, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, but that didn't stop them from regularly visiting each other and taking trips to the beach together. By 1910, they were living together with Emma's parents and working at the same elementary school in Wyndmoor. 

In December of 1911, Emma became engaged to Chester Harold Godshall, better known as Harold, or just C.H. They had been dating since 1908, when the first mention of them spending time together at a card game Emma hosted can be found in March, and when Harold began showing up in photos with Emma (clearly as a couple) sometime in spring or summer (they were on the beach at Ocean City, Maryland). Also featured in many of these photos are May and her beau, Boyd Morse Frymire. The four of them were tight, frequently taking trips together to places like Valley Forge and Ocean City, Maryland, and taking pictures of their memories along the way. Emma described them as "The Bunch" at one point. Boyd and Harold were both Civil Engineers and graduates of Bucknell University, so it's likely they were friends before meeting the girls. Maybe Emma and Harold introduced May to Boyd, or the other way around.

"The Bunch" at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, 1908. Top photo: Emma (left), Boyd, and May (right). Bottom photo: Emma (left), Harold, and May (right).

On May 31, 1913, Emma took a break from planning her wedding, scheduled for November 11 of that year, to visit her best friend in Delmar for a house party May was hosting for several of her friends. She must have been excited to tell her friend all about her wedding plans, but Emma was about to receive a shock. Something changed in their friendship right around this time, and I believe it happened at this house party, because this is the last ever mention of the girls spending time together. They did not even attend each other's weddings, let alone stand by as each other's maid/matron of honor.

Coincidentally, only a few short days after the house party, May's parents announced her engagement to Boyd at a dinner party on June 3, probably attended by May's parent's friends this time. The next day, the announcement appeared in a Wilmington, Delaware newspaper. It seems likely that the house party May hosted for her friends was to announce to them her engagement to Boyd, and it seems significant that it coincided with the termination of her friendship with Emma.

Emma and May (with friends) "At Fretz's" place (Florence Fretz, Emma's Maid of Honor). Top: May (far left), Emma (second from left). Bottom: Emma (far left), and May (middle). Florence may be the other woman in the photos, or may be taking the photo.

But why would May announcing her engagement to Boyd cause the end of her friendship with Emma? It's unlikely Emma didn't approve of May's choice in Boyd because there are many photos of them all together looking happy and having a good time. And after all, Emma may have been the one to introduce May to Boyd. Could it be that Emma, after being engaged and planning a wedding for a lengthy two years, was offended that May would not only get engaged just a few months before her wedding, but also plan to marry before Emma? May and Boyd quickly married on September 17, 1913, less than four months after their announcement, and a mere two months before Emma was married to Harold on November 11. If you're thinking that May and Boyd married so quickly because maybe she was pregnant, there's no evidence of that. Their first recorded child wasn't born until August 3, 1914, nearly 11 months after their wedding night. Although it's possible May had a miscarriage not long after the wedding, and then quickly conceived again in what would have to be November, we can't assume that's what happened.

Whatever the reason for May fast-tracking her wedding, Emma absolutely might have felt that May was stealing her limelight by marrying so soon before her own wedding. Even today, there are women who would be upset about that, but particularly during a time of such formality and propriety, it could have been viewed as May upstaging her friend. There were social rules to be followed and this was definitely a bit of a slap in the face of etiquette. 

"The Bunch" - Emma taking a photo of Harold (second from
left), May, and Boyd (right) with unknown man (far left)

Emma's name is notably absent from May's wedding announcement in September. Although it doesn't mention the wedding party by name, it does name some of the guests who attended, and Emma is not among them. A week before Emma's wedding, she spent the weekend at the house of Florence Fretz in Bucks County, another long-time friend who also happened to be Harold's cousin. I imagine this was likely Emma's bridal shower since Florence was the one to serve as Emma's Maid of Honor. By the time Emma's wedding is announced in the paper, there is no mention of May among any of the guests or bridal party.

To my knowledge, the two never reconciled. May would go on to have two children with Boyd and moved all around Pennsylvania over the years. Emma and Harold also had two children and stayed in the Philadelphia suburbs. Maybe starting their own families and living in different places, they might have gradually drifted apart anyway, but it seems like such a shame that they never even kept in touch by letter, or introduced their children. While I can understand Emma feeling upstaged by her friend, it feels like a forgivable offense to me, and I would never begrudge a friend the happiness of her wedding, whatever the timing.

Emma (third from left) with friends during one of her visits
to May's home in Delmar, DE. May is probably taking
the picture.

