Monday, December 12, 2011

Facial Recognition and Unknown Ancestors

I just came across an article in New Scientist online about using facial ID software to determine if people in a picture are related.  Apparently the software was correct just over 70% of the time, which is marginally better than a person.  What the article didn't answer was how far back the software could determine relationships.  For example if I compared a picture of myself to my great grandfather, would it see a resemblance?  You can read the article here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thinking About the Dark

I recently completed reading Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Box.  I have to say I found it strangely compelling, and I finished it with a real sense of regret.  What I found most poignant were the chapters that dealt with light on farms and cities in the 19th and very early 20th centuries.  It is not that anything that the author wrote was not something I was wholly unaware of, but some of it she combined in ways that had not occurred to me.  For example, her writing about the joy that farmers felt when they could actually milk the cows in a barn with light, and not have to worry about the risk of fire or explosion.

Indeed, one of the major reasons our ancestors went to bed early was that there was no light to do anything.  While city dwellers had gaslight to light the streets, their homes were under the the same restrictions as farmers with only candles or kerosene to light their rooms, and in the country night must have fallen like a pall, without even gaslit roads for illumination.

What Brilliant brought home to me (again), is how much we may romanticize the past that our ancestors lived in, glossing over the warts, cuts, smells, and just plain drudgery of everyday life for our mostly rural (and urban) ancestors.  Not that there is not much that was good, but in terms of lights, in the countryside when the sun went down, outdoor life stopped.  Even indoor life slowed greatly.  As the 19th century progressed the quality of the light available improved as kerosene lamps took over from candles, but as anyone who has lived with kerosene lamps knows (as I do), they are nothing when compared to an electric light bulb in terms of safety, steadiness, reliability, and sheer convenience.

We have much to be thankful for.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Back on the Document Trail

So, it's that time again to track down documents from the Halls family.

When I have a document I'm interested in I usually wait until the document that has been banging around in my mind starts banging too persistently, or it strikes me as so important that I have to "Get it now!"

In this case I am ordering a birth registration from England, and the administration papers of a will (also from England).  The birth registration may be that of my gg grandfather William Halls.  The name and place are correct, but the date is wrong.  Until I get it into my hot little hands I won't know for sure.  

The administration papers are those of my gggg grandfather, Philip Halls.   I am kind of surprised about the existence of any documents relating to a will for a couple of reasons, first, it was my understanding that most people did not have enough money or have the property to make it worth creating a will.  Second, the vast majority of wills from Devon were destroyed in Exeter during the Blitz in 1942.  I already have two wills from Halls family members living in Merton between the 1820's and 1840's.  For there to be a papers of a third, is to me, astounding. As to why it exists, it appears that Philip died intestate, and on top of that, if I understand correctly, the value of the estate was in excess of the minimum value required for the records to be sent to London because death duties were to be paid.  Once again, I won't know until the documents come in from England.

Stay Tuned!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Missing Home

I often wonder what it was like for my ggg grandfather Thomas Halls (and his brothers) to leave England and come to Canada.  I don't mean the sea voyage, which I understand could have taken up to three months, I mean adapting to a new land.

In many ways it must have been reasonably familiar.  They had many family members living nearby, as well as other people from Devon, and many of the place names were from England.  Thomas lived in the community of Lambeth, southwest of London, in the county of Middlesex.  London was on the Thames river.  A little further away was the community of Stratford, on the Avon River.  The newspapers would have had both local news, as well as news from England and the Empire.  He would have sent letters back and forth to his brother William, who had remained behind, as well as his sister Charlotte.

All in all, there would have been a great deal of the feeling of home in the areas where Thomas and his brothers lived.  And yet.  And yet it would have been very different.  First, there would have been the wilderness, literally dark, almost impenetrable forest.  The woods would have been full of animals that were large, and often dangerous, animals that certainly would not have been in Devon - moose, wolves, cougars, and bears.  Many other animals had familiar names, but in many cases that would only have drawn attention to their differences, animals like robins, jays, and badgers, and plants like chestnut or beech.

