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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy

For some years now, I have been trying to distill the essence of genealogy down into basic rules. The last one was added today. Although the last rule may not seem to be pertinent to genealogy, I think you will agree with me when I get through with this brief explanation. Most of the pain and suffering in the genealogical world comes about as a result of ignoring these, often disregarded rules. When the entire genealogical world seems to be against you finding your ancestors, just remember these rules and you will soon be on your way to finding that elusive ancestor.

Rule One
When the baby was born, the mother was there.
This rule seems too obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times it has been entirely disregarded. You will immediately recognize the first corollary; The father does not have to be present when the baby is born. Too many times our genealogical searches are patrilineally determined. We search for the father and forget that the mother may be the key to where the records are located. Granted, following matrilineal lines may be more difficult, but you ignore them at your peril.  However, granted it is much easier to follow the patrilineal lines, but in many cases, little or no effort has been made to identify the women.

This rule is really a statement about where records are located. It means that records are created at the place where an event occurs. See Rule Six. To understand this rule, you have to be aware of political, social, religious and other jurisdictions. That is, areas where certain types of records are created, such as a school district, parish or court district. This rule does not mean that you focus on birth events. It is more of a general statement that records are geographical in nature.

Rule Two
Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
Like Rule One, this Rule does not pertain only to death records. It is also a general rule. What it means is that the absence of a record does not negate the existence of an event. Missing records mean nothing more than the record has yet to be found. There is no implication from a missing record about the existence or non-existence of an event. Many genealogist obsess on missing records. I talk to people all the time who have spent years looking for a birth, marriage or death record when all three events were obvious from the records available. This Rule also gets into the issue of separating out people with the same names and similar record dates and places.

This Rule also addresses the idea of presumptive rules. For example, there is a common rule about assuming death after 110 years or whatever. I could have stated the rule that the absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is not still alive, but that has some other implications. Usually, in genealogical research, it is possible to estimate a range of dates the encompass the event, even in the absence of a specific record. For example, in the absence of a marriage record, you can estimate the date of marriage from the date of the birth of the first child. Over the years, genealogists have accumulated a number of these "estimated" date rules. My Rule Two is a summary of all those rules and reminds us not to get obsessive about dates.

Rule Three
Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
This is not a Rule so much as it is a statement of fact. But it is a Rule in the sense that we need to constantly remind ourselves that individuals are unique. The parents of an ancestor may be unknown, but they did exist. I am not writing here about the myriad of conjugal arrangements there are in the world, I am simply pointing out that genealogy reflects the physical universe. It is not a theoretical science. The historical record may be incomplete, but the physical fact of your own existence proves that you had biological parents stretching back into pre-history.

Rule Four
There are always more records.
Again, like Rule Three, this is not so much a policy as a statement of fact. It is also a guide to those who think they have searched everywhere. This Rule is also closely related to Rules One and Six. This Rule is also a statement of hope and faith. Our genealogical journey is basically a discovery of how many types of records have existed over the years and surprisingly, how many of those records have survived to the present. Remember, genealogy is about people and records, not just people.

This record applies to those genealogists who give me the excuse that the court house burned down for not finding their ancestors. That excuse is an excuse. It is says nothing at all about the myriad of records that were not kept in court houses. A burned courthouse is not so much of an obstacle as it is an invitation to learn how to do genealogical research.

Rule Five
You cannot get blood out of a turnip.
Granted, this Rule is an old saying usually applied to collecting debts. But I find it is very much applicable to genealogy. I would apply this Rule to all those genealogists who think that they are related to royalty or famous people simply by listing them in their pedigree. Really, I talk to to people all the time who are so proud of their royal heritage when they have done nothing at all to document or prove an actual connection. On the other hand, I talk to people all the time that are convinced they had an ancestor that was a Pilgrim, a Revolutionary War veteran, an Indian Princess or some other connection, without the slightest documentary evidence to support the belief. I think we need to remember the source for a blood connection.

Rule Six
Records Move. 
I also realize that this is a statement of fact. This Rule opens up the vast subject of where records can travel for an almost infinite number of reasons. One of the most common reasons for records traveling is the fact that people travel and move. A birth record generated in one location may be in the possession of a person who travels around the world. Records can move to state archives, university special collections, historical societies, and many, many other locations. Just because you cannot find a record where you think it should be, does not mean a record does not exist. Hmm. that sounds like another rule.

