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Traps to Avoid When Climbing a Family Tree

Updated on March 13, 2012

So. Some momentous life-changing event has just occurred - say, a parent's death or the birth of your first child - triggering an inexplicable urge to Climb The Family Tree.

And off you go to document who begat who and gather interesting tidbits about the begatters...or the odd eccentric uncle...or your mother's great-grandfather who was reportedly hanged for stealing a neighbor's cow.

Piece of cake, right?


Climbing the family tree is full of traps which can stall your progress for years, or worse, cause you to waste months or years on a totally unrelated branch.

Below are three of the most common traps, all of which can be avoided entirely if you know what to watch out for.

Trap #1: Great-aunt Agatha's Memory Was Perfect

Most people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated, or man first walked on the moon, or the Twin Towers fell. But do you really believe an elderly relative can accurately recall - from memory - details of less newsworthy events that took place 30 or 40...or more...years ago?

For example, having been the main participant in my now-grown children's arrival on the planet, I can always remember the month and day each came into the world, but not necessarily the year. Not because my memory is failing, mind you, but rather because Life has added several decades of new information to the file cabinet between my ears.

Therefore, unless Great-Aunt Agatha is only sharing how your grandfather nearly died at the age of 7 after being stung by a rogue bee at a family picnic in the park, be sure to verify her version of a more noteworthy event through other sources. If for one reason or another this isn't possible, at least add a disclaimer to that effect, to alert future generations to search for documentation that may have become available in the interim.

Trap #2: Tombstones Don't Lie

Oh, but they DO!

For the simple reason that what you see "carved in stone" is nothing more than the end result of a multi-step process rife with opportunities for human error.

First, the person ordering the stone must have provided the deceased's correct birth date. These days, the documentation required for a drivers license or Social Security card minimizes, if not totally eliminates, the chances for error at this point. But 200 years ago, or even 100, it wasn't so easy to verify a loved one's date of birth. Hence, it wasn't uncommon for women, out of vanity, to shave a few years off their ages. But men could be equally vain, especially when courting a much younger bride.

Even with a correct birth date, the next opportunity for error was at the point the date was entered on the order form. The clerk taking the order might be dyslexic and transpose some of the numbers, though he or she wouldn't remain employed very long if this happened very often.

The order was then given to an engraver, who might've hoisted one too many at the local pub the previous evening and things still looked a bit fuzzy in the morning light.

Nowadays, stones are engraved with a machine, but back when a hammer and chisel were the tools of the trade, an inscription was only as accurate as the stone carver's proficiency with his tools. A slip of the chisel, and rather than waste a perfectly good (and expensive!) chunk of marble, a "3" would become an "8", or a botched "7" a "2" (which many believe is exactly what happened on my gr-gr-gf Hezekiah CONN's stone).

The placement of surnames on a tombstone can also lead a family historian down the wrong path.

After spinster Agnes Stillings' father died in Kansas in 1910, she and her elderly mother moved to a small town in Washington, where she became the local Postmistress. When her mother died, Agnes was in her early forties and still unmarried, with no prospect of altering her status. A double stone was duly purchased, and "STILLINGS" was engraved across the top. On the left half were her mother's first name and dates; on the right, her own first name and birth date.

Fast forward five years. Agnes meets Harvey Miller, a local merchant several years her senior. They hit it off and - wonder of wonders - get married. Agnes Stillings becomes Agnes Miller. Unfortunately, Harvey died only two years after the wedding and was buried in the same plot as Agnes's mother. "Harvey Miller" was added to the stone in the space between "Maryann" and "Agnes".

Not a problem if one knows Harvey and Agnes were husband and wife. But the person who walked the cemetery in 2001 apparently didn't, and incorrectly recorded the trio as "STILLINGS, Maryann", "STILLINGS, Harvey Miller", and STILLINGS, Agnes".

Stillings descendants unaware that Agnes married in middle age could easily make the same mistake, and unless they check other sources, could very well spend years looking for the birth record of Agnes's "brother": "Harvey Miller Stillings".

By the same token, if Harvey Miller was previously married...which his age at their marriage would indicate was a distinct possibility...descendants of the first marriage may have difficulty locating his grave.

Trap #3: Census Takers Didn't Make Mistakes

Well, not intentionally.

Censuses are a great research tool, but just that - a tool. Enumerators were human, not psychic, and only recorded the information provided by whichever household member came to the door. Or if a child answered the knock, whichever adult happened to be home.

