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How Not To Trace Your Family History

Updated on September 26, 2014

Family Historians Sometimes Make Mistakes

How would you feel if the family history you thought was yours was in fact incorrect?
Genealogy takes you on an amazing journey of discovery to learn who your family were, where they came from and how they lived but as more and more take up this interesting hobby there is far more scope for mistakes being multiplied. There are a whole plethora of websites which allow anyone to upload a family tree to be shared and used by others and here lies the problem!

Is your family tree already on the internet?

Personally I love doing the back breaking research as it gives me a sense of achievement to find the information myself. However with the number of people around the world who are doing the same it makes sense to see who else is interested in your own family. Putting your research on the internet is a great way of sharing and storing your research, meeting long lost members of your family and saving other people a lot of hard work.

Using these websites is an excellent way to find out the information you need without having to spend hours upon hours doing the work yourself but it can lead to you receiving incorrect data and actually tracing someone elses family tree. I have become more and more concerned recently regarding the amount of incorrect data that has been uploaded onto the internet.

There is a presumption almost all of us have that if something is in the public domain that it is therefore correct.

There are no qualifications needed to add a genealogy onto the internet and it isn't normally necessary to provide any source data either so although family trees are added with good intentions there are no guarantees that they are correct! To make matters worse the next logical step for anyone getting information from these websites is to then add it to their own online family trees regardless of the fact that they have no data to back up the finds.

Many years ago I spelled the first name for one of my ancestors incorrectly. I transcribed his name as "Elisha" rather than "Elijah". I realized after finding him on the census that I had his name wrong but in the mean time I had passed the information on to someone else via email. This was prior to the days of the internet but I can now find five family trees on and four on genesreunited who all have the same spelling mistake and have obviously not checked the original records at all!

The example above is only a minor problem but it is an example of how mistakes can easily be duplicated. More worryingly I have found several huge mistakes on websites where the data is completely wrong. There are instances where the user has simply joined two unrelated families together based on the fact that one of their ancestors shares a name with one in someone else's family tree.

Question: How do you know the genealogy you have been given is correct ?

Answer: You don't so verify ... verify ... verify

The answer is simple ... every piece of information received from someone else needs to be verified by YOU. Don't take anyone's word for it as your family history is too important to trust someone you don't know.

OK I am aware that I sound paranoid but sharing a few emails with someone may tell you if they are nice or not but cannot guarantee that they are any good at genealogy. I doubt that there are many people out there who would deliberately upload incorrect data but there are many who will simply pass on someone else's work as their own without having a clue if it is correct or not.

Verifying Genealogical Information

Tips & Tricks

To verify the information you are given you need to re-trace the steps of the original researcher. Yes I know it's boring and time consuming but in the end you can say you have piece of mind that the information you have is as correct as it can be.

1. Ask the person who gave you the information to provide you with the source data. Most uploaded trees will only contain the bare essentials and not the detailed research that will help you in the verification process as well as give you extra information.

2. Find the original record for each piece of evidence - if possible look at a copy of the original rather than a transcription.

3. Look for alternatives - if you have a "John Smith" and you know he was born in 1823 have a look to see if there were any other "John Smith" baptisms in the area at that time who could have been him instead.

4. If you have an ancestor who was baptised in a different area from where yours lived make sure you know you have the correct person. For example if I had a Thomas Brown who was married in Greensville in 1784 but has was supposed to be baptised in Brownstown in 1764. I would check for burials and marriages in Brownsville to see if he did actually move to Greensville or if the baptism was that of a completely different person.

5. Get to know the area your family lived in. Have a look on Google Maps to find out how far apart different places were and if it were likely that they moved from one to another. This is particularly important for people outside the UK who may not be able to visualise the area.

6. Look for additional information from other sources to verify your data and to add to what you know. Trade Directories, Settlement Certificates, Court Records, Wills etc.


My Favorite Genealogy Gifts!

I found a brilliant website called "Genealogy Gifts" which displays the most popular family history products from the Zazzle website! There are hundreds of funny and inspiring designs for all the family and for all occasions!

Family History Resources

What Online Genealogy souces should I Use? is in my opinion the best of the family history websites in the UK. The primary documents available are copies of the UK census from 1841 to 1901 and the indexes to births, marriages and deaths from 1837. These can both be vital in verifying the family history you have been given. In addition to this there are a large number of miscellaneous sources relating to ships list, military records, parish registers and endless other databases.

Genes Reunited has been a popular venue for family history and is run by the same company as the famous Friendsreunited site. A subscribed member has the ability to search the 1841 - 1901 UK census returns, the civil registration indexes from 1837 - 2004 and military records including WWI and WWII death records.

Family Search also referred to as the IGI which stands for international genealogical index is a website run by the Mormon church. Their database contains an amazing number of baptisms and marriages from across the world as well as a few burials and a index to the 1881 British census. It is completely free to search but you need to consider the fact that it isn't complete and it does contain some errors. Personally I use it as a guide and try to double check what I find with the originals as the originals normally contain more details.

