Assumptions: Genealogy Kryptonite

My Aunt Betty, who was a life-long genealogist, shared some of the best research advice— never make assumptions. Not only did she follow the genealogy golden rule of being precise and verifying her sources, she taught me that making an assumption can wreak havoc with your genealogy research. 

That single piece of advice has held true for me throughout my years of doing family research for myself and others; and while learning about history in general.   

But, it’s so tempting and easy to slip down the rabbit hole. I used to think it was my vivid imagination that drove me to solve mysteries and generate explanations for ancestral events.

Who doesn’t love a great story?  

We All Make Assumptions

Yes, we all make assumptions and rely on them to make reasonable conclusions in our daily life. For instance, I can assume that I can safely walk down the sidewalk in my neighborhood before 8 p.m. However, if I take a stroll after 8 p.m., I better be wearing a raincoat. Why, because I learned (the hard way) that the sprinklers automatically come on around 8 p.m.  

We draw on our past experiences to find patterns in how the world works. When we encounter new situations, we apply these patterns—or assumptions—to the new environment. We don’t even realize how much our inner world is coloring the way we see and understand our outer world, and how it distorts our perspectives.

Assumptions start causing problems when we believe our way of interpreting a given situation is the only way to interpret that situation…and furthermore, that anyone who doesn’t see things our way must be incorrect. 

I’ll be the first to admit that my mind still wants to paint stories about my relatives, even though they are unsupported by any factual data. The farther I go back, the greater the tendency there is to fill in the blanks. Whether it is to imagine my relatives fighting in the Revolutionary War, taking a trip across the ocean, or making their way from the East to the Midwest by covered wagon. 

So why do we do this? It’s part of human nature to base our understanding of other people and the world, not just on the facts we observe but to a greater or lesser extent on what’s going on inside us, psychologically.

Instead of basing our understanding of people and events on what we observe and what we know for a fact, we often prefer to make judgments based on our limited knowledge, emotions, beliefs, expectations, and wishes.

It’s so easy to imagine that we understand why a person has taken a particular course of action. If we don’t know the real reason, we just draw a conclusion and believe it, as if it were fact.

The problem with making these types of assumptions in genealogy is that more often than not, we’re wrong. We assume that a person has a specific motivation for their actions or that an event took place for a specific reason. Then we start to see these assumptions as the truth.

Have you caught yourself doing this too? 

Over the years, I’ve helped a lot of people with their family research and heard countless “family stories.” And, oh boy, can they steer you down a rabbit hole. 

Here are just a few cautionary tales that are classic examples of how assumptions can really take you in the wrong direction, and cause you to make erroneous judgements about people and events. 

The Story of Otto Henrich

There was a man named Otto Henrich born in the hills of West Virginia. The family’s story was that Otto had two wives and two families, living in the same household. Based on this assumption, Otto was having children well into his 60s. The family was convinced the story was true, they backed it up with two marriage certificates and even entries in the family Bible for the marriages. The elaborate family story went on to say they believed Otto was living as a polygamist. 

Now, let’s unravel the story and reveal the truth. Upon examination of the records, there were indeed two women with children living in Otto’s household in the 1870 Census. There were also two marriage certificates and Bible entries with an Otto marrying different women on different dates.

And, there were death certificates for the children listing an Otto Henrich as their father. But what was missing was an essential piece of information. Otto had a son named Otto who was killed during the Civil War. Otto Sr. had taken his son’s family into his home after he died. Thus, no hanky panky going on after all. 

The Family that Disappeared from the Face of the Earth 

There was a man named Simon O’Sullivan. Simon was born in 1840 in Ireland, had a wife and three children in the 1870 Census, and they were living in Chicago. And that’s where the records ended for the entire family.

In 1871, there was a great fire in Chicago and many lives were lost, as well as city and county records. The family performing their research assumed their long-lost uncle and his family had perished in the fire, especially since no burials or other records could be located. 

Main Street Bannack, Montana; Library of Congress

The story could have ended there, but it didn’t.

Not only was the family not dead, they were prosperous hotel owners and operators in Montana.

Like many immigrants, Simon had changed his family’s last name to Smith so the family could “fit in” better into American society. They had left Chicago sometime after the 1870 census was taken and settled in a gold mining town in Montana. All of the family are buried in a small family cemetery there.   

The Parents Who Abandoned Their Children

According to the 1920 Census, the Rickles family had nine children. Their Census record showed the mother had a 3rd grade education and father 5th grade. They owned a small farm and a very modestly valued home.

In December 1929, the oldest three children were placed in an orphanage. Five of the children were separated and were living with relatives when the 1930 Census was taken. The youngest child, an infant in 1929, remained with his mother. 

Source: Library of Congress, Photographer Carl Mydans

The family story was that the parents were poor, didn’t have the money to feed and clothe their children, had been involved in stealing chickens, and were thought to be abusive. So, that’s why the children were taken from their custody. 

So, that story sounded plausible, we’ve all heard stories about poor parenting. But the entire story was ultimately determined to be completely false, once the facts were revealed.  

Between October and November, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 happened. It affected people in different ways. According to a newspaper clipping, Mr. Rickles was committed to a mental institution after suffering a mental breakdown following the loss of his farm, home and livelihood. His wife was left with the responsibility of caring for nine children on her own in the midst of an economic crisis. One of the children had taken a neighbor’s chicken when they were desperate for food. A newspaper clipping showed the bank had repossessed their property and it was sold at auction, along with all of the family’s household belongings. Instead of abandoning her children, Mrs. Rickles sought help from all her relatives who could take some of her children.  A local church made a plea in the newspaper on behalf of the family. But, Mrs. Rickles had to place three of the children in an orphanage. She kept her infant and worked as a housekeeper for a local shopkeeper.    

Other Common False Genealogy Assumptions

  • Couples were married before the birth of their children.
  • Children raised in a home were their biological children. 
  • A birth and death certificate should be available. 
  • Your relative knows when they were born. 
  • The father or wife on a Census record is the parent of the children listed. 
  • Your relative was dead when the Census was taken, because they weren’t listed. 
  • A man would not father children after age 50. 
  • Everyone could write their own signature. 
  • People never lied on official government records. 
  • Women didn’t work back then. 
  • No one got divorced back then. 
  • All women married. 
  • People never changed their names. 
  • Your ancestor understood the questions the census taker was asking.
  • The transcription of the record you are relying on is accurate. 
  • Your ancestors were married at a location near where their first child was born.
  • I know how to spell my great-grandmother’s maiden name.
  • I know how my great-great-grandfather spelled and pronounced his name.
  • The family immigrated together.
  • Women only immigrated to America with their parents. 
  • Children were not indentured servants. 
  • A baby was born within a week of his baptismal date
  • A woman’s reported surname on her marriage certificate is her maiden name. 
  • Newspaper obituaries and death certificates are accurate. 

So how can you avoid making genealogy assumptions? It’s really very simple. Think critically, do your own fact-checking of primary data, source everything, and verify any secondary evidence you have used. It should be so clear that any fellow genealogist could “reverse engineer” your work and rely on it with confidence. 

The next time you feel you are slipping into a rabbit hole, ask yourself this question. “Did I learn the information by evaluating the evidence for myself, and did I rely on factual data from reliable sources?” If you can answer yes, you’re on the right path.   


Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide, by Diana Elder
The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and True Tactics for Tracking Elusive Ancestors
Genealogy Organizer. A Genealogy Notebook with Genealogy Charts and Forms

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