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The Three Laws of Genealogy

By Daniel Hubbard | May 15, 2011

I’ve gotten several requests lately to do an introductory presentation on genealogy. That got me to thinking about what is truly basic to getting started.

People seem to like rules that come in threes. There are Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion, Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. There are probably more laws that come in groups of threes. I tried to write down my nominees for the three laws of genealogy—things that in an ideal world everyone would grasp before starting.

1) Start with yourself

This one is very basic. Write down what you know about yourself, your upbringing, marriage etc. What do you wish you knew about your ancestors? Make sure your descendants know it about you. Gather the documents and pass them down. I copied my 2010 Census form before sending it in.

Surprises at this stage are rare but there is so much that comes after it that the cost of a surprise can be huge. Start with yourself to avoid costly revelations. If René Descartes had been a genealogist he might have said, “I have researched myself, therefore I am.”

Johannes Kepler

I’ve often wondered what I would say to someone who made the proverbial discovery that they were adopted only after spending years tracing back through many generations. I’ve come to the conclusion that we all have cultural/emotional/intellectual parents who are usually but not always our biological parents. All those parents have a place in our personal pasts. All their backgrounds and circumstances played some part in determining who we are. You can choose to call research into the “wrong” parents irrelevant but in the end, it is relevant in its own way. Nevertheless, you want to make the choice about who to research based on knowing a good deal about the succeeding generation. When starting out, that succeeding generation includes yourself.

The genealogist’s version of Kepler’s 1st Law: the center of everyone’s investigation into their past is themselves.

2) Work backwards without skipping generations

Starting sometime in the past and trying to work forward to yourself is not a good idea. Just think about the math. A person will normally have two people considered parents but might have ten or more children. Figuring out several generations where everyone has many offspring and your research problem will become very, very large. It also may be very, very misguided. Uncle Ralph might have written that he was descended from Daniel Boone but if he wasn’t and you tried to start with Daniel Boone, you haven’t used your time very wisely. Work backwards from yourself.

A very real example came up in work I did for a client. An ancestor had two obituaries. Both claimed that he was descended from a famous man. Unfortunately, the obituaries only agreed about the last name of the famous ancestor and his general reason for being famous but not about the man’s full identity. Even with two possibilities, working forward would have been a very bad idea. The math is even worse with two possibilities and it turned out that working backward showed that the correct ancestor was neither of the men in the obituaries. He had the same surname and was noteworthy for the same general reason that the other two were famous but he wasn’t either of them.

Isaac Asimov

Even when working backwards, skipping a generation almost always involves a big assumption. There can be all sorts of clues about who an ancestor’s grandparent might be but usually only clues. Without finding a parent to bridge the gap, you can’t be sure of what you’ve found.

When you become more skilled you may run into a situation where jumping over a generation in order to attack a problem from both sides can work but you need the right situation and the right knowledge to give that a try.

The genealogist’s version of Asimov’s 1st Law: a genealogist may not ignore an ancestor or through inaction allow an ancestor to go unnoticed.

3) Keep track of your evidence

When you first get started you may think that you will remember where you found your information. You may think that once you’ve found something you will not need to go back to the source. The truth is that you will need to check. You will find contradictory statements and need to compare the sources of the information. You will discover that you should have checked another name or another date and wish you knew where to find that source. You will learn more and want to look at something for a clue you might have missed. You will be doubted by someone and want to show them the proof. You will wonder if you were really right all those years ago and not be able check.

The genealogist’s version of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: disorder in your research never decreases unless actively resisted with evidence and source citations

0) Be skeptical

In thermodynamics there is a bit of cheating with the three laws because after the third law there was a “zeroth” law added, considered to be even more basic than the other three. I’ll use that to add my own zeroth law.

Isaac Newton

Being skeptical is perhaps the most important skill there is in research and it takes time to develop. A natural assumption is that if someone took the time and effort to have something printed or put on the web, that it is correct. What you will notice sooner or later is that sources contradict each other. Time to be skeptical. Sources say things that do not seem at all likely. Time to be skeptical. Assumptions are made that later on do not seem to be backed up or even to have been considered to be assumptions. Time to be skeptical (even when they are your own assumptions). A secondary source doesn’t give you any idea of the origin of the information. Time to be skeptical.

The genealogists version of Newton’s 3rd Law: every good sounding idea has an equal and opposite good sounding mistake.

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