Common genealogy mistakes

21 May 2024

From missing records to misspelt names, tracing your family history can sometimes feel like banging your head against a brick wall. Some of these setbacks are inevitable, but others can be avoided if you know what to look for. Here are three of the most common genealogy mistakes, and the steps you can take to keep yourself on track.

1. Muddling two people with the same name

The further back in history you go, the more likely you are to find duplicate names. 21st-century parents might want to dazzle the world with unique baby names, but previous generations were far more conservative.

 In 1850, there were 50,000 babies named William or Mary born in England and Wales. In 2021, the two most common names (Noah and Olivia) accounted for just over 7,000 babies. This is especially significant when you consider that the population grew from 17.9 million to 59.6 million in the same timeframe.

This means that you need to tread carefully, especially if you have a common surname. If you’re looking for a Mary Smith (or even a William Williams!), don’t assume the first record you find is the correct one. It’s also important to remember that naming children after their parents was far more common in the past, so make sure you’re not confusing two generations of the same family.

2. Missing out family members who were born in a different location

While people certainly move around a lot more today, it’s wrong to assume that past generations were completely static. Travelling for work was common, especially as the Industrial Revolution drew more and more people from the countryside to the city. In 1801, one in five British people lived in towns or cities. 50 years later, this proportion had doubled.

With such widespread movement, many people would have been born away from their traditional stomping grounds. This makes it vital to expand your search beyond the areas you think of as your ancestral home.

Imagine you’re just beginning your genealogy journey. You’ve been told that your family lived in rural Lincolnshire for generations, so you focus your search in that area. Then you come across the family name in Manchester. It must be a coincidence, you think. After all, you’re from a long line of Lincolnians. You ignore the record and move on.

This is a big mistake. Victorian Manchester was a thriving factory town, and an intrepid family member could easily have headed west in search of work. While he was there, he might have started a family of his own. Maybe there’s a whole clan of Mancunians just waiting to be discovered! Focusing on known locations is sensible, but don’t be afraid to look further afield. You never know what you might find.

3. Assuming an elderly relative had no family

Genealogy isn’t just about delving into the distant past. Recent events can be just as surprising, so it’s important to keep an open mind. Sometimes our memories of living or recently deceased relatives can cloud our judgement, causing us to miss vital clues.

Here’s a scenario that might be familiar. An elderly uncle of yours has died recently and you are adding him to your family tree. He lived alone and, apart from you, he never had any visitors. He spent the last few years of his life as a recluse, rarely leaving his house and never showing any inclination to be social.

With these memories of your uncle fresh in your mind, you’re sure he couldn’t possibly have had any other family. This is an understandable assumption, but it may be a serious error of judgement. The older generation were often very guarded about their personal lives. Perhaps your uncle’s isolation wasn’t due to a lack of family, but due to an estrangement that he was unwilling to mention. Even if you think you know someone, never be afraid to dig a little deeper.

Don’t go it alone

These are some of the most common pitfalls, but there are plenty more in store for the amateur genealogist. Navigating these challenges alone can be daunting, but we’re here to help. Using the latest resources, our expert researchers can tame even the thorniest of family trees. Take a look at our services or get in touch to find out more.

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