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

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Rules Added to the Old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited

Back on July 1, 2014, I published the first six Rules of Genealogy. See "Six of Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." Here is a list of those original six rules:
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
If these rules are new to you or you need a refresher, you can click on the link to the post back in 2014 above and read through them again. Given the reception of the original six rules, I should have added another one about genealogists, but I refrain from genealogical profiling. Considering my recent experience with contributions to the Family Tree, apparently, genealogists are not inclined to listen to or follow rules.

I finally think it is time to reveal the next four rules, rounding out the number to an easily remembered ten.

Rule Seven:
Water and genealogical information flow downhill

This is one of the most obvious of this small collection of rules but also the most difficult to understand. However, this rule was not codified until it was introduced by Claude E. Shannon in his paper written in 1948 called, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication." The concept is that of "Information Entropy." Here is a definition from the Wikipedia article, "Entropy (information theory)."
Generally, entropy refers to disorder or uncertainty. Shannon entropy was introduced by Claude E. Shannon in his 1948 paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication". Shannon entropy provides an absolute limit on the best possible average length of lossless encoding or compression of an information source.
Entropy is a lack of order or predictability and includes a gradual decline into disorder. How does this apply to genealogy? The answer is relatively simple. As all of the events in our lives occur, only certain events are recorded and become "history." Genealogical research is basically the process of discovering, evaluating and re-recording those recorded historical events. However, over time, historical records tend to be lost, i.e. the historical record gradually declines into a state of disorder. At some point, all of the information about a person or event disappears from discoverable historical records. Occasionally, re-recording of the historical information preserves portions well beyond the average, but for most individuals records of their lives cease to exist after a certain period of time. Hence, like water, genealogical information disappears into disorder over time.

This means that proving that you are related to a certain king or other prominent figure is highly suspect.

Rule Eight:
Everything in Genealogy is connected (butterfly)

The Butterfly Effect is well publicized. It is generally stated as the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. Most genealogists have the unfortunate propensity of viewing their ancestors as isolated individuals rather than in a cultural, social, religious and political complex. In my years of helping people with their research, I find that most genealogists stop searching at the "Big Three" records sets: censuses, vital records, and cemetery records. They fail to see the advantage gained by extending their research to all of their family members, their friends, and associates. Sometimes it is necessary to research an entire community to find one person.

Rule Nine: 
There are patterns everywhere

A family unit forms a pattern. It so happens that computer search programs are very good at detecting these patterns. If we use the programs to find patterns rather than focusing on the mundane names, dates, and places, we will begin to use the full power of the huge online genealogical database programs.

Rule Ten: 
Read the fine print

The idea of reading the fine print is to study and use all the information in the records and documents you discover. All too often, I find entries in family trees with a list of sources and upon examining the sources, I discover that the information in the sources has not been used to correct or modify the conclusions shown in the main entries. Read the fine print. Look at what you have and use the information you have already discovered.

There you go. All ten Rules. There might be more rules but these will work for a while.


  1. Been working on my family tree and helping others since the early 1980's. The sole family tree website in which I have any level of true confidence is They control who adds what to the tree that is already built. The pre-existing tree is fully loaded with citations (mostly Drouin), and to add branches, one must provide them with proof that links any additions. It has to be labor-intensive for the website's admins, but most other user-created trees are total garbage. I entered into a giant pissing contest with an Ancestry user who had co-opted my 2xggf and made his son a bigamist by marrying him to HIS ggm! He persisted even after I sent him birth and marriage records for my relations that were in different places and in different years than those shown in his tree. He seemed to be convinced that Newfoundland was a tiny place, and that Joseph Power was a really unique name. Here are two of my suggestions for more basic rules (that would save many people lots of heartburn!): 1) Don't ever, ever, ever, ever (did I say ever enough?) use age on a person's a census record as a citation for someone's year of birth. And relatedly, 2) prior to the twentieth century, NO ONE, unless they were wealthy, or had the means/inclination to keep personal records, knew exactly how old they were. People are so impatient to have instant ancestors that they keep hammering those square pegs into round holes...

    1. Exactly. Maybe you could fit your rules into a shorter statement?

  2. OK, Ignore the first 2/3's of the post and go to 1) Don't ever rely on a census record (or really anything but a birth or baptismal certificate) to determine an ancestor's age. 2) Keep in mind that no one but the privileged had any idea of their DOB.

  3. I would add a caveat to the statement about relationships to royalty and prominent people being suspect. The descendants of royalty and prominent people are also more likely to be recorded. So, the paper trail is likely to be longer and more accurate flowing down from King John of England than it is from John the Dirt Farmer of the same era.

    1. The fact that they are recorded, does not automatically make them more reliable. But you are correct, for royal descendants, they are more likely to know they are royalty and not find it out doing genealogical research.