10 Things Family Historians Find Annoying

10 Things Family Historians Find the Most Annoying

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!

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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. 

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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?

By Patricia Hartley. Patricia has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.

20 thoughts on “10 Things Family Historians Find the Most Annoying”

  1. Once I was doing research for a story about a man who was hung for a crime he committed. Of the 4 Ancestry trees he was in, only one person wrote why he ‘died’. We are not responsible for the crimes our ancestors committed, hiding the past helps no one.
    There was someone locally who was complaining about the care a local cemetery received, I told him to do what our ancestors always did, and go take care of your relatives grave yourself.
    On the other side of the coin, a distant cousin recently gave me a biography that my great grandmother wrote when interviewing her mother. It contained stories about my great great great grandfather, his wife (my great great great grandmother), his second wife that I never knew existed, my 4 times great grandfather and his second wife. Not only did I post it on my Ancestry tree, I personally contacted the people I knew who seriously research that branch of the family tree and sent it to them individually.

  2. I hate it when when people don’t use their real names on the DNA matches. That should be a requirement. You can’t find relatives with ridiculous nicknames like Superstud75 or something like that 🙁

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I am pleased you mentioned the souce aspect mine is in my notes so i am going to go back into my tree now and make sure prople can see where my source information came from i had no idea until reading your article how much it was annoying people not being able to see it all. Once again thank you for bringing this to our attention.
    Kindest regards Robyn

  4. Trying to find an ancestor who immigrated from Ireland to New York or New Jersey who’s name is Patrick Kelly and wife’s name is Mary. Same with my Scottish ancestors Alexander and Elizabeth… Frustrating but can’t be helped.

  5. The one I really hate is having an ancestor with a common name. There are way too many results and too many that don’t even start to apply to me, or my line.

  6. People that are distantly related through marriage who add relatives not of their own family tree. Not asking for verification of facts but just adding “what looks right”. And then publishing all those mistakes in their own public trees!


  7. I hate when people insist that somebody somewhere in history is a relative, just because they have the same last name. No other verification – just that. A man once said to me, “How many John Smiths can there BE in England, anyway?”

  8. Anything that puts false information into genealogy, for example:
    *Attachment to family myths (especially “our name was changed at Ellis Island” and “my ancestor was an Indian/Cherokee princess”) and absolute refusal to dialogue about known facts around these common myths.
    *Adoption practices that seal original records.
    *Hiding facts or falsifying them when the researcher believes the facts paint the family in a bad light (for example children born less than 9 months after a marriage, removing subsequent spouses out of a sense of “loyalty” to the first spouse, hiding ethnicity and religion, hiding criminal history, etc, etc…)
    *When someone takes a photo or document from someone’s family tree on a genealogy site and reposts it as their own original photo or document. The original source is thereby lost.

  9. My comment may refer to unsourced conclusions and facts. Those who rely on family trees posted on line may NOT see sources listed. I have most of my sources included in my tree (Legacy) notes. I have personal reasons for including sources there. AND on Ancestry I chose to not include my notes. If someone is really interested in my sources they can contact me. So sources may not show up on all trees.

  10. Angela Marie Tulloh

    All the above is so true! It can be tedious to research information. Finding that the incorrect info has been copied over and over again when it is too obviously incorrect.
    My parent’s 1941 marriage certificate. I have an original copy but it can not be located at the Meriwether courthouse. It must have been lost in the 1976 fire. My mother was also adopted by Jacob Valentine Brown in 1928 but was unable to find a record. Also must have been lost.

  11. Elaine Behrendt

    Those who have copied new info to their tree right after I added info…I have the paper documentation
    which they claim also.

  12. I agree with all of the above posters and single women or women who may have married with absolutely no paper trail

  13. Lack of basically any records for enslaved people that list them by name.

    Illegible handwriting

    Variant spellings of names, whether due to copy error, ignorance, or making assumptions.

    Copies of copies of copies of a microfilm image, rendering them too fuzzy to read.

    Lack of records for married women that include their maiden name (and often even their first name.)

    Birth certificates with just “Baby Girl” or “Baby Boy” instead of a name.

    Adoption records that are sealed, e.g., original birth certificates.

    Names that got changed at Ellis Island (or other point of immigration) with no record of the original name, making it next to impossible to trace back to the place of origin.

    Orphans or other children that went to live with another family member in a different place, leaving no clue where to look for them until the next census comes out.

    Waiting so long to get census records!

    Little information for the years between each census, especially if they relocated.

  14. Suzanna Reed Briggs

    People who refuse to believe proof of their errors and insist they are right anyway. Maybe that falls under #2 and 3. You be pretty much hit all of them. Love you articles. I’ve. Collected many for reference. Thanks for all you do. I already have the free checklist. Thank you.

  15. I totally agree about all your posted annoying things. Also, published works which people think are infallible but are incorrect and the information gets repeated until researchers find it very difficult to find the true information.

  16. leslie naiman rubinson

    women in the newspapers and other publictions under the name mrs. (husband’s name) surname

  17. People who guess when they don’t know someone’s name ie the oldest son, assuming name is same as father etc. Indication that someone is deceased when you didn’t source it, in fact, because it is not true.

  18. Not being given an opportunity to click on someone else’s Family Tree so that you can add that information to your own tree. Quite often the box to check is not shown. Then, you either have to copy it to paper as a reference or take a photo. It shouldn’t bee that difficult.

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