Free BMD is another free site which contains transcribed civil registration indexes of births, marriages and deaths. The number of records increases regularly but as it is all volunteer based the records are still incomplete.

Find My Past The site has the 1841-1911 census' as well as the indexes to the birth, marriage and death certificates. The company are adding additional records all the time including military records. In my opinion this service is quite expensive but on a par with ancestry.


Family History Software

When I first started my own family history I had everything written down in nice colour coded A4 ringbinders and then brightly coloured dividers separated each generation. It was chaos! I had to re-write everything regularly to keep it up to date and I can only imagine the amount of paper I used.

Nowadays however there is a whole range of software programs which will allow you to record your family tree information and then create attractive trees and charts from it. Personally I have only ever used Family Tree Maker and I've never had any problems with it but there are others on the market which have a good reputation as well.

Everyone makes mistakes

I'm not perfect ... here two mistakes I made with my own research

The Gower Brick Wall

Joseph Gower was born in 1804 and according to his baptism was the illegitimate son of Mary Gower. There is a baptism of Mary Gower in 1786 daughter of Archibald and Charlotte Gower. Now Joseph had children called Archibald and Charlotte. Plus there was an Archibald Gower who was the witness when Joseph got married. Who could argue with this being the correct family?

Ten years later we found a marriage which altered everything. Mary Gower the daughter of Archibald Gower had married John Booth in 1800. Four years before Joseph was born. John and Mary went on to have children including a Archibald Booth, a Charlotte Booth and yes a Joseph Booth. We have never managed to find out who the elusive Mary Gower was ...

Nortcliffe Family Tree

John Nortcliffe married Ann Frost in 1730 and they had a son called John who was baptised in 1734. Whilst looking at the parish registers we came across a marriage in 1753 for a John Nortcliffe and Martha Volley. John would have been 19 years old at the time of the marriage but we were unable to find any baptisms for their children or a burial record for John.

A few years later we found a burial for John Nortcliffe son of John Nortcliffe in 1741. This was obviously John Nortcliffe junior. After rechecking all the information we had gathered it appeared that Martha Volley was actually John Nortcliffe seniors second wife. In conclusion we had poor Martha marrying her husbands son who had died as a child.

Genesreunited Success Story ...

... or when things go right.

One of the families I was tracing had hit a massive brickwall. The earliest ancestor was born in 1814 but in that year two babies with the same name were baptised in his village. We had absolutley no way of knowing which baptism was his.

I then found a lady on Genesreunited who had decided that she knew which baptism was the right one. I was sceptical to say the least and with much tepidation I contacted her to try to find out why she could have come to that conclusion. It turned out she had the family bible with several generations of births, marriages and deaths written in there. Serves me right for thinking the worse.

How long have you been tracing your family history?

See results

Family History Books From Amazon

The following books are recommended for new or inexperienced genealogist to provide a general background into the information available and research methods.

I'd love to know your opinions on my family history lens.

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    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 3 years ago from So Cal

      I have been working on family history for a long time and just this week found a debate centering around the story we were always told. It seems that we (not just me but everyone who has researched this family) have the wrong ancestor who came to America. Back to square one and starting over. Helpful information here.

    • digitaltree profile image

      digitaltree 6 years ago

      Nice Lens with useful tips, tracing your family history is hard, mostly because of the thing you said in this Lens. Also in some countries some papers might be lost do to time or the public records mismanagement of such information.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Some useful tips on stuff to watch out for. Even with the online tools etc. it is still easy to get confused and make mistakes!

    • kimbesa2 profile image

      kimbesa 6 years ago from USA

      Thanks for are so right! People assume that information is correct and they should not. I've seen it a number of times. You must look at the original records (via paper, film or online) for yourself. Indexes don't always tell the real story, either. It takes thorough research to make sure you're not barking up the wrong tree!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 6 years ago

      Nice lens and information! I have been into genealogy for over thirty years and when I got a computer in '99 I got into, it was free. I found many ancestors and information, but one thing that I noticed, names were repeated in a family line, making research a big headache. The went to subscription, all my hard work that really belonged to me was in their database, they now charge others to view and research it and I can't get in unless I pay...not a happy daughters name is Elisha and after she was born I discovered the very name in our "Ives" lineage.

    • TapIn2U profile image

      TapIn2U 7 years ago

      I would love to trace my own family tree and know how my ancestors lived. But yes, that would be sad if you have spent a long time tracing your genealogy only to find out that you have been tracing the wrong one. Interesting lens! I follow you on Twitter â and love your tweets. I found Squidoo through them. I have just finished my first Lens and now have great ideas to add thanks to you. Sundae ;-)

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      This is very well done and I love that you included your own family stories, so I had to return and leave an ~*~* Angel Blessing *~*~

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      I love family history researching and found this a very interesting read! Genealogy should come with a health warning as it can take over your life. :) Some good tips and warnings here. Lensrolling to my own family history lens.

