While genealogy research is endlessly fascinating, it also has its annoyances and frustrations, like any undertaking. Having researched my family’s genealogy for more than two decades, I’ve seen my share of genealogy irritations.
Fortunately, there are often ways of getting around genealogy stumbling blocks. Following are some of the most common problems you’ll run into when researching your family’s ancestry. I’ve also included tips for getting past such obstacles.
Did these tips help you? Please leave a comment below to let me know whether you tried anything I’ve suggested!
Try Ancestry.com and get 14 Days FREE!
This post may contain affiliate links; please read my disclosure here.
Missing Maiden Names
One big problem with tracing maternal lines in genealogy is, of course, figuring out the maiden names of your ancestral females. Historically, women often weren’t considered important enough to worry about tracking their ancestral lines.
What To Do
There are a number of ways to guess what a maiden name might have been and see where it leads you. These include looking at the names of the woman’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
You can also look at U.S. Census data to see if a sibling or widowed parent of the wife may live with the family.
Middle Name Mayhem
Millions of people walking around today have no idea of the confusion they’ll cause their future descendants by going by their middle names.
In many cases, this wasn’t a choice that person made. Parents decided to call their child by his or her middle name from the beginning.
That decision leaves confusion in its wake. People who go by their middle names leave paper trails that alternately refer to them by their first name, middle name, or first initial with middle name.
You might find this when you search U.S. Census records as well as vital records such as marriage certificates and death certificates.
What To Do
Birth certificates are the best way to figure out what name a person was born with. You can also follow a family through as many U.S. Census records as they appear in with their parents and siblings.
You can figure out if you have the right family based on some of the other names. You’ll have some idea of whether a person is being listed under different names based on the year of birth.
You might see someone named John W. in one census who was born in 1849, and in the next census, he’s listed as Bill or William, born in 1849. It may take some practice to get the hang of it, but you’ll get a feel for how to determine whether someone went by a middle name and which names you need to research them under.
Scads of People With the Same Name
My ancestry doesn’t contain a lot of folks with super common last names like Smith or Jones. However, many of the last names in my ancestry and my husband’s are fairly common in the area where our families have deep roots.
In addition, parents didn’t seem to care about repetitive first names years ago. You’ll see cousins with the same first and last names who were born within a few years of each other.
Parents weren’t usually creative with their naming, either. They had certain family names that they’d use repeatedly over several generations.
That’s helpful in some ways. For example, Preston used as a middle name is a quick and easy way for me to know that someone in a certain area with a certain last name is almost certainly related to me. It’s not a common first or middle name in most cases, but it keeps popping up in my Stockdale/Stockdill relatives.
What To Do
Be very cautious to make sure you have the right person. Track their year of birth and family members.
In my case, many of my ancestors lived in or near the same place their entire lives. That makes it somewhat easier to ensure I get the right person.
Even if there are many people with the same name in the same county or in neighboring counties, I can often pinpoint the correct person because he or she didn’t move more than a few miles, if at all.
Remember that travel by planes, trains, and automobiles is a fairly recent development in history. While a few of my relatives did move out of state, my direct ancestors stayed put in western Pennsylvania. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have been born and raised there.
For relations that did move, it’s more challenging, but not impossible to track them. You can search U.S. Census records to reveal where they were born and list family members who lived with them.
Obituaries can also reveal where people were born and raised. Old historical and genealogical books such as those available on Google Books sometimes list family members of profiled individuals. A listing might include a person’s kids and say something like “Robert, born in 1810, removed to Iowa, where he died in 1879.”
Unreliable Sources and Inaccurate Information
Genealogy research methods can vary wildly in their reliability. In fact, almost no source is 100 percent reliable. You might even find mistakes in birth certificates when a parent’s name is not spelled correctly.
I have yet to find out about a mistake on someone’s gravestone. However, the engraving wears off over time, making it hard to read what’s there accurately. There are also some mistakes in Findagrave.com, since the provided information is manually typed in by users of the service.
It’s important that you not consider any of your genealogy data infallible unless it is information that you know to be true. For example, I know for sure the names and birthdates of my parents, grandparents, siblings and children. I was also able to get first-hand knowledge of that information for a number of my other relatives, particularly those who are still living.
What To Do
Be aware of how reliable various genealogy research sources are. Avoid using unreliable sources such as other people’s family trees unless they cite excellent sources.
You’ll need to actually check their sources, too. They might have used a fairly reliable source such as the U.S. Census but tracked the wrong person – something I’ve seen many times on other people’s family trees.
If you use Findagrave.com, look at the photo of the actual gravestone, if available, rather than relying entirely on what someone added to the record. For other sources, consider looking at the actual scanned document rather than relying on the provided information that was extracted from the original.
It doesn’t seem like people used to be that concerned about how their names were spelled. Plus, U.S. Census documents are notorious for misspellings.
Census workers used to go door-to-door, jotting down census data by hand. They wrote down how they thought names were spelled, which was not always correct.
What To Do
Most online genealogy research tools search for both the name you enter and similar names. An exception is Findagrave.com. On this site, you’ll either need to know the spelling or enter the first few letters and check the box next to partial surname search.
Which is the correct spelling? Look for consistency across as many vital records as you can find. Also, if you can find the gravestone, it’ll likely offer the preferred spelling the relative was using at the time he or she passed on.