Emma (left) and May (second from right) with friends
(looks like Boyd is on the far right)

Emma quit teaching full time after her marriage, as was typical of the times, but she did periodically substitute, and was active in her community and even politics. In 1938, she was the Secretary of Springfield-Whitemarsh League of Women Voters, and throughout the 1940s, she was first the Corresponding Secretary and eventually President of Eastern Montgomery County Council of Republican Women, as well as a representative of Wyndmoor Service Organization (a group that supported their local soldiers in the WWII armed forces, such as by sending care packages). She died December 18, 1954.

May's married life is less detailed, and it's unclear how her split with Emma effected their husbands, who were equally good friends with each other. Did they keep in touch, or did they side with their wives and never speak to each other again? The glimpses we get of our ancestor's lives are never enough, and always leave me with more questions that will probably never be answered.

"The Bunch" goofing off at an unknown location. Top photo, from left to right: Boyd, May, Emma, Harold. Bottom photo, from left to right: Emma, Harold, May, Boyd.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

10 Reasons Indentured Servitude Was NOT "White Slavery"

Now and again I see people who bring up "white slavery" in US history when what they really mean is indentured servitude. Indentured servants were mostly uneducated Europeans who were contracted into the sometimes lengthy and harsh service of an American employer to pay off the debt of their ship passage to the US. It's true they were frequently taken advantage of, had few rights, and often treated poorly, but there were fundamental legal differences between indentured servitude and chattel slavery in the US.

1. Most indentured servants went willingly. While the terms of their service were often misrepresented, these were primarily people who wanted to immigrate but couldn't afford the ship passage, so they agreed to let an American employer pay their passage fee in return for their service to pay off the debt. Granted, some of them only wanted to go to America because it was the only way to escape religious persecution in Europe. Others were criminals who were sent to indentured servitude in the colonies instead of being sent to jail. There have also been some recorded cases of Europeans being kidnapped and involuntarily indentured to the Americas, but that was rare and more importantly, illegal. Most indentured servants chose the path they did, even if that path was misrepresented or their alternate choices were worse, it is not the same thing as being physically forced or born into legal slavery on a mass scale.

2. The duration of their service was finite and once complete, they were even given a payment of "freedom dues" to start them off in their new, free life. This may have been cash, new clothing, or even a parcel of land, and therefore some historians argue that at this point, these servants would have been better off than those who came to America on their own dime. It's true that many indentured servants had years tacked onto their contract if they tried to escape or otherwise broke their contract, and others were so maltreated that they did not survive to the end of their contract. But many also not only lived out their contract, but prospered afterwards because of it. The typical length of indentured servitude was 4-7 years, which is nothing like a lifetime of slavery.

3. Indentured servitude could not be inherited like hereditary slavery. An indentured servant's child was not automatically indentured too. In fact, indentured servants were not allowed to marry without their employer's permission, which was typically not granted (because this would mean more expense for the employer, without an extra laborer) so most of them did not even have children until released from their service. An employer could tack more time onto the service of a female servant if she became pregnant, but her child could not be indentured to the employer. Theoretically, a cruel employer could have raped a female indenture and then used her pregnancy to extend her contract so he could continue raping her. But the child was still free and more importantly, this was an illegal abuse of the system, compared to the hereditary slavery that blacks endured, generation after generation, on top of the legally sanctioned and encouraged "breeding" they were forced into to perpetuate their hereditary slavery.

6. There were several acts passed by the British and US government which deterred and reduced indentured servitude and had no impact on slavery. These included the Passenger Vessels Act 1803 and the abolition of Debtor's Prison in 1833. If indentured servitude and chattel slavery were the same thing, why would laws influence one but not the other?

7. While the rights of indentured servants were limited (they could not vote, for example), they did have certain rights that slaves did not. Indentures had the right to medical care, food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the right to take abusive employers to court, none of which were rights afforded to slaves. Of course, these rights may not have always been well met, and suing an employer was probably not realistic since indentures wouldn't have had the money to hire a lawyer or file a law suit, but the legal distinction is still important in terms of how the law viewed indentured servants versus slaves. Slaves did not have the legal right to sue anyone, and slave owners had the legal right to treat their slaves however they wished, including abuse. If a slave owner wanted to starve a slave to death, he had the legal right to do that, whereas this would have been consider murder if done to an indentured servant.

