What I’ve Learned Doing Genealogy

After doing one’s genealogy for a while (in my case, off and on for 30 years), one learns a few things.

  1. The dates on gravestones aren’t always correct. In my experience, the earlier the year of death, I have found the birth dates provided on gravestones (and findagrave.com memorials) can be off at least two years. If you can find a birth record, good for you. If not, the older death records will provide the individual’s age in years, months, days. I use this tombstone birth calculator to determine the date of birth from a death record (and one I’ve viewed with my own eyes). Bear in mind that will be the date according to the Gregorian calendar which is the default calendar used on that website. You can revert to the Julian calendar if you wish. Using the Julian Calendar might drive others insane, though, if you’re not using it consistently.
  2. Males usually married their first wives when they were between the ages of 20 and 30, most often closer to 21 years of age. This depended on the laws of the state in which he was a citizen at the time. In Virginia, under the older laws – the 1790s – males couldn’t vote or own property (and vice-versa) until he reached the age of 21. He was taxable (titheable) at age 16 but his father was paying those taxes. Once the boy was old enough to pay his own taxes, he was old enough to vote and/or own property, meaning he was old enough to enter into legally binding contracts in his own name. This is not a hard and fast rule; I simply use age 21 at the time of the first marriage to estimate a year of birth if no birth record exists.
  3. Females usually married between the ages of 16 and 20, most often in the vicinity of age 16. She could have been younger than 16 – I’ve had people insist that girls married as young as 13 – that just has not been my experience. At least not in marriages that occurred before 1900. Her father/parents or guardian most often provided the court with written permission for her to marry the intended which he provided to the court when he obtained a license to marry. So, when I’m calculating ages, I’ll use either 16 or 18, depending on the circumstances, as the age of the bride at marriage.
  4. Most children were not born out of wedlock before the 1810s. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying it didn’t happen with regularity. When a couple got pregnant there was usually a rush to get them married before the child was born. Dad affectionately referred to them as “shotgun weddings:” The groom stood beside the pregnant girl at the altar, the business end of a shotgun pointed at him by one or more of his future inlaws. He married her like it or not. There were laws against fornication prior to 1800, perhaps later, but the majority of God-fearing folk abided by the moral laws be they Biblical or local.
  5. Most couples had their first child within 18 months, give or take, of the wedding date. After that, you should expect to find a child born every two years or so. If you find a gap of three or more years, a child was probably born and died, often without the birth and death being recorded. The farther back in history you work, the more children a couple had. The closer to the 1930s and ’40’s, the fewer children were born. By “fewer” I mean less than 10. There are exceptions. It is not unusual to find between 8 and 20 kids per family prior to 1870. They may not all have the same father or the same mother, but a gaggle of youngins is not unusual in families pre-1850. So, as I’m working my tree and find large gaps between the date of a couple’s marriage and the birth record of what appears to be the first or only child to my knowledge, its probably because there are children I know nothing about and have yet to discover, dead or alive.
  6. Don’t rely on transcriptions. Records on file contain transcriptionist or indexing errors, be they names or dates. I’ve found dates wherein the number in a year has been transposed or simply written wrong by the person doing the transcription or name indexing. I’ve found names that were totally corrupted: Mitt Hile turned out to be Moses Hill on an indexed census for 1850 because the name was so difficult to read. So if you’re searching in Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org and nothing comes up for your ancestor for a census year that you’re pretty darn sure he should appear in, head for the Card Catalog and look at each page of the specific census and county. And if Ancestry or FamilySearch does serve up a record with a wrong name, look at the record just in case. The database could be feeding you the right record, it was simply indexed under a horribly corrupted name.
  7. Do the Math: When you obtain a record for your ancestor born in 1820 and you think his daddy is some fellow born in 1750 or earlier, you might be wrong. Do 70-year-old or older men impregnate their wives at that age? I will only say that it is possible but only if his wife is much younger. The same rule-of-thumb applies to alleged mothers. If she’s older than 60, there’s a good chance she’s post-menopausal and incapable of getting pregnant. I had an ancestor that was still cranking out kids in his late 50’s but his second wife was sixteen years his junior. If you find a record for your ancestor and said ancestor’s mother is only twelve years older or less, “Mom” might be a step-mother.  Do the math.
