By Patricia Hartley
OK, we promise this article is all in good fun. After all, we genealogists are usually fairly easy-going folks, and goodness knows we’re patient — after all, we’ve waited ten whole years for the 1950 census!
But, alas, sometimes even the best of us let things get under our skin (even if we know we shouldn’t). While we respect how others chose to conduct their research (or that they do it at all!) – and completely understand that many mistakes are simply due to not knowing the right way to go about things – we can’t help but occasionally feeling annoyed by these 10 common genealogy pet peeves.
Perhaps by sharing these, those who find themselves guilty of these inconvenient infractions will consider a change. Alternatively, those who also experience these occasional irksome occurrences will realize they’re not alone in their frustrations!
1. Never getting a reply from someone you’ve reached out to
Do you know the term “ghosting?” It originated in the dating app world as a way to describe one person “disappearing” after one date or online connection. Ghosting means not returning messages, texts, voicemails, or emails, and basically leaving the one person wondering what they did to make the other sever the lines of communication. This happens all too often in the world of genealogy!
Basic courtesy dictates that messages sent through online family history platforms, emails, and even old school letters deserve some sort of response, even if it’s, “Thanks, but I’m not interested in collaborating,” “I’m sorry, you have the wrong person,” or, “I’m super busy right now, but can I reach back out to you in a few weeks/months?” It only takes a few minutes to do the right thing!
2. Unsourced conclusions and facts
Recently I came across an online family tree that included a set of parents whose identity I had been trying to pin down for years. We all know that just because someone has something in their tree doesn’t mean it’s true, so we never, ever take something at face value without doing our own due diligence.
In this case, I wanted to see where these names had come from and why this person believed they were the correct parents. Not surprisingly, there was absolutely no documentation attached — no records, no notes, no images — just names that now seemed completely random. This might be OK if you’re entering your own parents’ names — you know their names first-hand and might not yet have gathered documentation of their lives.
However, when we’re talking about people who lived in the 18th century, we have to know where that information came from. Most family historians can’t help wishing more people would take the time to properly source their tree.
3. Repeating unsubstantiated “facts”
Just because someone has a name, date, or location in their tree doesn’t mean it’s accurate (see Frustration No. 2). So why would you add those details to your own tree without verifying them first? Sadly, this happens … a LOT. So often, in fact, that those details become accepted as facts — after all, why would ALL these trees contain the same information if it wasn’t true?
But repeated, inaccurate information isn’t good for anyone (especially those new to research who might not realize they have incorrect information on their hands.) While everyone has a right to build their tree however they like, those trying to create an accurate look at our family’s past would love if more people would verify a fact (with source records) before adding something to their tree.
4. Illogical birthdates
Don’t you love it when someone’s birth date occurs after their mother’s death date or when their mother was 12? Yes, technically the second instance could occur, but it’s definitely not the norm. So why do so many people readily accept these nonsensical dates as facts? Maybe because of Frustration No. 3 …
5. Photos of people who died in the early 1800s
We’d all love to have a photo of our fifth-great-grandfather who died in the 1830s, but it’s simply not possible — even if 237 other family trees have the very same sepia-toned image of a bearded man as the profile picture attached to his name.
Although the very first photographs were taken in the late 1820s, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that photography became popular and reasonably affordable. The first United States photography studio wasn’t even opened until 1841, and then they only produced daguerreotypes (a polished silver-plated sheet of copper). Therefore, chances are your ancestors who died before the mid-1850s did not leave behind any photographs for their ancestors to enjoy.
6. Family crest scams
Beginning family historians and people who are only mildly interested in their ancestry are quite often lured into purchasing items featuring their alleged family crests. These impressive, colorful crests (which are actually called “coats-of-arms”) inspire pride in one’s surname and the legacy attached to the symbols that comprise them.
The lions, stars, wolves, heraldic flourishes, and military gear emblazoned on these invoke visions of our heroic ancestors of yore claiming victory on the battlefield in our names. A bit of this idea is true; crests were, in fact, designed to reflect particular accomplishments or traits. However, these were most often accomplishments or traits of a particular person — not for his descendants, and not for everyone bearing the same surname.
Therefore, there may be dozens of crests that were created for people who had the same surname. As we’ve shared before, there’s nothing wrong with displaying the family crest of an ancestor and celebrating his deeds and adventures, but beware of any vendor that assigns a single crest to one surname.
7. Hints that have nothing to do with your ancestor
Computer-generated “hints” can be incredible boons to our family history research, saving us considerable time and effort in locating relevant records. Hints just need to be verified to be sure they actually belong to our ancestor, then we can add them to our tree.
As with all technology, hints are continually improving and becoming more accurate — as we would expect. So when we see hints that clearly don’t jibe with the information we’ve entered into a person’s profile, it’s frustrating. For example, if all the records you’ve saved show that your grandmother lived her entire life in rural Alabama, it’s highly unlikely that the hint showing a person of the same name in the Cheshire England Workhouse Records is relevant.
Even more frustrating is seeing that someone blindly saved this record to your grandmother’s profile in their own tree!
8. Too many or duplicate children in a tree
For a variety of reasons, our more distant ancestors had larger families than recent generations. In 1800, women in the United States had an average of seven children. As of 2018, though, that average had dropped to 1.7. Therefore, when you see a women with nearly 20 children in a family tree — no matter what the timeframe — you might want to be even more diligent than usual when double-checking the authenticity of all these kids.
Start with the dates and names, because you’ll probably see some duplicates, like “Mary” born in 1869 and “Polly” born in 1870. Chances are these are the same person, since Polly is a common nickname for Mary, and birth years are often approximated based on ages provided in census and other records.
Inaccurate transcriptions are often to blame for people thinking two listings in separate documents are separate people, but often the errors are due to not taking the time to double check one’s information.
9. Burned counties
Here in the South, burned counties are all too common (and all too often inaccurately attributed to General Sherman’s fiery march through the area during the Civil War).
The term “burned county” is often used to describe any instance where precious, one-of-a-kind, historical records were destroyed, even if the loss was due to tornados, flooding, theft, or mold rather than fire. And it happened all over the U.S., not just in the southern states. There are alternatives and workarounds when dealing with a burned county, but boy, how we wish we could get our hands on those lost documents!
10. Neglected and vandalized resting places
Cemeteries are considered sacred spots by most people, and genealogists have a special place in their hearts for gravesites, even those that don’t belong to our own ancestors. When we see cemeteries that aren’t properly managed, have been lost over time to weeds and trees, or have been vandalized by horrible people, we don’t just get sad. We get angry.
And many of us get to work, restoring and clearing what we can, when we can. It’s the right thing to do, ensuring that the next generation has the opportunity to visit a well-kept cemetery and a gravesite with a legible, intact monument.
What are your biggest family history pet peeves?
Patricia Hartley has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.