8. As African slavery grew in the US, indentured servitude declined and their work load became different from those of slaves; they were given lighter and more skilled work. This meant the working conditions of indentures improved and they may have even gained skills they could use to prosper once their contract was finished. The very reason slavery grew and indenturing declined was because slavery was absolute in its lack of freedom, whereas indenturing was not, meaning plantation owners got perpetual free labor out of slavery, whereas they didn't with indentured servants, once again highlighting the difference between them.

9. An indentured servant's contract could be sold to a new employer, but the servant themselves could not be sold or owned as property as slaves were. This may have only been a legal distinction which made no difference to the servant in reality, but it shows how the law viewed indentured servants as human beings, but slaves as property.

10. Indentured servants were recorded as free on the US census. On the early US censuses, "free white" people were grouped by gender and age, then there was a category for slaves, and then one for "all other free persons". The enumerator's instructions were to record indentured servants as free: "free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others". So, white indentured servants were recorded as "free whites" and indentured servants of other races would be classed under "all other free persons". Again, in practice, indentured servants may not have had many actual freedoms, but by law, they were free, whereas slaves were not. The very definition of slavery is not having the legal status of freedom, so the fact that indentured servants were considered free by law makes it impossible to call them slaves.

I am not saying indentured servants didn't suffer at the hands of their employers, many of them did and that was a great injustice. But for the poor, life was always hard, and many people suffered at the hands of their employers even if they weren't indentured. Before labor laws and unions protected the rights of employees, even paid servants (not indentured) were often beaten, received wages too low to feed them, suffered long, grueling hours of hard labor, were sexually assaulted by their employers, etc. It didn't make them slaves. What made someone a slave was not the conditions they lived or worked in, but their legal status, and I hope I've illustrated how the legal status of slaves (ie, not free) in the US was very different from those of indentured servants (ie, free) and therefore they should not be lumped together. In fact, the very first Africans brought to the colonies were actually indentured servants, not chattel slaves. Because there is a distinction. Obviously, this eventually changed with time and turned into the mass slavery industry we know of in history.

And of course, throughout all of history, people of all kinds were enslaved at some point. I am not saying no white person was ever enslaved in history - the Romans, for example, enslaved lots of white people. But the topic of "white slavery" is normally brought up in relation to US history and it's hereditary, chattel slavery, as though they were the same thing, when clearly, they were not.

So the next time someone tries to tell you about "white slavery" when they actually mean indentured servitude, remember these facts and take whatever agenda they may have with a grain of salt.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

FamilySearch's Unindexed Images

Recently, FamilySearch made an update to their website in attempts to draw more attention to the wealth of unindexed records in their catalog, all available for free. The records available by using the search or even the collections list are a drop in the water compared to their vast catalog. You have always been able to access the catalog by click on "Search" and then "Catalog" from the drop down menu. Although it's readily available, it generally does not get used by people who don't know what it is or how to use it. Due to the fact that the images are not indexed, you can't search them by name or other details, you have to manually browse the images. To find the right collection, you have to search by location, collection title or author, keyword, subject, or, if you know it, film number (because the catalog used to be for looking up film rolls you could order). It's usually best to search by location, but this also requires knowing what jurisdictional "level" records are held at. For example, probate records are usually held at county level, so if you're searching for probates in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, you have to search the location field for Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Looking under just Pennsylvania will not find collections cataloged at lower levels, like county or city.

FamilySearch Catalog

FamilySearch's answer to this was to create a new option under the "Search" menu at the top of the site called "Images". Here, they have tried to simplify a way to find unindexed collections by making the location search field the only option unless you click on "more" and again on "advanced", which allows you to also search by time period, record/collection type, film number, etc. But unfortunately, the results seem to be lacking a lot of existing collections and the ones it does include are organized in a very convoluted way.

In the catalog, if I search for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I get a list of record/collection types, which I can click on to see the individual collections and select any of them. Fairly straightforward. In the new "Images" search, I get a huge list of over 8,000 results, many of which seem to be from the same collection but for some inexplicable reason, are broken down into multiple results (it appears they are broken down by individual film roll number, even though the film number isn't included in the results list). This means, for example, there's dozens of listings of probate collections, sometimes even multiple listings for probates from the same year! How am I supposed to know which one to use? In the screenshot below, it shows how if I'm looking for a Philadelphia probate record from 1913, there's multiple listings for it, and they aren't duplicates, they're different records. This is going to be far more confusing for people than the catalog ever was.

