Thursday, June 10, 2010

Genealogical Intuition - Can You Trust Your Gut?

The blessing and the bane of the family historian's toolkit. Intuition. That feeling. Just knowing. It's happened to me twice in the past couple weeks, and while it was kind of exciting ("That's what I thought! I knew I was right!"), it was also a little disconcerting. I knew I was right? No. Now I know I was right. Before, I just thought I was right.

Genealogists spend a lot of time talking about standards of evidence. And yet, it's so hard to ignore that feeling that keeps pulling you towards that one particular record when you have no indication that the individual in that record is any more likely to be the ancestor you're searching for than any of the other people who have (or don't have) his name.

1) I explained recently how I'd been drawn to a particular John O'Hara in's Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989. And it seems I was right! Now, I wouldn't have used an extracted index to add information to a database or family tree. But some of us grad students without full time jobs live in genealogical poverty and don't have the freedom to send away for - and pay for - records we aren't sure pertain to our research. Given that every incorrect record I order is one correct record I can't afford, would I have been justified in paying for that record just because I thought it was the right one? (Remember, nothing in the record gave me any reason to think it was the right one. I just had a feeling.)

2) I was recently looking for my fiance's relatives in the 1901 Irish Census online. We knew that his great-grandmother's name was Bridget Theresa Healy, and that she was variously recorded as Bridget, Theresa, and Tess. Between census records, vital records, and a family diary, information indicated that she was "of Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland," her parents were James Healey and Bridget Sullivan, she was born around 1884 and immigrated around 1904. So she should have been in Ireland in 1901. But we couldn't find her! (Because she developed tuberculosis and spent time in a sanatarium before dying young, she's identifiable on few US Censuses, and her daughter, Ben's grandmother, knew little about her.) Ben was unconvinced by the widowed Bridget Healy, a woman old enough to have been Bridget Sullivan Healy, who was living with several of her kids - no Bridget Theresa - near but not in Waterville, but I had a feeling. He preferred a couple of other Bridget Healys, of Bridget Theresa's age, who didn't match certain other details. I had no particular reason to think I was right - there were several Healy families in the Waterville area, some of whom had daughters of the proper age but parents with the wrong names, or vice versa - and literally the only thing we knew about the Healys was that Bridget Sullivan Healy had to be old enough to have borne a child in the mid-1880s. It's pretty easy to fall into the right age range when that range is 40 years wide. We didn't have a lot to go by.

Should I, or should I not, have insisted on taking the Waterville family most seriously? I certainly wanted to. I was so sure, but without any evidence.

Eventually, we discovered the Church Records Project at the Irish Genealogy website. We were able to find extracted baptismal records for Bridget Theresa Healy and several other children of James Healy and Bridget Sullivan. From there, I could match up the names and ages of the other children born to the couple to the children still living at home with Bridget in 1901. Ben doesn't like it when I point out that I'm right, but in this case, well, I wasn't wrong.

Can genealogical intuition be a useful tool? Or is it glorified guessing that can lead you down dangerously wrong paths with false confidence?

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Oh, yes, it's an absolutely essential tool, in my opinion. I wouldn't put a person's name in my genealogy file because of intuition, but I sure follow up on those hunches - and as often as not find that they lead me to another family member. Great post!