Genealogy: It’s About the People, Not Their Exact Dates

Genealogy is about learning about the people in our trees, not knowing their exact dates.  The dates add context, and that is great, don’t get me wrong.   I share a birth date with one of my great-great-grandmothers, who was a real pioneer.  It helps me make a connection to her.  But even after thorough research we may never know that exact birth date, marriage place, etc. for some of our ancestors.  Sometimes there just won’t be a record showing that 4x-great-grandparent’s exact birth date.  Or maybe we will have the date the will was written and the probate date, but not the death date.  That’s okay.  Genealogy is actually more about defining the family connections.

This summer I read Elements of Genealogical Analysis by Robert Charles Anderson.  In it he discusses the idea of being “genealogically defined.”  A person is genealogically defined if we have at least one source that helps identify the person’s parents, a sources for each spouse, and a source for each child.  There is a lot more that we can learn about a person, but as the author discusses, this is just biographical information.  Being genealogically defined is knowing all connections to parents, any spouse(s), and any children.

So if you have searched high and low for that exact birth date and can’t find it, that’s okay.  If you have done a reasonably exhaustive search, a search through all the records that an experienced genealogist with that place and time period would consult, you’ve done a good job. Make your approximation, based on age of first marriage or whatever you have found in your sources, and move on. Having an approximate date is important to help distinguish between our person and someone else.  But move on to the next puzzle; with genealogy there will always be more puzzles to solve.

I found it very difficult at first to submit my DAR application and supplementals with just burial place and not death place, marriage intention date but not the ceremony date, or baptism date and not birth date.  But I came to the realization that sometimes that’s all that might exist in sources today, and that’s okay.  I indicated the information as such, and submitted my forms.

Knowing exact birthdays can be great. But just like we aren’t likely to define our friends by their birthdays, our ancestors are people with relationships, and those are more important than their exact dates.

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