Five Assumptions to Avoid

“I had assumed…” Coming to that simple realization is often the key to opening closed doors in our family history. Assumptions can creep into our research without our even realizing it and can form stumbling blocks that bring our research to a screeching halt. Here are five to beware.

Assuming Relationships
Beginning in 1880, the U.S. Censuses began asking for the relationship to the head of household. Prior to that though it’s easy to look at an entry and assume that it’s your typical father, mother, and children situation. But is that twenty-something woman really the mother of all the children? Could she the sister of the head of the household, stepping in to help out with the household after the death of the mother? Are all of the children from the same marriage, or is that first son a step-child from a previous marriage? Or perhaps an orphaned niece or nephew has come to live with the family? To make sure you have a clear picture of the family structure, wherever the relationship isn’t clearly stated in records, seek out vital records and other proof that the family is indeed as it appears.

Assuming Religion
We may also be tempted to think of our ancestors as having the same religious affiliation that we do, but we need to remember that people may have converted for any number of reasons. Residents of sparsely populated areas may have attended the only church that was within a reasonable distance, regardless of denomination. Religious affiliation may have changed with a marriage between two people of different religious backgrounds. They may even have changed to avoid persecution and prejudice. Whatever the reason, it is important to keep an open mind when searching for the religious records of our families.

Assuming the Family Legend Is True
Many a family historian has been led on a wild goose chase because of a family story that was just that—a story. While these tales may contain clues and some truth, they could also have been embellished, sometimes to the point of becoming more of a fairy tale. Pick apart the information in the story and analyze it separately.  Determine which aspects are provable and seek out documentation to back up the story. Does it make sense in the context of other facts you have uncovered or in the context of the place and time in which they lived? Also think about the source of the story. Is it someone who would have had first-hand knowledge of the event or someone generations removed who heard about it from a third party?

Our Name Was Always Spelled…
In this day and age, where we all carry identification in the form of a driver’s license or state I.D. card, it’s hard to imagine that our ancestor may have spelled his name radically different than the family surname we recognize today, but often we’ll find that surnames have changed over the years—sometimes with minor changes, sometimes drastically. My great-grandfather arbitrarily changed his surname completely in order to find work in the early 20th century and kept the alternate name for more than a decade before reverting to his original Polish name. For our forebears who couldn’t read or write, how their last name was spelled just wasn’t a priority in their life. You may encounter phonetic variations, Anglicized versions of ethnic names, and any number of reasons for the variants. So keep an open mind to these variant spellings when you’re searching for your ancestors. More tips on finding ancestors with “misspelled” names, see this article in the Learning Center.

Assuming Disappearing Ancestors Died
When an ancestor disappears from the census records or city directories in which we’ve been tracking him or her, it’s common to jump to the conclusion that that person had died, especially if we’re looking at elderly relatives. Before you resign your relative to an early grave, seek out any death-related records and if you can’t find reference to a death, make sure he or she didn’t move in with another family member or to an institution of some sort. Been there, done that. When a 96-year-old great-great-grandmother didn’t appear in the 1870 census, I assumed she had died between 1860 and 1870. Turns out she had died in 1873. When I looked again, I found her in the almshouse in 1870.

Other articles in the 17 April 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

Spotlight on U.S., Consular Reports of Births, 1910-1949  

Family History Tip: Shtetl Seeker 

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