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Seven Genealogy Mistakes American Beginning Researchers Should Avoid - Some Silly and Obvious!

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Finding you family is such fun!

Finding you family is such fun!

Don't Let Your Enthusiasm Lead You Into Simple Mistakes

Tracing your lineage is interesting. It has also become popular through television programs, DNA testing, and websites dedicated to sharing resources and records about the past. However, some beginning genealogy explorers, in their passion to find great-great-grandparents and long-gone relatives, make mistakes that are just plain silly.

Here are seven tempting traps to avoid.

Use Your Common Sense

With people, anything is possible, but . . .

Do not allow your excitement at potentially breaking into just one earlier generation blind you to improbabilities and impossibilities.

It is very exciting to find a record of a person with the “right name” in the “right” general location at near the “right time,” but check a few more aspects before adopting your find as a true ancestor. I advise you to scrutinize every potential match for the following seven errors.

1. Marriage at an Unbelievably Young Age

You should use your knowledge of customs for the country and the time you are examining. Did girls marry at age four in the country and century in question? Or boys at age 13? In the United States, this generally did not happen, not even in colonial times. So if you are suspecting two people are married to each other, but that would make one a toddler, just say no to the match.

2. Travel That Is Unlikely

One branch of my family were poor tenant farmers in western Pennsylvania for many generations. At one juncture, a founder came from the United Kingdom – we think Wales or Ireland. I saw someone’s public family tree which proposed that of the ten children born to an ancestor of mine: three were born in Pennsylvania, then one in Scotland, then two in Pennsylvania, then two in Ireland, then two in Pennsylvania.

I have serious doubts that this is true. There was no tourist jet travel in 1805. And even if there was, my Pennsylvania people wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Or have reasons to do it. It just made no sense – back and forth country-hopping – for the family I have.

Use the same sort of thought process for your family. From what you know from family lore, is a record matching your oral history?

3. Longevity That Is Hard to Accept

Another ancestor for whom I hoped to find a parent was listed in a public tree. The tree showed a possible father for him. But when you looked at the date of death of the “maybe-dad,” and figured that he was probably about age twenty (that’s the age I arbitrarily use for starting a next family) when he sired our known great-grandfather, the “maybe-dad” would have lived to age 125! Nope, this defied the health and longevity statistics for that era.

As exciting as it is to break through to an earlier generation, use common sense tests of reasonability. Test your potential relatives with the longevity rule.

Think About Life Expectancies

Any adult woman in this photo of American suffragettes taken around 1916 should no longer be alive.

Any adult woman in this photo of American suffragettes taken around 1916 should no longer be alive.

4. Documents That Conflict with What You Know for Certain

If you have information about the family tree which you’ve collected from interviewing living family members, trust it. Trust it, trust it, trust it! (Have I made my point?)

Here are two examples where personal reliable stories will help you know whether impersonal records are, indeed, those of your family.

A. Sibling match

Your living grandparents and grand-aunts and uncles can probably tell you the names of their own siblings and the names of their aunts and uncles on the maternal and paternal sides. It is possible to see someone in a census who has a name you wanted to find, but whose children do not match up with the names of all who your living grandmother told you were her aunts and uncles.

If the siblings don’t match at all, pass on this record. Stick with Grandma. I am not fanatically crazy about listing the names of every sibling for my direct line of ancestry through the generations. However, keeping track of one or two can be very helpful for corroboration.

B. Spouse match

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This issue is trickier. I found records for a possible second-great grandmother in a published history book. Everything about her father and grandfather looked perfect – years reasonable and locations matching what I know from family lore and multiple documents. However, they listed a totally different person as her husband.

She still may be my ancestor. Mortality was high in the past. Folks died left and right and the survivors often quickly remarried. The husband in the book could have been her first husband and perhaps my blood great-great-grandfather came later. But I will wait for a little more evidence before deciding that source is correct for my family tree.


