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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Steps To Success

Deciding on Strategies for Research

It is important to begin your research by listing all the known information first before starting your research for the unknown information.

Planning Your Project

Planning your research is probably the most beneficial use of your time. Many people rush right in to the searching when, with a little thought they could save themselves time by, for example, narrowing down more precisely the locations and dates needed.

Make rough family trees whilst planning and doing your research so you have a ‘picture’ of the family. You will learn more about each ancestor and make fewer incorrect deductions if you work with whole families rather than just individuals. Establish the pedigree first then do the family history.

Deduction, Assumption and Hypotheses

In everyday language we tend to confuse the terms deduction and assumption, but it is important in research to clearly understand the difference and use the words precisely. The process of deduction consciously uses logic and all the facts, whereas the unconscious process of assumption is where we take something for granted and don’t think things through. In everyday spoken English people tend to use the phrase I assume when really they mean I deduce, because they do have some facts on which to base their statement.

Examples would be I assume that George was two years younger than Mary because he was two grades lower in school, or We have a picture of Bert in South Africa dated 1900 and we assume he went there as a soldier in the Boer War. In both these situations we have some evidence and have used it to make a deduction; we haven’t assumed arbitrarily. In genealogy we have to differentiate between the terms deduce and assume.

In any scientific endeavour one proceeds from the known to the unknown. Hypotheses are created to explain situations, and these hypotheses are then tested to see if they can be proven or disproven. If the hypothesis is based on known facts and logical thought processes it is more likely to be correct, thus will lead us more quickly to the truth. This process is known as deduction (or inference or conclusion).

For example, if Josiah wrote his will on 1st March 1790 (when he was still alive) and it was probated on 24 June 1790 (after his death) we can logically deduce that he died sometime between these two dates. This is now an hypothesis and the next step is to find some evidence of his death or burial in order to prove that it is true. The use of facts and the deductive process has enabled us to narrow down the date range and thus save time and effort.

However, if we blithely start looking for births of children in 1851 after we find that George and Martha were married in April 1850 we are making the unconscious assumption that all children are conceived after marriage. Do we know for a fact that there was no pre-nuptial hanky-panky? No! Basing hypotheses on assumptions without thinking things through is liable to cause untold frustration, wasted time and effort. Much better to spend time and effort using all the facts and good logic to arrive at a workable hypothesis.

The Danger of Undefined Assumptions

Many a genealogical roadblock can be unjammed by a critical examination for the unconscious use of undefined assumptions by ourselves or others. Did you, another family member, or a previous researcher, assume:

  • That if they were in a place for 2 consecutive censuses that they stayed there for the 10 years in between.
  • That they knew how old they (or their spouse) were, and where they were born.
  • That at times of family stress, like births, marriages and deaths, their minds were clear and their memories perfect when asked for personal details. That they were literate and had impeccable spelling.
  • That the vicar/enumerator cared what spelling he used.
  • That those home on census night were the usual and/or total residents of the household.
  • That because it doesn’t say ‘deceased’ then he must be still alive.
  • That none of their family emigrated.
  • That all parts of the town are consecutively arranged on one census film.
  • That neighbours weren’t important.
  • That they didn’t leave a will because they were only agricultural labourers.
  • That no-one else in their family left a will.
  • That there is a body under every tombstone.
  • That he married only one girl named Sarah.
  • That older relatives always died before ones born later did.
  • They lived there therefore they must have been born there.
  • They came to Canada together in the same ship.
  • All the children in one family on the census had the same parents.
  • He could read and write fluently because you found his signature on a document.
  • He couldn’t possibly have had a previous wife or children.
  • That she was always known by her first given name.
  • And so on…

Making Hypotheses from Facts, Estimates and Deduction

When making an hypothesis we need to:

  • Ascertain the known facts
  • Define what unconscious assumptions we have previously been making
  • Apply deduction
  • Use estimates to assist in planning specific research goals
  • Come up with an hypothesis that can be tested

Standard Set of Estimates

When planning research we have to have a framework of dates and places, and indeed a breadth of spelling variations of names, within which to search. Much time and effort will be saved if we consciously use a standard set of estimates.


