The Grumpy Genealogist: 4 Things That Really Bug Me About Family History Research

By Susan Wallin Mosey

I try to be a cheerful and upbeat genealogist—but once in a while, even a real peach of a human being like myself just has to let off some steam.  Lately, four old and familiar issues in particular are really getting on my nerves, genealogically speaking…

1. The missing 1890 census.  Honestly, nearly an entire census lost?  How did this happen?  In all the United States of America in 1921, from sea to shining sea, there wasn’t one safe and fire-resistant building with a fireproof vault in which they could store the census records?  It wasn’t worth the price of one night watchman to make sure everything was okay?  And the worst part of it is, I’ve read that most of the records survived the fire (with water damage)—and they were kept for many years, while discussions went on about what to do next, before someone decided one day that the best thing to do was to just throw them all away.  Incredible!  When I think of all the loose ends I could tie up, all the mysteries I could solve, all the gaps I could fill in…  all those missing children…  sigh…

2. Those blurry, badly microfilmed World War I draft cards.  (see image above) I’ve read that after the cards were microfilmed (obviously by workers who were looking out the window most of the time), the original cards were discarded.  They threw them away!  Without anyone checking to see if the microfilm images were properly done before destroying the originals?  What I would like to know is this:  Who was the clueless government bureaucrat who made that decision?  I think his/her name should live on in infamy, like the person who threw away the damaged 1890 census.

3. Census takers with bad penmanship. Seriously, who was the genius who came up with the guidelines for selecting these people?  Did they not have to give a handwriting sample, perhaps write down a practice family or two?  I would think the ability to write legibly would have been a primary requirement for the job of census taker, but apparently no one thought of that during the hiring process.  I suppose some of the census takers just got sloppy as time went on and didn’t care anymore.  Or maybe some of them got hired because they were some politician’s nephew—I suppose then as now, when it comes to obtaining gainful employment, it isn’t always what you know, it’s who you know.

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4. Relatives who say “I really don’t have anything to share” when it’s pretty obvious that they do.  In this day and age of cheap Priority Mail and FedEx shipping, and scanners in practically every genealogist’s home or office, there’s no excuse for not sharing what we’ve got…  (Calm down, Aunt Emma, I’m not asking you to give it to me, just loan it to me!)  Yet I’ve had to ask some relatives five or six times, over a period of years, if I could borrow their box of family photos or papers.  Some are just too lazy to take the box down out of the attic or dig it out of the guest room closet, but some seem to be exhibiting strange territorial behavior.  Most eventually say yes—but a few hold out, as if “whoever dies with the most stuff wins.”  But everyone ends up losing that game.

Well, thanks for letting me vent…  What makes you do the “Silent Genealogist Scream”?

70 thoughts on “The Grumpy Genealogist: 4 Things That Really Bug Me About Family History Research”

  1. I don’t know if this is a valid complaint, but I think there are too many genealogists in my family. We are an old German family, settled in the same area for over 150 years. There is a great wealth of original documents, boxes and boxes of photographs and newspaper clippings, and many old, German books (one belonged to my Great-great-grandfather!). These were all kept by my great-aunt, a spinster and childless. She died two weeks ago and now I see that the genealogist a generation above me is getting all the photos, docs, and books. My grandmother’s sister has been doing extensive genealogy for over 60 years and I’ve asked if I can come with my laptop to her house and just record the information she has and scan the newspaper clippings. She thinks I want the actual books, though I’ve told her I just want the information, I won’t bother her at home, I’ll be quiet, but she keeps dodging me. Her and the older cousin getting the “goods” don’t seem to be taking me seriously when I ask them for a photo file or to record information. It’s getting frustrating and I’m very close to giving up. Anyway… that’s my rant.

  2. Also census takers who couldn’t spell and didn’t ask. My grandfather shows up as Ezra and he was really Edward C.

  3. I guess my biggest issue is with someone who will argue assumption or theory as fact. I spun my wheels for many years (lesson learned) by assuming someone else’s information was correct. That was many years ago, now I am maniacal about documentation. When and if that documentation is unavailable for any reason, I will always note in the comments (Ancestry.com) that this is “theory” or this is “assumed”. I wish others would do the same. Because we all know, once information is on the internet, whether accurate or not, everyone is slinging it into their tree. THAT makes me crazy.

  4. They, your ancestors, may not have been the ones that provided the information. A neighbor, a workhand or servant may have given the information. And, too, formalized names is more 20th century phenomina – that is until the advent of social security, people could pretty much change their names at will.

    While years could have been purposefully “shaved” from our ancestors lives, they equally may not have known truly how old they were. Tracking birthdays is a more “modern” convention – remember, people didn’t have calendars that they hung on the wall or propped on a desk – they simply may not have tracked the years.

    All reasons why to track the alternate spellings, variations and AKA’s (Also Known As) of our ancestor’s and their ages. And, too it is equally important to get to know the their F A Ns (Family / Friends; Associates; and Neighbors) with equal intimacy. The better we are at getting to “know” our ancestors and those they lived with / around, the better we will be at discerning whether we are following / tracking the right ancestor and climbing our – not someone else’s – family tree.

  5. I haaaaaate that so many people gave their nicknames to the census takers instead of their legal names. So infuriating. Also, the ones who blatantly shaved 5 or 10 years for the records.

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