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Problems to Avoid in an Ancestry Search

Updated on June 26, 2017

Genealogy Guide

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Problems to Avoid in an Ancestry Search

Search for your ancestors with fewer mistakes. Things seem simple enough, if the records are well preserved we can just go as far back as record keeping. This is a simplified idea. Records are not simple to use, some such as census records show what people wanted to have known, and may have just “forgotten” to mention a person in the home. And, the records were kept by hand, and writing is not definitive. This coupled with imperfect understanding of the questions being asked, as was often the case with those who immigrated to the United States, means the records contain some errors.

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What Kind of Records Might One Find?

Well, in addition to census records there are birth, death, marriage, military, and baptism records. If the individual also immigrated one might find old ship manifests and passenger lists, which can tell when the person immigrated, and from where. So, why not just get a few records and match them up?

First, the census takers did not go around and interview people alphabetically. Nor was there a good reason for any government to reorder the raw data into alphabetical order, which before computers was a monumental task. Scouring a particular census might yield some results if the search is restricted to a small town, but could be a formidable task for a larger city, unless the census has been alphabetized. But, if such a census is found it gives the names, ages, and relationships of all in one house. It might also give information, if it is a United States record, of the birthplaces of the people in the house.

A census occurs every ten years, and can be very useful in finding siblings. Unfortunately, census data is released many years late so as to keep confidential the location of living people. Census data can help, but not for recent years. There is a point in time when things become unblocked and relatives can be added rapidly, which corresponds with census availability.

Birth records, baptism records, and marriage records have the potential to give names of the parents of a person, getting you one step further back on your family tree. But, these records are often filed as the events occur. Imagine looking of a death record not knowing the month and day of the event.

Using old records is tedious, and not always straightforward. A capital T and a capital F might look similar. So, even if someone did make an index, the name might be in plain sight where you will not be looking.

Reuse of Names

One frustration is to find the name of a relative that you know something about, and the census is a few years off with the birth records. How can a person be two or three years younger than the person himself or herself? In a time not that far back child mortality was high, and families often reused the name of a deceased infant. Yes, I have found this problem more than once, and eventually learned that some names were reused, perhaps to placate another person who just had to have a child named after them.

Searching through Europe

Spelling and Alternate Spelling

The farther back we go the greater the chance of illiteracy. People often could not spell their names, so when they spoke their names the person hearing the pronunciation made up a spelling. Double letters might become single letters. And faulty pronunciation could alter the spelling severely. Finding a family in one census and similar first names of the family members with a misspelled surname in the next might be reason to consider the records to be of the same family.

Using Others’ Work

Herein lies many pitfalls. People often use those results others using the same program have found. This lessens the work considerably. So, we hope the other person has done a careful search. But, this means being watchful.

Many families recycle names, having children named after the parents and after the grandparents. I have seen people go back two generations, and add parents and even the spouse of the more recent generation to a person two generations back. They simply search for the same name and up pops other family trees two generations past where they are adding people. As one goes back the tree fans out, and it could be weeks or months before coming back to a branch, so the idea that a person surly would remember what they just added is not a valid assumption that they would pick up the duplication.

The above problem is easily detected if you look at dates, provided dates exist. I have gotten back to where dates were often estimated, if they were used at all. Think, can a person have parents who were not born until after they were? Can a person marry in a year before the spouse was born, or after the spouse died? If the dates make no sense, stop and say there is a problem here, no matter how great the line looks that you are hoping to be that of your ancestors.

Another problem is jumping at a name to get into a significant line. So, a king had parents with the same names as a set of your ancestors. Again, do the dates make sense. I have seen people jump a century to be able to claim royalty in their ancestry.

The hints do not always agree. People have conflicting trees that claim two different sets of parents for a person. At first this might seem simple, if twelve family trees indicate one thing and one family tree indicates another, surly the majority would have gone down the right path. Think again. What may have happened is one person has made an error, and that error was hastily copied into several trees. The one other result might have been done with diligence. If this happens, look at the dates. Reject the results that make no sense, and if you can, confirm the other results.

A Printed Source Must Be Right

Wrong. I have worked back to about the fifth century, and had trees and other material that took me to about fifty years before the birth of Christ. The records were difficult to follow, and in checking what was there I found a line from Europe back to Abraham. I could use the Bible and get to Adam, or so I thought, but I had to untangle a problem in the first through fourth centuries. My line happened to include royalty, and following lineage of kings can be easier, but in the early centuries kings ruled smaller regions and records were sketchy, so I looked for historical records. What I found instead is that the records I had come across were probably more right than wrong, but not exact, which explains a few gaps with no names. To worsen matters I found disclaimers of the line, where historians see a problem in supporting the claims, yet do not refute those claims. Now I have a new resource that takes some of my ancestors back using the same line that has no authority. Is the book right? Many would argue it is a true line, but it cannot be proved even though someone added it to print.


If you have other things that you have encountered please add them in the comment.

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    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
      Author

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      It does take time.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      You make some very good points here. One must immerse themselves in this work in order to fully understand it. From what you've described here, once a person is well schooled in the search they are more likely to find what they're looking for and not be fooled.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Excellent points to consider. About ten years ago, our family began creating a genealogy chart and in order to get it as accurate as possible, one of my uncles is currently traveling all over the U.S. to interview people in the family. It's fascinating to discover who we are related to across the U.S. and abroad.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
      Author

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      The reason for care is once an error occurs, all work on that branch beyond that point is wrong.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
      Author

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      It is not as difficult as people first think it will be, but care is of great importance. The problems I point out were traps I had to get around, or just stop a line until something credible comes along. Once in europe some countries are easier to get back in than others.

    • profile image

      Ibidii 2 years ago

      I love doing family History! Great ideas here. I have been using ancestry.com for 14 years now. I have over 20,000 names. I help others as well and help them to find their information for free. I have been gifted a free account last year and so I am happy to help anyone. Great job both of you great to have a father son team on projects!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Someday when I find some time (not likely) I would like to trace my roots. Fantastic advice!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You've raised a lot of useful and important points for people trying to trace their ancestry. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
      Author

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      The best way to start is what family members actually remember.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i asked my dad for my ancestors name and what they do