Category Archives: Genealogy

I’m more of a Neanderthal than you are…

Well, probably. Statistically speaking…

Yes, I got my results back from 23andMe today! And that’s one of the headlines: “Hey Brad!
You have more Neanderthal DNA than 61% of other customers.”

And I’m not a bit insulted, as I will explain. In fact, on receiving the news, I played a bit to the stereotype of my people, taking my phone over to my wife (who gave me the new DNA kit for Christmas) and saying “Uhn!” Then pointing clumsily to the screen with my prehistoric finger, and elaborating, “Errg, uhn, uhn!

But they were grunts of pride.

You see, the Neanderthal thing is one of the reasons I wanted 23andMe — Ancestry doesn’t give you that.

I will of course in the coming days bore you no end with details as I find them, but for today, here are the top three highlights:

  1. The Neanderthal thing. Actually, less than 2 percent of my DNA comes from this human species that went extinct 40,000 years ago. That’s why 23andMe leads with the 61 percent comparison. More impressive. But let me get started on defending my peaceful people, who were minding their own business, comfortably wrapped in furs in Northern Europe after the last Ice Age, when you people came sweeping up from down South and wiped us all out — after a slight bit of, well, socializing, which led to that little bit of DNA that remains. Anyway, something you should know: You call yourselves “sapiens.” But Neanderthals had bigger brains. Look it up.
  2. The breaking of the Great White Wall. Not the smashing of it, I suppose, but at least a crack or two. You know how Ancestry has been telling me for years and years that I’m the whitest white boy at Bypass High? Well, while 23andMe agrees that I’m 99.8 percent Northwestern European, I have finally found a bit of variety in my heritage. And not just, say, Italian. To find out what I am, I have to click on the “Trace Ancestry” button, which tells me I’m… a tenth of a percent Somali! Which is way cool. No, I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince people to consider me a “person of color,” and they’re still going to hold me responsible for that my Viking and Norman and English and white American ancestors did. And it gives me little in common with most African-Americans, who tend to be from West Africa. But hey, it’s something…
  3. No answer on the Scottish Question. As you know, I’ve been marveling at the way Ancestry keeps recalculating my ethnicity, and for whatever reason deciding I’m more and more Scottish. Which has puzzled me no end — although I have been noticing more and more ancestors who are indeed of the Caledonian persuasion (such as the lady accused, quite unfairly I might add, of being a witch). So I was hoping my second DNA test might shed a little light on the matter from a different perspective. Alas, the perspective was too different. This service slices the pie so differently that I can’t make a clear comparison. Ancestry says I’m 27 percent English and Northwestern European, 8 percent Irish, 7 percent Welsh, and a whopping 47 percent Scottish. 23andMe says I’m 92.3 percent “British and Irish,” and doesn’t seem to breakdowns of that big number in a way that I can compare. Oh, well.

Of course, the main thing to me is the DNA matches to real people. I got into this years ago to help with building my family tree, so that’s what I’ll mostly be concentrating on as I study these results. Some of my relatives (such as my mother and brother) have done Ancestry DNA. Some others (such as three of my kids and two of my grandchildren) have gone the 23andMe route. I’m going to enjoy cross-referencing all those cousins and such to fill out and understand my tree better. That’s the main point.

So far, I haven’t looked much at the health or traits stuff. I figure at my age, if I’m going to get something because of my genes, I’ve probably got it already…

Triangulating my DNA

You know how I sent off a tube full of spit to Ancestry several years ago, and ever since then, they’ve been making unlikely changes to my “ethnicity estimate” at least once a year, if not more often?

Of course you do. I bore you with it all the time. (Oh, and just in case you’re keeping score, they’ve changed the “estimate” a couple of times since I last mentioned it, and currently I’m 47 percent Scottish. Which I know will change yet again.)

Most of you have heard enough about it. Well, brace yourselves.

Soon, I will triple the amount of personal DNA information at my fingertips. Well, maybe not the amount, but at least triple the number of sources.

I had put the word out before Christmas that I’d like to have my DNA done by 23andMe. Several people in my family have done that, but their data are of little use to me in building my family tree (which now has 9,829 people on it, and continues to grow, so you may be wondering why I need more data, but never mind), since I’m on a different platform. I wanted to see what I could find running my saliva through that filter. Not so much for the ethnicity stuff, but to make connections with folks for the tree.

And so my wife gave me a kit for Christmas, and a few days later I sent the tube off, and ever since then have been as impatient as a kid who has sent sent off a bunch of box tops for a secret decoder ring.

But wait, there’s more! Have you heard about the In Our DNA SC project? It’s run by MUSC, and it’s purpose is… hang on, let me look:

In Our DNA SC is a large-scale community research project investigating how DNA impacts health, with a broader goal of learning how to offer more personalized health care to our patients and community.

I had to look it up because I forgot what it was about. I had seen a flier about it maybe a year ago, and sent off for a DNA kit so I could participate in it. I did this even though, as you will see in the quote above and elsewhere on the website, they are inordinately fond of using “impact” as a verb.

I suppose I read about it initially and got the impression it was a sort of public-spirited, communitarian kind of thing to do. So they sent me the kit, and I congratulated myself on being a volunteer… and it sat about the house for months.

Finally, somebody called me from the project and asked me to get on the stick and send my kit in. I didn’t know where the kit was, so they sent me another one, several months back. It was still sitting on a shelf here in my home office when I got the 23andMe kit. Thus prompted yet again, I spit into that one, too, and sent them both off — on Jan. 6, I think. Seems a fitting way to celebrate such a date, don’t you think? Sending off some spit?

I don’t know if I’ll learn much from that one, since they must not have had an overwhelming response if they were willing to be that patient in waiting for me to send the thing in. (I have this sneaking suspicion that at this moment, someone at MUSC is ringing the bell and crying out, “We got one!“)

Anyway, while the young folks who still get paid to be journalists have been so suspensefully excited over what was happening in Iowa and New Hampshire, I’ve been breathlessly awaiting this.

Different priorities. I’m triangulating my DNA. Maybe that will help pin it down for sure. Which, to me, is way cooler than a decoder ring…

Going by my family tree, I must be getting old…

Why did I write that post about time moving so much faster as we age? Well, I’ve been thinking lately about writing more often about that phenomenon. I mean about aging, not time. So that was an initial installment, I guess.

You can ignore them, if you prefer. I write posts such as this one mostly for my kids and grandkids, assuming the posts are still available if and when they wonder about these things. (Which may be a lot to assume.)

One thing that has put this stuff more on my mind lately is that a couple of weeks before I wrote that, I realized I had now outlived three of my four grandparents.

I had been anticipating this one. That’s because a couple of years back, I passed my maternal grandfather. That one sort of snuck up on me. I had long been used to the knowledge that I had outlived my maternal grandmother. She died when she was only 61. I was 15 at the time, so it was a lot of years before I realized how shockingly early that was.

At that point, I was shaken by the loss, but I also tended to think, Well, grandparents are really old, right? So I guess we have to accept that this might happen.

Then, in September 2021, it hit me that just a few days before, I had passed my Mom’s father as well. Both had died earlier than you would have expected, after medical incidents that one might normally expect to have gone much better than they did — especially today. Their deaths were far from inevitable, under the conditions. They did not “die of old age.”

To ease the formality… I called them “Nana” and “Pop,” and I was still a kid when we lost them. Their names were Nathalie Smith Pace and Walker Heyward Collins.

After I realized I had passed Pop, I checked the family tree and saw the date was not far off when I would pass my paternal grandfather, Gerald Harvey Warthen. He died on July 10, 1958, a couple of months short of his 70th birthday, when I was 4. (Yes, those grandparents were a good bit older than the other set. My Dad was the youngest of five.)

And now, I will reach the threescore-and-ten mark in less than… four weeks. So, another milestone.

I should point out that Granddad Warthen should have lived longer, too. He had lung cancer, which is not surprising when you see how many pictures we have of him with a cigarette, a cigar or a pipe. I was an accomplice in this. I remember him taking me on walks to a nearby shop and buying me candy cigarettes when he bought his real ones. I very much enjoyed them, but I would have much more enjoyed having my grandfather around while I was growing up.

