The Probability Test: An Often Forgotten Step in Genealogy

Every week I consult with genealogy students from across the continent. At least monthly I discuss a scholarly article in genealogy with a small group of students in a chat room. Over the past three years it has become clear to me that most people never bother to test the probability that an event has occurred BEFORE they start searching in the original records to find their ancestor in the event. Let me explain what I mean

Determining whether something reported in family tradition or some heritage book could have happened is vitally important in efficient research. I remember as a beginner hearing that my grandfather had a half brother, Henry who fought in the South African War 1899-1901. I started by looking in the casualty lists for the British Army because someone thought he died in the war. I had no idea how many hours, fruitlessly, I would search. If I had done the background research I would have learned that he could not have served in South Africa. When we get a tradition or a clue from an undocumented source like a mug book or heritage book, we need check things out to see if it could have happened the way we heard so we do not waste time in research.

But how do you teach that? Does it have to be learned the hard way? Can we as teachers create a case problem for students to work on? Perhaps something like this.

“The family story says that William Buckley came to our area after the Civil War ( any civil war will do) in the 90s and paid for a big piece of land in hard currency. He was a loner, stuck to himself, never married. He spoke with a distinctive southern accent . He always carried a weapon. He liked fine horses and raised them and cattle which he sold periodically. He dressed poorly, in old clothes, but he seemed to have lots of money when needed. Rumors went around that he rode with a bunch of cutthroats and thieves in and near the war zone. Some said he rode with Quantrill. He died in 1927 , about 72 years old according to the obituary, but age 75 acording to his neighbor. A niece from Windham claimed his meager possessions.”

“Without consulting original records, using only background sources, can you de determine whether or not it is probable or possible these stories are true. What types of background sources would you search?”

If you teach genealogy, do you teach people to check the probability of events in family stories? How do you do it?

Love to get your comments.


3 responses to “The Probability Test: An Often Forgotten Step in Genealogy

  1. Good advice, and much needed. My few friends who don’t dismiss genealogy out of hand criticize the how many of its devotees lack historical knowledge. So another question: should anyone be doing genealogy, let alone taking classes in it, if they can’t answer this last question out of their head in a minute or two?

  2. Harold
    Should anyone be doing genealogy… if they cant answer this last question in their head in a minute or two? good question. Which civil war do you want to use. US, Spanish, Mexican? We are hasty to assume, eliminating one war, does not eliminate the others without more reserch.

    But I think you and I would agree most folks researching US genealogy would benefit from two semesters of intro level US history. Likewise in Canada, Mexico and Europe.

    But sometimes its a matter of looking at maps, checking gazetteers, encyclopedias and books on the topics mentioned in the tale.

    Come again. You comments always are welcome.

  3. Your comments are right on target, and the critical question is how to get people to question such clues. Because Aunt Mary swore a fact to be true, doesn’t make it true. Once the questioning begins, the need for further research becomes obvious. My own rule of thumb is: question everything, use source documents wherever possible. Eventually however, due to the paucity of records as one goes back in time, we eventually get to a place where we can make statements about connections only in terms of probabilities. There’s where the fun starts!

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