How to deal with a Wobbly Ancestor

Wobbly ancestorWe probably all have one.  And I don’t mean an ancestor who drank too much (though we probably all have a few of those too!).  What I mean is an ancestor who you are around 70-90% sure is your ancestor, but you do not have that crucial record to make it 100% certain.  Perhaps there is a person where you have been unable to find a baptism, but there is a couple of the right child-bearing age in that parish who you think are ‘probably’ the parents.  Do you carry on and trace those parents, or do you leave it there?

In my experience as a professional genealogist, this kind of thing happens more often than I could possibly keep count of.  It is always difficult to advise the client in these matters.  It would be unprofessional of me to say, ‘Yes, I’m sure this is your ancestor – let’s carry on’, but on the other hand, being an optimist, I like to think that there may be a way of proving the missing link, or at least find more evidence to increase the odds.  My response is usually to say that there are a few searches we could do, but on the understanding that it may never be possible to prove it.  If I can only ever be around 80% sure that we have the right family link, I always leave it up to the client whether they wish to continue, with the proviso that they understand there will always be a query over that part of their tree.

So, once you’ve hit this kind of problem, when you cannot find a definite link between an ancestor and what you think might be their origins, here are a few strategies that I use in these circumstances:

  • Get to know the family. Siblings and other family members can be extremely helpful in proving links, which is why you should be adding them to your tree as a matter of course.  Where you have family members that you know of (e.g. those mentioned on census records, or mentioned in a will), then track down their   If you are lucky, it might be that their baptism has survived where your direct ancestor’s hasn’t.

If you don’t know your direct ancestor’s siblings, then look at the children of the couple who you think might be your ancestor’s parents.  Trace their movements.  Do they end up in the same place as your ancestor?  Do they have similar occupations?  Do the parents die where your ancestor was living?

  • Check Marriage Witnesses. Whenever you find a marriage, you should always make a note of the witnesses.  Sometimes these are just clerks, but quite often they are family members – perhaps a married sister.  Search out these witnesses, by checking their marriages and origins and see if you can link them up with your probable family.  Don’t check just your direct ancestor’s marriage though – look at those marriages in the parish with the same surname.  Perhaps your ancestor signed as a witness, thus proving a relationship.
  • Search for wills. Even if your known direct ancestor did not leave a will, it may be that one of his relatives did, and possibly mentioned him/her in it, and so proving the link.  Look for wills in the same surname and area as your direct ancestor and within their lifetime.  This might be time-consuming if it is a common surname, but can be very useful when the surname is more uncommon.
  • Check apprenticeship Records. If your ancestor had a trade, then it can be very worthwhile checking available apprenticeship records.  Quite often the father’s name is mentioned when the young apprentice is signed to a master.
  • Check Newspaper Records. If an ancestor was noteworthy within his community, there might be an obituary detailing his origins; or if he/she was involved in some crime or newsworthy event, there might be some family details.  Also, if you find that your ancestor got into trouble with the law, this may lead you to trace the court details, which might also give names of family members, especially if the culprit was quite young.
  • Poor Law Settlement and Removal Records. Poor families who relied on parish relief had to be born in that parish to be eligible.  Settlements and removal records include statements by family members to prove their eligibility, or by the authorities where a family has been removed from a parish.  Where they have survived, these records sometimes giving very detailed accounts of family members and their circumstances.  If you know that your ancestor was poor, it is well worth looking for these in local record offices.
  • Continue the line. If, after searching all the above records, you are still no wiser about your direct ancestor, then carry on up the line that you think he may belong to for a couple of generations.  In doing this, you can find further records that might link to your ‘wobbly’ ancestor.   You may find family members who had the same occupation as your ancestor, who moved to the same town.  You will also get a good idea of naming patterns within a family, and see how they match up with your known ancestor’s children.  While these things may not completely prove the link, they may certainly give you a little more confidence that you are on the right path.

Sometimes a wobbly ancestor will remain wobbly, not matter how much research you do.  If the documents are not there, they are not there.

In that case, then you have to make the decision whether to leave your research where it is, or whether to continue with the ‘possible’ line.  If the latter, then it is very important for anyone that may read your research, that you make it clear that this part of the tree is not absolute.  Put forward your reasons for believing who the actual family is, but never state your beliefs as the truth unless you have the documentary evidence to prove it.

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