Genealogy Mistakes

by Dae Powell

Mistakes about national origin can confuse a family's history.


Your great grandmother may have denied a particular nationality because it was not "the thing to be" in her day. Consequently, your grandmother might pass on to you what she believes to be the truth; in reality, though, great grandmother "withheld evidence."

One of the major drawbacks of family genealogies and histories, especially those published in the Nineteenth Century, is the lack of adequate documentation. As often as not, the author in his zeal to trace the family back to the Mayflower or other illustrious beginnings made serious mistakes. The most common one was assuming that an ancestor was the son of a particular man with the same name without proper documentation.

While vital records are the most important records for genealogists, their availability varies widely from area to area, as previously mentioned. An additional problem is that information found in them is not always accurate. Early records may not be complete, the person providing the information may have given inaccurate data either intentionally or by mistake, or other errors have occured in copying or indexing.

In using a census index, be certain that you have looked for your surname in all of its possible spelling variations. Remember also that indices, including those produced by a computer, are subject to human error. Every genealogist has a horror story about printed census indices; studies show that the error rate is high because of improper key punching or misreading of the original records. So if you don't find your ancestor in an index it doesn't necessarily mean that he cannot be found in the census. You may often have to search every name in a given county before you find him.

Gravestones, too, are sometimes erected many years after a person dies and may contain erroneous dates. Mayhap the stonecutter erred or was given the wrong information. Be careful, too, of printed compilations of cemetery records (this applies to other published material, such as marriage records), because errors can be made in copying, indexing or publishing.

Kimberly Powell, no relation, lists Top Ten Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid, in an article found at:

Mistake #1: Don't Misspell the Word Genealogy

Well, yes and no. Yes, you should spell it correctly, but "No" it isn't the #1 problem with genealogy. And, as I've indicated in another presentation, misspelling it in a search engine may actually help you find some heretofore hidden information on the Internet.

Mistake #2: Don't Trust Everything You See in Print

Note the word "Everything." If you don't trust anything, why bother? The safeguard is to verify with additional and collateral evidence.

Mistake #3: We're Related to... Someone Famous

Well, yeah! We all are! (If you search wide enough and go back far enough, right?) The idea here is not to be misled by family tradition. Again, verify, verify, verify.

Mistake #4: Don't Be Satisfied with Names and Dates

Ok, why not? What's wrong with researching and recording names and dates? Serious genealogists often refer to this as "name collecting." At this moment, there are thousands of name collectors. This isn't ALL bad, but it isn't really good, either. In a way, it is Ancestral Identity Theft.

Certainly none of us have used someone else's name in an attempt to steal or defraud. How does the concept of identity theft apply to genealogy? Ancestral identity theft occurs when we search for our ancestors by looking only at the name, rather than the entire person.

If all we do is assign a name to an individual, there is little to prevent us from assigning a place on the pedigree chart to someone of the same name a different person, but with the same name. When this happens, the intent surely is not fraud, but the result is similar. We took someone and gave them a false identity.

We can prevent this by the following:

  1. Look at the whole person relations, occupation, religion, politics, etc.
  2. Consider neighbors and associates.
  3. Examine the norms of the residents' communities and era:
    1. Normal age range to marry
    2. Normal age range to father a child or birth one
    3. Time line congruence with other events in ancestor's life

Mistake #5: Beware the Generic Family History

Ok, have you seen these? I picked one up in a used bookstore for $1.00. I would not say I completely wasted the dollar, but there was darned little useful information in there. One of the things the publisher did was put a few pages of people and their addresses at the back so you could pester them for "possible" ancestral information. The Internet has pretty well eliminated this scam.

Mistake #6: Don't Accept Family Legends Without Question

This is an alternate version of Mistake #3. We had a family legend that one of my great granduncles was killed by lightning. This is somewhat less common than being descended from a "Cherokee princess." However, while researching another sibiling of his when I found a newspaper account confirming the rumour!

Mistake #7: Don't Insist on the Current Spelling of a Surname

This is a "duh" for anyone who's been searching their ancestors for over a month. "Oh well, MY family NEVER spelled it like THAT!" UhHuh, but mayhap the enumerator or immigration clerk did. In addition, I'll add that you should remember spelling variants of given names, too. And don't forget nicknames they show up on primary sources, too.

Mistake #8: Don't Neglect to Document Your Sources

I have harped on this many times. I'll keep doing it, too. Why is it important?

Ok, and when you publish consider this: "When a carefully documented genealogy is shared and then reproduced without the sources, it has been violated." Joan K. Luice, NGS Magazine, July/Aug 2002, p. 236.

Mistake #9: Don't Trust Everything You Find on the Internet

This is an alternate version of Mistake #2. Most people use the Internet information as leads to primary documents and as an ever-growing source of images of primary documents.

Mistake #10: Don't Delay Talking to Relatives

Why is this important? Well, they pass away, don't they? They later forget. They sometimes lose touch with you. Of course, if you don't record what you learned from them, you will later have to rely on YOUR memory, won't you?


I've only listed a few Genealogical Mistakes here, along with some remedies. Our Trivia Quiz a while back mentioned the most common Genealogy Mistake was ASSUMING. I think you can see that most of the mistakes discussed here fall under this category. The remedy is VERIFYING. I hope you've learned a thing or two here and will continue to improve your research as a result.

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