Most beginning genealogists concentrate on “accumulating” ancestors—adding names to a family tree, finding about as many earlier generations as they can, adding a maternal line. In so doing, they can easily make mistakes that can lead to either a brick wall or wrong information. The following are five common mistakes of the beginner genealogist.
Failure to research siblings of ancestors
Failure to find multiple sources
Trusting secondary sources
Trusting published genealogies (both print and on-line)
Being unready to share results due to poor organization
Primary information comes from a person who was at the event, either participating in it or witnessing it. It is also judged on how soon the information was collected and the reliability of the person giving the information
Secondary information, on the other hand, is given by someone who has heard about an event from someone else. When the details have gone through several people before being recorded, it becomes less trustworthy
An original genealogical record or source is one that is just that – original. It was not copied from another record, and is considered the most reliable.
A derivative source is one that was copied from another record. This might be by transcription by hand or machine, photocopies, microfilm, or abstracts. The more layers of copying between a derivative record and the original, the more potential for problems
Because every repetition or recopying of data is an opportunity for error, the closer the derivative is to the original the more reliable the data are likely to be
An original parish record is reliable to the extent of the priest’s or pastor’s dependability. A microfilm copy is derivative. It makes the record easily accessible to the general public, but may be blurry, dark or smudged. Even more derivative is a typed index which was taken from a typed transcription of a hand transcription of the original.
The “original” census record is actually derivative in many cases. Early census takers wrote on their own paper and then copied them onto the sheets which researchers see. Later censuses were copied twice, and the surviving version may be a copy or the original. More modern derivatives include online transcriptions of the census, indexes of those transcriptions, and even scanned images of the census pages. Different companies use different scanners and different clarification processes, and researchers have no way of knowing if the smudge taken out was just a smudge or was a census taker’s mark.
Apparently it is a common myth that, especially in later censuses, a census enumerator knocked on doors and asked who was present, and then wrote down the details, often mis-hearing, or mis-spelling. There may have been isolated examples of that having been done, but this is very rare!
During the week following census night, the enumerator visited all of the houses, and collected the forms. (The Schedules), and then he collated them, and then wrote them up into his enumerator's book, in schedule number order. The enumerator may have found it difficult to interpret the handwriting on the schedule, and he may have mis-transcribed some details.
A Schedule is a piece of paper (a form) that the enumerator left at each household sometime during the week before the census was taken. It was the responsibility of the head of the household to see that the form was filled in, listing the details of the people who resided (slept) in the house at midnight on the Sunday night of the census. Each form (Schedule) had a unique identifying number
In many cases, the original schedule was filled in by a child rather than by the head of the household. The reason is simple. During the 1800s the children went to school, or Sunday school, and learned to read and write, whereas parents (of the older generation) could often not be able to read and write
“ For anyone searching census records for Gotobed - I have been searching too and it has nearly driven me mad because I couldn't find them and wildcards were no help at all. In the end perseverance paid off and I found them under the following mis-transcribed surnames - GETEBED, GATEBED, GATABED, GOLOBED, GOTSBOD, GOBOBED, GOTOBER, GOLSBED. I have been tracing part of the family who moved from Ely, Cambridge to Islington and have now found most of the records I was looking for.”
Errors appear in one of all the following stages:
At the time the information is recorded
When the record is transcribed
When the record is copied using photocopiers or microfilm
The person giving the information lies or, at best, guesses.
The person recording the information mishears, misunderstands or even misinterprets the information
The person recording the information does not have clear handwriting and subsequent transcribers misinterprets the words or letter
The records get damaged making it difficult to interpret the information
The microfilming of the records does not create a clear copy making it difficult to interpret the information
Ways in which source records can be inaccurate
Knowledge : The person giving the information may be guessing or using family gossip for info. He or she may also not be knowledgeable about the information – for example, a neighbour giving census information, a wife giving her deceased husband’s birthplace.
Language : Census records provide good clues to an non-local person’s history, but language issues could compound the problem. The person answering questions may not have a local accent, or the census taker may not understand their accent. If the census taker was an incomer himself, his grasp of the local accent could cause misinterpretation of the answers given, or his own accent may have made the questions hard to understand.
Ways in which source records can be inaccurate
Transcription : Many errors can occur when transcribers can’t read the original handwriting, or are working from either an original document in bad condition or a poor copy. Mis-reading a name is a common cause of not being able to find an ancestor in an index, even when you know they are there. Even when the original or copy is in good condition, typographical errors may occur.
Time: The more time between the event and the creation of the record, the more possibility of error. People’s memories fade and they may mix up events and/or the people concerned. Records created close to the event will be the most accurate.
Deliberate Misinformation: Whether now or 500 years ago, people carry secrets and will lie to protect their reputations. Marriage dates, the existence of a husband, stories of military service, and connections to famous families are among the invented “facts.”
Prior to most babies being born in hospital, there is no real way to know the when and where born. Most will be able to give the correct information but there is quiet a long time (42 days in 2005) that can elapse before the birth must be registered. In the 19th century when every day was a work day, people may not be sure exactly when then date was. So, for some, the date may be a guess! The "where born" is likely to be correct as the registrar probably knows the names of all the villages in his area and would, therefore, spell it correctly.
