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Rules of Thumb For Successful Genealogy Research

Updated on March 13, 2012

To avoid climbing the wrong branch on your family tree for months or even years, here are a few rules of thumb long-time genealogists and family historians faithfully follow for successful research:

  • There's a grain of truth in every family story passed down from one generation to the next.
  • When the "facts" don't feel "right", they probably aren't.
  • As a rule, young fathers did NOT die in their twenties.

There's a grain of truth in every family story...

This is probably THE most important rule of thumb when trying to verify a family story passed down through many generations.

Which part was most likely to have been embellished in the telling and re-telling? (Hint: Anything that would imply your ancestor was famous, connected to anybody or anything famous, or royalty.)

One of my grandsons, a Fourth, was named after a "famous horse"...or so the story went in my son-in-law's family.

Naturally, this did not sit well with my daughter who was all for Family Tradition, but not for hobbling...excuse the pun...her offspring with a "horsey" middle name that might make him the butt of schoolyard jokes later on. Nor was Little 4th's other grandma thrilled at her grandson being named after a horse..

Turns out the ancestor whose first name started the tradition was named for the tiny burg in which he was born near Belmont in upstate New York...which is not the Belmont of horse racing's Belmont Stakes.

A bit of googling revealed that shortly after he was born, there was a rather famous racehorse whose name was one letter off from that ancestor's birthplace.

What was intended as nothing more than a clever memory jogger for the ancestor's birthplace morphed into the story that my grandson, his dad, granddad, and great-granddad were "named after a famous horse".

When "facts" don't feel "right", they probably aren't.

Although it may not take an earth-shattering surprise at the courthouse to learn this one, good genealogists and family historians listen to that little voice when "facts" don't feel "right".

A friend who was certain she'd thoroughly researched her mother's side of the family was contacted by a woman I'll call Christine, who claimed to be a descendant of my friend's great-grandfather, "Capt. John" Morris, by his second wife in Olney, Illinois, two states away.

Second wife???

My friend replied that her ggf had only ever had one wife, and had never lived in Olney, Illinois.

Being a shirttail relative through a great-aunt, I also had never heard of Capt John having any other wife besides my friend's ggm. My grandmother always spoke of her older sister's father-in-law as if he could walk on water...a regular paragon of virtue in our hometown.

But "Christine" was adamant that he'd married a second time at a church in Olney, IL, a union which produced a son. A copy of the marriage record, however, showed a different middle name, a birthyear that made him younger...ah, vanity!...and a birthplace different from the "real" Capt John's.

My friend could've ignored Christine's claims and continued to believe he'd only had one wife.

Instead, she spent a day at the courthouse 100 miles away, where she was floored to learn her ggm had divorced this "paragon of virtue" on grounds of abandonment of twelve months duration, and that the papers had been delivered to him at an address in...Olney!

Christine's great-grandmother first learned Capt John had another wife 600 miles away when the divorce papers arrived, at which point she also filed for and was granted a "divorce", even though technically the "marriage" had never been valid. In her eyes, and the eyes of God and the State of Illinois, it was.

We now suspect there were other "marriages" and possibly more children. The absences of this "fine upstanding citizen" were routinely written up in the local newspaper. Two trips to the county historical society to peruse old newspaper clippings yielded several instances during which he was most likely conducting more than "business" (which is why we now call him "Randy John"). :) :)

As a rule, young fathers did NOT die shortly after the birth of the 3rd or 4th child.

This is usually a tough one, because at first you may not suspect there's anything amiss.

If a young husband in the 1800s died in his early- or mid-twenties, and was a farmer, one could easily assume it was an accident - for instance, falling from a roof, a tree falling on him, runaway horse - or from a disease like cholera or typhoid.

But if his "death" occurred shortly after the birth of a third or fourth child, children that arrived in rapid succession, chances are he lived a long, healthy life. Somewhere else. That he did what many men still do today - walked out and never came back.

The first red flag will be that he isn't buried where he supposedly died, no death date is noted in the Family Bible, and no mention of his death appears in the local newspaper.

A second red flag will be that the "widow" doesn't remarry within a year or two. She doesn't dare... Hubby could reappear at any time, and "Widow" is more socially acceptable than "abandoned". It also garners more sympathy for her and the children that she's now raising alone. If she does want to remarry, she has to wait and hope that eventually he really does die, or go public and file for divorce, as my friend's great-grandmother did. Women who didn't believe in divorce were pretty much stuck with the first option.

Once you factor these tips into your research, you'll be amazed at how many "dead" young fathers magically come back to life in the next census, usually in a different county or even a different state. Depending on the length of time between a twenty-something ancestor's "death" and the census, don't be surprised if he has also acquired a new wife and several children younger than those he left behind. This is your cue to look for a divorce from the "Widow" as well as a record of the marriage to the new wife.

