Avoiding Assumptions, by Michael John Neill

There are times when we create our own genealogy “brick walls.” They are created unintentionally, in some cases slowly over time, but one brick at a time we have made them ourselves. There are several ways one can create a family history problems, one of the easiest ways is to make erroneous assumptions.

You know your ancestors lived. You know they reproduced at least once. You know the mother was present at the birth of any children and that (with potentially a few exceptions) your ancestors are deceased. Virtually everything else you know about your ancestors came from either a piece of paper, someone’s mind, or both.

The problem is that sometimes we might have gotten information about our long-deceased ancestors from our own mind. I’m not talking about channeling or talking to spirits. What I am talking about are assumptions we might have made about our ancestor’s lives even though we never actually met the ancestor. Our assumptions may be completely correct, or they may be completely wrong. If they are completely wrong, they are hindering our research and may be why additional information cannot be located.

This week I am including some assumptions that could be hampering your research. Do not assume the list is complete. Assume that the suggestions listed here may need to be tweaked to fit your own family.

  • The couple was married before the birth of a child.
  • My ancestors never divorced.
  • My ancestor only had one spouse.
  • Great-grandpa knew when he was born.
  • My ancestor cared about leaving behind accurate information on his overseas origins.
  • The husband and wife in the census were the parents of all of the children in the household.
  • My ancestor was alive at the time of the census.
  • My immigrant ancestor immediately settled in the place where he died. He didn’t live anywhere else.
  • Grandma would never have moved after Grandpa died.
  • A couple in their sixties would never have migrated or immigrated.
  • Great-grandpa and great-grandma always acted in a way “consistent” with their ethnic group, social class, etc.
  • Great-grandpa cared about giving correct and precise information to the records clerk.
  • The adults in the household actually answered the census taker’s questions.
  • My ancestor understood the questions the census taker was asking.
  • My ancestor wanted to become a naturalized citizen.
  • My ancestor never lied on a government record.
  • My transcription of a record is correct.
  • I have a copy of the complete record.
  • My ancestor never traveled back to his homeland.
  • My ancestors were married near where their first child was born.
  • I know how to spell my great-grandmother’s maiden name.
  • I know how my great-great-grandfather pronounced his name.
  • I know where my ancestors were living at the time of the 1850 census.
  • I am certain my family had enough money to require an estate settlement.
  • The census enumeration, birth certificate, etc. is completely correct.
  • The family immigrated together.
  • No other family members moved “out west.”
  • The family tradition is correct.
  • The family tradition is incorrect.

It is necessary to make assumptions in genealogical research, if for no other reason than to give our research a place from which to start. However, we need to make sure that our assumptions stay in the “land of assumptions” and do not cross over into the “land of fact.” Once an assumption becomes a fact it is difficult to go back.

Ask yourself the question:

“What do I think I know that I cannot prove?”

What you cannot prove may be correct, but it should not run counter to the facts. If it violates common practices and tendencies, make sure you make a note of the cause for that deviation. And remember, if the laws of physics or biology have to be violated for the details to fit, something is wrong somewhere.

Your assumptions may be tying you up. Cut a few loose and see where your research goes.

Have assumptions derailed your research at one point or another? How did you get around the problem? Share your story in the Comments section on the blog.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website

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11 thoughts on “Avoiding Assumptions, by Michael John Neill

  1. I have been using Ancestry.com to research some ancesters. And I have been successful. Some of my relatives have been married more than one time. And I do have a problem finding husband and husband two. Learning how to locate deaths and births before 1870 can be very challenging. Another challenge is learning maiden names. When I do find an ancester sometimes his or her ‘complete name’ is not spelled exactly as it may appear on an, for example, obituary.

  2. This article hit home. When I began my family research, I didn’t realize how one gets so involved in the lives of people who are dead. You try to make them come alive again. In your enthusiasm, you also make their lives what you wish they were. I was discarding “wrong data” for “right data.”

    Recently, I attended my first and only genealogy conference, mostly for the cruise, but I did attend most of the sessions and I am so glad I did. I got to meet “real” genealogists with many years of experience and training. This opened my eyes. Coming home, I essentially began all over again. Luckily, I never throw away an email or letter. I now document and record each item and suspend judgement as to whether it is real or not. I suspect that our ancestors did not really share a lot of “truths” with those government men that came to their home.

