Common Traps for the Unwary

It can be easy to be mislead, or to take the wrong things at face value, when you are new to family history research (or even when you aren't so new!). Below are some of the common mistakes made by people researching their tree.

Don't decide that an event had to happen on a particular date because your parents/grand parents/aunts said it did. Dates have been altered for many reasons: marriages have been known to occur 15 years after they were supposed to, and people have been known to forget which year they were born.

Consider carefully how a particular item of information got onto a certificate, and then assess how reliable it is; what the odds are that it is correct. In this respect, death certificates are one of the least reliable records. While they often give very valuable leads, they can also mislead. They are usually filled in by a member of the family who is grieving for the departed. Their mind is seldom on the matter at hand, and they may easily enter incorrect information. Frequently they do not know the answers to the questions, and will guess, at a time when their memory may not be as reliable as usual.

It is often useful to know something of the customs and lifestyle of the period of interest. What is currently regarded as proper may have been regarded as shameful one hundred years ago. For instance, was it fashionable for the wife to be older than her husband, or vice-versa? Ages were sometimes altered by a few years, to conform with the current fashion. If the fashion changed, so did the ages.

Names have been spelled in many ways throughout the years. A lot of people were unable to read or write, and hence couldn't spell their name. When their name was entered in a register or list, it was spelled the way the person filling in the list thought it should be spelled. How many different ways have you seen your own name spelled? And most people these days are literate!

The way names were spelled (indeed, even the names themselves) varied according to what was fashionable. For example, feelings in Australia about many things were influenced by the feelings in England. So if England was at war with, say, Germany, and your name sounded German (even if it wasn't), you might change the spelling of your name (anglicise it) to improve your job or promotion prospects, or just to get on with your fellow Australians.

In short, just because a name is incorrectly spelt doesn't mean this isn't the person you are looking for.

The final piece of advice is don't give up. Just because you can't find a vital date, or name, don't give up on it. It will turn up somewhere, somewhen. Keep your eyes open while researching other things. Most genealogists can tell you about the time they accidentally found a vital piece of information they had been searching for for years. They were looking for something else, and there was the missing link, right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it had been misspelled, or they had been looking under the wrong date, or it had been mis-filed. So keep an open mind and an open eye, and don't give up.