Are Your Ancestors the Average of 5 Records?

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ~~Jim Rohn

Jeff Goins included this quote in a recent newsletter and it got me thinking. If we are shaped by the people whom we surround ourselves, what about our ancestors? No doubt that they were influenced by other family members and the neighbors.

But what about our perception of our ancestors? What shapes that “sense of identity” that we form about them? Since we can’t speak directly to most of them, we have to rely on the records they left behind.

The question we need to consider is “What records are we surrounding them with?”

The 5 Records

There are 5 basic records that we look for and tend to be the ones we spend the most time with:

  1. Birth record
  2. Marriage record
  3. Death record
  4. Census
  5. Either an obituary or a tombstone

These can be great records. We need to look for them! (I won’t go into why we need to look for our ancestors in every census; I’ll leave that soapbox for another time!) The problem is when we stop with these records.

The Problem With Averages

Averages don’t give a complete picture. They don’t reflect the high points and low points. They don’t show the oddities. They only show the middle ground.

The 5 basic records put together a framework — an average — of that person. But there are so many more records that can fill in the highs and the lows, the everyday facts and the outlier events.

Military. Probate. Church. Court. Newspapers. Diaries. Land. Tax. School. Guardianship. Pension. Institutional. Organization. Business. License. Letters. Each of these — and many more — will add something new to the equation and can change that “average” view that you have.

It’s easy to fall into a rut with your research. Don’t feel bad — it happens to all of us! Take a look around and ask yourself if you’re letting your ancestors be the average of just 5 records. Then ask yourself what will be record #6 and beyond.

Are your ancestors the average of 5 records

10 thoughts on “Are Your Ancestors the Average of 5 Records?

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      That’s a great question, Marty! It depends on the person and the clues that those first 5 records give me. If I see an indication that he was a Civil War veteran, for example, either because he’s the right age or a clue in an obituary, I’ll go after his Civil War service and pension records. If I see that someone is marked as blind or deaf in the 1880 census, I’ll look for them in the 1880 Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent schedules. Of course, you should always look for land and probate records. So much detail there!

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  2. Charity Johnson

    Great reminders. I saved this list…I get tunnel vision!

    There is also the great time waster of being ignorant of the tide of history which sweeps through a community. This week along spent a long time on an ancestor whose family has been PA Quaker since the its earliest days. And almost gave up but I found their wedding ceremony in a church! and not Friends meeting Records, where I had been looking.
    It was a Baptist church, too!
    Knowing the history of Quakerism as I do, I found that perplexing….no disownment records for him/her/them. Then I swerved into the historical discovery that they’d wed after the Keithian controversy in Quakers-and some sources tell me that the entire meeting (Byberry) went down at that time. Byberry must have re-oroganized. But it looks like they were pushed by history into another group of records for this researcher (me). I’d assumed they were Quaker all along as their son and descendants end up Quaker (and my mom still is.) I did learn more about Keithian controversy this week–but I have to remember to look at the history next time I run into problems.

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