  8. Obtain as many records as you can. Genealogy is like detective work: you have to gather as much evidence as possible, circumstantial and direct, to convince a jury that your client is guilty or innocent. You may have census records, several death records from gravestone memorials, marriage records, books written on the family history based on an interview with a descendant telling stories from a faulty memory, military history, and such, but all of that taken in context can help you get a better picture and convince other researchers that you’re on the right track. Or not. If you’re chasing someone else’s ancestor, you’d rather know that early on. Ages will differ, often significantly, from census year to census year but it doesn’t mean that’s individual isn’t the same person. Or is. Do the math. Again, the more records you have, the better you’ll see a much bigger picture.
  9. I am not always right, as much as that pains me to say. Neither are you. Be willing to concede when someone brings an error to your attention and be gracious about it. I forget to be gracious when someone tells me I’m wrong. If you can’t provide substantiating evidence to prove you’re right, back up and listen to what the other person is saying. The other person pointing out your error could be wrong, too, but at least listen. If they can’t/won’t provide you with evidence to support their argument, or their argument is based on hearsay, you have my blessing to ignore them and move on.
  10. Native American Ancestors. Thought I had one. DNA proved those hand-me-down legends wrong. I am less Native American than Senator Elizabeth Warren. It’s more likely that there was Black Irish in my tree than a Native American. Just because great-granddaddy said it doesn’t make it so, as well-meaning as he may have been. Let it go! Genealogy is more about who you are not what you are. In other words, stop fretting over your ethnicity and get down to business learning about your people. Your heritage. Your ancestors came to America for a reason. What was that reason? What did they do after they got here? What did they endure? Did they fight in the Revolutionary War or build bridges? Did they help settle the wild frontier, escape slavery, explore? Every person has a history rich in culture. Learn it and pass it on.
  11. Learn history as you go. Learn county boundaries for each state you’re working in. County boundaries changed throughout the years and while a marriage record could be found in one county, the death record could be in another – a new county formed from the previous county. Nothing chaps my hide more though than to see where someone listed “Monroe, Amherst County, Virginia” when it should be listed as either “Amherst County, Virginia” or “Monroe County, West Virginia” because you can’t have it both ways. Amherst County, Virginia never stretched into the borders of what is now West Virginia. And if you mean Monroe County, Virginia then put Monroe County, West Virginia because that is where the record is located. Newbies come along and start hunting for records that you say exist in the wrong state or the wrong county based on where you say you found the record. Pay attention to these little details as you go and get it right for those who come after you. I found a record just recently where a relative of my ancestors, who I know and have verified died at the Battle of Point Pleasant in Mason County, WV in 1774 had his place of death listed as Point Pleasant, Bland County, Virginia. At no time did Bland County, Virginia stretch as far north as the Ohio River. That’s a serious error and sloppy genealogy. I cannot take someone’s work seriously when they don’t pay close attention to such details. Think of it this way: If I wanted to visit that location on the planet, it would take more than a just few clicks to discover the location of the Battle site. (If you need to check county boundaries, here’s an excellent resource: https://www.mapofus.org/).
  12. Don’t copy from other’s trees. Don’t copy from my tree. Family trees contain errors, including mine. The farther I get from what I actually know and can document, the more errors I’m bound to have. Use other’s trees as hints, get some ideas as to where to start but don’t take them as gospel. Even I get a date transposed and as embarrassing as that might be, I have to admit that I’m human and make errors. If you copy work from someone else’s tree you’re making genealogy harder on yourself because you’re going to hit a brick wall that you yourself created. I did it to myself. You have to do your homework. Yes, you have to read a lot. You have to scan a lot of documents looking for that needle in a haystack but that’s how it’s done. Side note: if you see where I’ve copied from an Ancestry tree, you can trust that it was a secondary tree that I myself created to test out theories before copying the finished work into my main tree. Just letting you know.

These are just a few of my “rules of thumb” gleaned from experience. I’ll add to them as I recall or discover something new but hopefully, they’ll assist you in your research as well and prevent you from creating a brick wall in your family tree.


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