Kansas Territory, btw, was rife with "dead" husbands and fathers. Between 1854 when it was opened to white settlement, and 1861, when it achieved statehood, it was a favorite hiding place for men who wanted to leave behind their lives "back in the States".


Submit a Comment
  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Hello, Peg! If the friend and I who share dozens of relatives (but not a common ancestor - yet) in our mothers' lines had stuck to "accepted" research methods, we'd never have unearthed the Family Secrets. With all due respect to the research methods recommended by certification agencies and such, playing "What if?" is often the only way to prove or disprove "facts" in stories passed down through several generations.

    Thanks for stopping by and here's hoping thinking outside the box proves fruitful for you, too! ;D

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 

    8 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

    Fascinating reading here in the hub and the comments that follow. You have passed along some valuable tips to use when researching our family histories. It makes me wonder a lot about some of the "stories" that were passed along about my GGF and his first wife who ran off and left him with six children. I will be diving into some of that, now inspired by your article. Great read!


  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    vespawoolf, I located the village in Russia where the German ancestors of a friend's husband lived before immigrating to the Midwest in the 1870s. If you and your mother get stuck, let me know. I'll be happy to help any way I can! ;D

  • vespawoolf profile image

    Vespa Woolf 

    9 years ago from Peru, South America

    This hub is fascinating and makes me want to dig deeper into our family history. My grandfather was a German from Russia and my mother has done some investigating, but I will share this hub with her and perhaps we can dig up even more information!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Rattling the skeletons in a family closet IS quite a lot of fun, Peggy! But most people get addicted to genealogy by coming across an old letter like you mention, which leads back to a village in another country. Or they're simply curious about why an ancestor moved halfway around the world or across a continent to make a better life for themselves and/or their children.

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    9 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Reading this, I can see why many people find geneology fun and interesting. I recently uncovered another hand written copy of my maternal grandfather's side of the family leading back to some small towns in Germany that was created by a long ago ancester.

    As to the background stories...that makes it ever so much more interesting! All those hidden skeletons in the closets! Ha!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Thanks, Maralexa. You don't say at what point year-wise records about your ancestors drop off. Yes, recs in the British Isles are sometimes harder to find, but in England and Wales at least (I've no experience in Scot and Irish recs), most can be found *somewhere* back to the early 1600s. In fact, in many ways, Brits were more record-oriented than the U.S.

    I have a World-level membership at, but oddly, can access more English and Welsh recs if I log in at rather than the U.S. site. The UK's National Archives A2A (Access to Archives) is a treasure trove of information about "nobody ancestors" once one masters its quirks. Also, many parish records are online, but success mostly depends on the area of interest.

    If you know the specific area, many villages have their own website and contact information which can be used to be put in touch with local historians (for free) who are happy to help in any way they can.

    If your ancestors had many descendants, it's possible someone else has already dug up the very information you're seeking (and more!). Googling the surname and village (if you know it) can find such people.

    Good luck and don't give up!

  • Maralexa profile image

    Marilyn Alexander 

    9 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

    Hi JamaGenee. Great Hub! Researching family is a little harder for me. My ancestors all came from British Isles. Either the records are harder to find or they were not kept as well as US records because it is very difficult to find anything past gggfs and gggms.

    Thank you for your points and your very interesting stories!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    10 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    4FS, glad you enjoyed this, but I'm the one who's thrilled that I've rekindled your interest in family history! ;D

  • 4FoodSafety profile image

    Kelly Kline Burnett 

    10 years ago from Fontana, WI

    Your humor is a true joy! Love your verbiage! From "Musical spouses" and ggf - way too much fun! I agree with the Duchess - you have reawakened my yearning to continue my genealogy.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    10 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Women whose husbands "died young", DG. Hubby runs off with a new young thing, so left-behind wife hooks up with a man whose wife ran off with another man. The pioneer version of Musical Spouses... :)

  • De Greek profile image

    De Greek 

    10 years ago from UK



    Intersting at the same time.

    QUESTION: I thought that there was a shortage of women in those days. I can understand the women getting re-married almost immediately, even with 4 children, but where did the men find such variety???

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    11 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Connie, glad you found this interesting!

    Duchess, I suspect you're in for several surprises when you look at those stories in a new light! I'm always thrilled when people dust off their family history!

  • profile image

    Duchess OBlunt 

    11 years ago

    You have reawakened my interest in genealogy, and your rules will be applied to some of the names of my list. Thank you for sharing those thoughts, it puts a whole new perspective of some of the stories that have been uncovered, and certainly points to a new avenue for research.