My paternal Grandma, Mary Shiland Bradley, lived to the age of 95. That’s a high bar to reach for, and beyond most people’s expectations. Of course, my Dad lived to just short of turning 93, and my Mom is 92, and much healthier than Dad had been for several years at that age.

No sense making predictions, though. I could check out before I finish this post. If you’re reading it, though, I guess I didn’t.

But I am trying, in fits and starts, to make better use of each day. That’s a struggle for me, as it was when I was in my 20s. I am known to my intimates as being bad at quite a few things, and one of them is time management…

ANOTHER witch in the family! Allegedly, I mean…

“We have a witch in the family. Isn’t it wonderful?”
— Aunt Petunia

I’ve told you before about my wife’s ancestress, Elspeth Craich — one of many, many characters I’ve found who make building a family tree fascinating (to me, anyway). She lived in Scotland from 1631 to at least 1656.

And she was a witch. Allegedly — although she confessed for reasons unknown. I very much hope the reason wasn’t that it was tortured out of her. I like to think she was being crafty. And the record says she “voluntarlie confesst” (for what that’s worth).

This isn’t family legend, by the way. I found documentation, here and here. As it happens, she was fortunate enough to be charged during a time in which Cromwell (Oliver, not Thomas) had banned the execution of witches. (Actually, other sources I glanced at were vague on this, but he was no fan of witch-hunting. He seems not to have believed in witches.)

This put the local authorities in a fix. They had her locked up, but didn’t know what to do with her. Finally, they had to just let her go. Why? Well, she apparently was eating too much. The record complains of “the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir.”

You’ll notice they kept her in the “tolbuthe,” which is to say, toll booth. Made me think the town, Culross, had an inadequate tax base. They couldn’t afford to feed Elspeth, they couldn’t afford to send her to Edinburgh and let them deal with her, and they couldn’t even afford a jail. (But seriously, folks, that’s what they called a jail in those days. It was apparently a sort of multipurpose public building, like Andy Taylor’s courthouse, where Otis would sleep.)

Anyway, I’ve told you about her before.

Over the weekend, we discovered another such family “scandal.” And this time, it’s on my side of the family.

My grandchildren take varying levels of interest in the family tree, but one of them is into it enough to enjoy sitting by me as I rummage through our thousands of forebears. With her watching, I was poking around in the branch occupied by my great-great-great grandmother Isabella Telford. I actually have a photo of her — which is unusual with people back that far, which is why I went to that part of the tree to show it to my granddaughter. But I knew little about her, beyond the fact that she lived in New York state, making her one of very few ancestors I have who hailed from the North. I had her, and maybe a generation or two of her Telford antecedents.

I saw I had some “hints” from Ancestry on those people, so I decided to show my granddaughter how to add someone to the tree. I was looking through the hints for Isabella’s grandmother (and my 5th-great grandmother) Margaret McCaulay (who married a Tilford, a variant spelling). Ancestry had more than a dozen such clues to offer with regard to Margaret, who for some reason was nicknamed “Betty.” I was skimming down to see if she had a Findagrave page, as those are almost always helpful, when my granddaughter made me stop and go back to another hint I had skipped. “It said ‘witch’!” she told me.

So, you know, here we go again.

I went back and grabbed that document, and resumed searching. A moment later, I saw she did have a Findagrave page, and in place of the customary obituary, it displayed… the story of the witchcraft charge.

Mind you, this wasn’t in far-off Culross, Scotland, in the benighted 1600s. This was more than a century later, in the land of the free, during the American Revolution. And it happened in Salem! No, not Massachusetts — it was Salem, NY.

“It began when Archy Livingston’s cows began producing cream that couldn’t be churned into butter.” Ol’ Arch, a neighbor of the Tilfords, or Telfords, figured he needed some expert advice. Lacking a university-based agricultural extension service, he went to see a shady character named Joel Dibble, who “told people’s fortunes by cutting cards.” Wouldn’t you, under the circumstances?

Dibble worked his magic with the cards, and then broke the bad news to Archy — either the milk or the cows were bewitched. And being the oracle that he was, he could describe the witch: “a short, thick, black-haired woman who had a red-haired daughter.”

This described Margaret Telford to a T. Archy promptly shared the shocking news with everyone he knew, and the community was in an uproar. They were all like “We’re in the middle of a war, and now this!”

Archy’s father-in-law stuck up for the Telfords, and apparently gave Arch a piece of his mind for listening to a “malevolent designing scoundrel” like Dibble. But not everyone agreed:

However, others began to shun the Telfords. Some parents forbade their children to associate with the Telford children. The local magistrate refused to get involved. Or perhaps he was not asked — the Presbyterians might have thought that would have violated the separation of church and state. Because both families were members of Dr. Clark’s church, they agreed that the church was the proper authority to decide the matter.

The Presbyterian pastor initiated a formal investigation, and witnesses were called. Fellow church members testified that Margaret “was an upstanding Christian woman and her moral character was exemplary.” Nevertheless, Rev. Clark called expert witness Dibble:

During the examination, Dibble said he had learned his art in French Canada, and had paid good money for his lessons. He defended the art of cutting of cards on the grounds that, like any other art or trade, it had rules. He said he wasn’t naming any names. He just followed the rules of the cards and, through them, learned indications. With that, Clark cut off the examination, saying there was “nothing tangible here for the church to take hold of.” In Robert Blake’s account, he indicates simply that “the matter was still before the Church and undecided when Dr. Clark moved away.”

The matter was never resolved, and as one chronicler said, over the course of four or five years, “the subject was prudently dropped.”

I’d like to end the narrative on that encouraging note. But sadly,

Even after “the excitement died away,” Margaret continued to suffer from having been accused of being a witch. Many neighbors made life difficult for the family. The young Telford folks were shunned from many parties and merry-makings. When George and Margaret ‘s son John became engaged to Sarah Rowan, many of her friends and relatives opposed the match.

Nevertheless, Margaret and her husband George stuck it out in that community, and soldiered on, and from what I can tell, folks generally respected them for that. And in the end:

George and Margaret are buried in the “Old Cemetery” in Salem, so they must have remained members in good standing of the church that the Rev. Dr. Clark founded.

Of course, it might have helped if the minister had stood up and loudly denounced the nonsense, but I guess he felt he was in over his head. Or something. Sorry I don’t have a totally happy ending there for you (and for that portion of my family I’d never heard of before building my tree). But I think you can see what I mean about family history being interesting.

If you want to know what actually caused the problem with Archy’s cows, don’t look at me. We Telfords had nothing to do with it…

Missing our holiday guest, Dembe

Before any more days pass, I just wanted to say that since Monday, we’ve really been missing Dembe, the mostly pit bull mutt who stayed with us from Christmas Eve to Jan. 2.

He’s my eldest granddaughter’s dog, and he’s a great one. I’m told his name means “peace” in Uganda, and that suits him, despite his bellicose body type. He’s mostly quiet — except for the occasional gruff whenever anyone came to the door, or when he’d hear a noise from upstairs and forget that it was me. Not an alarming, blood-and-murder howling, just a calm reporting of the possibility that maybe there was an intruder about, and that we were free to make of it what we would. An FYI thing.

He’s the only dog we’ve had in this house who would simply let us know with a brief whine that he needed to go out, and then go on his own without being contained by leash or invisible fence, and come back in. Very disciplined, very civilized.

I would put a leash on him when I took him off the property for walks, because while I trusted him to stay with me, I doubted the neighbors would share my faith. The leash was made of chain, because his mighty jaws would make short work of nylon or any other lesser materials, if he really wanted to get loose. But he never tried. And he didn’t try to pull my arm off the way other dogs have — even though it was probably in his power to do so. He’s a very gentlemanly walker.

