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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.


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