Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Colonial Goldmine

One leaf from a 1775 journal kept by Harvard scientist and professor John Winthrop (1714-1779) in that year’s Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanac. The list notes the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19) and Bunker Hill (June 17) and Harvard’s one-year refuge at Concord (June 21).

Historians and archivists know a secret that most of us do not: that vast stores of primary documents about North America’s Colonial era lie untouched and unseen in repositories throughout the United States and Canada.

But according to an article in the online Harvard Gazette, two digital projects aim to bring vast numbers of early documents, many unexamined, to light.

You can read the entire story online at

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

FDA Tells Google-Backed 23andMe to Halt DNA Test Service

23andMe Inc., the Google Inc.-backed DNA analysis company was told by U.S. regulators to halt sales of its main product because it’s being sold without “marketing clearance or approval.”

23andMe is led by Anne Wojcicki, who co-founded the company in 2006 and recently separated from her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Google has invested millions of dollars in the company in recent years.

The 23andMe $99 Saliva Collection Kit and Personal Genome Service, or PGS, tells users whether they carry a disease, are at risk of a disease and would respond to a drug. Most of the uses fall into the category of a medical device and require Food and Drug Administration approval, the agency told the Mountain View, California-based company in a Nov. 22 letter made public yesterday.

Alberto Gutierrez, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a letter to the company made public on Monday that 23andMe had failed to address concerns raised on multiple occasions since the agency began working with it on compliance in July 2009.

“FDA is concerned about the public health consequences of inaccurate results from the PGS device,” the agency said today. “The main purpose of compliance with FDA’s regulatory requirements is to ensure that the tests work.”

“Assessments for drug responses carry the risks that patients relying on such tests may begin to self-manage their treatments through dose changes or even abandon certain therapies depending on the outcome of the assessment,” Gutierrez wrote.

The FDA said that while 23andMe had initiated new marketing campaigns that show how it plans to expand the uses of PGS, it had failed to provide information that the FDA requested multiple times. The FDA said it has had “more than 14 face-to-face and teleconference meetings, hundreds of email exchanges, and dozens of written communications” with 23andMe to discuss how to get the company to comply with its recommendations.

“However, even after these many interactions with 23andMe, we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the PGS for its intended uses, which have expanded from the uses that the firm identified in its submissions,” Gutierrez wrote.

23andMe is one of many companies to offer at-home genetic testing; in September it reported that its database had reached 400,000 people. Scientists have raised questions about the accuracy of the tests, and in May 2011 a Dutch study claimed the tests were inaccurate and offered little to no benefit to consumers.

Blog Editor Note: I have had several emails regarding this story and it has nothing to do with the genetic genealogy test we take to study our family history. This is about the personalized health DNA test that 23andMe (and only 23andMe) has been advertising recently for $99. Scientist claim that these personalized health tests that screen thousands of genes for versions that influence disease are inaccurate and offer little, if any, benefit to consumers. This part of the DNA story has been out there for several years now. As I see things now not to worry about the genetic testing that we have taken as genealogists. This has NOTHING to do with that unless you did your genetic test at 23andMe and that would only be impacted if the company shuts down.

There is a very interesting Forbes article with background on all this online at

Finally, here is an update posted yesterday on the 23andMe blog:

An Update Regarding The FDA’s Letter to 23andMe
         Published by Anne Wojcicki, co-owner of 23and Me.
23andMe was started in 2007 with the belief that consumers have the right to get access to their genetic information and that information can help them live healthier lives.

It is absolutely critical that our consumers get high quality genetic data that they can trust.   We have worked extensively with our lab partner to make sure that the results we return are accurate.  We stand behind the data that we return to customers — but we recognize that the FDA needs to be convinced of the quality of our data as well.
In 2008 we began our dialogue with the FDA. The relationship with the FDA remains critically important to 23andMe.

In July 2012 23andMe submitted its first application for FDA clearance and followed on with another submission at the end of August. We received feedback on those submissions and acknowledge that we are behind schedule with our responses.
This is new territory for both for 23andMe and the FDA. This makes the regulatory process with the FDA important because the work we are doing with the agency will help lay the groundwork for what other companies in this new industry do in the future. It will also provide important reassurance to the public that the process and science behind the service meet the rigorous standards required by those entrusted with the public’s safety.

I am committed to making sure that 23andMe is a trusted consumer product. I believe that genetic information can lead to better decisions and healthier lives — a goal that all of us share.

We will provide updates as they become available.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Genealogy Dream in the Making: OCR Software That Reads Old Handwriting

Diane Haddad on the Genealogy Insider blog is reporting that "Mocavo announced this week that it's making progress on optical character recognition (OCR) software that will read cursive handwriting, which could revolutionize how digitized records are put online."

On the Mocavo blog, company founder Cliff Shaw described the process, which first involved developing OCR software that could  "perfectly separate handwriting from typewritten text."

Now, Shaw says, the company is getting closer to the "Holy Grail" of being able to accurately read handwritten text. "With limited vocabularies (potential answers), we’re achieving 90-95% accuracy," he writes.

