Note: This originally ran in the former Ancestry Daily News on 29 February 2000.
This is a semi-serious look at some misconceptions that genealogists (and non-genealogists) have about family history.
1) We all have a famous ancestor, somewhere. I have found the names of over three hundred of my ancestors and have yet to have any of them qualify as “famous.” In some cases, you may want to reconsider being related to someone famous. Hard-working, law-abiding relatives are nothing to be ashamed of. Try and document your ancestors accurately, whether they were famous or not.
2) There are no “early” babies or shady stories in my family tree. Trace your ancestry completely for six generations and then we will talk.
3) There were three brothers with the last name of [Takeyourpick] who came to America. We descend from the youngest (oldest, middle, tallest, smartest, etc.). If this is true, then the number of families who had three sons is beyond statistical expectations. Check it out.
4) Immmigrants were all poor. There’s no doubt that the vast majority of them were and came to America with only the clothes on their backs. Once in a while though, you’ll find one who had a little bit of money and came to America hoping to make more.
5) Life before 1900 was one of bucolic pastoral bliss, dotted by barn raisings and church socials. Life before 1900 was hard. No running water, no electricity, no law (in some areas), rudimentary medical care (if any), child labor, and few of life’s creature comforts. This only scratches the surface. I’m not even so certain life was “simple.” If I want a loaf of bread, I go to the store. Great-great-grandma likely did not.
6) Everyone likes to hear the tales of “notorious” ancestors. Not everyone will think the story of great-great-great-grandma’s four husbands, two divorces, involvement in a murder, and the running of a tavern should be included in the family history.
7) Census ages are always correct. You must be kidding.
8) Official records should not contain errors. They do. The best way to deal with it is to try and research around it where possible.
9) Genealogists are all retired. Not so. There are genealogists out there who have yet to hit forty or retirement. If you see one who has yet to hit puberty, tell them to interview their grandparents now. Most of all encourage them, gently.
10) Genealogy is not an intellectual hobby. Ever tried to read through (and understand) sixty pages of court records from the 1840s? I’ve taken calculus exams that made more sense. Same thing goes for platting property in metes and bounds. Talk about applied mathematics.
11) My family has a castle in Europe. Some did, but don’t believe it until you see it. Don’t really believe it until you see the deed, title, etc.
12) My ancestor served with Washington, Lee, Grant, etc. Choose your war . . . take your pick. There are lots of these stories. Check them out before believing them. Document your ancestor’s service, accurately.
13) I got it on the Internet, therefore it must be true. Nope.
14) I got it on the Internet, therefore it must be false. Nope.
15) I can do my genealogy entirely via the Internet. Nope.
16) I can do my genealogy without the Internet. Possibly, but it really saves time.
17) The records in State Y are closing because it was posted to the genealogy mailing list for that state. Check out rumors before you spread them. Think before you forward or copy and paste this type of information to other people or lists.
18) I can do all my research using only vital records, obituaries, and census records.Goodness! There’s a vast treasure trove of other sources out there that you can utilize.
19) My surname has always been spelled the same way; we never changed it. Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
20) Everyone replies to e-mail immediately. Some genealogists have non-genealogy commitments, such as family and employment. Be patient and wait a few days before posting a follow-up e-mail.
21) I can trace my ancestry in one afternoon at the computer. Time for a reality check.
22) I can trace my ancestors in one afternoon at the Family History Center. (see number 21)
23) Someone has already traced my entire family tree. I Just Have to Find It. That’s the tricky part—finding it! Then comes the fun of documenting it.
24) Documentation is only for genealogical geeks who get cheap thrills by asking, “Where did you find it?” How will you ever compare three different birth dates for Grandpa if you don’t know where you obtained each date?
25) Genealogists are nuts. More likely they are truly focused on their research. However, one correspondent told me that working on genealogy “beats spending all my free time at a bar.”
