Baptised before birth and other silly claims

There are some basic rules in life that cannot be broken. Following these rules will instantly make you a better genealogist.

  1. You cannot be baptised or christened before you were born. There may be some cultures out there that do not follow this rule, but for most of us this rule applies.baptism1
  2. You cannot be buried before you die. Well, you could but it would be illegal and downright scary. This rule of course does not apply to vampires or zombies.
  3. You cannot be in two places at once. Unless you are an undeclared identical twin trying to fool people.
  4. If the ‘father’ was in gaol when the baby was conceived, he is not the father. Unless it was a very accommodating gaol.
  5. Similarly, if the ‘father’ died more than 9 months before the birth, he is not the father. Except of course, if science was involved.baptism2
  6. Sharing a surname does not mean two people are biologically related. If it did, the Smith family would be one very enormous family tree!
  7. Women rarely give birth before they are 12 or after they turn 50. If there are children beyond those ages send them back to their rightful homes! There are variations based on nutrition and time period, and trends are changing but its still a useful guide.
  8. Events close in time tend to occur in the same country. A man is unlikely to be buried in Pennsylvania USA if he died in Paddington NSW Australia.baptism3

Now go out and slay those online family tree myths!


Broaden your research with FANs

One of the traps to fall into with family history research is narrowing the target too much. Many researchers focus on just their direct ancestral line – parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is a desire to forge back into the past as quickly as possible, or to make the research task manageable. Or it may be an attempt to focus on the people who are thought to be the most important.

The danger of this approach is that it can result in information gaps, errors or a ‘brick wall’.

Research is the process of collecting information, which is used as evidence to support conclusions. A narrow research approach reduces the amount of information collected. This will mean that the stories you compile about your ancestors are pretty sketchy, but more importantly it means that you will have less evidence. With less evidence, inconsistencies are not apparent and the wrong conclusions can be made. Having more information increases the likelihood of reaching correct conclusions and the likelihood of having a comprehensive and accurate family history.

Information is collected from sources. Increasing the number of sources has the potential to increase the amount of information. It is not as straightforward as that, as the type and quality of the sources is also a factor, but that is a topic for another time.


To increase the information you need to gather as many research leads as possible. One way to do this is to expand beyond your direct ancestral line and research your ancestor’s FAN club. FAN stands for friends, associates and neighbours. The technique is also referred to as ‘collateral research’, but I like the term FAN because it presents an image of something opening up which is what this technique is all about.

Your ancestor interacted with a lot of people during their lifetime. By researching some of those people, you can gather more information about your ancestor. Some of this information will be direct – such as a record of an event that specifically mentions your ancestor and their FAN. Other information will be indirect – such as a story about disastrous floods that affected a FAN who lived near your ancestor.

Researching your ancestor’s FANS also increases the likelihood that you will obtain information from sources that are independent of the sources about your ancestor. Think of it like getting a second opinion. If two sources were created by different people for different purposes contain the same information, it increases the chance that the information is accurate.

How do you find your ancestor’s FANS?

Start by looking at people who were the closest to your ancestor. Within a family there may be siblings, aunts and uncles, half- and step-siblings, multiple wives and husbands, and more. Next, look at the people mentioned in the sources about your ancestor – the witnesses to a marriage, the minister who married them, the informant on a death certificate, the people who appear in the census with them and so on.

Researching your ancestors’ FAN club takes a lot of time, so it’s best to have a research question in mind. You should select the FANS who are most likely to provide information relevant to your research question. However, if you are just interested in collecting as much information as you can about a family, you could broaden your search to the locality in which they lived – who taught at the local school, who attended the same church, who owned the land next to them and so on. Then finally, you could examine groups who were potentially affected by the same broad forces or events that affected your ancestor –  for example, the convict period, the First World War, an occupational group.

What do you do with all the information?

There is not a lot of point in gathering all this extra information if you cannot make good use of it. You will need tools and techniques to analyse the information, see patterns and inconsistencies, and draw conclusions. I’ll be writing more about such tools and techniques in other posts.

Are you just starting your family tree?

There are a lot of websites with guides on how to start your family tree, but let’s be honest. Most people do not start researching by reading guides – we choose a name of a relative and we Google it. Or we type our surname into the search box of a genealogy website. If we are lucky, we may get a piece of information that is clearly our family but usually we get a massive amount of information that makes little sense and we do not know what to do with it. The internet has made outstanding contributions to genealogical research but it has also had the downside of increasing our expectations of instant results and increasing the usage of inaccurate information.

So, if you are just starting out, can I suggest a little preparation before you jump on the internet? Grab an A4 piece of paper and use this image to draw a basic family tree.

family tree

Next, add in siblings – yours, your parents and your grandparents’ siblings. Then, between each couple, write the date of their marriage. Finally, add the location for each date (e.g. born 22/3/1985 Dubbo Australia).

family tree2

If you do not know any of these facts, add a ?  If there is any doubt about the information, add a ? next to it. For example, if you haven’t seen your birth certificate then there is doubt about your birthdate. Do not be surprised or worried if you have a ? next to every bit of information.

Before you start trying to trace your line back to the distant past, you must have a solid foundation. Your first goal is to fill in any gaps and collect evidence to remove any doubts about the information. Start by talking to members of your family. As you find evidence to support the information, you can remove the ? from the diagram.