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April 28, 2012

Assumptions vs Working Theories - The Good and the Bad

Steve asked Olive Tree Genealogy a very good question about making assumptions from details on a census.
How can one determine the relationship of individuals on the 1860 census. On the 1860 hardy county va census, my great grandfather Thomas Wilson is placed below a Pamelia Wilson, and above that a Judy Wilson. Can I safely assume that Thomas is Pamelia's son born out of wedlock? 
Steve - This is an important question in genealogy. The short answer is "Absolutely not!"

You should never assume anything in genealogy research. You can however create what I call a Working Theory, based on the facts you have found.

In the example you gave, you don't know how Thomas is related, or even if he's related at all. Let's look at some possible scenarios (with the caveat that you have not told me the ages of the individuals and that's an important consideration when developing theories).

1. Thomas might be Pamelia's son.

2. Thomas might be Pamelia's nephew.

3. Thomas might be Pamelia's cousin.

4. Thomas might be adopted

5. Thomas might be from a completely unrelated Wilson family

There are other possibilities depending on the ages of Thomas and the other individuals in the census.

You think that Thomas might be Pamelia's son. That's a good working theory. Your next step would be to search for records that PROVE or DISPROVE your theory.

* Can you find Thomas or Pamelia in 1850 or 1870 census?
* Look for Thomas' birth record
* Look for Thomas' marriage record
* Look for Thomas' death or obit

Continue researching Pamelia. Find out what you can about her. Is her father named Thomas? That might add a little more weight to your working theory (although that still would not be proof of a mother-son relationship). Perhaps Pamelia has an obit that mentions a son Thomas.

The bottom line is that unless you find proof, it's only guesswork. And genealogy is about facts and truth, not guesses. Guesses based on a record you found are important to aid you in developing a working theory but you still must prove (or disprove) that theory. 


Lynn said...

Excellent article...what works for me is "nothing you read or hear is true until you prove it's true".

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Excellent article, for sure. Thanks to Michael Hait for referencing your article in his Planting the Seeds post so some of us got to see it, that missed the first time through.
Also, Lynn, well stated, also! ;-)

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