The Disgusting Words in Genealogy

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” ~L.P. Hartley

There are times while researching your family’s history that you come across a document that makes you want to smack someone. The words on the page scream in your ears and chill your soul.

Deaf and dumb. Idiotic. Defective. Lunatic. The N word.

In today’s society, they are disgusting words. But that hasn’t always been the case.


The Progress (White Earth, Minnesota), 14 July 1888.

It wasn’t just newspapers. Consider the heading on this document:defective-dependent-delinquentThat little gem is from a special schedule in the 1880 U.S. Federal census: “Supplemental Schedules of the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes” (sometimes referred to as the Defective Schedule or the DDD Schedule.) Included on that schedule were people classified as Insane, Idiots, Deaf-Mutes, Blind, Inhabitants in Prison, Homeless Children, and Paupers and Indigents in Institutions.

About Those Words

I wrote about the 1880 DDD Schedule in a post titled “Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?” Recently on Twitter, @nickidewbear said:

This got me to thinking about that title and why I didn’t put “defective” in quotes, as she suggested in a later tweet.

Defective was the word that was used on the document. It was not a euphemism. It was how the Federal government classified those people. It was the government saying, “These people are defective, dependent, and/or delinquent.”

The Federal government in 1880. Not me today.

Why That Matters

Accuracy is paramount in our research. When we change language or put things in quotes to soften the brunt of disgusting-sounding words, we are not being accurate.

We need to record the words — as disgusting and offensive as we find them to be. They were the words used by the people creating the records. They are their words. It’s not up to us to change them.

A Bit of My Background

I come at this issue from two different sides. I am a historian.

I am also the mother of a profoundly Deaf son. He was born Deaf. He does not speak. He also has other challenges that he struggles with every single day of his life.

If he had been living in 1880, he would have been on the Defective schedule. The Federal government would have called him Defective. I’d like to believe that I, as his mother, would not have called him that or thought of him that way. I’d like to believe that in 1880, I would have thought of him as I do today: my son.

So when I record the words used by our ancestors, I do so with a heavy heart. But I also know that softening those documents for today’s sensibilities do not serve any purpose except to make us feel better.

We Cannot Judge Nor Excuse

We cannot judge people of 100 years ago for the words they used. We can examine them. We can study them. We can see what they mean in context. But we cannot judge them.

Nor can we excuse them. It is easy to rationalize away their word choices. “Oh, when they said ‘deaf and dumb,’ they meant ‘dumb’ in the sense of ‘mute’ or silent.” No, sometimes they really did mean “dumb” like we’d use that word today: Stupid. If you were Deaf — especially if you couldn’t speak — your intelligence was questioned.

What we can do is read the words of the time and try to put them in context, to try to understand without judging, without excusing.


Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

Shaking up the routine can be a good thing. Normally, my days would be spent in my office or at the library. But for a few days, I’m trading the view out of my office window for a view of the lake.

Genealogy, Living Memory, and the Lake

But while I don’t have an Internet connection except for my iPhone and the nearest library has limited hours right now, I’m still working on my genealogy. How?

Living memory.

I’m lucky/fortunate/blessed to have the opportunity to spend some time with my parents. Both of them are filled with stories. There are times that my sister and I ask them specific questions, sometimes the stories just flow on their own.

I want to keep things as simple as possible right now (for a variety of reasons). For this situation, when the stories start flowing, I’m hitting the “Record” button on the Voice Memos app that came pre-installed on my iPhone. So when Dad starts describing the Thanksgiving dinners he had growing up, all I have to do is press Record and sit back and listen… and enjoy.

It isn’t the “best” method for doing it, but it’s getting done. Some day, when my mom and dad are gone, I won’t have to say, “I wish I would have recorded some of their stories.”

Please excuse me now. The lake — and the stories — are calling me.

How Quilting Is Like Genealogy

I am a wanna-be quilter. My grandma quilted. My aunt quilted. My mom has been embroidering what will be the top of a quilt. (Can’t wait to see it when it’s done.) Me? I’ve always loved the play of colors and patterns, but I can barely sew. What makes me think I can quilt?