I could go on and on about his virtues, but I wanted to tell you something else about him. You know how crazy I am about the whole genealogy thing. Well, Dembe is the first dog I’ve known who has had his DNA done. Or rather, my granddaughter had it done. Unlike me, he could care less. And he’s right not to care, of course, but it’s fun to see his rich heritage quantified. I love a mutt — I much prefer them to those purebred toffs you see on the Westminster show each Thanksgiving.

And Dembe is such a mutt, sometimes in surprising ways.

Of course, the plurality of his genetic makeup — 43 percent — is what he looks like. And he is 89 percent various bulldog breeds — pit, Staffordshire terrier, plain bull (I guess “Bulldog” means English bulldog) — or boxer. You know, tough-guy breeds. I was a little surprised at the Staffordshire designation, but look at these pictures. Whom does that look like, especially the brindled one? Dembe’s legs are just longer, which is probably the boxer influence.

But he’s also a sporting chap — 5 percent Lab, although he showed little interest in tearing off after squirrels or anything. He’d chase a tennis ball, and then challenge you to try to take it away from him (that was his idea of how “fetch” was to be played, and it gave him a chance to show off his bulldog superpower — his powerful jaws), but if a small animal passed in front of him, he’d just give it a glance and move on. And then there was collie, and a bit of chow chow.

I don’t know if anyone has told him that he’s also part Chihuahua. I’m certainly not going to bring up the subject. I look forward to seeing him again soon, and wouldn’t want to damage our relationship…

He really enjoyed our new storm door, which kept out the 13-degree air, and let in the sun…

This is why I’m really into genealogy, people…

My cousin Herman Rabbitt at the county fair in 1962.

Having now guaranteed, via that headline, that none of you will read this post, I’ll continue…

Several times in recent days, I’ve posted something about one or both of those prequels that are now streaming on Prime and HBOMax — the Tolkien one and the Game of Thrones one. I’ve done this even though I’m not interested in watching either. My attention has been grabbed by side issues. I go on these digressions sometimes.

Anyway, today The Post had yet another story on the subject of the GoT one, and it managed to grab my attention with this headline: “‘House of the Dragon’ is based on this real medieval civil war.

Then I really got interested when I found the inspiration was allegedly inspired by the Anarchy — that period in English history when Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen were fighting over the crown — which should have been Matilda’s, but too many nobles weren’t ready to accept a queen as their sovereign in the Year of Our Lord 1138. I didn’t know about the Anarchy until several years back, when I was researching the Norman lord known to history as “Strongbow.” Strongbow went over to Ireland — and started all these centuries of English oppression — because he had lost his land titles, which were stripped away by Henry II (Matilda’s son), so he felt he needed to branch out and diversify his holdings.

Anyway, I got into all that because according to my family tree, I am directly descended from every one of those people — Matilda, Stephen, Strongbow, and Henry II (who forgave Strongbow and restored him after Strongbow let him in on his Irish venture — countries were run kind of like the Mob in those days).

Am I really directly descended from them? Who knows? It seems highly unlikely, because we’re talking 27 generations, which means more than 27 opportunities for a mistake. Having my DNA done has shown me how many people out there don’t really know who their fathers are. Not me — I was happy to find that people on both sides of my family who I thought were first cousins actually were first cousins, meaning that my parents were my parents. But some people quite close to me — within a generation or so — were mistaken. So imagine how many times that happened in 27 generations, no matter what official records said — especially the way those medieval folk carried on.

So why do I pursue hobby, devoting so much time to it? Two reasons, or maybe one reason with two parts:

  1. What does it matter whether Empress Matilda was, precisely, my “25th-great grandmother?” If a modern person of British ancestry goes back that far, that person is related to her, and probably pretty closely — for mathematical reasons related to why everyone of European descent is descended from Charlemagne. Making the connection and setting it down makes me conscious of how close we all are to each other, and to all people who have lived. I like that. And I don’t worry about whether I have the relationship exactly right. I’m not planning on going to court to try to get the family castle back. (And I’m also conscious that even if I had all the documents in hand that proved my case in some hypothetical court of law, it wouldn’t mean that all those people in the lineage really were the sons of their “fathers” as designated on the documents — so I still wouldn’t know.)
  2. I love history. And tracing my tree back into the Middle Ages makes me learn about it. As I said before, I knew nothing about The Anarchy. In fact, as I recall, when I learned several years ago that Strongbow lost his titles because he had backed King Stephen, my initial reaction was “King STEPHEN? There was no King Stephen of England!” Except yes, there was. And I really dig learning things like that this way.

In other words, I like the stories, and I like feeling related to them.

OK, now I’m going to tell you a second story that may be more interesting because it falls within living memory — and also because it’s about somebody really, really interesting, who was written about last week in The Washington Post.

A little after reading that stuff about The Anarchy, I got a call from my first cousin Patty in Maryland, who is also into genealogy. In fact, she was calling in regard to some emails we had exchanged about research into the first Warthens (actually, Wathens at the time) who came to this country. So we talked awhile about family trees. I told her about the Anarchy thing, and she told me about something way cooler, which she had learned about at a meeting of an organization called Montgomery History.

It was the story of a fascinating guy who lived, within our lifetimes, in Montgomery County — the part of Maryland where our branch of the Warthens settled several generations back. His name was Herman Rabbitt — which grabbed my attention because our great-grandmother was named Rebecca Jane Rabbitt before she married A.C. Warthen. This Herman was a fascinating guy. As the Post, writing about this lecture, described him:

  • He was a cattleman in a part of the country better known for dairy — if you think of that area as agricultural at all.
  • He was not a typical cowboy. He was known for driving his cattle down the road on his motorcycle.
  • He was a huge landowner, holding property all over the county, including the spot where the Montgomery County Fair is held.
  • He had a couple of million dollars put away in the usual way, but he didn’t entirely trust banks — and buried at least $500,000 in cash on his property, in milk cans and an oil drum.
  • When he died in 1972, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork to lay claim to his property, including the woman who said she had helped him bury the money.
  • In the end, the legal battle ate up about half his estate. But there might still be some out there. As the Post reported, “Though $500,000 was dug up, Bessie Mills, the housekeeper, claimed she buried $700,000.”
  • Herman has a local craft brew beer named after him. The can features of a rabbit in overalls — the real Herman’s usual attire — being chased by a bunch of other critters while money spills out of his pockets.

Within a minute after getting off the phone with Patty, I had Googled this guy, and found two things: That Post story from last week, and his Findagrave page. Two clicks later, I knew that his grandfather was already on my family tree: The uncle of Rebecca Jane Rabbitt, the brother of her father, Thomas Henry Rabbitt (yes, everyone on that branch of my tree sounds as though they were named by Beatrix Potter).

So Herman was my second cousin twice removed. He’s on the tree now. And even though he was a big-enough local character that people are giving lectures about him 50 years later, I had never heard of him until today.

I love finding out stuff like that…

Thank goodness I didn’t try eating haggis

Nor did I make myself watch “Braveheart,” on the off chance I would like it better this time.

In fact, I made no effort to acclimate myself to being Scottish, in spite of Ancestry’s bold claim that I was 52 percent thataway. Oh, when my wife and I were discussing where in the world we should travel to next, I mentioned that maybe I had a sort of ancestral obligation to try out Scotland — but I didn’t push it. Frankly, I’d rather go back to England or Ireland — or maybe Wales.

Bottom line, though, I never really believed it. And in spite of Ancestry’s long disinformation campaign of declaring me more and more Scottish — boosting me from a negligible amount to 40 percent, then 48 percent, and then, earlier this year, to 53 percent! — I retained my doubts. And I hoped Ancestry would realize its mistake, and start dialing it back.

Which they have now done, to a rather dramatic degree:

So now, I’m allegedly somewhat more Scots than anything else, but not mostly Scottish. I now await the next adjustment, which should get us back down to something based more in fact. Which means more English, and a good bit more Irish.

Nothing against being Scottish, mind you. It’s just that I don’t think its accurate, based on my family tree. Near as I can tell, I’m mostly English, followed by Welsh, Irish and Scottish all vying for a distant second.

