Examine Inherited Pedigrees Carefully

Questions you should ask if you are using a family tree given to you by someone else

It is not uncommon for genealogists to inherit a pedigree from their ancestors. This can be in the form of a Bible record or even a box or two of papers. During the past week, I have been helping several people who have such an inherited pedigree. I have learned over the years that when someone starts to tell me how much work their family has already done, including hiring a professional genealogist that it is time for someone to ask questions. This is particularly true when they claim that no one, after an exhaustive search, has been able to find the elusive ancestor.

In these cases, the first questions to ask are about the locations recorded in the person's existing information. Very frequently, as happened this week, I find that the locations are incorrect or have been misidentified. They have been looking in the wrong county or parish. In one case this occurred because of a change in the names and boundaries of the counties and parishes in Denmark. The mis-identification of the location was further complicated by the fact that it was possible to find the name of the ancestor, Anders Andersen, in practically any parish in the entire country. It was also entirely possible to match up the dates and the names of his parents with the wrong person in the wrong parish.

Although this happens frequently in countries like Denmark, Wales and England, it is also not too uncommon in the United States. Here is an appropriate quote attributed to Albert Einstein.

If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

A lack of introspection and inquiry is commonly evident in online family trees where the dates and places are inconsistent and usually lack any substantiating sources. If I take a wrong turn early in a trip, the further I go before correcting my error the more difficult it is to rectify. The same principle applies to genealogy research. Choosing an unrelated line to research can lead to years of unproductive effort. Perhaps someone will be benefitted by your research, just not you or your family.

As I have written on many previous occasions: do the math! This means to look critically at every date and determine whether or not the dates entered are consistent. The same critical look should apply to the places. Did the counties or even the countries entered in your data even exist at the time the event in your ancestors' lives are said to have occurred? Are the dates outside of the time when records were kept in the place where the event is recorded to have happened? Is it logical or even possible that the parents could have known each other and gotten married? Are the places where the children are reported to have been born consistent with the birth places of the parents and the place where they were married? If there are inconsistent places, how did they occur? Could the mother have been in the place where the children are recorded as being born?

All of these questions and more need to asked. Not just once, but continually as your research progresses. Accuracy and reliability come from asking a lot of questions.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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