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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Have you lost contact with the Earth?

I was recently helping one of my friends to find one of his direct-line grandfathers. The family lived in North Carolina and his initial research had the ancestor located in North Carolina and born in 1838. Well, that was the problem. He was stuck. So we began the process of looking at the earth.

I commonly find that people in online family trees have birth, marriage, and death locations listed as a county, a state or even a country. Here is an example:

This person has no contact with the earth and neither do the people who have recorded these ancestors.  This is further illustrated by this same person who has one marriage listed in 1763 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and another marriage in County Down, Ireland in 1766. He also has a child born in Derry, Ireland in 1768 and another who died in Virginia in 1851. Descendants of this person are born in Tyrone, Ireland in 1801 while others were dying in 1818 in Pennsylvania.

When I talk to people about this kind of situation, I consistently hear the claim that it could have happened that way. At this point, I always go back to The First Rule of Genealogy: When the baby was born, the mother was there. This rule is a reminder to stay on the earth and not float off into outer space while doing your genealogical research.

Anytime you cannot connect a person to an exact location on the surface of the earth, you are speculating about any proposed relationship. In the Linton line above, the connection to the earth was lost when someone added a parent born in 1775 supposedly in County Down, Ireland to someone born in 1801 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Given the time frame, is possible? Like I said, I always get the argument that it was possible. But in this case, there are no records showing exactly where the person born in Tyrone, Ireland was born. The information about his birth was "passed down" through the family. So anything showing a birthplace for his parents is pure speculation.

A point of explanation: We start our genealogical research by moving from what we know and then finding documents and records that fill in what we do not know. When we look at these connections, the geographic locations have to match up exactly.

In the United States and many other countries in order to sell real estate, you need to prove ownership by establishing a "chain of title" between the original owner and the present buyer. In some cases, the original owner may have acquired the property hundreds of years earlier. The chain of title documents all of the transfers from the original owner to the present. This is what we need to do in genealogy. There needs to be an unbroken chain of geographic locations showing that you have the right person in every step.

In some cases, the argument that people move from one place to another is valid. For example, at one time or another from birth, I have lived in seven or eight different states. But this type of situation changes as you go back in time. The especially true in the 1700s when travel was extremely difficult and limited. If you have ancestors who lived in one part of the world and you think they showed up in another part of the world, then you are under the obligation to show how that happened with documentation.

Of course, I have ancestors that came from England to America. I also have ancestors that went from England to Australia and then to America. I have ancestors who came from Denmark to America. Those movements are well documented. But could those same ancestral families have moved around in Denmark, England, Austraila and so forth? All of the movements from country to country occurred in the 1800s. Going back into the 1700s all of the documented locations for my families begin to focus on specific locations. If there is a possible movement or marriage from separate counties, then this raises an issue of accuracy and the burden is on me to show documentation how this movement might have occurred.

Remember, don't lose contact with the earth.


  1. Even on a finer level, James, many of the vital-event data are incorrect, at least in the UK. The problem is that people regularly (to an alarming extent) use the details of records other than a birth or death cert. but enter the data into their trees as those for birth or death. Baptism or burial dates and locations are not the same as birth or death data, and can be very different. Even the UK's GRO index (which almost everyone uses because it's freely available) gives the date and location of a birth or death registration, which are similarly distinct from the actual birth or death and may be different.

    1. Yes, that is a good point and thanks for another subject for a blog post.

    2. That's why when entering events based on the older GRO indices it is only correct to put a birth or death as occurring before 31 March/30 June/30 September/31 December xxxx. Since we know that an event registered during the quarter occurs on or before (and very, very likely even with a death before) the end of the quarter.

      Same is true of christenings or burials or cremations. We know that to be christened someone had to be alive at the time, and therefore had to have been born on or before the day of the christening. Again it is much more likely that they were born before the day of the christening as even in that period of much higher infant mortality a child could last a few days which is all it takes for the birth and christening dates to be different. Again for a burial or cremation we know someone had to be dead for it to occur (except in very, very weird and unusual circumstances), and so death can be safely marked as before the date of burial or cremation.

      One somewhat amusing situation is that due to the legal requirement to register a birth within 42 days of occurrence and the legal requirement to register a death within 5 days of occurrence (subject to inquest), it is entirely possible to have a death registered before a birth! I've had instances where someone's death was registered in the December quarter of one year and their birth was registered in the March quarter of the next year! That's something which trips you up if you are not very careful.

    3. Thanks for that insight. These are the kinds of issues that make genealogy challenging and keeps our interest. It is also possible that a christening took place many years after the birth. If, for example, someone was baptized before getting married or felt the need to be christened before dying.

  2. @David, I also have a case of murder where there was an inquest, and as a result the death certificate was not produced until about 6 months after the actual death.