  • Connie Smith profile image

    Connie Smith 

    11 years ago from Tampa Bay, Florida

    Quite interesting, JG. I can see why geneology is so fascinating...I enjoyed the story about the Captain. It seems that people really do not change that much over the years, just the circumstances.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    11 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    People who never "let facts get in the way of a good story" are doomed to perpetuate the lie. However, I've found that the truth is often *much* more interesting than the lie invented to hide (or bury) shameful or embarrassing events. And I don't mean "interesting" in the sensational sense, only that the back story will reveal the "offending" ancestor wasn't really such a horrible person after all, that there were extenuating circumstances beyond the person's control.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    11 years ago from East Coast, United States

    I guess there are tons of bungled family histories out there. There were things that brought shame on a family, things you just didn't want to get out, so the lie became 'facts.' It makes you wonder how much family history one does actually know and how much is made up.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    11 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    A man fabricating a previous (but deceased) wife he married via a Justice of the Peace to get his current fiance to marry in the church... That's definitely a new twist!

  • MindField profile image


    11 years ago from Portland, Oregon

    What a super hub, Jama! I had no idea about young "dead" fathers coming back to life in far-flung (or close-by) locations. Intriguing, to say the least. Men have always been scalawags, haven't they?

    One day when I was already an adult, my mother threw me for a loop by telling me that my dad had been married before. A real eye-opener. I've never checked to see whether it was true except by asking a few elderly relatives - who also seemed genuinely surprised by the news.

    I think it might have been a complete fabrication made up by Dad to get Mom to marry in the Catholic Church. He told her his first wife died on their honeymoon and that his mother blamed this on the fact that they'd been married by a Justice of the Peace. Sounds too much like one of Dad's stories to be real! But who knows....

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    11 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Haunty, from what my research buddy and I have seen, in the 1800s young fathers "died" (left) after the 3rd or 4th child because they were immature and couldn't handle the responsibilities of fatherhood. If you like solving puzzles and mysteries, genealogy is great fun.

  • Haunty profile image


    11 years ago from Hungary

    A pretty interesting read, thanks. Do you know why young fathers left their families in the 1800s after a 3rd or 4th child was born to them? Pretty wierd, isn't it?

    Maybe some day when he time is ripe I'll become a genealogist myself. I sure got some inspiration from you.

  • desert blondie profile image

    desert blondie 

    12 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

    Great fun a genealogist for several sides of my family...I've got a dead youngish husband in one line...from early 1820s...father of 4 young boys who died somewhat quickly after homesteading in Missouri from Kentucky. Fortunately for me, the wife did marry fairly quickly after, the man 'took in' the youngest of the boys, the 2 older ones "servanted' themselves out to locals...lots of good documentation even though MO a very young state at the time. PLUS, I've just had a long-lost relative contact me...says her grandmother the child of an unmarried "union" between one of my great uncles and a woman not his wife.  With all the genealogy I've wasn't so very different then than now....EXCEPT...wives died in childbirth before the husbands tired of her... and lots of lots of men had many wives...often each younger and younger to have the energy to care for his ever-growing brood of children! Even one of our most beloved presidents, Abraham Lincoln was raised by a younger step-mother after his mother has died.

  • profile image

    Jeanette M 

    12 years ago

    JamaGenee, she was a Lakota who was camped with Red Cloud's people outside of FT Laramie. She was 13 or 14 when she came into my gggf's possession. It must have been a relative that lost her in that game.  She was orphaned young, so who knows.

    Being an Indian woman back them must have been tough business. Slavery was outlawed, but you could still win an Indian woman in a poker game...

    By the way, I love your hubs!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Your gggf WON your gggm in a poker game? Who was the OTHER stinker that put her up for grabs in the first place? Sounds like an interesting hub for you to write!

    Glad you enjoyed this one.

  • profile image

    Jeanette M 

    12 years ago

    My great, great grandfather won my great, great grandmother in a poker game. What a stinker THAT guy was. Our anchestors are a mixed lot!

    Great tips for genealogists!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    KScharles, those are very valid points. Good genies routinely rattle family skeletons to see if they'll dance...and they usually do! Sometimes in ways even those of us who think we've seen "everything" didn't expect. Thanks for expanding on the saga of "Capt. John". What a stinker!

  • profile image


    12 years ago

    Your "Three Rules of Thumb..." is so important for any genealogist to remember. Family stories and whispered speculations through several generations; pictures of unknowns that turn up repeatedly in several lines of a family; a yellowed old obituary or perhaps account of a train robbery a generation or two ago in another state? Quite often, there is an important story hidden here. After generations of such stories and speculation about my 2G Grandfather, "Capt." John, having a second wife and family while married to this first wife, it dawned on me that there might be divorce papers in that "courthouse 100 miles away". When I checked...there were TWO divorces filed by his first wife...and they were served on him in Olney, IL. Checking the Olney records gave the whole story; he HAD married a second wife and had a family in Olney, too.

    This is just one of many "rest of the story" (ies) I've found in genealogy. Other discoveries have been just as dramatic in different ways, but keeping uppermost in our minds your "Three Rules of Thumb..." very often pays off in learning new and interesting family history--and often adds to your family generations you didn't know existed!


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