Did Thomas (and his brothers) suffer from homesickness?  Did they regret coming to Canada, or would the freedom to make their mark in the world have made up for the hardships and loneliness?  I don't know, and never can know, much to my regret.

Regardless, all the Halls brothers did well in their new homes.  Their children were successful, their lives were full, and they were successful too.  It was not a story without sadness, and sometimes tragedy, but I think that in the end they did not regret the choices they had made.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Surviving the Heat

On the Thursday, July 21st evening as I began this post I was sitting on my front stoop, trying to stay cool, and doing an ok job of it if I say so myself. There was a very nice breeze, and I had a cool drink, so I felt pretty good.

The temperature Thursday was 34C, and that night it only dropped to 25C, plus humidity for both temperatures. Not at all comfortable, but at least I had a ceiling fan.

This got me to thinking about how our ancestors beat the heat prior to air conditioning. In some ways, in much the sames way as I do now. Find somewhere in the shade, with a breeze. Keep the doors and windows closed during the heat of the day. I can't close the shutters (don't have any), but I could install awnings to keep the sun out. Today I went to the beach with my family, and we all swam. That was nice. We took the car, 100 years ago we would have taken the train, but that is a detail, the broad outline was the same - picnic lunch, bathing suit, beach umbrella, and away we went.

So much for the happy view of dealing with the hot weather. The big advantage we have that our ancestors did not can be summed up in two words - Air Conditioning. When the heat simply becomes too much to bear, we can go to a mall, museum, cinema, or even mostly retreat to the comfort of our own homes. Prior to the 1920's (and the steadily increasing numbers of cinemas with air conditioning) the public had no escape as only the most specialized buildings and workplaces had any air cooling system at all.

Imagine living in a city in 1900 with temperatures in the low to mid 30's, plus humidex. The smoke in the air from coal fired water heaters and cook stoves. The smell of the increasingly common automobiles mixed with the horse dung and urine on the roads, and you live, like most people, in a two to five storey walk-up with no air conditioning or electricity. Add, on top of all that, the formality of the age when in public all the men were expected to wear long pants, a jacket and a hat at the least, and women were expected to were long dresses that went up to the neck and down to the wrists. At the very least one would be less than comfortable. If you were elderly, very young, or had breathing problems, an extended period of heat meant death.

Wonderful and idyllic as the past may seem to us now, it was by no means a bed of roses. While I do not have air conditioning myself, I am deeply grateful for the ability to escape to a mall, cinema, or museum when the heat becomes intolerable.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Google Streetview

You might think that talking about something like Google Street View would have nothing to do with genealogy, but you would be wrong. The range of places that Google Street View has made available to people is staggering. While the coverage varies from area to area, it is still quite impressive.

One of my favourite Street View pastimes is to wander the country lanes of north Devon. You can see old buildings and churches, often the inscriptions on the sides of buildings are visible, as are road signs, addresses and so on.

I took me a while, but I found Barland House in Dolton, Devon, on Google Street View. It's not that the image wasn't on Street View, but that I didn't know exactly where in Dolton Barland House was.

Here is a picture of Barland House taken circa 1900

Here is a Google Streetview picture of Barland House taken in the past few years, but from Rectory Rd.

If you click on the image you can see the sign on the fence in the lower right of the picture, it says "Barlands".

You can find Street View in Google Maps just look for the little gold coloured man in the upper left corner. Not every place has been "Street Viewed" by Google, but lots have. If you haven't tried Street View yet to see places your ancestors lived, you definitely should.

Who's that Girl, or Facial Recognition of Relatives in Old Pictures

I had a brain wave a few days ago, and wondered what sort of facial recognition software might be available for genealogy.