Of course, as I’ve acknowledged before, this may just be because the English managed to keep better records — while busy lording it over those other three groups (and likely destroying a lot of those records). It’s particularly difficult tracing ancestors once they get back to Ireland. I can get them back there, but once in Ireland, they seem to have had no parents or any other antecedents.

But this latest assessment seems closer to reality…

Och, na! a’m mair than hauf scots noo!

You say I’m 53 percent WHAT?!?

I got that from this “English to Scottish translator” I just found. See, back when I was mostly English and Welsh, the headline might have said, “Oh, no! I’m more than half Scottish now!”

But I suppose I must change the way I say things.

You know how Ancestry — using the very same sample of my DNA, mind you — keeps changing my ethnicity, and with each change, I get more and more Scottish?

It’s gone like this:

  • When I first had my DNA tested (in 2016, I think): 45 percent Western European; 20+ percent from England, Wales and Scotland; 20+ percent Irish.
  • Late 2019: England, 65 percent Wales and Northwestern Europe; 29 percent Ireland & Scotland
  • September 2020: 40 percent Scotland; 24 percent Ireland; 17 percent England & Northwestern Europe
  • September 2021: 48 percent Scotland; 17 percent England & Northwestern Europe; 13 percent Ireland; 11 percent Wales

And now… drumroll… here’s what they say:

Aye, more than half. Mathematically speaking, accordingly to these folks, I am now mostly Scottish. I can’t feel it though. I still prefer wearing pants. I don’t know or care how Rangers F. C. are doing. Still less do I feel like busting somebody’s head because he supports Celtic. I have never liked the movie “Braveheart.” I don’t even want to hear a description of haggis, much less eat it.

And if I can think of any more stupid ethnic stereotypes that describe the way I don’t feel — like, being tight with money or some such — I’ll come back and add them.

More to the point, while I know I have some ancestors who were from north of Hadrian’s Wall — the Moffatts, the Presslys, a few others here and there — they don’t make up anywhere close to half the 8,998 people on my tree.

But I’m now coming to accept that within a couple more years, Ancestry will be telling me I’m 100 percent Scottish, no doubt about it. I suppose I should try to get used to it. Maybe I should give “Braveheart” another try. I’ve gotta start getting my mind right…

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as Ancestry sees us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.

I thought Photoshop would be handier than flying to the Highlands to have a new portrait taken.

I don’t WANT a new look! Or a new ‘feel,’ either…

Not feeling like doing any more actual work today, I just opened Ancestry for the first time in a couple of days and got this.

I did not ask for it. I do not want it. My tree looked fine before. It worked fine before.

Except for the fact that a lot of search capabilities I’d like to have are missing. I’d like to be able to find things like:

  • How many lines I have going back at least, say, 10 generations? Or pick a number.
  • The earliest ancestor identified on a given line.
  • Where, proportionally, my known ancestors actually lived, say, four centuries ago.
  • How many people I have on the tree — across the tree, not just in one line or the other — who lived in, say, the 17th century.

Why? Because I’m curious just how much of my tree is missing. If you go back 10 or 11 or 12 generations, what percentage of the full tree is actually identified? I’m guessing it would be less than 1 percent. The people identified tend to be the ones who were wealthier, more prominent, especially the ones who have their own Wikipedia pages.

This can give you the wrong impression about your tree — that it’s full of big shots. And I don’t want that.

And I’m just curious to know how many people in history have just…disappeared.

But I can’t do things like that, which you would think I would be able to do with a decently-constructed database.

I mean, maybe I can, but I haven’t been able to find that out. If you embarrass me by showing me how to do it, I’ll be grateful.

Anyway, until you give me some stuff like that, hold off on the pointless cosmetic remakes. Especially when they don’t even look better…

Hoots, mon! So now I’m even MORE Scottish?

The New Me: My latest ethnic makeover from Ancestry.

“They send you information. Mine just said, ‘Dude, you’re white. In fact, you’re very white. I hope you feel guilty…'”

Jim Gaffigan

Yeah, Ancestry has told me that from the beginning. On that one point their message has been consistent: “You are officially the whitest white boy at Bypass High. Don’t even think about trying to be cool.”

But beyond that, they can’t seem to make up their minds. I’ve written about this before. I need to stop complaining, I guess, because it just seems to irritate Ancestry, and they get vindictive.

But it irritates me no end, because after all this research, with 8,902 people on my tree (no, I am not making that up; guys like me are really uncool enough to amass something like that), I have noted certain patterns. And since I’ve traced almost every branch back to the Old Country, I can make this general observation: Most seem to come from England. Not all — there are a few here and there from Ireland, or Scotland — but mostly England. If I get on a lucky roll that carries me centuries back before their descendants came over here, some of those “English” people got to Albion from the Continent.

Now, I realize that this is grossly incomplete. I have records on the people who were in the dominant culture, and weren’t, like my obscure Irish ancestors, conquered (by, say, the English). If my Viking ancestors hadn’t come and conquered part of France and become Norman, and if they had not, as Normans, jumped over and conquered England, and if the English (really, the Norman ones) hadn’t conquered Ireland, maybe more French, Saxon and Irish people would show up on my tree, with complete records.

But still, based on the information I have, it seemed natural when Ancestry told me my DNA showed that 65 percent of my ancestors were from “England, Wales and Northwestern Europe,” and 29 percent were from Ireland and Scotland.

That was in 2019 (which was itself a change from before). Then a year ago, Ancestry said never mind all that. Really, you’re 40 percent Scottish, 24 percent Irish, only 17 percent from England and Northwestern Europe, and 8 percent Welsh.

Which ticked me off. Because it really shook confidence in the whole project. Really, that’s a pretty wild swing — or multiple wild swings. So I complained about it.

So Ancestry showed me. The other day, I got a new notice from them. Now, they say, I’m 48 percent Scottish, and only 13 percent Irish. I’m still 17 percent from England and Northwestern Europe, but slightly more Welsh.

So I guess I should just shut up, before they tell me I have to start wearing a kilt…

Stuart Mackenzie, my new role model, I suppose.

It’s artificial, all right, but let’s not call it ‘intelligence’

not smart (2)

As y’all know, I worry a good bit about what the internet is doing to us. But I don’t worry about “artificial intelligence” taking over the planet in some deliberate, organized way like in “The Matrix.”

That’s because I don’t see it as intelligent, either in a bad way or a good way. Oh, it’s capable of some impressive tricks. Some of them, like Google Maps, I think are pretty wonderful. But intelligent? Nope. I worry about the things it does that are the opposite of intelligent. And I worry about how it’s making us dramatically less intelligent. That’s what all those “Rabbit Hole” posts are about.

And on the good, useful side of intelligence, I’m never going to trust it to operate any car that I or people I love are riding in — or driving next to. Yep, it can react more quickly and often more logically than a human to many situations. But it is so very, very far from being able to see and understand everything we do.

My email today provided two examples that brought all this to mind for me, yet again.

First… I recently wanted to re-read Post Captain, the second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, for the first time in years. But I had lost my copy of it. I figured if I bought another, I might lose that, too. So I bought access to a Kindle version, which I can read on my iPad’s Kindle app.

And now, using the “brilliant” capabilities of Amazon’s recommendation code, it sends me invitations to read some other books in the series, having no clue that all of those are sitting, well-thumbed, on my bookshelves.

OK, you say, that seems reasonable. A clerk in a bookshop could make the same mistake. Seeing me buying Post Captain, he might reasonably say, “Hey, if that interests you, have you read the other 20 books in the series?” And I wouldn’t think he was stupid at all.

But that clerk isn’t the vaunted, imperial technology of Amazon, which supposedly has instantaneous access to everything about me that’s on the Web, and possesses an uncanny ability to process all that information and act effectively upon it, even to the point of planting (with my help!) two spies — my Echo devices — to listen to everything I ever say in the privacy of my home.

Which should not make it hard for it to know that I am a compulsive blogger — something not hidden at all, since the blog bears my name — who bores the ever-loving crapola out of all my readers by mentioning my Aubrey-Maturin mania over and over and over again, for years on end.

