Don’t Get the Cart Ahead of the Horse

The thing about cliches is that they are sometimes correct.

I located an entry for a relative in the California State Death Index. The entry (at FamilySearch and at Ancestry.com) provided the surname of the father and the mother and the date and state of birth for the deceased. The temptation was to start searching online in a variety of places in hopes of “finding something.”

That can be a temptation, but at this point I really don’t have much information and I don’t have the actual death certificate to know what additional information it contains. The complete names of parents and town of birth may be there. While that information could be incorrect, it would give me more details upon which to base my searches and help me to determine if I have the same person in earlier records.

So I am going to wait with additional database queries until I have the additional details. It can be frustrating to wait, but I may easily spin my wheels or follow down the wrong trails without additional information–especially when a record I can obtain could provide me with that.

A Few Reminders

A few reminders for the good of the order:

  • Check your assumptions. They could be incorrect.
  • Your gut reaction about what “really happened” when the records are confusing may be spot on. It may not.
  • That boring event you shouldn’t bother researching may end up being more intriguing than you ever imagined.
  • Don’t assume you have completely turned over every rock. Use a research log to mark the rocks you have turned over. If you don’t track the rocks you’ve looked at, you’ll end up turning the same ones over and over.
  • Avoid the urge to avoid the use of name. “He” and “she” can be confusing depending upon how the reference is worded. “Aunt,” Uncle,” “Grandma,” etc. can cause similar confusion.

GoogleBook it!

I realize that “GoogleBook” is not a verb and really is not a word, but this will be your periodic reminder to search Google Books http://books.google.com for those terms you find in old estate inventories, court records, etc.

A guide to “horse medicine” from the 1840s explained everything I was not understanding about a dead horse mentioned in a 1805 lawsuit from Virginia. It also helped me to transcribe a few words that were difficult to read.

I also learned more about animal care in the 19th century than I knew. It was an interesting read for someone who grew up with livestock nearly 200 years after the court record was written. Some things have changed. Others have not.

GoogleBook has not changed into a verb, but it’s still an activity that could help you with those terms from centuries ago.

Those Boring Court Cases

It can be tedious to wade through depositions and other materials that are available in some court records–particularly ones that do not involve inheritances or family squabbles. The testimony can seem repetitive, tedious, and dull. Often it relates the issue at hand–a financial problem, the unwillingness to pay a debt, the dissolution of a partnership, etc.

But sometimes there will be a word or a phrase in a deposition that can be genealogically significant. Someone will refer to someone else as “my brother,” “my sister,” etc. There are times when those two words make it worth wading through all the other verbiage and legal minutia.

They Rarely Tell You What They Don’t Have

Fee-based genealogical database websites are great about telling you what they have. They are not so great about telling you what they do not have–because that will not encourage a person to subscribe to the service. The sites are not obligated to tell you what else could be “out there” that they do not have.

Never assume any site has “everything.” That’s true whether it is a fee-based genealogy site or a free one.

Could Their Grandparents Be Wrong?

You have a fairly close DNA match who has a short tree attached to their results. Let’s assume that your tree through the more recent generations is pretty accurate and you match all your “known” close relatives who have tested at DNA levels consistent with the perceived relationships.

And yet this close match makes no sense at all.

It could be that the DNA match’s tree has an unintentional mistake, perhaps a parent that was believed to be a parent was not. Perhaps a grandparent they thought was a grandparent was not. Keep yourself open to this possibility–again this is assuming that your own tree is correct.

Also tread lightly when suggesting that the submitter has an error in their tree–especially when the potentially incorrect parentage is recent. This person could be discovering that the person they thought was their parent or grandparent is not.

Sometimes that’s not an easy discovery to make. Put yourself in their shoes.

And maybe before you contact them with this possibility, take another look at your tree–and make certain it is not where the problem could be.

I Don’t Use the Online Trees as a “Source”

I may (emphasis on “may”) use an online tree to get a clue when I am really (emphasis on “really”) stuck. But I do not use the online tree as a source for a parent-child relationship, date of birth, date of death, etc.

There are entirely too many times when online trees are too full of errors to do otherwise. I completely understand that:

  • Online trees are not always wrong.
  • Published books also can be wrong.
  • Other records (for example–courthouse records) can be wrong.


If the fact has never been seen elsewhere and is “reasonable,” I will reach out to the compiler. Generally there is not an answer. There are times where it is really difficult to determine the “source” of the information in the tree.

Other professionals may have different viewpoints. Readers may have different viewpoints. But as for me, if my only source for a date of birth is an online tree, I’m not including that date of birth for the person in question.

UFO Ancestors, Females, Land Records, and What it Does Not Say

We are excited to offer these four webinars over a two-day period of 15/16 August 2020. Make use of your time and be with us virtually or via a recording after the fact. Join us for one or all four of these presentations–either live or via a recording.

Get to the bottom of your ancestors! Join us for a webinar this month!

Topics are:

  • UFO Ancestors
  • Female Ancestors
  • US Land Records
  • What it Does Not Say

Registration information is on our announcement page that includes specific dates and times.

Paper Neighbors?

  • What does it mean that people are “paper neighbors” (appear on the same document or on the previous/next one in the series)?
    • Came into office on same day–together and intentionally for a joint purpose?–bringing a witness for a document they were signing is one reason.
    • Died about same time?–did they die of whatever was “going around?”
    • Lived near each other?–are they on the same census page for instance
    • Coincidence pure and simple?

You’re Not Writing Genealogical Fiction, But…

Sometimes a genealogist needs to think like a historical fiction writer. That’s not because genealogy is fiction, but because a good historical fiction writer is aware of what was going on at the time their story is taking place. They also theoretically should create a plot line that makes sense. Those are two good things for the genealogist to remember.

They should know what was going on historically. They should know what their character’s lives were probably like–typical items in their home, typical home, typical occupations. To write dialog they need to know what words were appropriate for the time period and the person.

They would not mention a zipper in a story where the plot was taking place in 1803. A character would not have written a letter with a ball-point pen in 1854. While those are easy and somewhat simplistic examples, they make the point. If I’m trying to transcribe an inventory from 1912, I need to remember that what looks like “ell phone” is probably a “bell phone” and not a “cell phone.” It is also important to remember that medical practices were different as well.

And a writer of historical fiction needs to make certain their story makes sense. Your interpretation of genealogical records should as well.

Family historians should not write genealogical fiction, but thinking like a historical fiction writer in these two ways can help their research.