Of course, I can narrow down the results by using those more advanced search options, like adding a year and record type (1913, Probate), but that doesn't solve the problem of there being multiple results just for 1913 Philadelphia Probate records. In fact, there's 115 results! How on earth am I supposed to know which one to use? There is literally nothing distinguishing them from each other except sometimes the image count.

Maybe I just haven't gotten the hang of it yet, but so far, I haven't had any luck finding actual records or collections I know exist in the catalog with this new "Images" search option. As far as I can tell, it looks like they are not including collections that are only visible at a Family History Center or affiliate library, which is a huge portion of their catalog.

I do not understand the purpose or function of this new Images search. They now have 3 different ways to find records on their website (for some, it was confusing enough as it was to have 2 different ways), and none of them include their entire database of records. Honestly, I suggest you skip this and just use the catalog or search engine as usual.

Monday, February 17, 2020

More Colorizing

After trying MyHeritage's new colorizing tool and then giving colorizing myself a whirl in Photoshop, I finally managed to test out another automatic colorizing tool at ColouriseSG. At first, it didn't work, or maybe I just didn't wait long enough, but today it worked!

I used the same first image I did at MyHeritage, the one I then colored myself too. My first impression with just this one photo is that it's better than the one at MyHeritage, but the human touch is still best.

Although it still looks a little like they just added a sepia tone to it, I felt like the colors were a bit more realistic than MyHeritage's, and the eyes appeared less brown. They could arguably be gray.

They also made attempt to add a touch of redness to the lips, but I'm not sure I love the effect, they look a little purplish.

Overall, the colorizing is better than MyHeritage, but I was very disappointed by the fact that ColouriseSG made the photo I uploaded smaller and therefore lesser quality. So if you use this tool, be prepared to sacrifice quality for coloring! For this reason, I decided to not even bother testing it with other images.

As always, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Happy Valentine's Day!

On this Valentine's Day, I'd like to point you in the direction of a previous blog post where I detailed the highly romantic love letters between my 3rd great grandparents, Robert Hawkins Smith and Octavia M Wood in 1837 Kentucky!

I once allowed MyHeritage to include them in a Valentine's Day promo and the staff member I spoke to thought they might have been the oldest surviving love letters in Kentucky. I thought maybe she was right, but that's a fairly specific location and a very specific topic too, so not a very difficult feat.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

MyHeritage's New Colorizing Photos Tool

Ever wanted to have your old black and white family photos colorized, but don't know how to do it yourself, and don't want to pay a professional an arm and a leg for it? Well, MyHeritage just launched a new free feature from DeOldify that will instantly colorize black and white photos. But how well does it work? I was a little skeptical and couldn't wait to test it out.

The photo I tested was just a simple portrait from about the 1880s. I was surprised how quickly it colorized, and I was pleased with how nice it looked but I realized that it actually just looked like a sepia tone had been added to it. I don't think that was the intention, and the skin tones did have a more fleshy color, but everything else looked like it'd just been sepia toned. A little disappointing.

Additionally, you may not be able to see it very well but this man's eyes were clearly light colored - blue, grey, hazel, etc. Something like that. But zooming in on his eyes shows the sepia/fleshy colors of the skin seems to have just been overlaid on his eyes, making them look brown, as if there was no attempt whatsoever to even color the eyes at all.

And while we're on the subject, they are beautiful eyes, aren't they? I've always thought this guy looks a bit like Leonardi DiCaprio.

To show you the difference between what a computer can do and what a human can do, here is my colorization of the same photo (including spot cleaning/restoration):

Back to MyHeritage. I then tried it with a group photo, thinking the multiple faces, garments, etc would add some variation to the possible colors. This was much more impressive:

Not bad for an automated system! Granted, the photo's highlights are a little blown out in places and some of the faces are blurred from too much movement, but colorizing system handled it pretty well in spite of that.

What's even better is that this is a high resolution image I used. I was a little worried that such an advanced tool available for free would only accept low resolution images (maybe charging for high resolution), but this was a fairly high resolution image and it not only accepted it, it still only took a few seconds to generate a color version. Unfortunately, although it will accept high resolution images, there is a limit to how many photos you can colorize if you have a free account. They don't tell you this anywhere but choose your photos carefully because you only get 10 of them, and deleting previous ones doesn't allow you anymore.

And the colorization still isn't perfect.

You may notice how it doesn't exactly take much risk or leaps with the colors it chooses. The men are in black suits, the women all seem to be in black and dark navy dresses, and the kids are all in white or neutral colors. You can probably understand why - I suppose they don't want a man's suit turning up bright red or something equally unrealistic for the era and gender. That's the downside to using a computer instead of a human who can distinguish these things and safely choose a greater variety of colors to apply.