A set of estimates for dates for British families can include:

  • Husbands tend to be at least 20 at marriage
  • Wives tend to be at least 18 at marriage
  • Husbands are typically 2 years older than their wives, more for second wives
  • Children tend to arrive after the marriage ceremony
  • A woman can bear children from ages 18 to 45
  • Children typically arrive at two-year intervals except where one is lost and the next interval is shorter
  • Wives die after the birth of the last known child
  • Husbands die from 9 months before the birth of the last known child.

Recognize that these estimations will not be true in all cases, but that they give direction at the beginning of a new search. If the records sought are not found within these guidelines, then widen them for that particular case to absolute limits such as:

  • Legal age limits for marriage before 1929 were 14 for men and 12 for women.
  • Few people lived past 100.
  • Maybe the first child was born sooner than nine months after the marriage?
  • Maybe they didn’t marry before the birth of the first child ?
  • Maybe they didn’t get married at all!

When you have planned to search a particular range of dates don’t stop at the first possible candidate. Search the whole range so you know ALL possible candidates.


When estimating places look closely at:

  • Husband’s occupation and how mobile it was. Was it a city or rural one? How did the economy in the area at the time affect movement for this family?
  • The topography—were there physical obstacles to movement such as mountains or rivers without bridges or ferries?
  • Where was the closest market town? Coaching route? Railway station? Diocesan office? Were any of these in a neighbouring county?
  • Where were the wife’s parents living? Marriages usually took place in the wife’s parish. First-time mothers often went back to their mother for the first confinement and the child may be christened there too.
  • Political boundaries and jurisdictional names, and changes in them, during your ancestor’s life span.


For possible names one has to consider the cultural milieu with knowledge gained from background reading:

  • Are there set naming patterns for children?
  • Do wives retain their maiden names throughout life?
  • Have you made plans to look for the firstborn children under the wife’s maiden name before the marriage date?
  • Before you begin draw up an alphabetical list of possible spellings that you will record. If you find another whilst researching then note what date you started recording it also.

Testing the Hypothesis

Once we have discovered what unconscious assumptions we had previously been making, ascertained the facts, and used estimating procedures to assist in the formation of an hypothesis, we are ready to test it. How is this done? We need to work out something that would be recorded, or definitely not recorded, if the hypothesis is true, and then look for it, using finding aids to speed the search.

Positive Test

If the hypothesis is true then I should find him at place X between dates Y and Z. For example: If Mary Stenning (née Potter) had her first child James before she married on 1 Jan 1854 then he will be registered under her maiden name before 1854 in the Maidstone area.

  • Task: Search civil registration indexes for James POTTER in Maidstone district 1853 and back. Get the certificate to confirm parentage.

Negative Test

If the hypothesis is true then he should not be at place X between dates Y and Z. For example: If he died between 1886 and 1890 then he should not be on the 1891 census; his wife should be a widow, probably in Rochdale near to her family (unless she has also died, or remarried, of course).

  • Task: Search 1891 census index, if available for the area, then get a copy of the actual page from the enumerator’s book.

We should go through this process three times and find three items of evidence for each hypothesis in order to consider it proven. Sometimes our first hypothesis does not hold water, and we have to start over again with a new one. And even when we have three supporting pieces of evidence we must still be open to the possibility of further information coming to light that negates the three we have, and then we have to find out why this is so.

The successful genealogist is one who has learned:

  • To question everything, including their own previous unconscious assumptions. S/he doesn’t say Have I made an assumption? but What assumptions have I made?
  • Not to accept conventional wisdom or believe that Grandma was infallible.
  • To be open to a change in belief or opinion when new evidence is presented.
  • The importance of asking WHY? S/he doesn’t just look at a record and accept that Great Grandpa did this at that time in that place.S/he asks why?
  • Why did he marry her there?
  • Why wasn’t he christened?
  • Why did they move there?
  • Why did he suddenly change his trade? 
  • Why was she buried there?

Then s/he generates some possible answers (hypotheses) and tries to prove or disprove them.

  • To read basic texts rather than spend all their available time on the internet looking for quick answers. Understanding the records is more important to success in genealogical research than using a computer.
  • To read widely about alternate and new sources, as well as successful techniques used by others to break down brick walls, for example those by Brown.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 22 October 2013, at 15:54.
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