26) Genealogists are rude at the courthouse or library. Genealogists are people and a few are rude. Just make certain it’s not you. No family historian wants to walk into the courthouse just after the most obnoxious genealogist on the planet has left the building.
27) Genealogy is boring. You must be kidding. I’ve learned a great deal about history, culture, and myself researching my own family.
28) You ought to be done with that family history by now. Well, I would except every time I find one ancestor I have two more parents to learn about.
29) There is one best genealogical software package. Most have their pros and cons. Pick one that works for you, keep alert for new packages, but only change when you have good reason to. Time spent upgrading and upgrading and constantly learning new packages can be spent doing research.
30) You are completely addicted if you search the ingredient list of your breakfast cereal for your ancestral surnames. This is likely true, but I’m not admitting to this one in public!
15 thoughts on “Genealogical Misconceptions”
Karen Grossman says:
This hasn’t changed. 31. DNA solves every thing. NOT. One more item to add to the list.
Richard Aurand Sherer says:
I would add one slight amendment to #1: I don’t have any ancestors who are famous today, but several of them were famous in their own time. Just because they didn’t make the history books doesn’t mean they weren’t well known once upon a time.
Patty Gilbert says:
Thank you for this information, u’ve helped clear up some misconceptions that either I was thinking about or have done but didn’t know what to expect.
Judy Nichols says:
On no. 11 above on your list – that’s what got me started in genealogy – an uncle whom I didn’t like, told me our family owned a castle in England. I decided there and then to straighten him out. Sure enough, we were sawyers, masons, cooks, etc. He didn’t say much after that, and I have been doing genealogy since the mid 1960’s. I am however, glad he challenged me, as I can’t find anything that is more frustrating, rewarding, and a sure cure for anything that ails you as it keeps you lured in – until all leads are followed. Then more pop up. Love it.
Sharon Tait Grow says:
My family had a castle in Scotland. Today it is a pile of rubble.
Renee Hall says:
Mr Neill this is an awesome list and several had me laughing quite a bit. Thank you for the list of misconceptions for genealogy. I have had to learn the hard way about a few, and not figured out a few others until I started researching, duh! Love your work and great information!
Some things we have to learn the hard way–all of us, myself included.
Add two more: 1. If available, document the cause of death. It might save someone’s life and/or explain way they …
2. Check out those family stories, there often is a grain of truth. Finding the grain is the trick. Example, my grandfather came to this country in 1914 at the age of 7. He claimed he was on the same ship as Teddy Roosevelt. He really was. My grandfather came on the Imperator, which picked up passengers from a disabled ship. Roosevelt was on the disabled ship returning from a wedding in England. He was one of the passengers who was picked up.
Bobbi Deo says:
My family had 4 brothers and one sister who came here. All documented, thank you.
I know, they are the exception.
I actually have several families with several siblings who immigrated
. The running joke about “three brothers” comes from a number of family histories that seem to often have three brothers who immigrated with one settling in New England, one in the Mid-Atlantic, and one in the South. In those cases there’s nothing to connect them other than the same last name.
Pat Klink says:
I have the “three brothers” situation, too. And yes, 1 went to the Chicago area, my ggf went to MD, & 1 brother stayed in Denmark. At least that’s all we know so far. My grandfather was one of eleven so who knows.
Mary Hammond says:
Nothing about Indian (Native American) princesses?
I overlooked that one 😉
Patricia j. Raczynski says:
I started my Genealogy in the 60s and found a few Surprises as for being DONE or near DONE!! Its a FUN Hobby but one of the GG Nieces is going to have to finish this Family Genealogy because I diffinilly won,t be doing it!!!
Susan Masse says:
#6. Three great grandmothers were divorced. One g-great grandfather earned the “father” title with 21 (and counting) children with over 5 women, (I keep finding DNA cousins LOL). Maybe I’m in the minority, but in my family, we always celebrated the black (and gray) sheep!