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Common sense can help you keep research sane

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 03:03 AM

Back in my law enforcement days, a savvy lawyer told me that juries don't leave their common sense at the courthouse door. His point, of course, was that although both sides present their evidence in ways that best benefit their clients, most jurists can see through the theatrics, smoke and mirrors.

Why can't this logic be applied to genealogy? After all, we're looking at evidence and seeking proof just like those juries. Yet the Internet is teeming with examples of researchers abandoning their common sense at the keyboard. And that can tangle the branches on others' family trees.

Last week I contacted a person who had posted that Alfred B. James (1892-1971) was the son of Asa James (1805-64).

Take another look at those dates. How can someone who died in 1864 have a son born in 1892? Oops, left the common sense at the door.

The same name issue is what confused this compiler, who simply wasn't using her noggin when she posted the relationships.

The real line is from Asa James (1806-64) to Alfred B. James (1833-1910) to Harvey James (1862-1948) to another Alfred B. James (1889-1971). Sloppy work chopped two branches from the family tree - and there sat Harvey and the first Alfred B. James on the ground without roots or branches.

We shouldn't do this to our ancestors - or others combing our work for clues.

Beyond inconceivable - literally - dates, there are other fundamentals we should watch for.

•If a male ancestor was age 16 to 65 between 1861 and 1865, it makes sense to look for a war service record. But if your ancestor was 2 years old in 1861, you can bet he didn't take sides in that argument. Don't waste your time looking.

•If a woman was born in 1860, was she the mother of the male born in 1870? It is safe to assume that she was not. Instead, consider the possibility that she was his stepmother. Look for an earlier marriage for the father in order to identify the real mother. For future reference, keep in mind that the traditional child-bearing years are 15 through 49.

•Before the availability of contraceptives, when most couples didn't understand birth control, a married woman generally had a child every two years. A gap between the ages of children in a household usually meant the mother was sick, the father was absent or infants had not survived.

•For his first union, a man usually married a woman near his age; marriage to a much younger woman usually signified she was the second wife.

•A widower with small children generally remarried very quickly (often within weeks of the death of a wife) because he needed someone to care for his offspring. If he had older children capable of caring for their siblings, he might not remarry so quickly.

•If a wife was not readily available, a man might farm out his children to relatives until he could remarry. Sometimes the new wife did not welcome all the children so some remained with relatives. This is why researchers cannot assume from census records that all the children in a household are those of the head of the household just because they carry the same surname.

A good technique for reviewing the connections you've made is to list activity dates for each ancestor. These might include dates of birth, military enlistment, marriage, birth of oldest child, birth of youngest child, migration, public service and death. Go back to each of those dates and compute the person's age at the date of each activity.

Now apply common sense to that list. Chances are the ancestor didn't climb Mount Everest when he was 102, and he didn't father a child when he was 7.

Tampa meeting

Pasco County genealogists Pam Treme and Pattie Shultze will present "Taming Templates" at the 10:30 a.m. June 5 meeting of the Florida Genealogical Society.

The program will explain what templates are, how to find or create them, and how to use them for genealogy projects.

There is no charge to attend, and reservations are not required. The group will meet in the auditorium of the John F. Germany Library, 900 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720 @mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wi

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