Additionally, when I zoom in, there are areas that look like something almost resembling purple fringing except not along high contrast edges. You can see these sort of random purple splotches in the zoom-in below, particularly in her hair (pretty sure purple wasn't a trending hair color in 1880 Wisconsin), and sleeves. This is just a small area of the photo but these purple spots turn up everywhere if you look closely enough.

There's also some areas of the image that the computer seems to have some difficulty coloring. You'll note above how her one shoulder does not appear colored, or at least seems to be a different color from the rest of her dress - more of a sepia tone again. You see it most prominently in the skirt behind this child below:

At first, I thought maybe it was due to a shading variation in the original that may have fooled the system into thinking the difference in the shading meant a difference in color, but that is not the case. You can see in the original, there is no shading variation.

I guess the tool just sometimes has difficulty identifying edges and items so when it's unsure, it seems to do this. It's understandable, I suppose - after all, what is required to accomplish this in mere seconds must be an incredibly complex algorithm and coding, and it's provided for free, so I can forgive it for not being perfect.

Lastly, you may have noticed MyHeritage put their logo in the bottom right corner of the colorized image, and a little paint palette icon in the lower left. To avoid these, I'd recommend adding a superficial border to your image where the logo and icon will show up, which you can then crop off later.

I decided to try another photo (above), this time with more elements in it - horses, a house, etc to see if the same problems occurred, and they did. Once again, you can see all the clothing colors are very neutral. And again, you can see some weird rainbow-like discoloration at the top of the house.

And again, there were obviously some spots where the computer had difficulty colorizing or distinguishing between items - as you can see below, the hand on the shoulder looks like it either hadn't been colorized at all or it's blending in with the color of the other boy's jacket. Conveniently for the computer, it chose to "color" this boy's jacket grey!

So if you don't want any creepy dead hands like this, or your ancestors had blue eyes instead of brown, it's best to hire someone to do this for you instead of relying on an automated system. There are also Facebook groups with generous people who will colorize your photos for free, but be aware that Facebook doesn't easily support high resolution images like this does. This option from MyHeritage is still pretty impressive for what it is though, and if you're not bothered by the small problems that you might not even see very well when zoomed out, this will be amazing tool for many people. At the very least, I enjoyed seeing some color in the faces of my ancestors and relatives, as it seems to make them come alive a little more.

I haven't checked it out yet but there's an alternate colorizing option found at ColouriseSG. It appears to be free.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

How Copying Errors Can Really Screw Up ThruLines

I want to illustrate how ThruLines is only as reliable as the family trees it's using, and how even if you appear to have a few DNA matches linking you both to the same ancestor, that doesn't make it accurate. As we know, it's common for the inexperienced genealogist (of which there are many) to blindly copy data from other trees without verifying it. All it takes is a handful of people copying the same error for ThruLines to make a wrong connection that might seem accurate because there's more than one DNA match.

My dad (JB, shown above) is a DNA match with two people, RJ and RH (you can ignore MM in the screenshot above, that's a legitimate connection I've verified). ThruLines suggests that they are both connected to my dad via his ancestor, Giovanni Biello. It does not include Giovanni's wife, so these are allegedly half cousins, but to my knowledge, Giovanni was only married once. I was open minded to the idea I might have missed another marriage, but then I noticed something else.

RJ and RH both descend from someone named Denizi Biello, b. Feb 1862 (according to the 1900 US Census), supposedly the son of my ancestor Giovanni Biello, b. 13 Jul 1847. This would mean Giovanni was only 14 when Denizi was born, which might be biologically possible but it's extremely unlikely. Men didn't marry until they were old enough to support a family, which they would not be at 14, and if they had children out of wedlock, the child was often left at the church as a foundling (meaning the father not identified). So something about this just didn't sound right to me.

Yet, 4 people had added Denizi as the son of this Giovanni to their tree. And in their defense, Denizi's death certificate does indeed say his father was Giovanni Biello and his mother Domenica Scioli.

Denizi's, or Dionisio Biello's civil birth record
Digging through the civil records of Monteroduni, Italy where both men were born, I found Denizi's birth records which finally held the answer. For starters, his original name was Dionisio Biello, and he was actually born several years before 1862, on February 2, 1856. But his parents names were correct: Giovanni Biello and Domenica Scioli. Only, Giovanni was not born anywhere near 1847. He was recorded as aged 38, which would make him born about 1818. It also said Giovanni was the son of the late Dionisio, whereas "my" Giovanni Biello was the son of Lorenzo.