No, again, I’m not saying a human couldn’t make the mistake. But if a human being was in touch with all that information, and was able to process it constantly with superhuman speed, he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I haven’t read HMS Surprise. (The Stasi wouldn’t have made that mistake in even a casual effort to manipulate me, and East Germany ceased to exist well before the rise of artificial you-know-what.) So he would just suggest something else.

No, Amazon isn’t stupid for doing this. It’s just utterly failing to impress me with its supposedly amazing intelligence.

OK, I sense I’m losing you on that one. The example doesn’t come across as sufficiently stupid to you, even after I explain why it drew a snort of contempt from me.

So here’s another one. My Ancestry app has recently stopped defaulting to my tree when I open it. I have to tell it I want to open the tree after it has shown me various offers of really cool stuff that’s supposed to make me super-impressed at what Ancestry has to offer me.

And the one it keeps offering first is something it calls “your Photoline.” And there’s one of my great-great grandfathers, along with his son my great-grandfather, my Dad, and me.

I infer that Ancestry expects me to react like this:

Wow! That’s me! And there’s my Dad when he was young! I wonder who those other, old-timey guys are! Am I related to them? Can Ancestry really tell me amazing things like that? Where did it find all these pictures?

And so forth.

But here’s the thing: Ancestry has these pictures because I put them on my tree. Every single one of them. I not only scanned them, but I recognize the way I cropped them in Photoshop. I remember wondering whether I should remove that streak across the picture of me, and deciding to leave it because the streak is part of the story of the picture.

(That’s a mug someone at The Jackson Sun shot in the newsroom’s studio in 1985 to go with a story for the business page about the fact that I, the Sun‘s news editor, was leaving to become news editor of the Wichita paper. The streak is there because the Sun had recently started trying to save photographers’ time by shooting such routine mug shots with a Polaroid camera. They’re quicker, but often they leave streaks like that — which I suppose makes them sort of like “artificial intelligence.” I’ve always liked the picture anyway, including the cocky grin I had, because I didn’t know yet what an awful place to work the Wichita paper would be.)

There’s some human stupidity here, too. A human thought this would be a great way to pull people into Ancestry, and wrote (or caused to be written) the code that would automatically skim the database for such pictures, and match them up. And it might have impressed someone utterly clueless, like those celebrity guests on that PBS show who are so amazed to learn who their grandparents were.

But why doesn’t this brilliant code know where it got the pictures, which was from me, the guy it’s trying to impress? It doesn’t seem like that would take many ones and zeroes at all. It seems like the one thing it ought to know the most easily. Even a pretty dumb human would know that.

Anyway, I’m not worried about this kind of intelligence taking over. Oh, it can perhaps destroy society, by destroying our ability to think clearly. But it can’t run the place… or drive a car to my satisfaction, either…


Oh, and don’t even get me started on referring to a single person as “them.” Of course, plenty of human do that, unfortunately…

What a great resource for searching old papers!

Library of Congress

I want to thank Jim Catoe for pointing out something very cool the other day.

Remember my post about how fascinating newspapers were a century or so ago, with their unbelievably detailed and varied accounts of what was going on in their communities? Occasionally, Ancestry throws me “hints” that consists of pages from such papers, and I usually enjoy reading the rest of the page as much as I do the item that contains information about an ancestor. (It’s the same with other aspects of tree-building: It’s fun to find an Earl of Whatever as direct ancestor in the 15th century, but not nearly as much fun as checking out his Wikipedia page and learning the historical context of what was going on around him. I’ve learned a lot about history that was unknown to me before. But not enough. Gotta keep at it…)

Well, Jim posted this in response:

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, housed in the Library of Congress and available on-line, has been a valuable tool for me in researching my ancestors in Lancaster and Kershaw Counties. I’ve found both saints and scoundrels in the family’s past.

So I checked it out, approaching it as a genealogical tool, and immediately did a search for “Warthen.” But unusual as my last name is, that was a bit too wide a cast, so I narrowed it by adding the first name of my grandfather and uncle, “Gerald.”

And immediately, I ran across a page of The Sunday Star of Washington, dated Feb. 28, 1943.

And on it was one of the most fascinating clips I’ve seen, in family tree terms. Of course, the item about the Warthens wasn’t the dominant thing on the page. The visual focus was a photo from a social event, with this cutline:

A high light of the reception given last week at the Soviet Embassy was the warm welcome extended by the Ambassador and Mme. Litvinoff to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador and Lady Halifax. The function was given in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the valiant Red Army.

Many other interesting artifacts of life in 1943 were to be found on the page. But unlike with the pages from Ancestry, I was able to go immediately to the one I was looking for, because “Gerald” and “Warthen” were highlighted. And here, in the middle of an item about what various folks in the Maryland suburbs were up to, was this graf:

Mr. and Mrs. Gerald H. Warthen have leased their home in Kensington, where they resided for many years, and members of the family are now in various parts of the country doing their part in the war effort. Mr. Warthen is with the Federal Public Works Agency in Baltimore and Mrs. Warthen and three of their children. Miss Mary Bradley Warthen, Donald and Rebecca Jane are in Asheville, N. C., where Mrs. Warthen and Mary are with a branch of the General Accounting Office, which was recently transferred there. Another daughter, the former Miss Laura Moffatt Warthen, whose marriage to Lt. John B. Avery, Army Air Forces, took place February 13 at Rosswell, N. Mex., is now in San Antonio, Tex., where Lt. Avery is stationed. The Warthens’ older son, Lt. Gerald Warthen is with an Army engineer aviation battalion near Tampa, Fla. After the war they plan to be together again at their Kensington home.

It’s not all that well-written. It seems to say Grandma and three of the kids were in Baltimore with my grandfather, and then the next sentence notes that she was working for the GAO in Asheville, with the three youngest kids. And the latter was true, to the best of my knowledge.

But still: How often do you find an item like this, from almost 80 years ago, telling you what everyone in your father’s family was up to at this moment of great, historic import? Not often.

I knew most of this, just as I know my grandfather would join them in Asheville later, that Uncle Jack would go off to fly B-17s in the 8th Air Force and get shot down three times, and that my Uncle Gerald would be with the engineers in the Philippines (where he would later joke that he was building an officers’ club or something equally nonessential when MacArthur finally returned).

It doesn’t say much about what Dad and the other young ones were doing, because he was still a schoolboy — the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor on his 13th birthday. And as I say, there were no great revelations in the paragraph. But still, what a cool find!

And that was just from my very first search. I look forward to exploring further.

Maybe I’m just discovering something all of y’all knew about. But if not, I urge you to check it out, especially if you have the genealogy bug. Here’s the link. And thanks, Jim!

Warthens in WWII

“12 lashes, well laid on,” and other news — lots of it

full page, May 21, 1913

The full page from which the items below are excerpted.

Newspapers used to be fascinating.

No, this isn’t a post about how “newspapers were better back in my day.” We’re talking about way before my day. As in my great-grandfather’s day.

If you’re an Ancestry member, you’re familiar with the “hints” they frequently offer. To explain to the rest of you, the app is constantly offering little bits of documentation of the lives of the people on your tree. It might be something highly informative, such as an obituary (the “survived by” part is very helpful in establishing relationships) or a death certificate, or a photo you didn’t have. Some are less so — a mention in a city directory, which tells you little more than that someone lived in a certain city at a certain time.

But the most fun “hints” are pages from old newspapers. I don’t know how much you’ve delved into papers from a century or more ago, but they offer fascinating glimpses into the details of life in those times and places. They accomplish this by telling you every tiny, pettifogging detail of what was going on in that community — about a group of young men who have formed a baseball team, or an odd incident in which a mentally disturbed person did something odd in public, or who attended a wedding, or simply spent the weekend with someone in town.