Enumerators also weren't required to meet every person an informant stated was a resident at the address on Census Day. Grown sons or recently married daughters who had already left home were often shown in U.S. and UK censuses still living with their parents. It was also not uncommon for a wife whose husband had left her to tell the enumerator, out of shame or optimism, that he still lived with her. As for the ages of household members, again the enumerator only recorded whatever he was told.

Enumerators were supposed to visit every home in their assigned area, but that doesn't mean they actually did so. Depending on the weather and time of year, an enumerator might record whatever information he could glean about the residents of one address from their neighbors at the next. (This practice was more common in rural areas, not cities, because residents of farming communities were often related to one another.)

Few people are aware that during the late 1800s it was considered "impolite" for a census taker to ask for the spelling of a last name. Unless he had personal knowledge of the surname or a family member voluntarily spelled it for him, he was to spell it as best he could. For this reason, if you can't find an ancestor with an unusual last name under the correct spelling in a census, try the phonetic spelling. For instance, "Cop" instead of "Kaup" or "Koph". Also, if your ancestor was a recent immigrant, imagine how the name might've sounded with a thick accent, and that's probably how the census taker heard it too.


Submit a Comment
  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Hello again, moonlake! As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as "too much information" on a headstone! Facts, that is. Not to be a Scrooge, but I'd rather see complete names, dates and places on a stone rather than the stone covered in lines and lines of poetry that will wear off in time. Don't get me wrong; epitaphs or a bit of flowery prose are great, but a hundred or more years later, not half as important as the who, where and when about the person or couple buried under that stone! Precisely why I spend a LOT of time at Find A Grave adding such details to memorials that only contain a name, years of birth and death and nothing else! ;D

  • moonlake profile image


    5 years ago from America

    Came back for a visit. Nowadays it is no better when it comes to headstones. When buying my husband's headstone first they think I'm putting too much information on the stone. Three times I had to send the template back because it was wrong. I was so happy to see the headstone in and everything ok. Believe me, if it hadn't been I would not have paid for the rest until they fixed it. If I hadn't watched everything they did the headstone would have had much of it wrong.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Don't get me started on newspaper obits! Since my grandmother was still alive when her eldest "child", my mother, died (at 75), the funeral director ignored me, the family genealogist, and let Grandma and my next oldest aunt provide the info for the obit. Most of which was wrong. Even misspelled my (married) last name. The article about Grandma on her 100th birthday was also full of errors, for which there was really no excuse since I'd provided her and said aunt with a ton of documents about that side of the family.

    A good friend's first name and middle name were also misspelled on her b.c. The med rec person at the hospital thought it wasn't "fancy enough". (Her maiden name was Smith - hard to mess that up!). Her parents didn't notice when they signed the form. She got a SocSec card, drivers license and 3 marriage licenses with that b.c., so she didn't think there'd be a problem when she applied for a passport in her forties. Wrong. Both parents were dead by then, of course. No way to correct the b.c. She had to get a new SocSec card with that spelling, also a new driver's license and several other forms of ID had to be changed, too. Didn't matter that she'd NEVER used that spelling on anything in her life. Was total nightmare!

  • moonlake profile image


    8 years ago from America

    You are so right about the census takers. I really believe some of them were drunk. Newspaper obits are also another place where names are spelled wrong. My Dad's birth record has his last name spelled wrong.My family insisted we had two Ss in our name just because of that birth record mistake. I keep telling them they are wrong. There was never that extra S in our name. The recorder made the mistake on the birth record.

    Great hub vote up.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Thank you, MT. Yes, etiquette was much different for census takes 130+ years ago! ;D

  • Millionaire Tips profile image

    Shasta Matova 

    9 years ago from USA

    This is a great hub, with wonderful examples about the traps that can catch a genealogist. I hadn't realized that it was impolite to ask about a spelling of a name, but now that you mentioned it, I can see why it would be. Voted up.

  • Jenafran profile image


    9 years ago from Tampa Bay Florida

    Great article, thanks!!

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    11 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Dolores, that's so frustrating when you find info on your own family and then can't get a response from the website it's on.  Have you tried googling for the misspelling of the name to  see if the information comes up elsewhere??  Worth a shot.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    11 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Thanks, JamaGenee, the tips are great. I'm sure we all understand the forgetful or lying relatives...but government workers?! I found some past info on my own family with the last name misspelled and attempted to conact the website people but got no response.

  • Eileen Hughes profile image

    Eileen Hughes 

    11 years ago from Northam Western Australia

    jamagenee, great hub, very good information. I have spent years following my family history and have also written several articles on the subject.