So, two completely different men, as I suspected. I do not know who originally made the wrong assumption that Denizi was the son of "my" Giovanni but then 3 other people copied the error, ThruLines picked up on it and then found two people descended from Denizi. Since there were only 4 tree with the same error, I contacted all of them to let them know - hopefully they'll make the change and the incorrect ThruLines will disappear, but imagine if this error had been copied by more than 3 people! It probably wouldn't have been worth sending a message to each one since many likely wouldn't get the message or make the correction.

Granted, I have to admit that Monteroduni is a small town in rural Italy where there is a ton of endogamy and cousin marriages. I'm pretty sure everyone with ancestry in Monteroduni is related to everyone else there in some way, but it's still important to figure out the correct relationships whenever possible. Biello is actually a very rare surname and given that and the same location, our Biello lines probably intersect at some point, it's just a question of whether it's before or after civil records began in 1809. I'll certainly keep looking.

Monday, January 6, 2020

ThruLines vs DNA Circles

The most common question I see about ThruLines is whether it uses DNA, or family trees, or both, and there seems to be a good deal of misunderstanding and confusion about ThruLines, especially in regards to how it compares to the now retired DNA Circles. The best thing I can say is that ThruLines does things with trees that DNA Circles didn't do, and DNA Circles did things with DNA that ThruLines doesn't do.

I'll start with what DNA Circles used to do.

A screenshot from Ancestry's blog of how DNA Circles
showed everyone in the group shared DNA with each other 
DNA Circles would first look for a group of people who mostly all shared DNA with each other. So let's say you shared DNA with A, B, and C and on top of that, A, B, and C all shared DNA with each other too. In addition, you did not share DNA with another person called D, but D did shared DNA with A, B, and C, and so was included in the group. So not everyone in the group had to match every single other person, but had to match enough people in the group to justify including them. Once this DNA group (or circle) was established, the system would then look for a common ancestor among your trees - and only among the trees of the people in the group. Once the common ancestor was identified, people in the group who didn't have this ancestor in their tree yet (or didn't even have a tree to begin with) would get DNA Circles in the form of "New Ancestor Discoveries". Within the tools of DNA Circles, you could see who all was in the group and who shared DNA (and who didn't) with whoever else (see above right). (Note: I think the minimum for a Circle to be created was 7 people not too closely related to each other, not 5 like the example I'm using, but I reduced it for the sake of ease).

So, DNA Circles was primarily looking at the shared group DNA and only using trees to identify the source of all that shared DNA (which is actually much how Genetic Communities work too, but I digress).

ThruLines works sort of in the completely opposite way.

ThruLines is only showing these matches descend from the
same ancestor based on trees - it does not tell you whether
they share DNA with each other or not
ThruLines looks for a common ancestor between you and an individual DNA match by looking at the entire database of (searchable) family trees. This is something DNA Circles didn't do, because it only looked at the trees of those in the Circle. So ThruLines is taking match A and looking for a common ancestor by trying to compile all the data from available trees (not just the tree of you and match A). It does this for each DNA match individually, so it then separately finds match B and C are also supposedly descended from the same ancestor and it groups A, B, and C based on what the trees say is their shared ancestor, regardless of whether these matches also share DNA with each other or not (and it doesn't even tell you if they do or not). ThruLines does not check to see if A, B, and C also share DNA with each other like DNA Circles did, and it doesn't even involve D because you don't match D. You can sometimes check to see if they share DNA with each other yourself by using the Shared Matches feature, but remember only estimated 4th cousins or closer are included in the Shared Matches list. If you share less than 20 cM with A, B, and C, you can't see whether they share DNA with each other or not.

What does this mean? It means that beyond the fact that ThruLines is only looking for tree connections with your DNA matches, DNA really isn't a part of ThruLines. The groupings are not based on DNA like DNA Circles were because ThruLines doesn't even know, much less show you if the people in the group share DNA with the others in the group or not. Knowing which of your matches also match each other is important for establishing a connection to an ancestor because remember, family trees are fallible and you can't rely on them alone, especially when there's also no known paper trail to confirm it. You need those DNA groups/circles to tie those alleged descendants together and confirm what the trees say, but ThruLines doesn't do this.