This past winter, I finally broke down and bought a couple of books and some fabric. I then did what I’ve done before when I’ve bought fabric: I looked at it. I read the book. Looked at the fabric some more. Leafed through the book some more.

Quilting and cutting

Quilting Rule #1: No bleeding on the fabric.

Finally, I chose a pattern. (Progress!) Then the big step… Cutting the fabric. Let me just say right now that those rotary cutters are sharp!

I quickly learned Rule #1 of quilting: No bleeding on the fabric.

After I got the pieces cut, I did what I’ve done before: I let the fabric sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

I was paralyzed when it came to sewing the rows together. For months, my quilt looked like this:

Quilt rows

I’m glad I numbered the rows and took this picture. Otherwise, I would never have remembered how I wanted to assemble it. Yes, it sat for so long that I couldn’t remember how it was supposed to go together.

Finally, after some well-intended nagging from my sister, I decided enough was enough. I have to get this top finished. As I was pinning the rows together, it struck me how much genealogy is like quilting.

Variety Is Good

My quilting book talked about how it’s important to have a variety in the fabrics you’re using. Different colors, different values, different scale. It would be a boring quilt if everything was the same.

When we’re researching our ancestors, it’s pretty boring if we only look at the same old records all the time. Throw in different things. Have you relied solely on census records and death certificates? Look at land records. Dig into probate.

Look for Patterns

On one trip to a local quilt shop, I was eyeing a pattern for a table runner. I thought it was too advanced for me. It looked so complicated. My sister looked at it and broke it down. “Look,” she pointed out, “it has four basic blocks. You can see how they fit together.” She was right. It looked almost like chaos, but after you saw the pattern, you saw that it repeated itself.

Our ancestors are the same. If we look at everything all at once, it can look like a jumbled mess. But once we study them and see how they associate with the people around them, we can see where the patterns repeat. Those neighbors near them in the 1880 census? I bet some of them are the same neighbors in 1870, even if the ancestor is living in the different place. (People move together.)

Accept Imperfections

My quilt isn’t going to win any ribbons at the state fair — and that’s ok. i worked on it. It’s my creation. It is what it is.

My family tree is the same way. There are all kinds of imperfections in it. I’m certain that I have some wrong limbs on the tree. I’m also certain that my ancestors themselves have imperfections. I have to accept that fact and take them for who they are.

Strive for Improvement

Though I accept my quilt for what it is — imperfect — that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get better. I’m going to learn and practice more. (I will get better at cutting!) I will stretch myself and my skills. (Next stop: half-square triangles!)

Genealogy, too, calls me to improve. Skills like reading old handwriting only improve with practice. There is always something new to learn, whether it’s a new record group, a new repository, or a new way of presenting your findings. It’s challenging and exciting all at the same time.

There Is One Difference

For all the similarities between genealogy and quilting, there is one big difference. Unlike genealogy, you can actually have a finished quilt. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Mine isn’t there yet!)

quilting and genealogy

I got the top pieced together!

Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet in Genealogy?

I began exploring genealogy at the end of the B.I. era — Before Internet. I had a computer, but its horsepower was roughly equal to a pocket calculator. As for doing anything “online” — there were a handful of usegroups and CompuServe forums where genealogists would talk shop, but that was about it.

To do any major research, you had to either go somewhere like a library, archive, or courthouse. Or — brace yourself — write a letter. On paper. In an envelope. With a stamp.

Databases? We didn’t have no stinkin’ databases. If we wanted to search the census, we had to do it on microfilm, which we wound by hand…. both ways.

If you’ve been doing genealogy since B.I., you have a certain appreciation for how hard it used to be. We are truly amazed at how much is available right at our fingertips any time of day.

The Internet is everywhere and I carry it with me in my purse.