5. No Corroborating Documents

Don’t take another family tree’s word for a line of people. Don’t accept it at face value. If the family tree or genealogy you think could also relate to your family does not have any attached census records, ship manifests, death certificates, marriage licenses or the like, be very wary. If you accept their story, you are trusting a “whisper down the lane” string of names and dates that are highly subject to error.

I am always open to suggestions of new information on public trees. However, I insist on finding another source with an image I can inspect. I was surprised to learn that a great grand-aunt had been married three times, according someone's family tree. However, I found two marriage licenses describing prior divorces for this person. Now, I believe.

Proof can come in an unexpected document. You will be surprised at what extra information documents can reveal.

Corroboration of a Marriage

This marriage license is proof that the stories we heard about Grandma being married to a WWI soldier before our Grandpa were totally true.

This marriage license is proof that the stories we heard about Grandma being married to a WWI soldier before our Grandpa were totally true.

Examples of Extraneous Extremely Helpful Information

A. Death certificates

These did not become recorded by states in the United States until the 1900s. Nonetheless, they can give a glimpse into the past. Often the record shows the names of each parent (including maiden name) of the deceased and the country in which each parent was born.

B. U.S. Census records

These decade records contain a wealth of information. They provide names of spouses, locations of birth, and the locations of parents’ births. By loosely following the given age of each person recorded, you can work backwards to find an approximate year of birth. (The census was taken in varying months, so do not be strictly mathematical in determining a birth year.) Some census records show occupations, home ownership, slave ownership, languages spoken, and literacy.

The 1940 U.S. Census includes highest grade of public school completed. I love this. When I discovered how little formal education my Ohio grandparents and their siblings enjoyed, it made me admire their grit and determination to succeed in this country even more.

C. Headstones

When people arranged their burials in the U.S., a husband and wife were often interred together under one headstone. Photos from cemeteries can provide the missing name of a spouse.

Death Certificate Reveals Parents of the Deceased

By reading every item on the original image of a death certificate, I discovered the names of my great-great grandparents.

By reading every item on the original image of a death certificate, I discovered the names of my great-great grandparents.

6. Last Name Use Which Defies Common Practice

In the United States through the early 1970s, when a woman married either local laws or social conventions required her to take the last name of her husband. Therefore, when examining census records, obituaries, and other documents, use common sense.

A female’s records from birth through the late teens or the twenties used her maiden (meaning birth-given) last name.

Conversely, headstones, obituaries, and death certificates used her married last name.

Strangely, I have seen people’s family trees which list a woman at age 94 connected with a census record using her maiden name. Nope. Not correct for times before 1970.

Please think about this for the women you are searching.

7. Taking Spellings (and More) as Gospel Truth

In the past centuries, spelling accuracy was not regarded as important. So, be lenient, yet critical, about how first and last names appear in censuses and court documents and newspapers. For one line of my ancestors, all of the following spellings have been used in documents for their last name:

Bellis, Belles, Bellows, Bellas, Belace

Census takers were human. They were subject to the same exasperation or laziness as current takers can be. Also, the citizens were human and perhaps less than 100% accurate in the answers given. Therefore, ages listed every decade may not always be a number ten-years’ different from prior or following records.

In addition, some genealogy websites recruit volunteers to index what is in documents. Sadly, you can find the work of interpreters who are careless or who haven’t taken the time to learn the handwriting styles of the era (similar to all the different fonts available in computer word processing.)

For my own family research, I have found these errors in the summaries of documents:

Push Street instead of Rush Street, Cincinnati.

Rell Avenue instead of Bell Avenue in Altoona.

Bowns instead of Bower as a last name.

Recap - Be Suspicious of These

  1. Too young at marriage
  2. Unbelievable travel
  3. Unbelievable age
  4. Documents fighting family lore
  5. No documents at all
  6. Stupid last name entries
  7. Insistence on perfect matching of ancient documents

Go Forth Well-Informed

We try our best. The search is exciting and finding new information is rewarding. I hope these tips will help you avoid confusion and gain clarity in knowing your own roots.

Sources – Ancestry Academy Video Tutorials

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Maren Elizabeth Morgan

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