The Head of the Household

Remember that most census records that provide relationships do so only to the head of the household. The wife may not be the mother of all the sons and daughters that are listed. Step-children may not be indicated as step-children, they may just be listed as children. Keep an open mind when using relationship information provided in the census, particularly if there’s only one census year where you have the individuals listed with the relationship.

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Is There a Clue to the Order?

Never change the order of any names in a document. Children could (but not necessarily) be listed in order of age in a will. If an older child is listed last in a census enumeration it may mean that they weren’t really living there or had moved back home (or it could just be an “error” on the part of the census taker). Heirs may be listed in order of age on a quit claim deed (or they may not).

The order may be a clue, but try and use other documentation to back up any conclusions you make about the order.

And remember that order, sometimes like life, may be completely random and meaningless.

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Are You Spelling it Correctly?

There is a spot in the road near where I grew up called Breckenridge. Consequently that’s how old habits make me spell any location with that name. While searching for a family in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, I had to force myself to use the “i” and not the “e” for the second vowel.

Make certain you are spelling locations and names the way they are written–not the way another place or family spells them or the way you think they should be spelled.

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Brainstorm–Then Get Real

If a document or record does not make any sense, brainstorm on all the possible things that could have been going on at the time. Make a list. Don’t worry about how likely or realistic they are. Then, when you are completely out of ideas, think about how:

  • the ones that are too far-fetched or unrealistic
  • the ones you could never prove
  • the ones that are the most likely
  • the ones that might have left other evidence
Start with the situations that are most likely and might have left behind other evidence. Work to prove or disprove those conjectures. You may still not have the answer, but at least you will have documentable research.
Brainstorming is good. Sometimes we need to think through totally crazy possibilities to get at other  more realistic ones we might have overlooked.
And occasionally the crazy situation is what happened. But usually the reality is less dramatic–but no less interesting.
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There Might Have Been No Divorce

Just because a 19th century ancestor was married twice, do not assume that the first spouse either died or divorced your ancestor. It is very possible that your ancestral couple went separate ways and one of them married again.

This was easier to do if the ancestor in question moved several counties away and “started over.” Civil War pension files are full of stories of deceased veterans who had more than one surviving widow.

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Sometimes Coincidences are Just Coincidences

Sometimes what appears to be a connection is not a connection. One of my wife’s Jones families in northern Missouri has another Jones family living nearby. The same last name appears to be a coincidence as one family is from Tennessee and the head of household in the other was born in Wales.

Coincidences such as these are more common when the last name is common. But even with unusual last names, remember that there may be no connection between two individuals with the same last name. Look for a connection, but if you don’t see one, remember that sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.

Of course, sometimes there is a connection, but try and prove is. Don’t use “it has to be” as a reason for a conclusion without some evidence.

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Separating the Known from the Unknown

If information is inconsistent, and even when it isn’t, ask yourself, “which records am I really certain are my ancestor?” Is there a deed that might not be his? Is there a census enumeration (especially before 1850) that might not be for the right person? Consider each source or record you think refers to your ancestor and contemplate what really makes you think that.

You might realize that there is a record or two that might not really be for the person you are researching.

And that may be causing your confusion.

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Never Use Grandma

When writing any genealogical note, commentary, etc. avoid the use of relationship terms without the name of the person attached to it.

“Grandma gave me this picture.”

“My Uncle told me where Grandpa was born.”

What Grandma? What Uncle? What Grandpa?

You may know to whom you are referring–will someone else?

If you indicate in the first paragraph that you are talking about “Grandma Matilda Johnson,” it’s not necessary to refer to her using that complete phrase in every sentence that follows. That makes your prose bulky. However, otherwise you should be clear about exactly to whom you are referring.

This is especially true in families where names are used more than once. My mother has three Aunt Ruths. One was always referred to with her last name, one was Ruth, and one was Ruthie.

The point is what is clear to you might not be clear to someone in fifty years.

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