When You Assume, by Juliana Smith

Juliana is out battling a nasty cold, so this week we are bringing you a little blast from the past in the form of an article from 2000.

“When you assume . . ..” Whenever I hear that phrase, I flash back to The Odd Couple episode where Felix Unger is in front of the courtroom with a chalkboard warning of the dangers that come “when you assume.” And while assumptions in family history won’t necessarily make or break any court cases like it did for Oscar and Felix, it can waste a lot of precious research time by taking you down roads that just don’t need to be traveled. Time and money can be wasted in researching the wrong records, in the wrong place, or even the wrong person.

Often we form our opinions without even realizing we are doing it. So, here are a few things to think about.

This one is a biggie! No one wants to waste time investigating someone else’s ancestor. But it can easily happen, particularly when you are dealing with common names. In these cases, it is best to collect as much information as possible on each. By creating a profile for your ancestor and others with the same name, you may be able to separate yours from the pack. More information on this can be found in these articles:

Separating Men of the Same Name,
by Patricia Law Hatcher

Searching for Catherine Kelly in a Sea of Kellys,
by Juliana Smith

Assuming ethnicity can lead to big problems when you attempt to research overseas, which can make for a very expensive error. But this is an easy mistake to make.

You may have formed an opinion, without realizing it, based on your ancestor’s surname, but often surnames were changed—either Americanized to help the family “fit in” better in their new homeland or sometimes to avoid discrimination. My great-grandfather, John Mekalski, couldn’t get a job for a time because Polish people were being discriminated against. Because he spoke fluent German, he changed his name to Wagner for a little while in order to find work. He was not alone in this. In some cases, the name may never have been changed back.

You may have also seen a place of origin on immigration records, like passenger lists. This may only reflect the port a person sailed from immediately before coming to this country, not taking into account that it was only a stopover on their journey. If the record you have lists Liverpool, Bremen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Le Havre, or any of the other larger European emigration ports, it may be that your ancestor was not necessarily from there, but traveled to the port before sailing from it. Religious Affiliation
In researching my predominantly Irish Catholic ancestors, I have to occasionally remind myself that they weren’t all Catholic. We have found several ancestors in “Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Diocese of Brooklyn, 1859-66, Vol. I,” by Joseph Silinonte. These dispensations were often handed out for Catholics wishing to marry non-Catholics. This means that I will most likely be finding some of my ancestors in non-Catholic church records.

We may also be tempted to think of our ancestors as having the same affiliation that we do, but we need to remember that people may have converted for any number of reasons. Residents of sparsely populated areas may have attended the only church that was within a reasonable distance, regardless of denomination. Religious affiliation may have changed with a marriage between two people of different religious backgrounds. They may even have changed to avoid persecution and prejudice. Whatever the reason, it is important to keep an open mind when searching for religious records.

For more on finding religious records, see Locating and Using Religious Records for Family History, by Juliana Smith. 

Caution should be used when assuming relationships based on flimsy information. In cases where several families lived together, it may have been easy to confuse the census taker in regard to all of the various relationships between family members. Obituaries can also be misleading in this regard. My father-in-law and his brothers are listed as the sons of their stepfather in his obituary. A researcher down the line who happened upon this obituary could end up tracing the wrong line if this information was not verified with other records.

Also, keep in mind that collateral relatives may be using the same given names that have been passed down through a family, and this can make for a confusing family tree when they live in close proximity.

Truth in Family Stories
Many a family historian has been led on a wild goose chase because of a family story that was just that–a story. While these tales may contain clues and a grain of truth, they could also have been embellished, maybe to the point of becoming more of a fairy tale. Pick apart the information and analyze it separately. Does it make sense in the context of other facts you have uncovered or in the context of the place and time they lived?

Assuming a Record Does Not Exist
Just because you have searched an index or database and without finding the person you were looking for doesn’t mean a record does not exist. Indexes and databases are by nature imperfect and often contain errors. Misspellings can throw off a search, and omissions are a very real possibility.

When searching original records, bear in mind that sometimes records are misfiled, or maybe your ancestor’s record was filed well after the date of the event, placing it where you would not expect to find it. Misspellings are a possibility here. My mother’s name is misspelled on her own birth certificate. If you are searching a register, check at the back. If they ran out of room on the page designated for the letter S, you may find it continued at the end of the register.

If you are browsing a microform, the record you seek may have been filmed out of sequence. Look for missing numbers if they were filmed in sequence.

Assuming the Records Are Correct
Even primary sources can contain incorrect information. Names may be misspelled, dates can be wrong, and places of origin may have been assumed by whoever created the record. Analyze the record. Who created it? Where did the information come from? How much time lapsed between the time of the event in question and when the record was created? A busy doctor may have had to rush to another birth and may not have had time to sit down and fill out his records until the next week.

Assuming They All Came Over Together
When families emigrated, often the father or head of the household may have come over first in order to scope out the new environment and get established before sending for the rest of the family. My great-grandfather reportedly went back and forth about six times before finally settling and sending for his family.

Removing the Assumptions
How do you remove the assumptions? I like to play with all of the information and sources I have gathered and format it in different ways, looking for red flags. Timelines can be especially helpful in this aspect. (Click here for more on timelines. http://www.ancestry.com/s23560/t12510/rd.ashx) Include everything you know about this person. When you list an event or fact, list all of the sources that corroborate that information and analyze the sources (particularly when you only have one source). If you don’t have a source or your source is not reliable, you may be making a false assumption. By removing assumptions, you may find you have removed some of your brick walls as well!

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

3 thoughts on “When You Assume, by Juliana Smith

  1. In my case i have a basic tree going back to mid 1600’s, but with hardly any documents. This came about through family tree hand-me-downs and internet searches. Assumptions based on this type of information without official documentation is asking for trouble.

    So to avoid costly mistakes, i research backwards generation by generation, and gatherup all documents, BMD’s etc, etc. Once have have seemingly reliable information from the documents, then this becomes the data for the tree’s.

  2. Sometimes when I write, i state “I speculate” so readers will know that it may not be a fact.

  3. There is truth in this article, especially when it comes to chasing other people’s genealogy. The thing I dislike about Ancestry.com is that there are some people who do not wish to do proper research. Even a minimal amount of research would help, when chasing surnames. People seem to think they can discern the correct spelling of a name, with less than minimal research, and place alternate names out there, and confuse the heck out of those that are doing their “do diligence”.

    I just completed about the fifth leg of research, which entailed, several US Census, City Directories, Church Records, Newspapers, Birth Records, Marriage Records, etc. I can now say with certainty the family I’ve been trying to find, I have “found”. And yet, I found other people attempting to be sources by placing alternate names in Ancestry.com, when they were in error. I chased too many dead ends using their info. STOP IT! Be careful when you make the determination that you know something you don’t. Do your “do diligence” and then make your pronouncement. Don’t assume an “e” is a “c” or and “a” is an “s”. I am ready to offer some alternate names now that I have completed my research.

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