Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Some basic principles of genealogy

There are some basic rules or principles of genealogy that I have discovered over the years that are too often ignored by both beginners and those with considerable research experience. The first of these rules is simple and seems obvious, but is often ignored:

Rule One: The mother was always present at the birthplace of the baby.
Think about it. The father may have been anywhere when the baby was born, but the mother was there. Too often we concentrate on finding the father for clues for locating the family. But what if the father was working away from home or even out-of-state? Granted, tracing the female lines has its own challenges, especially in most European countries except Spain and other Latin derived places, in finding the mother's maiden name, but locating the mother gives you several hints at the location of the entire family. This may be especially true, if as was and is common, that the woman went home to her mother for help with the new baby or if the mother traveled to where the new baby was to be born. Always look for local newspaper articles about visiting mothers or family letters.

Rule Two: Each person has a unique position in the human family tree.
Names are somewhat elusive. They can change at the whim of the person or can be so common as to be useless for identification. But researchers often lose sight of the basic principle of families in the entire world; each person is unique. Each person has a one set of biological parents and a specific birth order. If you think of the node in the tree where each person resides as unique, you will soon begin to understand that searching for an individual's identity is really a process of filling in all of the other surrounding information and then identifying the final piece. Think of a jigsaw puzzle where you cannot find that one elusive piece. You solve the problem by filling all the surrounding pieces and then the final piece become obvious. Researchers spend too much time looking for a single individual when they should be learning everything they can about all of the surrounding people and events.

Rule Three: Everyone is born and everyone dies.
Like I said, these rules may seem obvious, but we so often ignore the basics. If you think of a person's life as a continuum, you will soon begin to see that looking for one event in a life, even a very short life, is subject to misdirection. You should look at the entire life of the person, no matter how short or long. Suppose you are looking for a birth date. Should you spend your effort directed at the time of the supposed birth? No, you should spend your efforts looking over the entire lifetime of the individual. Learn all that you can about the person, don't just look at the birth date. Sometimes, especially before 1900, it was not at all unusual for the date of birth to be unrecorded by anyone. Think of the life as a whole and look for all of the cumulative records. The "missing" records will begin to appear as you get a picture of the whole person and the whole family.

Rule Four: There are always more records
No one lives long enough to look at all the possible records about a place or time. This rule applies whether or not the records are from the 20th Century or the 10th Century. There are, of course, practical realities. I may never get a chance to travel to my ancestors' homeland to do onsite research and I may never become proficient in their native language. But from a record standpoint, we can never be sure that there isn't some other record sitting out there with the information we are looking for. If it were otherwise, genealogy would be a rather dull and boring pursuit.

Rule Five: Life is too short to do all your genealogy.
We will never run out of questions, challenges and opportunities. Enough said.

Rule Six: Genealogy is not easy and it is "fun" only if you enjoy it.
Genealogy or it euphemistic label "family history" is not an easy pursuit. Attempts to involve the masses in genealogy because it is fun and easy will fail simply because it is neither. "Fun" is an elusive word. I like satisfying, fulfilling, challenging, inspirational, intriguing and other terms a lot more than fun. Hard work is not "fun" by definition and genealogy is hard work.

There you go. What do you think?


  1. If this list is given to a newbie then rule 6 should be moved to rule 1.


  2. Absolutely agree! Sometimes it's the simple things we need to remember in order to solve the seemingly not-so-simple genealogy problems.


  3. James,

    I wandered over after I found you'd made Randy Seavers "Best of..." at for the week.

    Love the post. Rules 3-6 are my favorite. Especially six. If I hear 'just Google it' once more when discussing a particularly vexing genea-question with my family I will scream. Of course, I really should have learned by now that my family does not share my interest. C'est la vie.

    One thing I might add by way of basic principles: Review what you think you already know in light of any recent additions to your information. There is frequently more information in documents than we appreciated the first time we examined them.

    Enjoyed the post.

  4. The corollary of Rule 1 is that the mother and father had to be in the same place about 7-9 months before the birth. Obviously. But important for tracking trans-Atlantic travel (usually documented in only 1 direction) and identification and paternity questions.