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May 21, 2012

Turn a Genealogy Guess Into a Working Theory

Davida asked Olive Tree Genealogy an interesting question and one that I think is asked by many newcomers to genealogy.

Here's her question:

In the 1870 census, I found 14 males with the name Blake in St Peters, Beaufort, SC.  My question is could it be that these males were related. I realize that it's kind of hard to tell just from census records but being that there are such few of them, I thought that maybe the older men were possibly brothers who had sons and those sons had sons.
Davida - you've come up with a good guess for those fourteen Blake males.  They could indeed be related. But it's only a guess. You have no evidence to support your guess. And there are other possibilities:

* The older men could be cousins.
* The men could be from unrelated Blake families.
* They could be related but much further back than brothers or first cousins.


Adding your guess to the mix we see that we have four good possibilities. So let's simplify it.

1. the men are related in some way or
2. the men are not related


Your job as a genealogist is to find evidence that supports your guess (older men are brothers) or disproves it.  

You can start by listing the family groups you know from the 1870 census. Then search 1860 and 1850 census records to see if you can fit more of the men into proven families.

Look for other records that will help you straighten out those Blake males. Church records for baptisms, marriages or deaths. Obituaries in newspapers.  These are only a few of the record sources you should try next.


The most important piece of advice I can give is to NOT make assumptions! Create working theories if you like, such as your guess that the older men could be brothers. That can be your working theory. But don't assume it's correct. Work to prove or disprove it. If it turns out to be correct, pat yourself on the back and continue on. If it turns out to be wrong, form a new working theory and go from there.

It's okay to guess. It's okay to form a theory. But after you've formulated a guess or theory, you have to look for evidence that supports it. Because good Genealogy is based on facts and evidence, not guesses or unproven theories.

1 comment:

Tessa Keough said...

So simple once I see it in black and white! But how often do we run off with an unsupported "they have the same name, they must be related theory" and try to force that round person in our square database! Thanks for making me think - I knew that, now I just need to do the work.