Lessons Learned: Don’t Make Assumptions in Your Genealogy Research

Monday, July 8, 2019

Often, in genealogy research, we assume that an event occurred in a specific area based on other information. Sometimes our assumptions are right, but sometimes they are wrong. 
Let’s look at a couple of real-life examples.

Scenario 1

My grandmother’s family has lived in Wilkes County since its creation. Her parents’ families lived there for generations and as a young researcher, I could never find a Wilkes County marriage record for them. A few weeks ago, I was searching through hints on Ancestry.com and one of them included a photograph of their marriage license…in Wake County! I practically ran up to the State Archives  (as we share a building with them) and searched through the Wake County marriage licenses. Surely it must be a mistake, right? Wrong. Their license was indeed filed in Wake County, though both of them listed their residence as North Wilkesboro, Wilkes County. I have no idea why they married in Wake County. It makes no sense to me, but it must have to them. Both my grandmother and I always assumed they were married in Wilkes County.

Marriage record for two people who were married in Wake County, but lived in Wilkes County – William McNeill and Mollie Eller.










Scenario 2

Another situation also involves one of my ancestors, but much further back. My family knows from records that he came from York County, PA and settled in the Charlotte area in the mid to late 1700s. We assumed he went from PA and came straight down to North Carolina. Many years ago, before I was even born, it was discovered he signed a petition in Maryland. Still, we assumed he must have just been passing through. Less than a year ago, however, I was flipping through a book about Baltimore County, MD (where he signed the petition) and discovered new information about him: it turns out he wasn’t passing through at all. In fact, he had purchased land in Baltimore County in the 1760s and lived there for several years before selling the land. A few years after selling the land, his will was probated in North Carolina. Many of us who researched him had thought—ahem, assumed—he lived in North Carolina possibly decades before his death, but it turned out he was in NC only three years before he died. Researchers, including myself, should have paid more attention to Baltimore, MD after finding the petition—that was a major clue, but we only assumed he was passing through.

There are two mains points that can be taken from this second scenario. The first point is about making assumptions. It’s also a good reminder, though, to go through records of every place an ancestor may have lived, especially if they have migrated from one location to another.

Erin Bradford, Reference Librarian