Family history research is a fascinating and rewarding hobby, and it’s getting more exciting all of the time. With new records and tools and research methods appearing every day, there are seemingly endless opportunities to explore and collaborate.
But, as most of us already recognize, there are also endless opportunities to make mistakes. And, in the connected world of online research, those mistakes can spread like wildfire.
Genealogy is collaborative by nature and sharing information is a big part of the journey for many of us. After all, who wants to do research in a bubble? Genealogy is about connections and none of us would be able to expand our research to any great degree if it wasn’t for the spirit of sharing.
But, as we discussed in an earlier article, sharing has to be approached cautiously (whether we’re borrowing from someone else’s tree or offering our own up to others). Because it is so easy for someone to simply grab our information and run with it, we must be extra cautious about the data we place online.
And this brings us to one very important part of our family history research that can easily go awry — the connection between generations. It’s becoming common, much too common.
More than any other area, this one is the most vulnerable to the kind of mistakes that can completely crush the accuracy of an entire branch of our tree. Any person who has been doing family history research for any length of time has seen this in action, an incorrect parent or parents on a family tree, sometimes copied again and again by others.
Of course, a ‘bad connection’ can happen to anyone quite easily and is not always a matter of poor research methods. Most of us have made a mistake about parentage at some point or other. But usually, if we’re invested in our research, and if we’re concerned about proper sourcing, we will catch the error fairly quickly.
So why is this mistake so widespread in public family trees? Because it’s an easy error for any family historian to make, no matter how careful they are. And, let’s be honest, not everyone is interested in developing a highly accurate tree. Some family historians are only in it for the short-term, just slightly curious about their family’s past. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Genealogy research is supposed to be fun and can be a simple, passive hobby for someone and still enrich their lives and the lives of others.
But it is for this reason that each of us must take responsibility for what we choose to believe about other people’s trees, in addition to what we add to our own.
Before we borrow or share information we need to ask:
Am I sure that the connections I am seeing in this other person’s tree are accurate? Are there quality sources to back the connections up? Does it appear that this researcher was careful about the information they added?
Am I sure that I’ve made correct connections in my own tree? Am I ready to share that with others in a format that encourages copying?
If we answer “no” to any of these questions, it is time to step back and consider our course of action.
If you’re thinking at this point that you don’t need to worry because:
a) you never copy other people’s trees or
b) you know you did due diligence on every single connection you made in your own tree,
that’s great! But you might also want to consider that this type of mistake is so common that it was only recently discovered that an entire line in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tree was completely wrong. Was this because of random copying and sloppy research? Maybe, but more likely than not it happened in spite of careful research.
The researchers in this case had made one of the most common ‘bad connections’ — incorrectly using the identity of a similar individual with the same name in a tree. It is not at all uncommon to find that there is another person with the same name as your ancestor born in a similar location on a similar date. This is especially true when you are dealing with a common first name or surname, but can happen even to those with seemingly uncommon names.
And, of course, if you accidentally use the information for the wrong individual in your research you will get off track with an entire line very quickly.
But we can avoid this.
The most important way to stop ourselves from accidentally traveling down the wrong path in our research is to make sure that each and every connection we make is as accurate as we can possibly determine. It is important not to make assumptions in our own research and not to simply take another person’s research at face value.
When adding a new generation to your tree make sure you:
Do not simply copy another person’s research. Carefully examine every single source that person has, and if proper documentation does not exist, find it yourself.
Have an acceptable combination of ‘connecting documents’ that tie your generations together. While these sources will change from situation to situation, they should always include documents that clearly show a grown child you are researching and the parents together. This may be a marriage document or death record to start with. Find this information first and then work backwards in time to further verify the information with birth, baptismal, census records and others. Make sure the picture you are forming makes sense and don’t overlook discrepancies or usual dates — they could be a sign that you have gone off track or something is amiss. Look for consistent data and make sure that variations in sibling’s names or ages, people’s birth dates, or family name spellings are just variations and not a sign that you have the wrong individual.
Avoid adding documents to your tree that you can’t be sure actually relate to your ancestor just because the name and birth year are similar. Sometimes we do have to take leaps of faith in genealogy research, but we need to take as much time as possible to make sure that the document is really an accurate addition, every single time.
