Monday, July 9, 2012

Lesson Learned: Be Careful Making Assumptions

I have to re-visit my previous post and write about one more example from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. It represents a theme that recurs for me over and over in genealogy.

Be Careful Making Assumptions

Typically this theme plays out when I am traveling with my father and we are discussing our brick wall immigrant ancestor, William Edwards.  There are many gaps in William's life story and my father likes to fill them in with assumptions.  That leads inevitably to me saying, "What do you base that on?" and we descend into a brief family squabble from that point forward.

That seems fairly harmless in the big picture, although it's frustrating for me. I suspect that my father derives some boyish pleasure from winding me up like that every time.  Yet assumptions can take on much more serious implications in our research.

Take for example the case of a mother and baby dying within a week of the birth.  We look at an event like that and logic tells us that the pair likely died due to complications from the birth. Come on, fess up! You've thought that, haven't you?  I know I have.

I will be more careful with such thoughts going forward.

In A Midwife's Tale, Ulrich describes exactly such an incident on page 44. Martha Ballard delivers a healthy baby to a healthy mother in "an uneventful" birth and yet both mother and child are dead a few days later.  Martha was bewildered by the turn of events but chalks it up to "Providence."

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, on the other hand, has the benefit of hindsight, knowledge of modern medicine and Martha's full diary to help her place this event within the proper context.  It is Ulrich's belief that the mother and child died from a symptom-less form of scarlet fever.  An epidemic of the fever was raging through the village at the same time that the mother and child died.

Now let's stop and think about how we normally proceed with our research.  We check vital records, church records and Bible records among others to help us learn about births and deaths.  We don't usually have a diary, such as Martha Ballard's, to provide details of the event when it happened.

When we discover, verify and cite the information in our notes do we ever stop to say, "Why?" Why did this person die on this date? Were there any extenuating circumstances? Was there a storm, a war, an epidemic?

Typically, we don't.  We don't take the time to go beyond what we need to verify family connections.  Even though Elizabeth Shown Mills regularly encourages us to dig deeper into our ancestors lives.  Colleen Fitzpatrick is another person who has written about digging into the "Whys."  She has looked at epidemics when trying to understand the death of her ancestors.

If you're just starting out in genealogy it's not practical to take the time to dig deep into a broader social context for every event in our ancestors' lives.

So what are we to do?  The only clear answer is we need to work seriously on not making assumptions, no matter how harmless they may be or how logical they seem. Unless we can concretely say that a mother and baby died due to complications from childbirth we should avoid saying it.

Ulrich, through her diligent research, has taught us this lesson well.


  1. I was reminded to look at a more global picture when I saw research by someone who was poring through the town records in Town Hall in Shelburne Falls MA. He charted the deaths by year, and found a big jump in children dying in 1777. It wasn't until then that I made the connection with two of my families who both lost a baby that year. I love these broader projects that can enhance research for many of us.

  2. I think one key distinction between a professional genealogist and an amateur one such as myself, is learning not to make assumptions. I am still making that mistake every so often and only discovering my error later on a second, third, or multiple review of a document that I was making an incorrect assumption. Fortunately I am doing this less often these days which makes me believe that I'm getting better as a genealogist.

  3. A very important lesson, Marian. When I catch myself making an assumption I rework it into an hypothesis to be tested.

  4. Marian, it has always been passed down through my family that my grandfather's mother died from childbirth complications shortly after the birth of her second child, in 1897. I had no reason to doubt it. Imagine my surprise when her death certificate said cancer of the stomach. And I know so little about medical history that I am truly mystified about this. Someday, I hope to explore it a little more.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtfulness in this blog. It is so completely human to make assumptions, and we steer our lives by them. All our social/racial/class stereotypes are assumptions we make about people before we get to know them.

    It must be even more the case with genealogy, when our possibility for "getting to know" is so limited that we are left clinging harder to assumptions. One of my relatives has a wife and an infant child in the 1880 census -- yet by 1900 I find he has another wife and several children, the first born in 1880. I always assumed the first wife and child died--because, as you imply, we assume new mothers and babies were more susceptible to disease then. But after your blog I'm going to renew my search. The mother has an uncommon name for that area, "Lucy," so I'm going to start with a first-name search.

  6. Thanks for the advice Marian. There is a tendency for all of us to try to connect dots and fill in the blanks in order to make sense out of our research, but you are correct for cautioning against it. It will only get you into trouble.

  7. Excellent point, Marian. And it applies not only to making assumptions about why something happened, but also about when and where things happened. Sometimes I don't realize I'm making an assumption until I take a step back and ask myself why I'm not finding the information I need.

    I've added A Midwife's Tale to my book list, and am eager to read it. Thanks for sharing your story!