As a newspaperman, I try to imagine what that was like. These smaller papers (such as, say, The News of Frederick, Md., which inspired this post) likely had tiny newsrooms. An editor, and maybe a cub reporter or two to help. But these people people did yeoman’s work in recording what was happening around them. And everything went into the paper. A single inside page of one of these papers will keep you engaged for quite a while. There is an ocean of type on a single page, sometimes more than you’d find in an entire edition of a modern paper. I get the sense that these people sat there writing these things all day and all night, like a benzedrine-fueled Jack Kerouac typing on a roll of butcher paper.

And one thing Ancestry does not do is tell you where on that page your ancestor appears. So you have to hunt. Which is fun.

Today, I was offered two such hints about my great-grandfather, Alfred Crittenton Warthen of Kensington, Md. This is great, because I know so little about him. He died when my Dad was 8 years old, and he remembers almost nothing about his grandfather.

A.C. Warthen

A.C. Warthen

On the first page, I found him right away, because it contained his obituary, so he was in the headline. This was in 1937, and obviously something of value for the tree.

With the second, he was mentioned in the last line of a tiny item about work he was doing to remodel several rooms in the Montgomery County courthouse in Rockville. He charged $2,700. This was literally the last item I read on the page, of course. I had supposed I would find him among the guests at the wedding of Miss Amy Magdelene Derr, who married the Reverend Elmer F. Rice. Or perhaps he’d be in the “PURELY PERSONAL” column, under the subhed “Pleasant Paragraphs About Those Who Come and Go.”


But while searching, I got to reading about John W. Munday, by his own account a recent resident of an asylum in Pennsylvania, who “created a sensation” by driving into town “with $5 and $10 bills twisted in and around his ears and in his hair.” The floor of his buggy “was carpeted with greenbacks.” He was arrested on the charge of “being disorderly in the public square.” Fortunately, we are informed, “The county physician will inquire into his mental condition.”

But I was especially struck by the item immediately below that one. Here it is:

12 lashes

First, did you know that that was a punishment being legally meted out in 1913? I did not. And while I’m not necessarily advocating its return, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate punishment for such a crime. It certainly fits this outrage better than, say, drunkenness aboard one of Jack Aubrey’s ships. And it seems to have worked, at least for the moment. As we see, he was “very meek” after the whipping. Although a Royal Navy bosun’s mate from Aubrey’s day might have questioned whether the lashes were truly “well laid on,” since “no blood was drawn.”

Turning to a lighter matter, there was a lengthy story about the fact that regular Tuesday and Friday night dances were to “commence in earnest” at the Braddock Heights pavilion. These events were apparently organized or sponsored by “the railroad,” although which railroad is not specified. I suppose everyone knew, and that this was somehow a normally thing for railroads to do back in that day.

But the best part was that most of the story was dedicated to the scandalous goings-on among some young people at such events, and how the manager appointed by the railroad would try to keep a lid on it. An excerpt:

turkey trot

Those wacky kids. They just don’t seem to realize what a watchful eye the manager has.

How do my ancestors keep moving around? They’re dead, right?

OK, this is getting ridiculous.

I found my last “ethnicity estimate” from Ancestry pretty befuddling. But that’s nothing compared to the new one they just gave me.

Last time, here’s what they came up with. And while the changes they had made from before were pretty confusing, it mostly made sense, from what I’ve seen doing my family tree:

new estimate

Now, they’ve sent me a whole new ballgame, and I don’t understand it at all:

now scottish

Oh, come on!

Before, I was 29 percent “Ireland & Scotland,” total. Now, I’m 40 percent “Scotland,” alone. I used to be 65 percent England and Wales (yes, it said “England, Wales & Northwestern Europe,” but the “Northwestern Europe” part consisted of a pitiful few acres on the coast of France), and now I’m 17 percent English and 8 percent Welsh.

If you look at my tree, I’m mostly English. I have an occasional Scottish ancestor, but probably just as many Welsh ones. The 8 percent seems about right for Wales, but only 17 percent England? (Of course, some of my lines don’t reach back to the Old Country. And a small minority of lines go back more than a few centuries. Maybe I seem English because the English have more intact records. Maybe all my missing ancestors were Scots.)

I don’t get it…

When Ancestry does this — and I think this is my third “update” or so — they always say something like this:

Don’t worry, your DNA hasn’t changed. What has changed is how much we know about DNA, the amount of data we have available, and the ways we can look at it for clues to your past. You’re still you.

Oh, that makes me all warm and fuzzy.

But how did all my ancestors move to Scotland when I wasnae lookin’?








Answer the readers’ questions, please! Or mine, anyway…

As a cranky old editor, I often have a problem reading news stories. It’s not the poor writing I sometimes encounter, or occasional typos, or the “bias” so many laypeople think they see. It’s this:

Too often, they fail to answer the most basic questions.

This started bugging me big-time shortly after I made the move from news to editorial, at the start of 1994. Time and again, there would be ONE QUESTION that I had when approaching a news item, a question that was essential to my forming an opinion on the matter. And not only would that one question not be answered in the story, but too often there would be no evidence that it even occurred to the reporter to ask the question. Worse, it didn’t occur to his or her editor to insist that it be asked. There would be no, “answer was unavailable,” or “so-and-so did not respond to questions” or anything like that.

I decided something about the news trade from that. I decided that the problem with news is the opposite of the one that people who complain about “bias” think they see. The problem was that, since the reporter and editor are so dedicated to not having an opinion on the matter, the questions that immediately occur to a person who is trying to make up his or her mind don’t even occur to them. Their brains just don’t go there. They’re like, “I got who, what, where, when and how, so I’m done.”

Too often, there’d be no attempt to determine who was responsible for a thing, or what the law required, or why a certain thing came up at a certain time.

This was maddening to me, and not just because it meant I’d have to do the work they’d failed to do. It was maddening because, well, why do we have a First Amendment? We have it so that we’ll have an informed electorate. And they’re not going to be very informed if they don’t know what to think about a news development because basic questions aren’t answered.

I knew news writers couldn’t care less whether people up in editorial didn’t have enough information. But it seemed they could care, at least a little, about arming readers with sufficient information before they went to vote.

(And I would, after a moment’s irritation, dismiss the whole thing from my mind — which is why I don’t recall a single specific example illustrating all this. I just remember my frustration. There was nothing to be done, because it would have been uncool to raise hell with news about it. Believe me, I tried once or twice, and it didn’t go well.)

Of course, sometimes my irritation isn’t so high-minded. Sometimes, I’m just ticked because my basic curiosity isn’t being satisfied. It’s more like, here’s a matter of something that didn’t matter to me at all as a voter, but I just wanted to know, and didn’t understand why I wasn’t being told…

Y’all know I don’t read sports news, unless something just grabs me. The other day, something in The Washington Post grabbed me. I saw that a professional baseball player’s wife had died of a heart attack. First, I thought, That poor woman! Her poor husband and family!… And I was about to keep scrolling down to the National and World parts of my iPad app (which for some reason the Post positions below sports), when I had a question, which I clicked on the story to answer.

What do you think it was? What would it be naturally? Well, of course, I wondered, How old — or rather how young — was she? Professional baseball players’ wives don’t die of heart attacks normally, and why? Because they’re young! As a 66-year-old who recently had a stroke, I was more curious than I would normally be, thinking, Even people that young are having heart attacks? And it was natural to wonder, well, how young?

But the story didn’t tell me. And I suppose that’s understandable under the circumstances, since the news broke on Instagram, rather than coming from a press briefing where there was the opportunity to ask questions. But still. For me, it was a case of, Here we go again…

Yes, I know. A decent human being would only care about the human tragedy, and wouldn’t get bugged about the details. But I am a longtime newspaper editor, so don’t expect normal behavior.

And I have this tendency, as an old guy, to think, These lazy reporters today… After all, beyond this one incident, I’ve noticed a trend in recent years to not bother with people’s ages even in hard news stories. That used to be an inviolable rule that, at least in hard news, you always gave a person’s age right away. The very first reference to a significant figure in a story would say something like, “John Smith, 25, was being sought by police for…”

But I’m not being fair to the kids. I’m just hypercritical. I was hypercritical back when I supervised reporters, and got worse when I moved to editorial, because I naturally wanted to know even more, so that I could opine. And then I just wanted to know because I wanted to know.

