There are times when we create our own genealogy â€œbrick walls.â€ 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, someoneâ€™s mind, or both.
The problem is that sometimes we might have gotten information about our long-deceased ancestors from our own mind. Iâ€™m not talking about channeling or talking to spirits. What I am talking about are assumptions we might have made about our ancestorâ€™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 didnâ€™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 â€œconsistentâ€ 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 takerâ€™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-grandmotherâ€™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 â€œout west.â€
- 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 â€œland of assumptionsâ€ and do not cross over into the â€œland of fact.â€ Once an assumption becomes a fact it is difficult to go back.
Ask yourself the question:
â€œWhat do I think I know that I cannot prove?â€
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.
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
Upcoming Events with Michael John Neill
- Â Genealogy Computing Week, Galesburg, Illinois
3-8 March 2008 Computer workshops at Carl Sandburg College