    It can be fun and very frustrating, especially if your lead turns out to be a dead end after purchasing certificates that prove its not a relative. Keep on writing.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Kenny, apologies for turning your world upside down.  I assumed you knew.  (LOL)

    Thanks LG.  Family stories are great - as stories - but I now automatially look at them through the eyes of a skeptic.  Not a bad thing, really.  Many times the facts are far more interesting than the tale!

  • LondonGirl profile image


    12 years ago from London

    HI JG - great hub. I agree, family memories are a great pointer for things to look at, but far from being infallible!

  • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

    Ashok Rajagopalan 

    12 years ago from Chennai

    Sigh. You're right. There goes my innocence. :)

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Hi Kenny!  Making a habit of questioning the things we take for granted applies to life in general, not just family history!

  • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

    Ashok Rajagopalan 

    12 years ago from Chennai

    How true! When you force us to take a relook at things we take for granted... I won't trust facts wholeheartedly from now on.

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Ah, the nights of bloodshot eyes looking at census, family bibles and such.  Hopefully your offspring do (or will) appreciate the long hours and late nights that went into documenting your and their heritage. I too am lucky to have a few ancestors in history books (but alas, no peers). It IS exciting to find out there are more than three in one's tree.  If one gets back far enough, there are hundreds.  Quite humbling.

  • profile image

    C. C. Riter 

    12 years ago

    Great hub! Yeah, I found all those traps too real myself. I have spent over ten years on my own family history. My eyes were bloodshot many nitghts from going through census reports and various other docs. plus old family bibles, you know.

    But the end result was very pleasing and fulfilling and time was well spent for now I and my offspring have documented proof of our heritage. Of course mine was somewhat easier than most would find it to be so, for I am fortunate in that some of my forebears are in history books and in the peerage class, so that makes it a whole lot easier. It's exciting to read of a Revolutionary War family member and even more so to find out there are more than three in one's family tree.

    Good stuff. thanks

  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Thanks, Monitor. Most certainly the location of many graves remains a mystery due to errors like the placement of Harvey's name on Agnes and her mother's stone. Cemetery records won't always show the error either. Three children of a friend's ancestor died before the age of 2 and are buried in an unmarked grave at a cemetery near me, which does have them in their records. Then the parents moved to a town 80 miles away, had stones erected for themselves and all four of their children (including the three "babies"). The babies' stones are known as "memorial stones", meaning they sit on empty graves. This is a common practice if families have moved permanently resettled in a new location - one destination for flowers on Memorial Day, etc, rather than relatives having to drive from cem to cem. To its credit, the cem in the other city was never sure it had the babies, and had flagged the parents' plot because there was no record that their remains had ever been transferred. After I verified that they hadn't, they amended the records to show this, but anyone who doesn't check with the cem office will still assume they're in the parents' plot. Therefore it's always a good idea to verify a cem actually has the remains in question.

  • monitor profile image


    12 years ago from The world.

    That was quite a tale with the gravestone errors, JamaGenee. You're absolutely right that some things just can't be taken at face value. A mistake like the one the Stillings and Miller unfortunately were met with at their burial site can really mess up the gene pool. This was a very interesting read!

    Your fan.


  • JamaGenee profile imageAUTHOR

    Joanna McKenna 

    12 years ago from Central Oklahoma

    Glad to see you here, KScharles. There ARE more genealogy hubs rattling around in the gray matter. As Chef Jeff says, researching one's family tree is time consuming, and CAN be expensive depending on how much and how far one is willing to travel, but the result is soooo rewarding!

  • profile image


    12 years ago

    Excellent tips, JamaGenie! Please keep these genealogy tips/stories coming--I'll be watching for them!

  • Chef Jeff profile image

    Chef Jeff 

    12 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

    I have spent the last twenty years researching and creating a several-thousand name list of my family.  I have included lots of names of people who were (and are) in any way related to my last name.  I did the same for my mother's side of the family, creating a 1,000+ list there.

    All of your tips I had to learn the hard way, so thank you for telling so eloquently the many traps genealogists run into as they research into their family tree(s).

    By the way, for anyone caring to start looking into the family tree, it will be a rewarding experience, but it will take a lot of careful research, time and effort, not to mention money.  I have ended up traveling all over the country, and in Europe as well, just to get the most accurate information possible.  Great job, JamaGenee!

  • robie2 profile image

    Roberta Kyle 

    12 years ago from Central New Jersey

    Hey Jamagenee--great first hub and I'm so happy to see a really dedicated, knolegable genealogist on hubpages. I look forward to more from you and have a few family mysteries of my own to solve:-)


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