And sometimes I find evidence that I’m wrong to think reporters of yore were more thorough.

Lately, I’ve been looking at some fairly old journalism, from way before my time. Ancestry has started uploading newspaper stories as “hints” attached to certain individuals, particularly if they lived in the right markets. For instance, I recently received about 50 or so hints about my paternal grandparents from The Washington Post because they lived in the Washington suburb of Kensington, Md. Most of the items about my grandmother were social, such as an item noting that she had recently returned from a trip to South Carolina and was staying with friends until her mother returned and opened the house (because, of course, a young lady would not go stay at the house alone).

Most of the items mentioning my grandfather, who was once recruited by the Senators organization, were about baseball. They would usually mention that he had been captain of his team at Washington and Lee. And every time he turned around, he was attending a meeting to form a new team, and there’d be a news item about it, naming who was there and sometimes disclosing what positions they would play (he would usually pitch or play infield).

Of course, we know people back then were really into baseball, but still… you’ve got to be impressed by such depth of coverage — reporters digging up such hyperlocal minutiae going on in their communities (these guys weren’t even playing — they were just talking about starting a team!), and publishing it in those extremely dense, gray pages. I always have been. I mean, wow. This is driven home by the fact that Ancestry posts the entire page, which includes several times as many words as a typical newspaper page today, and you have to sift through the whole page to find the mention of your ancestor (which is why I still haven’t gone through most of the hints about my grandparents).

But sometimes they don’t seem so thorough.

For instance, I recently added an item about my great-grandfather Alfred Crittenton Warthen, father of the baseball player. It’s from the Frederick, Maryland, Evening Post on July 3, 1911. It’s way down on a page topped by a picture from the coronation of King George V (you see him and Queen Mary in their carriage), which contains news about a Boston rector who had traced the royal family to the lineage of David in Judea (which I suppose explains the picture). The page includes stories revealing that immigrants in quarantine in New York eat with their fingers rather than knives and forks, and one about an Englishwoman who was “Relieved from Hysteria Very Speedily” by visiting Coney Island. No, really. It was in the paper.

But eventually, I found this:


And while it was a small item, I found it very interesting. Editorially, of course, I was ambivalent. As someone who hates noise, I’m obliged to feel some sympathy for Mr. Potts. At the same time, I have to think he’s a bit of a nutter.

I didn’t let myself be bothered by the fact that there should be a period after the second mention of Kensington, or a comma in the next line between “Town Council” and “Potts.” Such things happen.

But beyond those things, I had all sorts of questions, and no way to answer them:

  • I see Potts is “a resident of Kensington,” but is he a member of council? Or could mere residents present an ordinance in a way that council was required to spend time taking it up? I could see if he, as an observer, brought it up in a Q and A session, but an actual ordinance?
  • Why were Dr. Eugene Jones and my great-grandfather present? Had the fact that such an “ordinance” would come up been publicized, or even passed on first reading? Or did they attend meetings all the time, and just happened to be there? My great-grandfather was in the construction business. Did that bring him there? Was he there to get a permit or a code variance or something?
  • If they were there just because of this item, were they representing someone? Had the local ministerial alliance or someone like that asked them to be there? And was my ancestor someone who was often asked to speak out on local issues — or often did so, whether asked or not?
  • Did they object “so vigorously” on religious grounds — how dare this heathen seek to silence church bells? — or were they just irritated by the fact that the council was spending time on something so frivolous? Or somewhere in between? (I’m hampered by not knowing much about A.C. He died when my father — the last living member of his generation — was very young, and Dad only recalls seeing him once.)
  • The writer possibly didn’t bother to dig further into the matter because it was “said” that public sentiment was very much against it, and it was going nowhere. He was just reporting a local curiosity.
  • Was there a crowd at the meeting, given that public sentiment? Was there drama, and noise (which would have been hard on Potts, poor fella)? Or did the folks who opposed it trust A.C. and Dr. Jones to deal with the matter?

Today, of course, this item might have gone viral on the Web. Our president would probably have, at the very least, put out a Tweet defending church bells, and QAnon would say Potts was an agent for Hillary Clinton.

But as things are, I am just left to wonder…

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He's shown with my grandfather and my Dad's much-older brother Gerald.

One of only four pictures I have of A.C. Warthen. He’s shown with my grandfather and my Dad’s much-older brother Gerald — A.C.’s first grandchild.

How many people do YOU know who have it?

David Beasley, marching with Joe Riley to get the Confederate flag down in 2000.

David Beasley, marching with Joe Riley to get the Confederate flag down in 2000.

There are still people out there who don’t see the pandemic as real, as anything other than an abstract concept. And they don’t get why we’re all staying at home and economic activity has largely ground to a halt.

Some of them are saying some phenomenally stupid things, and I don’t just mean the president.

Well, I don’t know about you, but to me this thing is not abstract. It’s real. It affects people I know:

  • I think the first victim I actually knew, personally, was former Gov. David Beasley. That news came last week. I won’t say we’re close, but I’ve known him since the early ’90s — maybe the late ’80s. When he came in for an endorsement interview in 1994, it was a milestone for me: the first gubernatorial candidate I had ever interviewed who was younger than I was.
  • About the same time, I heard about my second cousin, an Episcopal clergyman out in Texas. He had been horribly sick with pneumonia for three weeks before he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He is now recovering, I’m happy to say.
  • Just yesterday, I learned that my sister-in-law’s brother, who lives in New York, has it. He has had significant health problems in recent years; he didn’t need this, too.

Getting closer, members of my immediate family have been exposed to people with the virus — that we know of. Probably all of us have. So we’re just hoping and praying we all stay healthy.

Of course, we all know of famous people who have it, from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to Prince Charles (who I hope has not been close to Her Majesty lately).

Oh, by the way — Charles is, near as I can tell, my 16th cousin twice removed. I say that not to impress you — you’re probably more closely related to him than I am — or bore you with my genealogy mania. I say it as a reminder that we are ALL related in some way to someone who has this, however distant they may seem. Do not send to ask for whom the virus tolls.

Whom are you close to who has the virus? I think we should share notes, to help each other wrap our heads around this. You don’t have to provide names — you see I didn’t, above. I just thought I’d ask how close it’s getting to y’all, at this still early stage of the crisis….


Ancestry DNA told me my ethnicity. Then it kept changing its mind.

new estimate

This is really irritating.

It’s especially irritating because I can’t get back to the original ethnicity estimate that Ancestry gave me after I sent them a vial full of spit.

That one made sense, and I thought I understood it. It went something like:

  • 45 percent Western European
  • 20+ percent from England, Wales and Scotland
  • 20+ percent Irish
  • 5 or 6 percent Scandinavian
  • Something like less than 1 percent from Southern or Eastern Europe — or was it Iberia? (I don’t know because there have been several versions since then).

I thought that gave me a pretty good sense of how my ancestors were distributed on my tree, which now has more than 7,000 people on it.

As for that big number from Western Europe — it wasn’t that I had a lot of people come to this country from France, Belgium, Germany and the like. No, the vast majority of people I’d been able to trace came here from England, and the rest from Scotland and Ireland. But a lot of those from England had ancestors from Western Europe, if I was lucky enough to trace them back a few more centuries.

And yes, as crfazy as it may sound, I was able to follow quite a few lines well back into Medieval times, and some (only two or three) to before the Norman Conquest. And it turns out a lot were Normans, and some were Welsh, but I’ve yet to find anyone I can point to and say yes, that’s a Saxon. And that means a lot of my English ancestors had nonEnglish ancestors.

And I was able to get a few of those Normans back to Scandinavia, which is where Normans came from. Of course, those were so far back they were highly dubious but it seemed consistent with what the DNA said.

So that first “ethnicity estimate” made some sense.

But since then, Ancestry has redefined its ethnic groupings, and scrambled everything up. Two or three times. Above you see the latest version.

Since when is “England, Wales and Northwestern Europe” a single ethnicity? That’s so broad and general that yeah, I’m unsurprised that I’m 65 percent that. But what does it tell me, really? pretty much nothing.

