5 Unspoken Laws of Genealogy

You’ve heard the rules of genealogy. Cite your sources. Start with the known and move to the unknown. What you may not have heard are the Laws of Genealogy. Much like the Law of Gravity causes an apple to fall down and not up, these laws are all around us. Here are 5 of the unspoken Laws of Genealogy, as I have come to know them:

The Law of Horizontal Space

A records' legibility is inversely proportional to how much a genealogist wants to read it. One of the unspoken laws of genealogy. Genealogists shall take up all available horizontal space. Books, papers, file folders keep taking up more and more space. It starts on our desks and spreads to the dining room table, the coffee table, the floor… Even in our digital world, this law is still in effect. Add up our laptops, smartphones, scanners, tablets, chargers, spare batteries and all our techie toys and we still take up a lot of space.  Corollary to this law: There is not enough horizontal space in the world.

The Law of Last Call

Genealogists will make their biggest discovery after the library or archives announces that it will be closing in 15 minutes. This Law is more stringently enforced the farther the genealogist had to travel to get to said library or archives.

The Law of Departure Time

Genealogists will make their biggest discovery within 15 minutes of the agreed-upon time of departure from a library or archives. If the group is going to leave at 4:00, the biggest discovery will be made after 3:45. Do not attempt to trick the Law of Departure Time by stating a time earlier that what is really planned. The Laws of Genealogy know this and will punish you by not allowing you to find anything.

The Law of Vital Records

At least one member of the family tree will have been born or died 1-2 years before the start of civil vital records. This is to expose the researcher to alternate sources. (Yeah, that’s it… )

The Law of Legibility

A record’s legibility is inversely proportional to how much a genealogist wants to read it. This is perhaps the most unjust of the Laws. You finally found that record that will tell you who great-great-grandma’s parents were! Unfortunately, it’s the one record on the page that has a giant ink smudge on it. Or you finally found your immigrant ancestor’s passenger list — and the person who wrote it was a graduate of Mrs. Chickenscratch’s School of Penmanship.

A records' legibility is inversely proportional to how much a genealogist wants to read it. One of the unspoken laws of genealogy.

There are other Laws, but these are ones that seem to be the most strictly enforced. What other Laws of Genealogy have you discovered?

5 Unspoken Laws of Genealogy

Posted: May 13, 2016.

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  • You will find 15 people with the same name, born in the same time frame as the person you are looking for and you can’t find any definite information on any of them that tie in with your family.

      • In one of my family lines, several cousins have named their child the same name as another cousin’s child born shortly before. This line also seems to repeat a small number of names from generation to generation which makes it difficult when trying to track them in the pre-1850 US Federal Census. I have even found two children by the same name and age in the same household of the 1850 census. As that census did not ask relation to head of household, I can only think one of the same-named cousins was visiting.

      • I’ve seen a number of family trees that state my 4x great grandparents are brother and sister who married and had children. Actually, they were first cousins, the husband had a sister with the same name born about the same time as his wife.

        • Ouch! That’s a big mistake on the tree! (Unless we’re talking about Game of Thrones…)

          • What when some one else have your dad married your mom’s younger sister who passes away at age 2, my mom was the 3rd girl with the same name ” thou shall t look further then the eyes can see” I had a heck of a difficult time to have it changed in Family Search as I had to proof I was right

    • Or Siblings that name their children the exact name re3sulting in 3 or 4 cousins with the exact same names!

      • I have two guys born in the same town, both in Sep 1855 with the same name. The only way to distinguish them is by the women in their lives (mothers and wives). Horrible.

  • The person who you just KNOW is your DNA breakthrough person; the one person who is going to tie all the other loose ends together to finally prove your case, is the one person who refuses to answer you. You’re pretty sure if you write to them one more time under one more pretense they’re going to report you to the authorities for harassment. So you grind your teeth and try not to think about them anymore.

  • Reading as I am trying to snarf down lunch 30 minutes before I have to walk out the door…and these made me laugh. Probably not the best combo! So true! And if you are really lucky like me, you have all of 3 ancestors (including parents) with birth certificates!

  • So funny and so true. I will second the sixth law- every generation has four or five sons with the same names, all born around the same time! Thanks for the laugh. Have a great weekend!

  • I can certainly commiserate with #4. I can pretty much tell when death records or obituaries or whatever became available- more often than not it is the year AFTER my person died! It happens quite often in my tree. I have come to expect it actually! 😉 And then there’s burned courthouses…not burned just once, but 3 times! Not much chance of a marriage record surviving that!