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 7 years ago

      I'm sure many people go off on wild goose chases when tracing their family tree, so this lens is packed with good advice. Whilst I live in Nottinghamshire now I was born in Cumbria. My family name belongs to one of the Border Reiver clans, if your readers are interested they might drop by Border Reiver Genealogy here on Squidoo, if they are an Armstrong, a Bell or perhaps a Charlton (there are dozens more family names naturally all originating from the English - Scottish border region) once they've read up on this great lens! I think your point about being wary of information just because it is in the public domain is very sound advice. Academic social researchers call it 'triangulation', when you get data from a variety of sources to cross check the veracity of the sources.



    • profile image

      marshland 7 years ago

      What good advice.

      I am based in Essex, England and in my years of carrying out local and family history research for my website 'essex family history' I have found that there is quite a difference between methods of family history research in England compared to the US and continental Europe.

      Sadly many people who come to me with problems have jumped to the conclusion of accepting that the 'John Smith' that they have found in the census must be their ' john smith'.

      That is also true of family trees publishes on ancestry etc. I have found at least three which include some of my own ancestors who have made basis errors and have claimed the wrong people as their great grandparents.

      Keep up the good advice.


    • profile image

      jgelien 8 years ago

      This is a very helpful lens. I have an interest in researching my family tree. So many of the people that could answer my questions have passed away. A good reminder to learn all you can from parents, etc while you still can. 5 stars

    • profile image

      Avellan 8 years ago

      Great advice, and how many similar experiences I have shared along the way! Excellent tips for those who do not allow their enthusiasm to run away with their research.

    • profile image

      MrMarmalade 8 years ago

      Found I have 7 uncles and aunts, I knew nothing about. My father had never mentioned any of them. A fascinating subject

      Awarded top five Stars

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Too many people interested in their family trees are not willing to spend the time doing the research themselves. I thought you made some really good points. I joined genesreunited but soon gave up due to the number of people "poaching" my information.

    • profile image

      Donnette Davis 8 years ago from South Africa

      Great lens, I am lensrolling it to How to Determine and Claim Your Irish Heritage

    • Robyco profile image

      Robyco 8 years ago

      Great lens with loads of information for those new to geneology and those with some experience. I agree with your comments about the need to verify, unfortunately I think too many people get hooked on the number of people in their tree instead of the quality of the information about the people.

      I have been researching my own tree for many years and have published my own website, My Family Tree and probably fall somewhere between the 2 camps. I have published detailed information about those individuals that I know are correct but have also then included limited information about other members of the tree. This means that visitors to the site can't just go and copy everything straight into their tree but have enough information to see if they are connected in any way.

      Keep up the great work.

    • Nochipra profile image

      Nochipra 8 years ago

      Wonderful lens! I've traced my mom's side of the family back quite a bit. I'm planning to do a lens on it soon too. My uncle did my dad's side of the family yrs ago. On his side we are of Scotch/Irish descent. My grandmother let me take my camera and take picture of her old photos which I plan to put on the lens. Luckily most of her side of the family was from West Virginia, Kentucky, & Virginia & the records were not that difficult to find. Great! 5* Lens! Nora

    • debnet profile image

      Debbie 8 years ago from England

      Great informative lens. Genealogy is also a hobby of mine. I too have a few brick walls which would be easy to guess at some baptisms and declare I've got the right one. But like you, I like to have proven evidence. I don't put my trees on the net. I'm also cautious over what I share now as previously I've shared so much, including copies of documents and provided pdf's of trees only never to hear from the person concerned ever again without so much as a thank you. Good point about the IGI too... it once had me confused for about two years over one entry before I worked it out ;)

    • evelynsaenz1 profile image

      Evelyn Saenz 8 years ago from Royalton

      The resources for finding out about your family history are unlimited on the Internet but so are the false leads. Thank you for your cautionary statements.

      Lensrolled to Garner Rix and the Royalton Raid where I have taken my research to the point of going back in time.

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image

      LouiseKirkpatrick 8 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      Very interesting lens. I joined GenesReunited and I have to say you sometimes get the WEIRDEST messages from people...thankfully I've not been related to any of the oddballs so far...fingers crossed it stays that way :D

      5* for some really helpful info :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I'd have loved this information when I was first starting out. A lady gave me the family tree she had and I took it for granted that it was correct. When I took another look at it she had one of my ancestors baptisms completely wrong. The baptism was for someone with the same name but born in the wrong year and in the wrong place.

    • LynnScotland profile image

      LynnScotland 8 years ago

      Very informative and detailed lens - a side of genealogy that's rarely mentioned.

    • profile image

      Redmoonrider 8 years ago

      I love your lens! Very well written and for someone into times gone by, like myself - which is obvious from my lens - ( I have also traced my family back to the 1700s) it is very interesting reading. Well done - five stars!