And look, below, at a closeup of that distribution:


OK, that’s England, sure enough — all but a bit of Cornwall. And that’s most of Wales, all right. But as for the “Northwestern Europe” part — say what? The Cotentin peninsula, plus another little bitty slice of Northwestern France that runs a bit south of Calais? That’s IT? How is THAT “Northwestern Europe?” You should call it “England and Wales (and a few people who lived close enough across the Channel that they probably crossed back and forth a lot).”


And why did Scandinavia go in the other direction, getting more specific, narrowing down to Sweden?

And what on Earth is “Germanic Europe,” If it leaves out most of Austria?


This is maddening.

I suspect Ancestry just has too many employees, and they need something to do, so they are assigned to frequently scramble and rescramble the “ethnicities.”

But each time they do it, they get drunk first.

Unlike earlier princes, Baby Archie will always know his place

Shakespeare's earlier version of Game of Thrones.

Shakespeare’s earlier version of Game of Thrones.

I’ve lost track of how many of my ancestors were beheaded, or killed in battles fighting on the wrong side in the real-life Game of Thrones that was medieval Britain. One led a failed rebellion against Bloody Mary. Another, whose name I forget, fell alongside Richard III at Bosworth Field.

I’d search and tell you, but there’s a huge inadequacy in the Ancestry tree database: You can search by people’s names, but if there’s a way to search by cause or place of death, I haven’t found it.

I bore you yet again with my genealogy fetish because the birth of Prince Harry’s baby boy has got me to thinking about royal succession.

The morning Baby Sussex came into the world, I had started the day watching the tail end of the most recent episode of GoT on my Roku while working out on the elliptical. That wasn’t long enough, so I started watching something I recorded awhile back from PBS — Part 1 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, the version that kicks off the second Hollow Crown series.

I saw the scene in which a group of lords display their allegiances by plucking either a white or red rose from the bushes in a garden in which they’re standing, then go off in a huff to start fighting the Wars of the Roses.

Henry V’s uninspiring offspring sits on the throne, but the Yorkists — also being Plantagenets — have a pretty strong claim to the crown, seeing as how Prince Hal’s Dad had taken it away from their line by force (see Richard II.

But you can make an argument either way, and they did. A lot of people died in the process, including some of my ancestors and almost certainly yours, too.

Today, it’s so simple. We know where Harry’s new son stands in the line of succession — he’s seventh. Nobody disputes this. It’s all so definite, so certain. You can look it up on Wikipedia.

On the one hand, it seems hugely ironic that it’s all so cut-and-dried, now that it doesn’t matter at all who the monarch is. There’s no power in the throne at all.

Of course, on the other hand, I suppose that’s why there’s no controversy about it. Who cares? Why fight about it?

I suppose if the king or queen suddenly had virtually absolute power again, the succession would suddenly become all fuzzy, or at least disputed.

In that alternative universe, 30 years from now young Archie — yes, that’s what his parents have decided to name the new royal — might be drawing his sword against King George, claiming that the crown should have passed to Harry’s line after the untimely death of King William.

I expect that Lord Jughead and Sir Moose would back his claim. But he could not rely on Sir Reggie, Earl of Mantle, who would likely play both sides.

And whether he ended up with Lady Betty or Countess Veronica would depend entirely on which could cement the more important diplomatic alliance…


If my DNA helps catch a serial killer, I’m totally fine with that

my DNA

My DNA results overview page. I do not “shudder” to share this, with you or the cops.

This morning while working out on the elliptical, I started watching a movie on Netflix called “Anon.” It imagines a near-future in which there is no privacy. Apparently, everyone’s brain is wired to record video of every single second of his or her life — sort of like Google Glass without the glasses. And that data is easily shared wirelessly with other people, and is completely available to the police. The police can even access the last experiences of a dead person, which makes finding murderers ridiculously easy.

Also, you can watch TV or movies without a TV — they just stream in your head — and talk to anyone anywhere without a phone. Which, if an accurate prediction of the future, is really bad news for Best Buy. (First showrooming, now this…)

So since the main character (played by Clive Owen) is a homicide cop, a plot twist is needed to make his job interesting. In this case, the plot twist is that he’s on the trail of a serial killer who has managed to hack people’s digital memories, so that everything in the victim’s last moments is seen from the killer’s POV — so you see the victim being shot, but you don’t see the shooter.

I lost interest in it after 39 minutes, and switched over to “Babylon Berlin” for the rest of my workout. It may have been low-tech, but Germany between the wars was never boring.

But it reminded me of something I meant to blog about a week or so ago.

You’ve probably read about how the Golden State Killer was caught more than 40 years after his crimes when investigators tracked him genetically through a consumer DNA service like Ancestry. Basically, they found links to some of his relatives who had voluntarily shared their DNA info on such databases. Then they found him, and made a positive DNA match to something he’d discarded.

Which I thought was awesome.

But of course, this development immediately led to such headlines as:

The Golden State Killer Is Tracked Through a Thicket of DNA, and Experts Shudder

Data on a genealogy site led police to the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect. Now others worry about a ‘treasure trove of data’

Really? Experts “shudder?” People worry about a “treasure trove of data” that not only can connect you to a 4th cousin, but help cops determine whether he’s a serial killer? Which would be a cool thing to know before you reach out to meet him or trade family information?

Why? That’s utterly absurd.

Sharing DNA info can lead to some pretty painful results for a lot of people. For instance, you can find out that your “Dad” isn’t really your Dad. This can lead to a great deal of family trauma and upend lives.

I’ve been lucky in that regard. My results have been boring. I am related to the people I thought I was related to in precisely the way I thought I was. There could be surprises in results from folks who have not yet been tested, but so far it’s been pretty vanilla. (Extremely vanilla, in terms of ethnicity — so much for those Ancestry ads that tell of all the exciting, exotic backgrounds people have found in their DNA.)

Not that there haven’t been surprises elsewhere on the tree. Some months ago, my daughter was contacted by a guy who was trying to find his birth parents, who thought a cousin of mine might be his father. Sure enough, he shows up on Ancestry as being right behind a couple of my first cousins in terms of his closeness to me. He narrowed it down to one of my cousins. I don’t know whether that cousin knows about it, because I haven’t wanted to pry.

Something like that can be upsetting to those involved, and I’m very sympathetic to that. But that’s just the DNA service working as advertised.

What these “experts” out there are “worrying” and “shuddering” about is the police being able to use these connections to solve crimes.

This does not worry me. If one of my cousins is a serial killer, I’d kind of like the duly constituted authorities to know that, and act upon it.

And I have trouble imagining a scenario in which that is a bad thing — although I’m sure we’ll see a movie soon that shows it to be a frightening thing…

Everybody without mustaches stand in the back!

Treasury Department law office

Remember my post about how all the men on my family tree in the late 19th century had big mustaches?

Probably not, since it drew no comments. Nevertheless, here’s a sequel.

One of my great-grandfathers, William Oscar Bradley, was an attorney who left South Carolina to take up a presidential appointment with the Treasury Department. (That’s how his daughter, my grandmother, ended up meeting and marrying my paternal grandfather. The Warthens were from Montgomery County, Maryland, and were the only part of my tree not from South Carolina.)

Anyway, one of my cousins recently posted this image on Facebook, labeling it “Treasury Department Law Office.” That’s my great-grandfather William O. in the center of the photo.

There’s no date, but obviously this was smack in the middle of the “everybody’s gotta wear a mustache” period.

And if you didn’t, male or female, you had to stand in the back of the picture.

Actually, I’m sort of guessing that it was a status thing based on something other than facial hair — maybe the seated guys in the front were the lawyers, and the folks in the back were the clerks who worked for them. Or maybe the people who arrived first for the photo got the seats. But I kind of doubt that. Surely if where you were in the picture meant nothing in terms of organizational structure, the gentlemen in the front would have given up their seats to the two ladies — right? I hope so.

I love old pictures. I wish I knew more about this one….