Don’t take big leaps. Once you have found the parents of an ancestor, work backwards carefully through the records, making connections wherever you can, to make sure you don’t accidentally assign incorrect individuals to your tree.
Be cautious about step parents or adoptive parents. People remarried and when they did they often adopted children, legally or not. If a person remarried when his/her children were still at home the new father or mother may even be listed on a marriage certificate or death record as the biological parent. Sometimes there are virtually no clues to make this apparent so always make sure you find a birth record for your ancestor once you have secured proper connecting documents. Most family tree programs have an option to add step or adoptive parents so that you can record the importance of this person in a child’s life while still maintaining an accurate biological line.
When in doubt, always double check. Don’t leave important connections to chance. Noone wants to spend years researching a line only to find it’s not even their own.
If you have any doubt at all about any of the connections in your tree, we encourage you to take the time to examine each one and make sure you have the sources needed to know that you have the correct information.
And if you do not — and cannot find documentation to prove the connection — consider removing the information from public trees or making clear notes about your doubts. A simple question mark after a name will alert a fellow researcher to your concern. You can then follow that with a note that is attached to the person in question.
And if you see another person’s tree that shows an incorrect line, take a moment to drop them a note so that we can all help to avoid one of the most common and destructive mistakes in genealogy research.
By: Melanie Mayo | Editor, Family History Daily
Image: Portrait group of African American Bricklayers union, Jacksonville, Florida. Abt 1899. Library of Congress
Originally published Feb 2016
105 thoughts on “Are You Sure They’re Your Ancestors? This Genealogy Blunder is More Common Than Ever”
you are not wrong! Plus, for family members who work on genealogy in FS, you cant see each others’ work, so there could be half a dozen of you, with wrong information and different ID numbers. It drives me mad!
Check your sources most of the time you can match sources to people in the tree. It is helpful if finding a roadblock, to see if you can find a locality historian. I had a road block and I found one and they helped me to match my gggrandmother to another marriage. Which i would not have found and concusi records of her moving and having other children.
This is a brilliant and timeless article.
My maternal grandmother’s line was completely mangled by some zealotry when in a different branch of the tree, the collation of information to be published into a book for a family reunion – which none of us ever knew about – had, from my great grandmother down, the generations mixed. My siblings and I were recorded as siblings of my mother; my mother’s siblings were attributed to an aunt. It was just a mess and quite disappointing. And, if taken by gospel by various branches, where we are talking about 5th cousins, then their research compounds the error.
Great advice, that I always follow, but I have a question:
How on earth can you prove that relationships are biological once you get past the early 1900’s? (at least in most rural places…) I am very careful to not proceed further down a line without proof, but there just isn’t any proof in most of my lines in the early, rural South, so I have been stuck for a long time. (I once saw a list of “burned counties'” in one of my southern states, and all of my counties had had fires in the court houses at least one since my ancestors had lived there – sometimes more than once!)
I have run into such a problem with my tree that I’m not sure entirely WHAT to do.
Let me just state first, this is regarding my dad’s side of the family, and I at this point know more than he does, so asking him will do nothing. My grandparents have both passed many years ago, so there’s literally nobody I could talk to about this.
My great-great-grandfather’s name was Thomas F. Reynolds, and I’ve traced our connection accurately, but I’ve hid a roadblock, ALL because of his birthday. Now, the obituary for him along with his actual tombstone show his birth year as 1863. The 1910 census ALSO shows him being born abt 1864. However, in the 1900 census, someone reports his birth year as 1859. In searching for him via younger year census records such as 1870/1880 I find a Thomas Reynolds, living in the area he was born in, sharing the same father’s name, but his age puts him as being born or around 1859. So I have a crux. Do I really believe census records, one of which contradict the rest and match more factual information such as obituary, tombstone, AND the Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths Index, all saying 1863, or census records from 1860/70/80 showing the same family, same area, same members, but showing HIM being alive and existing in 1860, three years before he was supposed to be born? Another crux is, his father’s name was John Reynolds, and as you can imagine, especially with Irish families (John immigrated from Ireland), the name is common, so this could be another family. Problem is, I can’t seem to find another Thomas Reynolds in that area. I would love to keep tracing and to find out more, but it’s extremely difficult in this case. I don’t want to be wrong, and taking a leap like this could carry me off course quite a bit.