Leaps of Genealogical Faith

A question about “leaps of genealogical faith” was posted by a colleague on their Facebook wall, so I thought I’d post my expanded comment here.

I’m not one to take leaps of faith in general, so I’m approaching this question from that perspective. I’m not even exactly certain what “leaps of genealogical faith” means, although I surmise that it means either looking in off-the-wall places in hopes of finding new information or “believing” that two people are related and trying to prove it.

Looking in off-the-wall places.

Where the genealogist looks for information hinges upon their experience and their desperation to find something. The approaches can vary. There is grasping at straws by searching everywhere and anywhere, there is looking where one has a slight chance of finding something, and there is looking where one has a pretty good idea that information will be located. My personal preference is to stick with the latter two approaches. The first approach may work when the name is uncommon. It’s difficult to successfully utilize the first approach when the name is John Smith.  I understand the concept of casting a wide net in order to locate information when one is desperate to find something. To find anything. The difficulty with using a wide net is that when fishes have been caught in distant ponds making the connection between the distant fish can be problematic. After all, even if there is a relationship between the John Smith in Fleming County, Kentucky, and the one in Essex County, Virginia, it may be extremely difficult to prove it. 

We can’t just take it on faith that there is a relationship between two individuals.

The best approach is usually to look for the person of interest in places where one would reasonably expect them to appear.

Choosing a location in which to search for records on a person based upon a tentative hypothesis is something most researchers do. We have to. It is not practical to search everywhere. Often the decision to choose what may appear to be an “incorrect” place to look is  based upon having researched similar families in the same time period, a knowledge of settlement and migration patterns, etc. We expect people who are similar to behave in similar ways and appear in similar records in similar locations.

I wouldn’t call those sorts of searches using “faith” or “intuition” because that’s not really what we are using. We are using previous experience to guide us. Sometimes that experience is so ingrained that it seems second nature (which is why it’s always good to re-evaluate assumptions, but that’s another topic). It’s almost like playing music. Once you’ve practiced long enough, you shouldn’t have to think about which fingering to use for B flat in a certain situation–you should just “know.” I wouldn’t call that intuition. I’d call that using your experience.

Even if I do use a rough hypothesis as a guideline for suggestions of where to go next, the information I locate needs to be logically connected to the information I already have and my argument and conclusion needs to be based on evidence (relevant information) and sound reasoning.

If my crazy hypothesis caused me to find something useful, that’s great.

But my conclusion better not rest on crazy logic.


One thought on “Leaps of Genealogical Faith

  1. In my experience, a “leap of faith” would have been to give a lot of credence to my maternal grandmother’s story that one of her husband’s lines was related to a famous person (who in that area was considered infamous). That neighborhood story was strictly based on a common surname (which was indeed common in a different sense). A very little research proved the tale to be wrong, but how does one get disproof circulated in the old neighborhood? Some cousin or other may still believe the story. Memories can be very long-lasting in small communities.

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