A quick survey of the web didn't reveal anything right away that was specifically dedicated to genealogy, but a couple of options presented themselves. The first was to use Google's Picasa Web albums. Upload your photos, ensure that name tagging is enabled, and away you go. After a few pictures are identified it will start to make suggestions based on previous name tags you have assigned.

The other possible option is Facebook, which automatically tags people in pictures, and there is no reason not to use that ability for figuring out who is who in old picture. Once again, all you need to do is tag the first few occurences of a persoon, and after that Facebook starts doing it for you for any other occurrences of that person.

Finally, there is also an Apple application, iPhoto, that has facial recognition built in.

Personally, I think I like the Picasa Web Albums better. It is in the cloud making it easier to share, it can be synced to your own computer, and because the pictures are web based, they are platform independent. Just make sure that you send the link of the album with the pictures to your cousins and contacts who might be able to help.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Halls in Peterborough, Ontario

A mystery was solved last week when I discovered, quite by chance, the whereabouts of Mary Halls.

Mary was one of the children of Philip Halls and Jenny Smith, and sister to my ggg Thomas. Mary married John Heard in England on April 3, 1842, in Devon. Then they vanished from the English records. I could not find any people that matched who they were, anywhere, that I was comfortable saying "This must be them". I resigned myself to never solving that mystery, and got on with what I could do.

Some time later I was doing a random search for a Halls family member, and a hint came up in Ancestry family trees that the mother of John Heard (junior) was surnamed Halls. based on the family tree, this set me on the trail for census records for family members in the Peterborough, Ontario area. I found that John junior had three siblings, Charlotte, Margaret, and Philip. Philip's death certificate also show that his father was John Heard, and his mother was Mary Halls. The 1851/52 Census of Ontario indicates that John came from England, and that his wife died of fever at age 35, so the birth date was right, too!

Happily portions of the Peterborough Archives are online, and they indicated that Mary Heard was buried in Wesleyan Methodist Cemetery aka Pioneer Park. The burial place makes sense because the Halls family was Bible Christian, an offshoot of Methodism. In addition there was a Charlotte Heard buried in the same place, daughter of John and Mary. Best of all, they both have tombstones. Sometime this spring I will be taking a road trip to Peterborough.

With this find I now know what happened to all of the children of Philip and Jenny Halls. All but two came to Canada. I wonder why?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Genetics and Genealogy Again

I decided to cut out most of the technical stuff, and go for short and simple. There are lots of technical articles about genetic genealogy, and they can explain it just as well, or better, than I can. See the bottom of the post for links.

So just how reliable is genetic testing for genealogical purposes? Well it depends on what you are after. Are you looking to establish a close relationship with someone from 600 years ago? Don't count on it. Are you looking to see if you have markers indicating that some of your ancestors came from a certain region or belonged to a certain group, more likely, but it is not an ironclad guarantee that you are actually from that region, or belong to that group. If you are looking to establish a relationship in the past few hundred years, that is possible, but the closeness of the relationship will not be included, i.e. you will know you are related, but not how closely. To establish closeness, you need a paper trail. On the other hand a genetic test can rule out relationship.

How does it work? It is actually quite straight forward. Our physical sex is determined by whether or not we have two X chromosomes (women), or an X and a Y (men). The Y chromosome is passed down through the male line exclusively. Women are a little different, as the mitochondrial DNA must be tested. The mitochondria are basically cells within a cell, and they provide energy to the cell. At any rate, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is transmitted from the mother to all the children. Both the Y chromosome DNA and mtDNA change at relatively constant rates, which allows us to test and determine a very broad level of closeness. Additionally, because the Y chromosome only follows the male line, and the mtDNA follows both lines, we can test for paternal and maternal origins.

For example, Y DNA changes at the rate of 1 mutation every 500 years on average, so you may find that you are related to someone sometime in the past 500 years, but it doesn't tell you how closely you are related, just that you are. If the test finds no commonality, then you are definitely not related. In addition, remember that the times span of the change is an average. The Y DNA may have changed between you and your father, or not have changed at all in the past 1000 years. We just don't know.