Another screenshot from Ancestry blog showing the now
retired New Ancestor Discoveries.
Another thing ThruLines doesn't do, because it's primarily working off trees instead of primarily working off DNA like Circles did, is provide you with Circles, or New Ancestor Discoveries, even if you don't have a tree attached to your test results (shown right). Because ThruLines is working off trees, it needs a starting point in your tree to connect it to other people's trees. Without at least a basic tree with your parents in it (and ideally they want at least 4 generations), you will not get any ThruLines at all. But because DNA Circles was firstly looking at groups of shared DNA, it didn't matter what your tree said or whether you even had a tree, it could tell you that you fit into that established DNA group based purely on DNA. While ThruLines does include "Potential Ancestors" not yet in your tree, this is again based on what trees say and you will not get any if you don't have a tree attached to your results. This is a drawback for adoptees and people looking for unknown biological family since they have no biological tree to add.

Hopefully that helps clarify the main differences between these two tools. They are/were both useful in their own ways, but they are different and understanding their differences is important so you're not making assumptions about ThruLines and letting it lead you astray.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

AncestryHealth Results are in!

Recently, announced the introduction of AncestryHealth, providing health and wellness reports for the first time. It costs $49 on top of the original DNA test price, and they are also offering a subscription (currently by invite only) that will include ongoing updates and new reports added in the future. This is very different to how other major testing companies offer health reports, subscriptions are not the norm and frankly I think it's a little cheeky from Ancestry, and I will not be paying the subscription.

But I did pay the one time fee for the current reports to see what they're like and the results are in. For people who tested particularly on the old v1 chip, your DNA has to be rerun through the lab because the raw data isn't ideal for the health reports they're offering, so it took a little bit of time for the results to come in.

AncestryHealth is offering 4 types of reports: Cancer Risk, Carrier Status, Heart & Blood Health, and Wellness Reports.

Under Cancer, there's currently only 2 reports: Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, and Lynch Syndrome. They are careful to note that "No DNA differences found, but other factors may increase your chance of developing cancer." They also detail the fact that their test only includes 27 of the more than 2,400 DNA differences in the BRCA1/BRCA2 genes. None of the genealogy related DNA tests that offer health reports include all known SNPs associated with cancer (or any other given condition). The only consumer DNA test that does is Color.

Carrier Status includes 3: Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, and Tay-Sachs Disease.

Heart & Blood Health has 4 reports: Cardiomyopathy, Familial Hypercholesterolemia, Hereditary Hemochromatosis, Hereditary Thrombophilia.

And finally 8 under Wellness Reports: Beta-Carotene, Caffeine Consumption, Lactose Intolerance, Omega-3, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E.

Unsurprisingly, there aren't many reports yet and it doesn't tell me very much, at least not much that I didn't already know. It was much the same when 23andMe first reintroduced their health reports too, the only difference is, 23andMe continue to update and add new reports at no extra cost whereas AncestryHealth are charging a subscription for it. I'm not really sure why Ancestry think that this will be competitive pricing, as it will be far more expensive for users in the long run. MyHeritage recently joined the health band wagon too, and like 23andMe, do not require a subscription for new reports.

So is AncestryHealth worth the extra $49? Right now, not really. Maybe in the future as they add more reports, it will become more useful but it's unclear if merely buying the test in the future will gain you those new reports that I can now only get if I subscribe. Seems silly to punish people for being early customers, but at the same time if AncestryHealth Core (the non-subscription) remains the way it is with only 13 reports, it will be a pretty pathetic health report. Ancestry haven't been very forthcoming with the details on the subscription though. Unless they decide to drop the subscription idea altogether, I doubt very much I'll ever recommend AncestryHealth at all. 23andMe provides much more information at a lower cost (in the long run), but remember, even 23andMe is not comprehensive. Even Promethease, with it's hundreds of reports, is not comprehensive because the raw DNA data it's working off of is not comprehensive and only includes a small portion of our full genetic profile.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Yet Another AncestryDNA Ethnicity Update

AncestryDNA's latest ethnicity update
AncestryDNA had promised another update to their ethnicity report this year, despite there only have been one last year (which was still being rolled out the last people earlier this year too) and it seems to be rolling out already, with little to no beta test like last time.

The reference panel has now jumped up to 40,017 samples, but don't assume that means it's going to be more accurate. As ever, it depends on the individual, and just how admixed you are. Also, unlike last year's update, we're not seeing any new percentage groups in Europe (though I do believe there's new ones in the Americas), just a change to the percentages (though there are some new Genetic Communities).

