When many individuals begin family history there seems to be a race to go backwards in time. It seems like whenever individuals get together to discuss family history the first topic is something like, “My Patterson line goes back to 1620.” There is peer pressure and some satisfaction in tracing family lines back as far as possible.
While the work of going back is fun and important, the best way to do genealogical research and family history work is to identify whole families. There are a number of advantages to this methodology.
When entire families are identified it is much easier to uncover errors. A conclusion may have been reached about the identification of parents only to find that one of the children in the family was born in advance of the marriage. While this is certainly possible, it would warrant additional research. It might be that the child was conceived out of wedlock. It may be that the child is from a previous marriage, or it may be that the wrong parents had been identified. Often it is only by research on the whole family that errors like this can be detected.
Whole family research also provides clues to family movement. A direct line ancestor may disappear from records. Researching the siblings, or sometimes even the extended family may yield clues to finding the ancestor in question. This is particularly true if one of the siblings has a unique name, while the direct line ancestor has a common name.
Researching the entire family also provides naming clues. While the clues are not evidence of a relationship in and of themselves, they can be part of a mosaic of facts that help form conclusions. Families often have names that persist from generation to generation. Knowing all the members of the family can help a researcher identify naming patterns that help pinpoint the family that is related to you instead of someone else. My family has a naming pattern where the first son has the father’s first name as his middle name and the second son has the mother’s maiden name as his middle name. I didn’t follow this tradition, but my two brothers did. My children do, however, have their mother’s maiden name as a middle name and grandfather’s name as a middle name. These clues in naming patterns can make the difference in identification of a family when other evidence is lacking.
Identifying all family members can also help with immigration issues. Sometimes a family emigrated all at once, but often this was beyond their means. It is relatively common to find a first ancestor who emigrated from their native country, came to the United States, established himself, and then funded the immigration of others to the city in which they lived. Again, sometimes a sibling is easier to trace back to the country of origin than the direct line ancestors.
Searching for whole families is a practice that will lead to more results and less errors. It is a best practice in genealogical research that I highly recommend.