Follow Your Instincts

Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut feeling.  Several people have agreed with me that gut feelings or instincts do have a place in our quest to learn our family history.  But what is that role?

Let me clarify what I mean by gut feeling.  Gut feeling is when that little lightbulb in your head goes off when you find a record or some seemingly related records and something inside you says, “Keep this.  I think it’s part of my family history.”  It is not a blind conclusion drawn a subconsciously nor just a clue.

I do not draw conclusions using my gut feelings or instincts subconsciously.  Do not misunderstand where I’m saying that instinct plays a role.  Instinct comes in when you find some records that seem to “go with” what you already have but the reason isn’t apparent.  Instinct kicks in when you are in the county of your ancestors and there is someone with one of your surnames buried in a cemetery there but you don’t know whether it’s one of your family members but you have the feeling that it is so you have to visit that cemetery to see what you find.  Instinct is working when certain names keep appearing with yours or you find one of your family members on a census in another household and your gut says that these are relatives, not just friends, employers. or landlords.

Keeping these records and researching them more is where the instinct is used.  Not in drawing your conclusion.  You have no conclusion.  You have some records that you think may contain your ancestor’s relatives or have a connection to your ancestor.  You do not have a conclusion.

You keep copies of these records or a list of the information from them and citations so you know where you can get them if they do play a role in your family history.  You take the copies or the list with you when you go to research.

If your gut instinct is right, then you will keep finding more and more records that support the ones that gave you the feeling in the first place.  In time, you’ll find some that not only support it, but contain direct evidence that pulls what you’ve collected altogether.

Now, you’ve got a nice, little pile of record copies for which, hopefully, you’ve written citations. Now, you can begin to work on drawing a conscientious, well thought-out conclusion.

Next, you need to test that conclusion against the Genealogical Proof Standard.  Have you done a reasonably exhaustive search?  That is, have you found everything you need to come to a sound conclusion?  It’s not necessary to have every record there is for an ancestor but you need to have enough records from independent sources that all point in the direction of the same conclusion to answer particular question or resolve a certain problem.

Are your citations for these records complete and accurate?  Could a stranger read your citations and find the records?  Would they draw the same conclusion from them that you did?

Did you correctly interpret the information in each record as it relates to the problem to be resolved?  Does everything make sense and does the answer to the question become clear when you correlate the information from all of the records together?

Did you write out and explain the process leading you to draw this conclusion and why you believe that it is right?  Is your reasoning sound and did you write it out coherently so that it will make sense to whoever reads it?

If you can answer yes to the questions, then you have probably reached sound conclusion.  You reached it consciously and put a great deal of thought into it.  You didn’t draw the conclusion subconsciously or from your gut instincts.

Those instincts may have played an important role by putting you on the right trail but you worked your way down that trail by researching that initial hunch. You followed up on that instinctive feeling but you didn’t just make guesses.  You did the research and used thought processes to formulate a reasonable, sound conclusion.

If you didn’t, then all you have is an assumption or a theory.  We all know that assumptions are can lead to errors.   Never assume anything but follow up by researching if you get that old feeling that says this is something, this could be right.  Following up with research will either prove your hunch was right or stop it cold when a certain piece of information turns up.  Theories are good.  Theories make you think and form a plan to prove them.  That research plan will lead you to an answer that proves or disproves your theory.

Go with your gut.  Use your instincts but make sure that they are incorporated into a sensible research plan from which you can use the findings to draw a creditable conclusion.

Deborah Carder Mayes

About Deborah Carder Mayes

Debbie is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Beyond the Obituaries. She also writes a blog, Rambling Along the Ancestral Trail, (

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