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Why we ask the unanswerable questions

After The Legal Genealogist‘s weekend lament about not knowing why a relative chose to remain in Germany in the 1930s rather than emigrate to the United States as her siblings had, Dutch genealogist John Boeren weighed in on those oh-so-challenging “why” questions of family history.

“This blog post made me realize that many of my clients have such ‘why-questions’. In many cases I have to tell my clients that answers to questions like this are hard to find. We cannot look into the minds and souls of our ancestors. We do not know what their thoughts were or what they felt. Unless we find documents that express their feelings, that give the reasons for their actions. In those texts we can hear ‘the voice of our ancestors’. …

As genealogists we often are stuck to the bare facts: something happened, or not. For what reason, we can only guess. And that is what we – as good genealogists – should never do: guess or assume. Better stick to the dry facts, than create juicy but false stories.”1

Absolutely right.

Indulging in assumptions without requiring supporting evidence is one of the ways we as genealogists get ourselves into trouble — we assume that a man and woman who share a surname are husband and wife when they could be cousins or siblings or totally unrelated, or that the widow named in the will was the mother of all of the deceased man’s children, when she could be the mother of some or all or none of those kids.

Our field’s best practices specifically warn us against those assumptions, and remind us of the need to seek out supporting evidence before simply accepting them. And where we can’t find supporting evidence, we don’t incorporate those assumptions into our genealogical conclusions.2

But that doesn’t mean we don’t ask the “why” questions or consider the possible “what-if” scenarios of a research subject’s life.

By going ahead and asking the questions, we’re essentially brainstorming the potential for other research avenues.

word art asking why and what if

Consider, if you will, the case of Ida Agnes (Geissler) Oettel, the subject of the blog that started this discussion.3 She was my grandfather’s sister, and the only one of the five Geissler siblings who survived the First World War not to emigrate to the United States before the Second World War.

The reality is, I don’t know why Agnes didn’t join her brother and sisters in the U.S. and there’s no-one that I know of who’s alive today to ask. But by thinking through the possible pushes and pulls of the emigration decision, it’s clear there are more research avenues here to pursue in the future:

• Did she own property in Gera that might have been part of the pull to stay in Germany?

• Would the age of her sons in the 1930s — Ernst born in 1909 and Herbert in 1910 — have limited their ability to emigrate with her?

• What can I find out about what was happening with Agnes and those sons in the early years of the 1930s in terms of where and how they lived?

• Were there other extended family members in the area who might have been part of the decision to stay?

• Is there any evidence that her sons were supporters of the rising German nationalist movement that would have kept them from wanting to emigrate?

• Is there any evidence any of them ever applied for a visa to go to the United States?

• As suggested by reader Wendy Price, “As a war widow was she in receipt of a pension that she would have lost had she emigrated?”

• As suggested by reader Alice, “Maybe she had a successful business of some kind that kept her over there?”

I may never know whether Agnes personally preferred life in the 80,000-population city of Gera to what she saw in her 1930 visit to 3.4 million-population Chicago, but I can certainly do more to research the differences between her home and lifestyle in Gera and what she encountered in visiting her siblings.

And maybe, just maybe, if conditions improve enough that I can travel freely to that part of the world as — sigh — I had planned to do in September 2020, maybe I’ll even be able to find a living descendant who asked her why she decided to stay or who has one of those personal documents John mentions in his blog.

So, no, we never simply assume. As genealogists, it certainly is better to “stick to the dry facts, than create juicy but false stories.”4

But as part of our research planning and in executing our plan for reasonably exhaustive research, we always think about the whys and what-ifs of our research subject’s life and times.

Because thinking about those may point us in directions we might otherwise not have considered.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The whys and what-ifs,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 21 Feb 2022).


  1. John Boeren, “I About Y,” Antecedentia, posted 20 Feb 2022 ( : accessed 21 Feb 2022).
  2. See Standard 26, “Assumptions,” in Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d ed. rev. (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2021), 26-27.
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “What kept her there?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Feb 2022 ( : accessed 21 Feb 2022).
  4. Boeren, “I About Y,” Antecedentia, posted 20 Feb 2022.
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