What happens if you get a negative result? There may have been an adoption. There may have been an illegitimate child. There may have been an error in the test. There may have been a name change. There may have been infidelity. Be prepared, none of us are (or were) perfect, and you may not like the answer you find.

So, I come back to the original question, is genealogical DNA testing reliable? The answer is yes, but within limits. It can determine if there is a relationship, but it cannot determine the closeness of the relationship. Alternately, it can prove that no relationship exists. Taken along with paper records it can be a valuable addition to your research. Genealogical DNA testing can also be used to help determine deep ancestry, in other words where in the world your ancestors are (mostly) from. Finally, remember there are no absolutes. Even the best genetic testing comes with a percent level of certainty, even if the level is 99% certain, there is always that 1% chance that the correct results are alternate to the main result.

If you do decide to have some sort of genealogical genetic testing done, look around, some groups will pay part or all of the test costs depending on your surname or ancestry.

There are lots of sources about genetic genealogy. Here are some I used:
And the post wouldn't be complete if I didn't include a link about Devon - The Devon DNA Project - you will need a paper trail leading back to Devon in order to be allowed to submit a DNA sample to this project.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Genetics and Genealogy

I recently came across Family Tree DNA, a company that collects genetic data to determine paternal or maternal ancestry. Being the curious sort I am I decided to investigate exactly what it was all about.

The first thing I wanted to know was whether or not they share the information they collect? The answer was no, they do not share the data from the genetic testing.

Then I decided to see if they were a reliable organization, or would they just take the money (or information) and run. So I did a web search for genetic genealogy, and came up with a Wikipedia article. The Wikipedia article mentioned the Genographic Project, which it stated was a joint project between IBM, National Geographic, University of Arizona, and Family Tree DNA. A web search for the Genographic Project came up with multiple pages from Family Tree DNA, National Geographic and IBM, and one of the IBM pages said that the information was processed by Family Tree DNA. So, I have now determined to my satisfaction that Family Tree DNA is a reputable company.

The next thing I want to consider is whether or not I actually want to be tested, and right now I am just not sure. The Family Tree DNA site does include a Devon DNA Project group, so it is tempting, and they do have some maps of their findings.

Does the testing itself work? Is it reliable? What's the point? I think I'll leave those for the next post because it gets kind of technical.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Collection of Links

Today I posted four new links to From the Halls of Devon, and it got me thinking about links, and the quality of sites that are out there. Perhaps I should be more specific, not the quality of the site, but the quality of the search engine for a site. A final point before I launch into my reviews of the sites, they are all worthwhile. I wouldn't include them if I didn't think they were, but some have search engine issues which can significantly reduce their usefulness as resources.


As far as I understand Canadiana is a both a collection of collections, and a collection of its own. It contains magazines, photos, books, and other materials. A large amount of it is public domain. It is divided into two sections, Early Canadiana Online, and a Canadian Discovery Portal.

I have two criticisms of the site. The first is that many of the documents are only available by subscribing to the site. A related criticism is that there is only one subscription option, annual, and the cost is quite high for a site that is essentially a collection with very little "social" component. I suspect that they could significantly increase their subscriber base if they allowed shorter subscription times, or lowered their annual rate. Certainly it discourages casual research, and in my opinion limits their ability to raise funds for further digitization projects.

The second is that only one (Early Canadiana Online) of the two parts of the site has the ability to search for exact phrases. This is a very large drawback when searching a large online collection. Certainly when I am searching for my own surname I don't want every bingo hall, community hall, church hall, banquet hall, halls of power, residence halls, and well, I'm sure you get the idea, turning up in my search.

The Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a very large collection of sound, video, text, images, etc., all in the public domain. My personal interest is the text portion of the archive. It has a very limited search engine, that searches only the titles of the documents, but you can choose which collections or sub-collections you will search. I have often found that the best way to search the Archive is to do an advanced Google search, and specify to search only in the Internet Archive domain. An added, major, advantage of the Internet Archive is that you can download the texts in a number of different formats, including those that can be read on e-readers.

The Canada Gazette Archive

The range of the Canada Gazette archive is from 1841 until 1997. As with most government of Canada websites, it is a little quirky (click the search links on the left of the page), and worse still, the search engine sucks. I don't know what algorithms they use, but they return the oddest results, and in the oddest order sometimes. Sadly there is no way to sort the results, and it would be really handy to sort by date. There are other issues too.
  • In addition to the results presentation, there are significant limitations on how you do a search. You cannot specify your own date range. This is all the stranger when you consider that you can specify a single date.
  • Word stemming is automatic and it does not look like it can be disabled. Word stemming means that in a search "halls" and "hall" are treated the same, i.e. the "s" is ignored, not what I want in a search for my surname.
  • When you go back to the main search page to modify your search you have to retype your entire search as the form automatically clears.
  • The results that are generated are shown in pdf or gif, which is fine, but the search terms are not highlighted in the gif version, meaning you have to read the entire page, or in a pdf, search again using the pdf search tools to see if the result is one that you want.

The site has been redesigned, and I have to say I like what they have done. You can drill down through region and sub-region to see the documents you want. In many cases you can actually view the documents themselves online without ordering the microfilms. Much of their Newfoundland collection is now available with images. The Newfoundland collection is not indexed, but they have grouped the documents by date, location, and occasionally church. The same goes for many other collections, though there are collections that are both indexed and have images of the original documents. Finally, one can choose to search historical records, trees, and the catalogue for books, microfilms, etc.

They seem to have refined their search engine too. The results that come back are much more sensible, and specifying an exact match now actually shows the exact matches, which was not always the case before.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Can Our Ancestors Make us Smarter?

While it's not directly related to the Halls family, I thought it was interesting.

Apparently thinking about the hardships that your ancestors went through increases your intellectual performance. You can read this article from the Daily Mail, or you can see the original paper here (registration required to see more than the abstract).

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Portrait of James Halls and Family

Just prior to Christmas I was contacted by an individual who had a picture of James Halls and family (from the Exeter, Ontario area). I was very surprised to say the least. The name of the person was not any that I had connected with the Halls family, though I had seen it in relation to Devon. It was a beautiful photo, a formal studio portrait taken at Senior's in Exeter, about 1890 judging by the ages and style of dress. Sadly not every name can be associated with a face, but now I have a picture, so it is only a matter of time. It is the first group picture I have of that generation.

It was, all in all, a wonderful Christmas present.

The picture itself got me looking at the details in the picture, and what struck me most were the hands of Mary Ann and James.

James' hands are quite obviously arthritic, no doubt from a lifetime of working with stone and brick and mortar, farming and farm equipment, in all types of weather. His knees also look odd. I recognize the drape of his pants over his knees from the way my father's knees looked covered by the drape of his pants. James knees are terribly arthritic and swollen just like my father.

Mary Ann's hands are quite different. They don't appear arthritic, but the skin looks awful. It appears scabby or scaley. It looks terribly painful. When you look at Mary Ann's face she is terribly stern, almost as if she is gritting her teeth in pain. Admittedly her hair style is very severe too, but she looks not at all comfortable.

James looks very much the loved patriarch of the family. A full head of white hair, a full white beard, and with a daughter resting on his knee. He looks successful, comfortable, and content with his life. Obviously father and daughter are very close. I suspect that she is the youngest, Lillian (Lilly) Halls.

The rest of the family simply seems to be there, just in the picture. They seem content too, healthy, happy, and young. At least they seem that way as much as one can tell from a photo from a time when you needed to hold still for five to ten seconds.