I Don’t Use the Online Trees as a “Source”

I may (emphasis on “may”) use an online tree to get a clue when I am really (emphasis on “really”) stuck. But I do not use the online tree as a source for a parent-child relationship, date of birth, date of death, etc.

There are entirely too many times when online trees are too full of errors to do otherwise. I completely understand that:

  • Online trees are not always wrong.
  • Published books also can be wrong.
  • Other records (for example–courthouse records) can be wrong.


If the fact has never been seen elsewhere and is “reasonable,” I will reach out to the compiler. Generally there is not an answer. There are times where it is really difficult to determine the “source” of the information in the tree.

Other professionals may have different viewpoints. Readers may have different viewpoints. But as for me, if my only source for a date of birth is an online tree, I’m not including that date of birth for the person in question.

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UFO Ancestors, Females, Land Records, and What it Does Not Say

We are excited to offer these four webinars over a two-day period of 15/16 August 2020. Make use of your time and be with us virtually or via a recording after the fact. Join us for one or all four of these presentations–either live or via a recording.

Get to the bottom of your ancestors! Join us for a webinar this month!

Topics are:

  • UFO Ancestors
  • Female Ancestors
  • US Land Records
  • What it Does Not Say

Registration information is on our announcement page that includes specific dates and times.

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Paper Neighbors?

  • What does it mean that people are “paper neighbors” (appear on the same document or on the previous/next one in the series)?
    • Came into office on same day–together and intentionally for a joint purpose?–bringing a witness for a document they were signing is one reason.
    • Died about same time?–did they die of whatever was “going around?”
    • Lived near each other?–are they on the same census page for instance
    • Coincidence pure and simple?
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You’re Not Writing Genealogical Fiction, But…

Sometimes a genealogist needs to think like a historical fiction writer. That’s not because genealogy is fiction, but because a good historical fiction writer is aware of what was going on at the time their story is taking place. They also theoretically should create a plot line that makes sense. Those are two good things for the genealogist to remember.

They should know what was going on historically. They should know what their character’s lives were probably like–typical items in their home, typical home, typical occupations. To write dialog they need to know what words were appropriate for the time period and the person.

They would not mention a zipper in a story where the plot was taking place in 1803. A character would not have written a letter with a ball-point pen in 1854. While those are easy and somewhat simplistic examples, they make the point. If I’m trying to transcribe an inventory from 1912, I need to remember that what looks like “ell phone” is probably a “bell phone” and not a “cell phone.” It is also important to remember that medical practices were different as well.

And a writer of historical fiction needs to make certain their story makes sense. Your interpretation of genealogical records should as well.

Family historians should not write genealogical fiction, but thinking like a historical fiction writer in these two ways can help their research.

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The Lyrics You Never Read

I heard the song on a “retro” show of hits from the 1980s and when it was over the announcer gave the name of it. I had heard the song many times and knew the lyrics by heart.

That’s not the name. The announcer was wrong. My memory was correct. Apparently it was not because a Google search for the song and the band indicated the show’s announcer had the title correct. I had heard it wrong. There are a lot of genealogy lessons in the misheard song title that have nothing to do with the music.

There are errors clerks make in records because they don’t understand what the person is saying. That wrong title reminded me to look at how others have transcribed records because my impression or interpretation could be incorrect. They reminded me that my first impression of something may be wrong and it can be difficult to get that impression out of my head. They also reminded me that it is important to interact with other researchers who may have heard or understood correctly.

They also reminded me that my memory of time can be off. The song was from the 1970s, not the 1980s. Maybe that was a denial on my part of the amount of time that passed.

And there’s the last reminder: people lie about their age.

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That Ancestral Employer

Even with the name of your ancestor’s employer, it can be difficult to locate additional information. Many businesses were not large enough to even keep records long-term, some have long since gone out of business, or others destroyed old records long ago.

Some options are to search newspapers for information about the employer, city directories, county histories, etc. These items are often available digitally making such searches much easier than in the past. These references probably won’t mention your relative by name, but they may provide some additional background helpful to your research.

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Enumerated with the Step-Father’s Last Name?

I spent some time looking for William Neill in the 1910 census. I suspected his mother had married again after her first husband (the Neill man who was William’s father) died. The problem was that I did not have his name.

I had hoped to find the child in the census as William Neill, but it was not meant to be. He was not located until I eventually found the name of his mother’s second husband. There was William. He was enumerated as Willie Richardson.

Complicating the issue was the fact that the family had lived in Oklahoma for a short time between their time in Illinois and Montana. The lack of a complete geographic chronology compounded the issue.

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A Cenotaph

A friend shared a FindAGrave memorial that included a picture of a stone that was erected in honor of his ancestor in the cemetery where the ancestor was buried.

It’s not a tombstone. It’s a cenotaph.

A tombstone is at the actual known burial site. A cenotaph is a stone erected in honor of someone other than the burial location or at an empty grave.

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Divorce they Don’t Mention

Your relatives may have gotten divorced and listed themselves as widowed on every record after that. Other than the divorce record (if you know where it took place and can find), there may be no mention of how the marriage actually ended.

Census records may give their marital status as widowed, obituaries may mention just the marriage, death certificates may not indicate their marital status as divorced either. Obituaries and death certificates may contain information provided by a relative who did not want others to know of the divorce or may not have actually known about it themselves.

Mention of the court action regarding the divorce in a local newspaper may be one way to potentially find the record.

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Who Paid the Property Taxes?

Real property tax records can be one place to obtain information to estimate someone’s approximate year of death. Tax records may list an individual as “deceased” or refer to them using the word “estate.” Both references suggest that the death has occurred relatively recently and that the heirs or the court have not gone through the process of settling up the affairs of the deceased individual.

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