52 Ancestors: Ooops

This post was originally slated to discuss assumptions in genealogical research. My point being that we are often told to never make assumptions (in life as well as genealogy), but we’ve all ignored that a time or two – hey, I’d be lying if I said otherwise.

Besides, we all know the famous adage about making assumptions …


However, it never got written so I’m co-opting the draft to talk mistakes instead. In some instances these are one and the same thing. Assumptions can be false friends in research, but sometimes they can be helpful, beneficial and downright necessary.

I’ve recently talked about me correcting an early mistake of mine which was a definite more-than-ooops moment, and plenty of ancestors made the social oopsie of having children out of wedlock, or found themselves in legal oopsies.

I’ve made genealogical oopsies in my old job in “heir hunting” – the worst being contacting a (recently bereaved) cousin of the (not recently) deceased when I had neglected to account for a half-brother of the deceased who took precedence when it came to probate. That was not only personally and professionally embarrassing but I lost a potential client.

However, in my own research travels I do try to apply some rigour to the information that I record. A hint in someone else’s tree means nothing without some solid evidence to back it up (and, no “Ancestry Tree” is not solid evidence), especially if it is something that I can’t find in other available records. No, just because 53 other people have accepted he fact that the Duke of Brunswick was the father of your n x great-grandmother does not make it actually so without having a source – a primary document is preferred, thank you.

As the below tweet from genealogist, speaker and author Marian Burk Wood testifies, this isn’t limited to just the little shaky green leaves:

Please let me vent again. Someone actually thought this was a valid source and reasoning?!? Um, was the source a family tree (unsourced) or what?! Aaack! #AncestryHour #CiteYourSources #Genealogy

Originally tweeted by Marian Burk Wood (@MarianBWood) on November 24, 2020.

Similarly, family myths should be treated as deeply suspect. It may give you somewhere to start, or help you pick out a more likely record in a mishmash of possibilities, but that legend grandma used to tell on Christmas afternoon needs proof before it’s blithely accepted as gospel (sorry, grams)

Another source of oops when it comes to research that you haven’t done (or at least verified) yourself – inherited research is a marvellous and wonderful thing – somebody else has done all this work that you don’t have to do! – but it doesn’t mean it’s not flawed, especially if it has been published somewhere. Just because its in a book – even if it was published in 1896 – doesn’t make it true. Sources and citations, people!

However, sometimes assumptions are a good thing.

If I have a person who marries and has children and is buried in a particular parish then, in the absence of other information, I would assume that they were also baptised there (especially useful when dealing with common names) and therefore concentrate my search in that parish (or perhaps neighbouring ones). Assumptions over naming patterns can help identify family groups or affiliations.

Another oops occurred just last night (well, early this morning). I am currently suffering from a bout of insomnia. I’m sure it’ll pass, and I’m sure it’s related to my blood pressure medication. HOwever, during last night’s visitation, I opened up my Reddit app and there was a post on the Genealogy subreddit asking for help with a British Brickwall. Now how could I resist? Seemed fairly reasonable – boy in 1911 census living with an aunt and uncle, and this person’s brickwall was the boy’s parentage and exact relationship to the adults in the household. A quick visit to freebmd confirmed there was an obvious birth, and the corresponding entry in the GRO registers gave me his mother’s maiden name. Found his parent’s marriage and his father’s death in short order. A quick check found that the aunt was the connection as she was his mother’s sister. Where was mummy in 1911? Possibly a domestic servant. “Brickwall” bashed in less than 20 minutes. But it wasn’t a brickwall at all. Avenues had not been run down and exhausted. At most, his birth certificate would’ve uncovered eveything. But the information was not an Ancestry suggestion, nor an attached record on Familysearch so he was at a standstill. Failure to investigate options and sites/resources in other countries is not the same as having a brickwall. Relying on big websites to cure your research woes for you and – as I said on Twitter – vomit forth your answers or present your reserch for you is not researching. As a friend said, Who Do You Think You Are? and its et voila, your family has a lot to answer for.

Sorry this was such a ranty post. I’m really very calm, helpful and lovable.


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