One of the things I like best about traveling around and speaking to various genealogical groups is that I get a chance to hear stories from other researchers. Some of those stories are about the frustrations they have experienced while others are of the successes they have had. Sometimes these frustrations are the result of making assumptions in the research process; this practice practically guarantees a failure at some point in the research trail.
This happened recently. I was talking with another researcher who was sharing the details of a discussion she was having with a cousin. Based on the fact that three men with the same last name lived in the same country, the cousin was assuming them to be brothers. Because the cousin was so sure of this relationship she had stopped looking for records and was just taking this relationship as fact.
Be careful when you make assumptions about relationships.
The Names the Same
While it is certainly a flag for a possible relationship, the fact that the three men who were living in the same county shared a last name is not positive proof they were brothers. It is a working hypothesis. Of course, if you can remember back to science class, a hypothesis must be put to the test. In the case of this particular researcher, there has been no test. Because she found the three men living in the same county she stopped looking. She based her assumption on the fact that their ages were close.
Sometimes the records work against us, either because they have been destroyed by fire or some natural disaster or because the information we need was not being recorded at that time. For instance, the children were not listed in the pre-1850 census records. This was such a case with this researcher's story.
Every possible record must be investigated when trying to prove relationships. Sometimes we are able to quickly determine that they are or are not related, but more often then not it requires that we spend some time working in a wide variety of the records. Of course given today's instant access to so much information, there are many who do not understand the work that goes into researching such a problem.
Sometimes, the records we want simply no longer exist. When this happens, it becomes even more necessary to do the best you can in researching everything you can about the potentially related individuals. You cannot stop when you find them listed living together in the census.
How Do You Prove the Theory?
To prove the theory, I usually attack the problem and try to disprove the theory. I find this approach keeps me more honest than if I set about proving the theory. To disprove the theory I must truly investigate every record that exists. When I try to prove the theory I sometimes get sloppy and stop before I have exhausted all the records, especially the hard to find ones.
I look to see just how many families there are living in the area that share the surname in question. I then look to see what records I have access to and begin to systematically go through each one, extracting names from the records, with appropriate information, into a separate, stand alone, database. This database is basically a single surname study of sorts, in that the principle surname that you will find in it is the surname I am investigating. Of course, as I find marriages, those surname get added.
Such an approach is not something that can be accomplished in a day. Instead you must sometimes sped months working on and off. There are some lines that have taken me years to put together. However, the importance is to keep adding information on those found as it comes to you. Investigate both original records and published family histories. Be sure to weigh the information from published family histories and be honest in how accurate you think the information is.
Don't worry at first about if the individuals you are finding in the records are related. Instead extract the information and then spend time comparing it. It may help to put the information on forms or to invest in a program designed specifically for this type of research.
Putting Families Together
Once you have truly extracted the individuals from all of the different records that are available, you will want to look for patterns. Are certain individuals buried near each other? Do you see pockets of individuals buying land in one section of the county or another? Do certain names appear frequently as witnesses for each other? Have you been able to determine if any of the individuals are one person or more than one person with the same name?
These are the types of questions, among many others, that need to be asked when it comes to this type of research. Sometimes the research requires going page by page through the records instead of having the luxury of looking only in an index. In fact, when a colleague did just such a search, she disproved a long accepted lineage by proving there was an additional generation. The problem had been that all three men shared the same given name, so earlier researchers had assumed it was two men when in fact it was three generations.
Sometimes these types of mistakes or discoveries will pop right out. Other times it isn't until you begin to put the families together that you find the connections. Most of the time the connections found in this manner will refute the assumed connections made when relying on something like just the census or another's work.
It is important that we extend the search beyond the easy to find records. There are many mis-connected individuals being published because those doing the research often stop when they have just the proof they want. Genealogical research shouldn't stop when you find the record that gives you the link you hoped for. It should only stop when you have truly exhausted all of the records.