For me personally, the report just keeps getting worse and worse. They have now removed my Scandinavian results entirely, which is a shame because I did have one Norwegian great grandfather so I should be roughly 12-13% Norwegian. Of course, I may have inherited less than that from this particular great grandparent (and most ethnicity reports do reflect that), but I did inherit something from him (a great grandparent is not distant enough to not inherit anything), so the complete wipe away of any Scandinavian result at all (not even anything in Sweden, let alone Norway) is incredibly inaccurate and a shocking degradation.

Meanwhile, they've increased my French results even more to 21% (was 18%), even though I still don't have any recent French ancestry (I had a few French Huguenot ancestors from back in the 1600s, but we're talking about 2 or 3 out of 1024 or 2048 8th-9th great grandparents - a drop in the water that is generally too diluted to be detectable, and certainly shouldn't be as high as 21%).

They do appear to have removed a bunch of the low percentages that were likely noise, or coming from neighboring regions. That seems like a plus at first, but since my valid Scandinavian results were among them, it doesn't seem like a great improvement.

The other only changes were the swap of Germanic and England/Wales/NW Europe in terms of percentage amount. Previously, I had highest results in England/Wales, which was consistent with my tree, now I have highest results in Germanic.

My Italy results remained my the same, which might seem like a positive (at least they didn't go down), but they are remaining stubbornly at 12% when I should be about 32% (and this one I know for sure because my paternal grandfather tested and I share 18% with him, leaving me to share 32% with my Southern Italian paternal grandmother). I suppose the rest of my Italian DNA is showing up in France. If you look below, the map for France does cover Northern Italy, but of course I don't have ancestry in Northern Italy, only Southern, and AncestryDNA are the only ones who seemingly can't figure this out (well, they are the only ones trying to give France it's own category apart from LivingDNA which more accurately give me 0% in France).

In addition to these changes, we've also seen a redefinition of the maps. Although the categories haven't changed, they've just altered the maps to better reflect the regions each category is supposed to cover. At the same time, they've taken away the page that included more in depth details and background on each category, which is a major regression if you ask me. We now only have a short paragraph with info on the region and it no longer lists the "secondary" areas that each category covers, even though the maps still include them.

As you can see above, there is no longer a link to click for more information. AncestryDNA keep removing more and more details and information, as though they think we are too stupid to understand it. People are simply now going to have more questions and understand the results even less.

Also note how the map for France still shows the surrounding areas that this category includes, but for some inexplicable reason, AncestryDNA has decided to only include the "Primarily located in" information, which only lists France, and no longer lists the "Also included in" areas shown in the map, like Spain, Italy, etc. That won't be confusing for people at all.

I really don't know what they are thinking sometimes, and since they rarely ever explain or communicate their choices to their customers (apart from "we think this is better"), I doubt we'll get an explanation. We still never even saw the return of the Average Admixture chart (shown left) when it was lost in last years update, which was so useful for understanding what regions shared a lot of DNA with what neighboring areas (God forbid they actually admit that is a thing).

Having said all that, the report does seem to have improved for people who are less mixed, just like last years update. My half Italian dad's results went from 44% Italian (which is reasonably close to half) to exactly 50%. The rest of his results didn't change much, which means he still has too much in England/Wales and not enough in Germanic (only 5% Germanic when he should be more like 30%).

My paternal grandfather's results have evened out a little bit - his tree is roughly half German and half Scots-Irish (maybe some English), and his update says 51% England/Wales, and 31% Germanic, a slight improvement from 67% England/Wales and 23% Germanic.

My husband is the least mixed of all. He is a British native, born and raised, but half Irish. Grouping his ancestry the way AncestryDNA does, he'd be about 40% English and 60% Irish/Scottish. Last year's update gave him 38% England/Wales and 61% Ireland/Scotland with a random noise level of 1% in Benin/Togo. Today's update has him at 43% England/Wales and 56% in Ireland/Scotland. Not much of a change and still pretty consistent with his background, apart from that random 1% they've now put in Nigeria.

As for my mom's results, her previous update from last year saw no results whatsoever in Germanic even though she should be around 20%. Meanwhile, her Norwegian results, which should have been around 25% (that Norwegian great grandfather of mine was her grandfather) were inflated at 40% last year. She now had 10% Germanic, which is better than nothing, and 27% in Norway, which is almost spot on. The only thing a little off is the 14% in Sweden.

How have your results changed? For the better or worse?