The name given to a child can be quiet different to how they subsequently become known. Some common changes are Mary to Polly Ann to Polly or Ann and John to Jack. Some people do not like their birth name and so change it.
Single mothers is not a new phenomena. In the 19th century almost 1 in 10 births are recorded without a father! It is only the mother's word that the father's name is correct.
One would expect the name, surname and maiden name of the mother to be correct. But it will often not be recorded correctly. If, for example, the mothers name is Hannah Tripe and she has a speech impediment or the registrar has a hearing problem, the registrar may think she has said Ann Swipe. If he asks her to confirm her name as Ann Swipe she may be too embarrassed, especially if she is young, to say he has the name wrong - so she lets the wrong name be entered. Indeed, in the 19th century, it would be unlikely that the mother would be able to write her own name - she would sign with her mark - and would not even know that the wrong name had been entered. This error in recording the information would not even be picked up later by looking at the signature of the informant as a cross does not give much information!
The most common errors on a marriage certificate is the address of the bride and groom. To keep down the cost of a marriage, the bride and groom would give the same address so that banns only had to be read, and paid for, in one parish.
Another common error is the age. In the days when 14 year olds worked, they may not be certain about their exact age when they get married 10 or more years later.
Yet another common error is the Rank or Profession of Father. If the bride or groom have moved away from home, they may not know if their fathers occupation has changed. They may not even know if he is still alive! In the 19th century there were no telephone or e-mail. Families did not write to each other because most could not read or write. It was very easy to loose touch.
The death certificate is most likely to contain errors. The name may not be the same as was recorded at birth or marriage as the person registering the death - the informant - may have only known the person for a few years and if the live to over 70, they may not know details about the dead persons early life.
Similarly, if there are no records at the time of death, the maiden name, date and place of birth may not be known. It is not unusual for the age at death to be several years out! Clues as to the reliability of the information can be gleaned from the qualification and address of the informant. A daughter living with her mother is more likely to have the correct information than a family friend living in the next village.
Families or Individuals Vanish From the Census
This is a very common problem. We all like to use the census because it gives a valuable snapshot of where people were on a given date in a given year and how they were related to the people with whom they lived.
A common 'short-cut' to following a family back through the generations is to go back in time through the census, finding the same individuals or families at ten yearly intervals. An example: a search for a John Storey, born in Newcastle in 1824. In 1881 he is living with his daughter, son-in-law and grand-children and the aim is to follow this individual back, in order to find something about his other relatives and, eventually, who his parents were, by finding him as a child.
Usually this is an effective method of finding two or three generations of a family very quickly. But sometimes, a search of 1871 finds no John Storey, born in Newcastle in 1824. Did he emigrate? Did he somehow miss the census? Sometimes the rest of the family are there, and John's missing; other times they all seem to have vanished. How?
Families or Individuals Vanish From the Census
Of course, sometimes there is an interesting story here of emigration or travel. But it's worth exploring a few other possibilities first. The first one is to try 'Story' instead of 'Storey'. There could be spelling variations on the original document, or even more likely on the transcript where somebody was attempting to read the original handwriting. Indeed errors of transcription mean that it could even be worth trying 'Stoney' or 'Stony' and a variety of other variations that might not immediately come to mind.
Next broaden the year of birth. Is it known or has it just been taken from another census record? If it is known it is worth trying a year either side (the birth date on the UK census transcripts is based on the person's age on the census date and can lead to minor errors). Alternatively it is worth attempting a broader age range, as it is not unknown for people to have given a false age on the census, or for the age to have been written wrongly, or transcribed wrongly. If a John 'Stony' born in Newcastle in 1825 is discovered, then other 'tests' will be required to ensure you have tracked down the right man.
Families or Individuals Vanish From the Census
Finally, it could be that John gave his place of birth as Newcastle in 1881 but was more accurate in 1871, saying Cullercoats or Byker. Alternatively, in 1871 he may have just said Northumberland. This should provide a number of different avenues to explore.
Remember also that people are not always where they are expected to be and are not always living with family. As such, once an individual is tracked down, it does not always provide the rich data that was hoped for, although there will always be something interesting and worthwhile.
If your ancestor gave an "incorrect" birthplace for his mother or father, is it possible that he interpreted the question as "where is your mother from?" instead of "where was your mother born?" Mother might have been born in one place and "been from" somewhere else (depending upon where she grew up and where her family originated). It might have been this place that she considered herself "from" even though it was not actually where she was born. We cannot know for certain what our ancestors were thinking when they were answering questions for the census taker or the marriage license clerk. All we have is the document they left behind.
When interviewing family members use as many names as possible. Relationships can create confusion. When interviewing my grandmother, it took several minutes to make it clear to her that I was asking about her grandfather, not her father. She had referred to her own dad as a grandfather for so long (to her own children) that she originally answered the questions as if I was asking about her father. Using her grandfather's name of John reduced the confusion (her father, fortunately was named George). While it may not be possible use names exclusively, minimizing the number of relationships used when asking questions can reduce confusion