Kids and Genealogists Today

A few years ago, my daughter was fascinated — and confused — by an old rotary phone at her grandparents’ house. (“How do you punch in the phone number?”) Print encyclopedias are an alien concept to teenagers. (Don’t believe me? Watch them react to a set of the World Book Encyclopedia.) We can’t blame them for their reaction — they’ve never had to use a rotary phone or a set of encyclopedias.

It’s the same with genealogy. People who came into this pursuit after the advent of the Internet are accustomed to it. They’re used to being able to look up things in their bunny slippers at 3am. Having to use microfilm to look up the census? That is so 1990s. (Consider this for a moment: 1990 was 25 years ago.)

The Color TV

25 inch color television

Newark (Ohio) Advocate, 21 December 1973. Clipping available on

The first televisions were black and white. As technology changed and television could be broadcast in color (and TVs could display it), televisions started to be segmented between “TVs” and “color TVs.” Television shows would even announce at the beginning “Broadcast in color!”

As color TVs took over the market, they eventually just became “TVs.” There was no need to differentiate between color and black & white because they were all color. Ads today tout the quality of the color, the resolution, and the brightness of the color — but not the fact that it is color. It is assumed.

As for the TV shows, other than a vintage rerun, when was the last time you saw a show start with the announcement that it was being broadcast “in color”?

Genealogy “on the Internet”

Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Internet is a passing fad. Nor it is “cutting edge” technology. It isn’t even new.

So why are so many organizations — societies, libraries, archives — offering programs like “Genealogy on the Internet”? Considering the pervasiveness of the Internet and the length of time it’s been around, doesn’t that sound a bit dated? Doesn’t that sound a bit like the old TV shows being “in color”? (I’m having a hard time imagining “Up next: Game of Thrones — in color!!”)

A Change of Semantics

I could be wrong, but I feel fairly confident that when microfilm came into being, people didn’t say they were doing “microfilm genealogy.”

In today’s world where societies, libraries, and archives are trying to reach more people and get them in the door (physically or virtually), could using the title “How to Do Genealogy on the Internet” be off-putting to newer genealogists? Are they saying to themselves, “Duh. How else would you do genealogy?” Could it be better to instead use titles like “How to Do Genealogy”?

That doesn’t mean that we can’t have classes about the Internet and the great resources it offers. But why can’t we put the emphasis on what the person will discover, rather than the format?

For example, I have a presentation about researching Civil War ancestors. (Actually, I have a few.) I include websites and databases, but those aren’t segregated into “Now we’ll talk about the online sources.” The focus is on what they want to find and then highlighting the resource — online and/or offline — that will help them find it.

It also doesn’t mean that we can’t give Web-specific education. Every website has its ins-and-outs and its insider tricks. That education needs to be available. In those cases, it would be quite appropriate to title it along the lines of “Using <x>.com for your Genealogy” or “How to Search Better.”

It Isn’t All Online, But That’s Not the Point

I’ve spent a good part of my career working with various organizations and their online presence. In grad school, I concentrated on digital preservation and curation. I probably spend way too much time in front of a computer.

But for as much as I love the Internet and what it offers, I am the first to state that it isn’t all online.

However, that’s beside the point. Considering how much is online, how many people use the Internet, and how easy it is to access online data, why do we treat “online” genealogy as something different than just “genealogy”? We have to evaluate the source regardless of where we found it — online or offline.

Is It Time to Let Go of the Internet?

What I would like the community to consider is how we look to newcomers when we offer general “Genealogy on the Internet” classes or “Online Genealogy” tracks at our conferences. In an effort to look like we’re “with it” when it comes to technology, are we actually making ourselves look like a 1973 color tv? Can we just teach people about genealogy, regardless of where the resources reside?


A Picture Isn’t an Object


My daughter recently shared this quote by Jim Flannigan with me. It struck a chord with me as a family historian. Having a photograph taken back in the day truly was an event! But more than that, those family pictures are a time machine of sorts. They transport us to that moment, captured by light and lens.

“A picture is not an object. A picture is an event.” Thank you, Jim Flannigan.