We’ve been discussing making assumptions in genealogy on TMG-L and I wanted to illuminate more on my thoughts here. Mainly to get my thoughts out of my head and onto paper, if you will.
I am a genealogist, but I am also a family historian. If you aren’t either, you may ask, what is the difference. Genealogist are scientist that study genealogies. In other words, BLOODLINES. Family historians, study FAMILIES. Those aren’t always the same things.
The thing is when we assume things in genealogy, we can be doing one of two things. We can advance our research, or we can turn from genealogist to family historians without realizing it. Let me clarify.
To advance my research, I have to make some assumptions. I have a man who is living with his wife and kids on the 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 census, but not 1930. I am going to assume he died between 1920 and 1930. I go to the family grave yard and sure enough there he is buried with a tombstone dated 1923. That advances my research. But what if I look and look and there is no tombstone, no obit, no death certificate?
Here’s our first case study. My husband’s grandfather was that man. I can find him with his parents and then his wife, but in 1930, he is totally missing. But I know I am not going to find him on a tombstone, because my husband who wasn’t even born until after 1960, remembers this grandfather growing up. In fact this man lived until the 1970s. So where was this man in 1930? Well, if we look at our American history for 1930, we will see that America was still pretty much in the GREAT DEPRESSION, and jobs were still pretty scarce. My husband’s grandfather was like a lot of men, he left his wife and three small children with his in-laws and he went in search of work. ANY WORK. He lived in boarding houses until he found work. And so, since he isn’t living with his wife in 1930, she did not enumerate him as living with her. Since he wasn’t living in any boarding house long term, none of them enumerated him. So he is one of the many who isn’t counted on the US census every census enumeration. Or let’s put it this way, I haven’t been able to find him yet. ;)
Now the next assumption we make is that every house contains a dad, a mom and their children. Maybe your house was like that growing up. Mine wasn’t. Yup, I had a great dad, and a wonderful mom. And a brother. And an aunt, and two of her children and a cousin on my dad’s side, and for a while my best friend who was having troubles at home lived with us. The US census is a one day snapshot of a family. Our family changed hourly. Even Momma never knew who was going to be living there from week to week. She just cooked dinner and if you showed up, you ate. If you stayed, you worked. If you stayed a long time, you got on the chore rotation. “Long time” with Momma usually meant after dinner. LOL So if I am looking at the 1840 census and I see a man with 20+ children, I am not seeing a man that had a lot of kids. I am seeing a man raising someone else’s brood. Don’t make assumptions that all those tick marks beside a man’s name on the 1840 census belong to him. Sure big families were common in the 1840s, but the Duggars would have been rare even then. Most families had about 6-10 kids, not 15-20.
If I see an older woman living with a family, I don’t assume she’s the mother-in-law of the Head of Household. Widows had to live somewhere, and often times they rented rooms from large families in exchange for caring for small children. Don’t automatically assume that older woman is the mother (and thus the new surname you need to be looking for) of the wife of the head of household. Granted it’s a clue, but not carved in stone.
If you see two or three children close in age then a big gap then another child or two, don’t assume momma had a miscarriage or two. My own are spaced that way. The first two came close together, then the gap came because I was busy caring for two very active toddlers and a house and a husband. The next one came because the first two went to school. I am probably not the only momma in the world to have what is known as a Kindergarten baby. Send the oldest to kindergarten, get lonely, have another baby. Even in the days before public school education was popular, that same break was common, because that was about the same age you could start sending them to help Papa in the fields.
Yes, in genealogy, we have to make assumptions or we’d never get any research done. The assumptions we make lead us to the next step of where to look for documents or proof in our research. But if we make the wrong assumptions, then it can lead us down the wrong path. If I hadn’t known my husband’s grandfather lived until the 1970s, I easily could have had him dieing between 1920 and 1930. That would have meant I would have missed the births of most of his children, and his grandchildren. Another marriage and 50 years of his life. If I assume that the man with 20 tick marks had 20 children, I miss the fact that three of those were grandchildren, one was a nephew doing an apprenticeship and one was actually a daughter-in-law and that he still was a man with 15 children. Still very blessed.
If I assume the woman in the household is the mother-in-law of the head of household, I miss his true mother-in-law living next door with her daughter. I get an entire bloodline wrong. I miss out on an entire line of my heritage. I forfeit on a part of my legacy, all because I made a wrong assumption.
Yes, assumptions are good. When they are weighed with facts. Tested by the test of time and refined by retesting over and over again. Assumptions are bad when we allow them to let us get lazy.
Now to my own family. In 1980, 5 people are enumerated in our household. I have a mother, a father and a brother. Don’t make the assumption that in 1980 I gained another. ;)