For some reason, my 2x great grandfather and a brother started spelling their last name Stockdale instead of Stockdill. I can only guess at why they’d change the spelling, possibly because it’s the more common spelling of the name.
I’ve encountered other relations who made less drastic changes to their last names. Even changing one letter changes the name and often how it’s pronounced.
My dad’s family shortened and Americanized their Polish-sounding surname. Immigrant families sometimes changed their last names to make them shorter and easier for people in their new country to pronounce.
What To Do
As noted above, online genealogy research tools search for similar names as well as exact matches to what you typed, with the exception of Findagrave. If you’re fortunate enough to find a photo of your relative’s gravestone, you’ll probably see the final name that he or she used.
I’ve found ancestors who lived fairly long lives, into their 70s, 80s or even 90s. However, many of my relatives died young, often of ailments that rarely kill people today.
My great grandfather’s situation is a classic example. Charlie had three wives and had at least one child with each of them.
He and his first wife had three children, one of whom died when he was about three years old. Wife number one, Pearl, died from septicemia caused by appendicitis.
Charlie and wife number two, Mary, had one child. Mary died in a flu epidemic.
Charlie’s third wife was my great grandmother, Jane, who outlived him and died when I was a child. Their only child was my grandfather. Charlie died from complications of tuberculosis when my mom was a child.
Jane was a young widow with a baby when she married Charlie, who was about 16 years her senior. Her first husband had died at age 23, after less than two years of marriage, from complications following surgery for appendicitis.
How hard would that all be to piece together if I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of it from relatives?
These days, people rarely die from appendicitis due to surgical advances and antibiotics. We have flu shots that make flu epidemics far less deadly. Dying from, or even coming down with, tuberculosis is almost unheard of in the civilized world due to antibiotics. However, in the not-too-distant past, these ailments and more make it likely that some of your ancestors were widowed and remarried at least once.
What To Do
Findagrave.com can provide help with figuring out whether someone had a previous spouse. People were often buried next to their first spouses. My great grandmother, for example, is buried next to her first husband, to whom she was married only briefly before his death.
Obituaries also often mention when someone was preceded in death by a first (and possibly second) spouse. The U.S. Census might also show a different spouse living with your ancestor and his or her children before marrying your ancestor.
Hard to Read Handwriting
The major genealogy research sites have digitized millions of pages of documents, many of them fully or partially handwritten. Computers read the scanned files and pull out significant words such as names, particularly on U.S. Census records and vital records.
Old documents you find online in your genealogy research can be a bear to decipher for reasons other than the handwriting. They’re also faded and worn from age. It can be hard for humans or computers to make out what’s in these documents.
You’ll often need to examine the actual scanned document to find the information you’re seeking rather than relying on whatever text a genealogy research site has provided. For example, if you’re looking through wills and probate records for references to family members, you’ll want to read through the document.
What To Do
To help in reading an old, scanned document, I save a copy to my computer. Then, I bring up the saved copy, and I can easily magnify it and move it around.If you’re not able to save a copy to your computer, you can use the Snipping Tool, which comes with Windows, to clip and save portions of the document.
If you’re not able to save a copy to your computer, you can use the Snipping Tool, which comes with Windows, to clip and save portions of the document.
Researching the Wrong Person
No genealogy research is perfect – including yours and mine. I recently discovered that information on one of my ancestors was incorrect. I believe this was part of the wealth of family history data that I inherited from my great uncle Jack.
It turns out one of my direct ancestors was the daughter of a man’s second wife, not his first wife.
I had conducted a fair amount of research based on the belief that a woman was my ancestor when she was, in fact, of no relation to me. She had died and her husband remarried, then had my ancestor with his second wife.
What To Do
Avoid copying strangers’ family trees. Even if you copy the genealogy of someone you deem reliable such as I did with my great uncle Jack, check their work, as I have done over the years.
He did a phenomenal job in an age when there was no so such thing as online genealogy research. Like everyone else, though, he did make some mistakes.
Document your genealogy research. Cite your sources and save copies of important documents when possible. Try to stay away from unreliable sources.
If you do use a questionable resource, make sure you denote it as such in your genealogy software.
There may be times when you want to make note of a resource that you’d like to verify later. Rather than save this information to the affected relative in your family tree, save a copy of the file to your computer. Then, keep a list of resources to check later.
It’s important to leave yourself open to discovering these mistakes. It’s tempting to ignore your previous family tree research in favor of new branches. However, going back over your previous work is often how you discover your mistakes.
Occasionally, you’ll find ancestors who seem to completely vanish from all available paper trails. What happened to them? Did they die, move out of the country, or intentionally disappear?
What To Do
Make sure that you exhaust all possible paper trails. Search for the names of your ancestor’s siblings, parents, spouse, and children, especially U.S. Census records, to see if the missing person is living with relatives.
Do a nationwide search on Findagrave.com to see if your ancestor may have died in another state. If that doesn’t help, do an international Findagrave.com search.
It’s possible that some people skipped town and didn’t wish to be found. It’s more likely, however, that an ancestor moved somewhere and never returned home, for whatever reason.
Look into what events were driving people to move to different places during various points in U.S. history.
Travel used to be pretty dangerous for a variety of reasons. Even traveling on early passenger trains was potentially hazardous.
It’s possible that you might never find your missing relative. If he or she went on a long trip and never returned, even that person’s family may not have known what happened.
Read more of my genealogy posts here!
If you enjoyed this post, could you please like it on Facebook and give it a G+1?