Because Sometimes We Guess, Sometimes We’re Wrong. I hate to admit that I am wrong; doesn’t everyone! One of the pitfalls of genealogy is guesswork. Now, I must admit, I’ve made a few guesses in my career as a genealogist, and I’ve guessed correctly most of the time. When you just can’t figure out the next generation, but there’s only one guy with the right last name, it just seems logical—and it is—to make an assumption.
According to the standards of the Board of Certified Genealogists, in absence of actual vital records or other court documents to confirm a relationship, one takes all available records, studies them, makes assumptions and hypotheses; tests those theories, looking for evidence that supports or denies, then based upon the preponderance of the evidence(a terminology no longer used by the BCG), a conclusion is made.
Based on an index from Familysearch.org, I have placed a man named Felix Cornett as the son of William and Elizabeth Cornett. This is what is supposedly on his marriage certificate—but I’ve not ordered the actual document to check, yet. This led me to add a son William to the list of children for the grandparents of Felix, known to be William and Lucy Ginnett Cornett. Recently, on the microfilm for the Birth Register of Henrico County, VA, I found a male child born in 1858—looks like it has to be Felix–and this is what is recorded on the document:
No Name, born at William Cornett’s. Father “Not Discovered.” Mother Betsey Cornett. Informant Dr. Woodward.
Ah…so, Felix was illegitimate? Wait…on the 1860 Census of Henrico, Felix is listed as 2 years old in the home of William and Lucy. Obviously, based on ages, he was a grandchild. There is a woman named Elizabeth listed. I had assumed she must be the daughter-in-law, presumably the widow of a son William. I do have a will from Lucy Ginnett Cornett’s father which lists a grandchild named William. So, I’m right on that part; no doubt one existed. But was he the father of Felix? Or, is Felix illegitimate as his birth record suggests?
Another case of assuming too much without documentation concerns another William Cornett who died in Howard County, MO, in 1840. He was assumed to be the son of a certain Nathaniel Cornett of Clay County, Kentucky. I thought so too. It seemed so logical, except that this man had a son named Lyddall or Literal B. and that name seemed to be associated with another man by the same name in the wrong part of Kentucky. The microfilm that I mentioned last week has completely and definitively proven that William in Howard County, MO, is the son of a certain John Cornett and his wife Elizabeth Bacon Mosby Cornett of Henrico County, Virginia. There was a division of land that named a William and his brother Lyddall, and placed them in the right part of Kentucky. (In a future post I’ll discuss the egregious errors on John and Elizabeth Bacon Mosby Cornett.)
Sometimes, I have guessed that all the records pertaining to a certain family have been researched. More often than not, only the published records have been researched. There may be a treasure trove of goodies waiting in the courthouse or genealogical library for the family historian. I assumed the Cornetts had been researched thoroughly, but the records I’ve collected over the last year have never been published or referenced. Another friend and researcher was even told that no records on an ancestor’s divorce survived. By continuing to search and ask questions, this distant cousin eventually located and copied the bill of divorce including letters by the wife and her supporters. Everyone’s guesswork was way off. Her information unravels a 130-year mystery.
What can we make of guesswork? That it is only a guess. Unfortunately, a lot of guesswork is published in online family trees as fact. Look for sources. Look for original records to back up what you read or find. If you can’t verify it, keep looking for more records—land, chancery court, vital records. If you still must guess, list all your reasoning so that future genealogists can follow your trail.