They still have work to do to achieve the ability to read handwriting of a wide range of styles, and to overcome problems with faded or ink-spotted documents I mentioned above. Read about the software and see examples on the Mocavo blog.

Imagine having  software package that can index a hand written document such as this without human intervention. That would truly be the holy grail of software.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

This is cute and in some respects true

Click on picture to enlarge.
Courtesy of the Family Tree magazine Facebook page.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Do You Have a Native American Ancestor from North Carolina?

If you have a Native American ancestor from North Carolina, search through the Ancestry newly added North Carolina, Native American Census Selected Tribes, 1894-1913, database.

These census books enumerated Cherokee Indians living in communities o...n the Cherokee or Qualla Reservations in western North Carolina, including Big Cove, Yellow Hill, Birdtown, Natahala, Soco, and Wolf Town in Cherokee, Jackson, Swain, and Graham counties.

Start searching here >> <<

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Have You Used the FamilySearch Free Lookup Service?

My genealogy students all know what my favorite word is "FREE!"

Right now I can heard them all say "FREE" in unison all the way over here in the Btown Gap.

Well nuff of that. I thought I was the master of free, but my old ham buddy Dick Eastman of EOGN fame has me beat. There I said it. So Dick don't get a big head on this. What am I talking about? Here is something very interesting from Dick Eastman's newsletter at If you like free, you will definitely like this.

This must be the best-kept secret in genealogy! Well, it isn't really a secret as it is documented on several web pages on However, in my travels, I have never met anyone who has used this valuable service. In fact, most of the genealogists I have talked with have never heard of FamilySearch's free lookup service. This surprises me because (1.) it is a chance to easily obtain valuable genealogy information from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and (2.) because it is available free of charge.

FamilySearch provides a free lookup service for genealogy books and microfilms that are available at the renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The free service does ask you to supply specific information. The folks in Salt Lake City are not prepared to answer questions of, "Please send me all the information you have about my great-grandfather (insert name here)."  However, if you can specify a book and page number, or a specific image on a reel of microfilm, the personnel at the Family History Library will gladly look at that page or image and (in most cases) scan the entire page and email it to you for free.

What's not to like about this service?
You do need to do a bit of homework before using this service. At a minimum, you must provide:
  1. The name of the individual as it appears in the book.
  2. The book title
  3. The page number(s)
Next, check the Family History Library Catalog at to see if that book is available in the Family History Library's collection. If so, make a note of the Call Number.

Once you have the required information, fill out the online Photoduplication Request form at

Assuming you supplied enough information for the Family History Library employee to find the book, you will receive the reply and (usually) a scanned image of the page within a few days.

So how do you find the page number of a book that contains information about your ancestor? I suspect there are several ways but I would always start with Google Books at You can find tens of thousands of genealogy books there along with a few million other books covering a wide variety of topics. I would search for the name of the person I seek to see if anything about him or her has been published in a book.
Comment: As a genealogist, you really should be familiar with Google Books as it is another free and valuable service. If you are not yet familiar with Google Books, this is a good time to learn!
Keep in mind that Google Books scans ALL the pages of all the books it digitizes. That includes books both in and out of copyright. For books that are obviously out of copyright (normally anything prior to 1923 for U.S. publications), Google Books will display the entire page to you. For books out of copyright, you won't need to use the FamilySearch Free Lookup Service as the same image is already available to you on Google Books.

However, for books printed in the past 90 years, Google cannot legally display entire pages to you without the author and/or publisher's permission. Instead, Google displays only a snippet from that page. Typically, you only see a paragraph or two, showing the words immediately before and after the name you specified. If that snippet happens to contain all the information you need, consider yourself lucky. However, my experience has been that the snippet is only a "teaser" and does not display everything I need.

What do you do if you want to see the entire page, or several pages from the book? The answer is to use FamilySearch’s free lookup service. Assuming the Family History Library does have the book and the information you supplied does point to the appropriate page, an image of the entire page will be sent to you in email. I am no lawyer but I believe U.S. copyright laws allow libraries to look up information for patrons upon request and send limited photocopies or scanned images whereas Google and other providers of information cannot legally supply similar images in large quantities to everyone.

You may never need to use the FamilySearch free lookup service. However, if you do have the need, this is a valuable service that is free. You don't need to fly to Salt Lake City to obtain what you need.

If you wish to use the FamilySearch free lookup service, I would urge you to first read Nathan W. Murphy's description on the FamilySearch Blog of how it all works at Nathan even supplies screenshots showing the step-by-step process of using Google Books to find snippets of genealogy information.

UPDATE: By Nathan W. Murphy of the Family History Library: "GOOD NEWS -- you can now use this service up to five times a week. The previous limit had been five times a month."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Prowling the Harshaw Chapel Cemetery in Murphy NC

Gayle and I spent the early afternoon prowling the Harshaw Chapel Cemetery in Murphy. Beautiful Fall day to look for tombstones.

I love the Fall and all the color that the Lord provides.