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Genealogy Tips & Quips




Ten Assumptions that Can Lead

to Creating Your Own Brick Walls

1. That Your Paternal DNA Matches Your Surname

My dad’s paternal DNA test revealing he’s biologically a Burke and not a Watson took my ancestry research in a whole new direction. I’m now on a quest to uncover family secrets and trace our newfound royal lineage. When, where, and why did our Burke surname change to Watson? Could there be a more mysterious secret for a genealogist to uncover? Now knowing what I’m looking for in DNA matches is already providing new leads.

2. That a Person Was Buried in the Cemetery Nearest to His Home

I mentioned having found my Coffey graves in Ireland more than ten miles away from their home. In southern Wisconsin I finally located my Flannery ancestors’ graves twenty-five miles from where they’d lived. That was quite a hike in 1863. Why had they been buried so far from home? Had the cemetery had a sale on burial plots? Who knows.

3. That All the Children in a Family Had the Same Mother

In an 1860 census, Henry Watson lived in Wisconsin with his wife, Bridget, and three sons. There was an eight-year gap between the youngest and the middle sons. The youngest son’s birthplace was Wisconsin, and the middle son’s was Ireland. Even though Bridget was born in Ireland like the rest of the family—except for the youngest son—the sons’ age difference made me wonder if Henry had remarried. It turned out he’d married his second wife, Bridget, in Wisconsin. Coming across a second marriage is a huge find. The marriage record might note the couple’s parents.

4. That a Person Wasn’t Previously Married

James Watson’s second marriage record is the only document I’ve found with his parents’ names. It also provided his new wife, Anne Murdoch’s, parents’ surname as Cowan. I had another version of this record that didn’t have parents’ names, so I’d assumed Anne’s maiden name was Murdoch, not Cowan. This was good to know. The 1861 Canada Census hadn’t given her marital status as widowed. However, I had learned she was born in Ireland and her religious affiliation was the Church of Ireland, so she’d likely been from Northern Ireland. Families listed on the page lived in the military district in Kingston, Ontario. Anne’s first husband and James had possibly served together in the military.

Meeting your spouse back then, even the second one, often wasn’t a random encounter. Immigrants gravitated to areas where they had familial connections from their homeland. A spouse from a person’s native country is one more clue, so having a woman’s correct maiden name is critical. There’s always a chance a woman may have been previously married. At the time James and Anne wed, it appears that Canadian marriage records didn’t document a person’s previous marital status. However, England’s and Ireland’s civil marriage records noted a woman as spinster (a dreadful term for single) or widow. I don’t recall ever coming across that notation in Ireland’s Catholic parish records. Whether or not a woman’s marital status was documented depends on the time period, country, religious denomination, and other factors. Just keep in mind, if you are having difficulty locating a female ancestor’s baptismal record, maybe the name you have wasn’t her maiden name. Try searching for a previous marriage record.

5. That a Document Is Correct

I’ve said this before, but I can’t say it enough. The most reliable information is generally on documents that the person themselves provided. Death records being one of the most unreliable. If at all possible, it’s critical to have a minimum of two sources with the same information before considering it accurate. This does not include an online family tree.

6. That a Document’s Incorrect Information Isn’t Somehow Valid

I’ve used the three Watson siblings’ death certificates as an example before because it is such a perfect one. That their correct mother, Bridget Connolly, wasn’t noted on any of the documents. One certificate had the mother as Delia Grieve. I finally realized Delia was a nickname for Bridget and that the name Grieve has DNA matches with my dad. At some point a Grieve surname may come into play.

The death certificate for another sibling, Anna Barbara Watson, noted her mother’s name also as Anna, not Bridget. However, I later learned that the deceased’s name, Anna Barbara, was actually a combination of the woman’s two grandmothers’ names. Anna was her maternal grandmother, Barbara her paternal one. So even though her mother’s name was incorrect, it provided great clues to both her grandmothers’ identities. Anna’s children had likely been told she’d been named after grandmothers and they remembered it as her having been named after her mother.

7. That a Couple with Children Was Married

My research in Ireland hasn’t yet uncovered any out-of-wedlock births in my family lines. At a time without birth control, it’s highly likely several occurred. While assisting an elderly English woman with her family research, I discovered she came from a long line of illegitimate children on both sides of her family. Most of the parents married at some point. However, when I came across a marriage record several years after a couple’s children were born, I initially assumed it was for a different couple. That wasn’t the case. See Tip 11, “Playing a Genealogist Sleuth, Inspector Clouseau or Sherlock Holmes?”

8. That a Country Has Only One Village or Town with a Particular Name

In 1947 my relative James Coffey died in Balrath, Ireland, leaving a 350-acre estate worth loads of money. Wanting to visit it on an upcoming Ireland trip, I located Balrath, County Westmeath, on Google Maps. Later I returned to Google Maps to again view the town, and a Balrath in County Meath appeared. It turned out there are nine Balrath towns in Counties Meath and Westmeath. I was able to determine which Balrath was the one I was looking for, and we visited the estate. I discuss my journey to locate this home in Tip 49, “Walking in Your Ancestors’ Footsteps: Finding Their Family Homesteads.”

9. That You Know How You Are Related to a Family Line recently “tweaked” members’ DNA ethnicities, supposedly to improve the accuracy of the estimates. My dad’s Scottish and Irish decreased, and his Norwegian increased from 45 percent to 58 percent. His mother was supposedly 100 percent Norwegian. His father had no known Norwegian. So where is his other 8 percent coming from? It’s likely coming from his Scottish or Irish ancestors. With the early Norman invasions in both Ireland and Scotland, I have found the Normans came from sturdy stock and their DNA often lingers for twenty-plus generations. Yet I should no longer assume a Norwegian match is from my dad’s maternal side.

I’ve been trying to determine the connection of the Watson family from southern Wisconsin that moved to Chicago and worked for my Watson’s steam-fitting company. The fact that the two families only had a few children’s names in common made me wonder how close of a connection they shared. I’m now finding my dad has numerous MacDonald DNA matches. The mother of this other Watson family was Catherine MacDonald from Scotland—homeland of our Watsons. Perhaps these Watsons were related through the MacDonald line. Families often traveled in the same circle. Much of rural Ireland didn’t marry outside their townland, so cousins knowingly or unknowingly often wed. My dad has hundreds of distant DNA matches in County Galway with almost no common surnames. It’s hard to know where to begin. When you are analyzing DNA matches back five-plus generations, don’t assume because the surname is a match that is where the connection lies.

10. Making Assumptions Even Based on Facts

I hit a brick wall with my Watsons when James’s wife died and the following year’s 1861 census noted he was living with a Catherine whose status was married. I assumed it was James’s new wife. In my defense, that wasn’t a wild assumption. However, she was twenty-five years younger. Even though at that time women frequently married older men, that was a big age difference. James Jr. wasn’t living at home, so I wondered if he was off somewhere and his new wife had remained behind.

I had a genealogist search for either of the James’s marriage to a Catherine. No record was located. However, he found an 1861 marriage record for James Sr. and an Anne Murdoch. What was the chance that James had remarried twice within a year after his wife’s death? And James Jr. married an Eliza a few years later. No death certificate was found for a Catherine Watson. It is likely that Catherine, the wife of a Watson relative, had gone to live with James after his wife’s death to help care for his two teenage daughters. This demonstrates the importance of following your instincts and conducting further research rather than accepting what would seem to be true.


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