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.