There are a lot more rules about genealogy. I suppose I could write a book about each rule. That might be a good idea. But these are the types of concepts that I have to address almost every time I talk to someone about their difficulties in finding an ancestor. Inevitably, they are ignoring one or more of these rules.


  1. Re: Rule 1: I have cases where the father wasn't present at the conception either ;-)

    1. Modern technology also provides many instances where the mother was not present at conception.

      Definitions of 'father' and 'mother' are becoming more interesting.

    2. I'm not too worried about future documentation. Our descendants will have to figure that out for themselves.

  2. Great rules. Wish they appeared on the homepage - and FamilySearch family trees, and WikiTree and, etc. Maybe they could just pop up every time someone tried to add an event or a person as a reminder! Just kidding, just kidding.

    1. Hmm. Good suggestion, do you think they would go for it?

  3. And part of: the Genealogy Merit Badge sites?

    Using your rules is the true DNA of genealogy research. Speaking as one from the grave, I know that historians will "have a cow", because it reverses the process, as history (particularly family history), becomes the glove on the hand of the genealogist. I say this because you can have a genealogy without family history, but you never can have family history without the genealogy. If we did not have genealogies, we revert back to crude assumptions from archaeologists, etc., for history.

    My son, who attained to the rank of an Eagle Scout, helped me to appreciate Native American Culture: the Big Time, smoking pow wow. I was interested in scout signal fires, as P. W. Joyce, LL. D., one of the Commissioners for the Publication of the Ancient Laws of Ireland, wrote: The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, Vol. I published
    in 1910. He mentions on page 216 that Teine is the general word for fire, and in modern names it is usually found forming the termination tinny. In the earliest times in Ireland, as elsewhere, beacon fires were in common use, for the guidance of travellers or to alarm the country in any sudden emergency. The spots where signal or festival fires used to be lighted are still, in many cases, indicated by the names, though in almost all these places the custom has, for ages, fallen into disuse. One of the names used was teine [tinne].

    Identified as Rule Number One: records are geographical in nature. I see this as containing the true ancient "DNA code" for genealogy,: locating ancient population centers, by use of geographical points in near proximity for communicating "beacon fires". Native ancient Indian ancestors (Book of Mormon), when not killing warrior enemies, or sacrificing to their gods on the tops of their temples, had certainly a convenient spot (considering the extra stored wood ), to light beacon fires for identifying regional trading grids, or to alert local populations, of military emergencies. I suggest that Ireland and the Americas show solid evidence of trading networks, by accumulation and redistribution of large amounts of gold items. On high points, this covering makes a great reflector, that can be seen at long distances, similar today when seeing a city afar off that has bright towers of glass. Historically, Jews were greatly displeased with Herod, "for the king had erected over the great gate of the temple a large (Roman) golden eagle, of great value, and had dedicated it to the temple."

    This leads me up to my other question, which is: If your great rules were taught to Brigham Young University Book of Mormon Studies students, would it be possible that they, like good boy or girl scouts, could re-triangulate (by basic geographical field survey methods), ancient settlements in America? I note as a historical reference, the government Retriangulation of Great Britain. [It is possible (in clear weather) to see at least two other trig points from any one trig point.]

    Wouldn't it be wonderful to do this survey and find real "concrete" remains (perhaps even the city and also the region of Zarahemla)? Britain, Ireland and both North and South America, have multiple evidences of concern for solar observations, and related interest in compiling and maintaining calendar reckoning, used in commerce.

  4. There is a family story, repeated too many times by a cousin, that we had an ancestor on the Mayflower. She sent me her family tree to prove it - child has a name...parents names are "unknown." Guess the baby got on the boat by himself. (sigh)

  5. James great rules and I like the order of them, ironic I just sent something like this to cousin that we are need to follow for our brick wall.
    We get excited and forget common sense. Thanks for posting.

  6. My favorite rule is: If you've searched for that ancestor for 5, 10 however many years, you're probably looking in the wrong place.


  7. I would suggest you have missed the first and most important rule in family history :

    There are no rules.

    Why mention this? Because for every rule there are many examples of the rule not applying.

    1. I think you would be hard pressed to find any exceptions to any of these particular rules. Think about it.