  • Law of the Mystery Person – the photo of the person you need to identify is standing in front of a well known building. Your grandmother writes the name of the building on the back of the photo, but doesn’t identify the person. You have 25 photos of this unknown person in various family arrangements.

    Law of the Google Garble – google translate accurately identifies the verbs in Danish/German/Hungarian in English. The nouns not-so-much. In the end the sentence still has no meaning, but the verbs are nice.

    Law of the Slavic Name – a search of grandma’s maiden name takes an hour because you have to work from a list of 50 variations of the spelling. Sometimes with a z, sometimes with an s, a “ski” and a sky” and a “zky” and a “zki” and a “gvki” and a “gvky” and a “ske” and a “zke” etc.

  • Oh my….truth in all of these and the comments! And I will descend from the child/sibling who likes to leave no paper trail…

  • Oh, yes, and O’Toole’s Commentary on Murphy’s Law is that Murphy was an optimist. That applies to the Laws of Genealogy, too.

  • These are all too true. I’ve also had bad luck with my ancestor’s record not being filled out in full, even if every other person’s record on either side is fully filled out.

  • Law of the Genealogical Cliffhanger – You will find a newspaper article that a relative has been badly injured and is likely to die. The newspaper of the following week, the very issue that will answer that question – “Did he die????” – has been destroyed.

  • The death certificate or marriage certificate that will tell you the names of your ancestor’s parents really does exist. You finally locate it. On the line that their names should appear is the word “dead” or “deceased.”

  • Law of the Burn: Yes, that record existed until the __________ burned down. (Fill in what is appropriate: home, courthouse, church, library, repository….).

  • The Inverse Law of Spelling and Misreading. The easier the name is to spell or write the more it is misspelled. Really hard names were written down carefully, but everyone thinks they can spell the easier ones. Not! And when you are looking for that key link to your family in a new source it is just then that you realize the indexer had no idea how to read old script and your Ross ancestor is forever listed as Roff.

  • Why, why create a book , with out an index or lists that are not alphabetized, why should i have to read your book when i could just look in the index for any of the fsmily names i am researching

  • Every Family shall have one living person who holds the key to It All (insert thunder crashing sound here), but such person will not share his/her untold riches.

  • I got a laugh out of your post. All of them are so true.But today when I was going through birth certificates to make sure all the names were spelled correctly, I found my name is not spelled correctly, not even close. I don’t know why I never noticed it. I don’t know how to correct it at this late date, so I am just going to note it on my computer and the physical copy of the birth certificate. I don’t know what else to do.

    • Walter – do you mean Gedmatch (the DNA matching tool) or do you mean how to get a GEDCOM file (which you can share with other people)?

  • another rule for those who do most of the research online: You’re sitting on the sofa with the laptop, you decided to check only ONE more thing in the internet before you finally go to bed at 1.30am, and there it is: a link to a site that can provide a huge source of informations. Because it is so late, you decide to ignore your excitement and go to bed (don’t forget to bookmark the site!), but you are too excited and only fall asleep at 3am. 😉 Been there, done that, and not only once.

  • How about a Law of Also Known As (a.k.a.). Among others, my paternal great grandmother has turned up in consecutive census returns as Luretta, Lou, Lula, and Lula Mae–and her birth year becomes later after she was 20 so she exhibits the phenomenon of reverse aging. I understand prior to the enactment of the Social Security Act, there wasn’t the concept of a legal name and people changed them at will.

    My Swedish family line has the fun challenge of patronymics (no family surname) with son named for father (i.e., Gustaf Alfred Johansson was the son of Johan Larsson, who was the son of Lars Bengtsson, the son of Bengt…). This line also has the challenge of family members being called by their middle names, but church documents don’t always include the middle name. My great grandfather Gustaf Alfred was known as Alfred, but his son (born in Sweden) was named Johan Nels Gustafsson. Once the family came to immigrated to the US, the family chose the surname Johnson and this first son born in Sweden suddenly becomes John Nelson Johnson.

  • My favorite: the death certificate has a line for place of birth. The response?
    “The old country.” Oh, great! That’s helpful.

  • Amy, this column may be 2016 but I am including a link to it in the January issue of “Preserves” the emagazine of Sacramento Genealogy Society. Definitely a chuckle-inducer!!