November 13th, 2013

5 Common Genealogy Mistakes not to Make

It’s hard enough when we make our own mistakes, but sometimes the mistakes of others can impede our genealogical research. This is especially true with older documentation, especially transcriptions and the like. Often a person’s handwriting or spelling is responsible, and occasionally completely erroneous information is supplied. Once a mistake is in print, it often carries on throughout the research of others, continually frustrating researchers or bringing them face to face with a brick wall. There are some effective strategies that I have used to overcome these unavoidable mistakes, and of course, it is my genealogical duty to share them with you!

  1. Spelling MistakesUnfortunately with genealogy records, spelling mistakes are the rule rather than the exception. This is often due to transcribers being overloaded with work, the differences between old English and the new, and sometimes because of a simple misspelling. It is always wise to check alternate spellings. Even common names such as Smith may have alternate spellings such as Smythe, Smithe, or Smit. An excellent way to include alternate spellings in a search is to use wildcard characters like a question mark (?) or asterisk (*). Search engines interpret the question mark as taking the place of a single letter, the asterisk as taking the place of several letters. Your search will thus return possible alternate spellings of the surname you are searching.
  2. Abbreviations are not Always Accurate. – It is common for abbreviations to be written or entered into records incorrectly. Mr. could be Mrs. And vice-versa. Some abbreviations have a variety of meanings that can easily be misinterpreted. NA for example can mean naturalized, not applicable, Navy, or Native American. Never guess what an abbreviation means or take it at face value. Do a little more research to make sure it means what you think it does.
  3. Age Mistakes – Common age-related mistakes are; women who are listed as mothers but are too young or too old to be one, and persons whose age is too young to have been in the military. There are exceptions to both however, but never assume the age or information with an individual is correct in these circumstances. In the case of a woman who has been recorded as giving birth to several children at a late age (40-50), it is possible the information is correct. Always examine the relationship of an older mother/child relationship though, as it is possible an adoption or orphaned child is involved. In the case of military service, some who enlisted did lie about their age, but any records of individuals under the age of 14 should be investigated.
  4. Don’t Assume that Records Don’t Exist – Although we now have more genealogical records than ever before at our disposal, believe it or not, not every genealogical record has been uncovered. Just because you can’t find a record for an individual doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Look at other record types to see if you can connect to lost or missing data. You could be the first to uncover the information you’re looking for. Family diaries and church records may have evidence of other existing records, and census records can provide clues to vital records.
  5. Secondary Records are Not Always Accurate – secondary records are notorious for containing genealogical records. The primary reason is human error – they are generally composed of second hand information provided by an informant, usually a family member, friend, or neighbor. A good example is a death certificate. Though the date of death is most likely correct as it is recorded at the time of the event, the secondary information such as the date of birth or name of the next of kin may not. Parents have been listed as the natural parents, when in fact the deceased child was adopted.

These are just a handful of genealogical mistakes and errors that I have come across. If you know of any, or have encountered some yourself, please feel free to comment about it in the box below. Happy Ancestor hunting!