Jun 5, 2020

A Little Biology for Genealogists

June 5, 2020

Sometimes when I look at other peoples’ genealogy, I have to wonder where they were when their class discussed basic biology. Clearly, they weren’t paying much attention, so here are a few rules of basic biology that might help some genealogists when it comes time to make entries in their family tree.


As far as I know, these rules haven’t changed in at least the last 400 or so years, so even though answers to genealogy questions are often based on the rule of “it depends,” there are a few constants. First, a mother and her child are always in the same place when the child is born; that is a fact that isn’t open for discussion. The mother and child may never be in the same place again, but for that one day, they have to be in the same place. If you have a proposed mother who never left Connecticut and a child who was born and lived in Georgia, you probably need to rethink whether or not you have the correct mother for that southern baby.


Another rule of basic biology is that the parents of a child had to be together at least once about nine months before the child was born. Of course, that can vary by a few weeks more or less, but that meeting needs to happen within a reasonable time frame. If a man and a woman were on different continents at the relevant time, you may want to dig a little deeper to make sure you’re looking at the right parents. People weren’t always married when they conceived a child way back when, either, in spite of what Cousin Helen might have told you about those great grandparents. Although premature babies are always possible, the huge numbers of first baby preemies found on our family trees should be cause for suspicion, although not judgement.


Another basic biological fact is that women don’t give birth every six months as some family trees show them doing. One of my second great grandmothers had eleven children, and how those children fit into the family has long been a subject of discussion among their descendants. Many of them show one of the children being born six months after my great grandfather, which is clearly impossible. As the old saying goes “A baby takes nine months, except for the first one” (see the above paragraph about that). That misplaced child has been moved around to try to squeeze him into the family somewhere, but in the regular, two-years between babies, birth pattern of this family, there just isn’t a place to shoehorn that child. A few months ago a cousin and I were talking about the problem, and he suggested that maybe that baby was premature. Since the child lived for a few years, that doesn’t seem likely in those medically challenged frontier years when he was born, not to mention the fact that as a woman who has actually given birth,  I just don’t think it’s logical to assume that a woman would get pregnant the day after she gave birth to one child in order to have another one six months later, followed by still another seven months after that. When I explained that to my cousin, he just shrugged and said he didn’t see a problem, and his tree is still out there with a six-month spacing between children.


The bottom line of all of this is if something seems “off,” it probably is. Probates are not filed a year before someone dies, people didn’t travel across the country in 1820 to conceive a child, only to return to their original home to give birth. The way to prevent these embarrassing mistakes is to actually think about what you’re putting on your tree. These were actual people, and they followed the rules of nature, just like we do now. Mistakes do happen; we all make them, some of the stupid ones crawl into our work, even when we try to prevent them, but spending a little time looking at how families fit together can definitely help weed out some of the most egregious mistakes.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large