    My new approach has already opened up new lines of research for me. For example, I was so convinced that my paternal grandmother’s family came to the county I knew about and stayed there. I finally wrote to the archdiocese for church records and found that half of them were born and married in an entirely different county in the 12 years before the 1900 census. Then I realized why I could not find my grandmother’s birth certificate–wrong county. Now I am on the right track. Thanks for your article, which I printed as a reminder list of what to avoid.

    Eileen Souza

  3. Other dangerous assumptions are:
    1) “The name isn’t spelled as we spell it now, so it can’t be the mine.” Until Webster published his dictionary, there was no such thing as standardized spelling, and even then cultural and regional dialect falls into play, as well as bad handwriting, and incorrect transcriptions.

    2) “If my ancestor’s name was John, then all John’s in that time and place are the same and belong to my linage.” One has to explore other facts to determine which John, if any, is the proper person. I have tried for 5 years to convince a cousin that he plugged the wrong John with son James into the family tree – the James he claims to be the correct parent of our Isaac was born 5 years before the son. There were 2 John’s with son James – and were cousins.

  4. I’ve been told that my great grandmother was a bastard child and left on a doorstep of a family. Her marriage license gives her parent’s names and that they are deceased but so far they haven’t been found in other records. Just this week I learned that around the time of her birth there was a major flu epidemic. Could her mother have died during this and her father gave her to a family member to raise or the father died and the mother couldn’t raise her alone? Just another avenue to go down.

  5. My mother always spoke of what her grandma told them. Evidently somebody didn’t know the German word for the name because after I couldn’t find the maiden name I started looking instead for the husbands name. There was the correct name in the marriage records of his wife. Now I have been able to find many more relatives of that line. So assuming your parents ‘know’ the correct name is a big mistake.

  6. Even when carved in stone, on a tombstone, names and dates could be wrong. Cemetery transcriptions include a couple’s names with birthdates or years, but 1 or both death dates missing. One or both could… still be alive!
    Saw such a transcription recently, and suspect a very much alive woman might be a tad upset!
    Sexton’s, caretaker’s and funeral home records often vary from tombstones’ inscriptions, and are worth tracking down.

  7. Grandfather was married five times (twice to same woman). Divorce records on one were completely misleading and in error as later dicoveries indicated two marriages (not one to same husband), indicated child claimed as being child of husband when in fact he was not his child but born out of wedlock with a different father. Hints as to correct matters came from all sorts of sources but biggest was from local newspapers that led to primary sources. All sorts of assuptions were made and some still hold but a lot tossed out the window. Assuptions are a good starting point but you have to be able to toss them out and consider new ones.

  8. Tombstones can be wrong. Unthinkingly I put the year my husband’s stone was made on it instead of the previous year when he died.

    Assumptions. You cannot always believe what people themselves say about their parents, siblings etc. My great grandfather, who emigrated from Germany in 1841, was written up in The Portrait Biographical Album of Fayette Co. IA in 1891. Presumably he wrote the piece or at least gave the writer the information. He gave his parents names accurately along with those of his sister & brother. BUT he neglected to mention that his parents were not married and the sister and brother were half siblings born of his father’s wife who he married after my ggrandfather had been born! It was this family that emigrated together without my ggrandfather who came later on his own.

    Needless to say this erronious information caused considerable trouble when trying to locate the family in German church records.

  9. Another interesting assumption is to never assume that if your ancestor is listed as a junior to automatically think the father is a senior. Why? You may be misleading yourself and the evidence may never match even though you are with the right general family. Your ancestor who is a junior might have been named for another member of the family, such as a uncle so be careful not to assume the senior is the father. Although most likely the senior with the same name will be the father, although you must alway make sure he is.

    Strange but this mixup has happened in my family. It took time to veify that the son was named after his uncle. Now, I am more careful when working with families.

  10. Great article! We also should not assume original documents are always correct because they are “official”. For example, in my family we have 2 marriage certificates (mine included) with incorrect information, as well as church documents that state my great grandmother is a male. Census records are suspect, relying on the truthfulness and accuracy of the census taker AND the reporter, allowing a lot of room for error. We also had a family headstone with a mistake on the year of birth for both husband and wife. It had been re-carved over but the dates were then ambiguous. We were able to correct that error recently by replacing the headstone.

  11. I was researching my great uncle’s family. In the 1910 census he was a widower with three children born between 1897 and 1901. In the 1920 census he had remarried and four children, three of them born between 1903 and 1908. I assumed that the new children were his second wife’s. Later, when finding out that his first wife had died in 1909 and those were their children, I looked further and found that the three youngest had been “farmed” out to members of her family until he remarried.

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