“Estimating Effectively,” by Juliana Smith

Estimating. We do it all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. We may estimate how much money we’ll need for groceries, how long it will take to reach a destination (add an hour during construction season!), or how much extra yard work we’ll have to do to work off that piece of carrot cake we ate at last week’s conference!

We do it with our family history too. Last week we touched briefly on using estimates in targeted searches (http://www.ancestry.com/s23560/t7807/e/rd.ashx), and this week I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at some of the ways we can make effective use of estimates in our family history.

Estimated Dates
The first thing that comes to my mind when we mention estimates is dates. By analyzing the clues we have in various records, we can often estimate the dates of events for which we currently don’t have a record. Perhaps the most common being the estimate of a date of birth, using an age found on a record created at a later date. But we can take our date estimates further, using information we have to estimate marriage, immigration, or death dates as well.

Using my infamous Kelly ancestors as an example, I have dates and places of birth from census and death records. I know Mary A. Kelly was born around 1815 in Ireland. The next sibling, Jane, was born 6 June 1819 in New York City. Using this information I can deduce that the Kellys arrived in New York sometime between 1815 and June 1819.

We may find our selves “guess-timating” that our ancestor died around the time that they disappear from city directories or census schedules, but this type of estimate should be treated with care. There are other possibilities that might explain their disappearance, such as moving out of town or moving in with children. In some cases their disappearance may coincide with a wife being listed as widowed, making the estimate a bit more certain.

Sometimes it’s also possible to estimate a marriage date based on the birth of the oldest child, but this too is an area where we need to tread carefully. There may have been previous births of children who died in infancy or very young, or the older children may have been from a previous marriage or even orphaned cousins brought into the home. If the mother passes away, the children from the first marriage would still have the same surname as any children from the latter marriage, and I have two cases in my family where the father died and the ancestor (or ancestress in one case) took on the name of the stepfather.

And of course, while we might like to think that our ancestors held to societal norms, we may find children being born out of wedlock or “prematurely.”

Estimating Locations
At times, we may need to estimate where our ancestors lived or came from. We may use the backgrounds of family members, neighbors, or other associates as clues to determine our ancestors’ origins. Some surnames may be associated with a particular area and it may be possible to determine origins by observing distribution patterns for the time period in which your ancestor lived there.

Keeping Track
One of the keys to using estimates effectively is keeping track. Whenever you enter an estimate, whether it is in a chronology or in your database, be sure to note it as such. Estimated dates are often labeled as “circa” or with its abbreviation, “ca.” About, before, and after can also be used to qualify estimates.

In addition to noting them as estimates, it’s also critical to make note of the records and information that led to the estimate. Once upon a time, I wasn’t very diligent with noting sources and to this day I am still kicking myself. I can’t tell you how many times I look at a date on a timeline or in some notes and wonder where the heck I came up with it! Now I make sure I make detailed notes, including all of the sources used to come up with the estimate.

Reassessing Estimates
Just as the estimate that guy gave you at the auto repair shop can be “off a bit,” so can our research estimates. Sometimes when we’re at one of those brick walls, it’s a good idea to review any estimates we’ve made. How much of it is based on known information and how much is pure speculation? If you have conflicting records, which record is more reliable? Typically you would favor original records created closest to the event in question, with information provided by participants in the event.

While care needs to be taken, estimates can be extremely helpful in helping you zero in on the records you need to fill in the blanks on your family tree.

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than seven years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

A printer-friendly version of this article can be found in the Ancestry.com Library.


4 thoughts on ““Estimating Effectively,” by Juliana Smith

  1. Dear Juliana,

    Thank you for your posting of this most important subject. It is so easy for one
    to go astray on an estimate for any of the categories you have outlined especially
    for new comers to Family History.

    I can remember an instance in my early
    research when I found my self not only
    up a wrong Tree but at the very edge of
    the branches by estimating an incorrect location.

    I also remember when I miss read the
    actual make up of an important ancestry family until the mistake was pointed out to me
    by someone more experienced then myself. It
    involved the number of children listed in the
    Wills of the father and mother.

    When the husband of the family had passed his
    Will listed and named fourand only four children. When the wife who had not remarried had passed her Will named six children in the family.

    Research on the birth dates for each of the named children revealed that the two children named in the wifes will were born after the death of the husband.



  2. Your words about surname distribution recalled that I have found much interest in a website where the surname distribution for 1881 and 1901 (census years) in the UK can be explored. The areas are shown as the current postcode areas and the 1881 census data has been related to these same areas although of course there were no postcodes in 1881 or 1901.


  3. I have been following a recommendation for posters of internet family trees to place estimated birthdates and countries of birth for all persons in the tree, to help those who do a Surname Search. This way a searcher can ignore your tree if the year and country are not in the ballpark. I generally subtract 30 years for the father from his child’s birth and 25 years for the mother. I use the abbreviaton “Est” to indicate this is a guess-timate.

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