Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Subtitle: Do as I say, not as I have done.

I well remember the day that I lost about 100 ancestors. It could happen to you.

In my case, early in my genealogy endeavors, I was adding information about “new” ancestors in great haste. Well, they weren’t really new; they had always been my ancestors, but their names were new to me in those days. I’d find a new ancestor, record his or her information, then move on and find the parents. In the early days of my genealogy searches, it was easy to add new ancestors. After all, everyone has thousands of ancestors and, when you are new to the game, the records can be easy to find. This is especially true for French-Canadian genealogy as the Catholic Church did a great job of recording almost every christening and marriage and most funerals, usually including the name of the parents in each record. Those records are easy to find on microfilms and in printed books and, in recent years, in online databases.

As a genealogy newcomer, however, I didn’t know about the need for double and triple-checking for accuracy.

One day I found a record for one of my French-Canadian great-great-grandfathers. There was but one problem: I had already documented him (or someone else) but with different dates of birth, marriage, and death, and with a different wife. I had no choice but to go back and double-check the original records I had previously transcribed.

I’ll skip over the boring details and go directly to the bottom line: I had found and transcribed information about the wrong man! Who knew that two different men, living in the same small town in northern Maine at the same time, would have the same name? It turns out they were not even closely related. I later determined that they were very distant cousins although I doubt if the two men ever knew that. I had found a record stating that my great-grandfather was the son of Joseph Theriault and then, in my haste, I found a man named Joseph Theriault living in the same small town at that time. I ASSUMED that he was the father. Some months later, I found ANOTHER Joseph Theriault living in the same small town.

NOTE #1: The word ASSUMED should never be used in genealogy!

NOTE #2: Theriault is a very common Acadian surname. (The Acadians were the French people living in areas that are now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Many of their descendants moved to northern Maine to escape the British Expulsion of 1755–1763.) Joseph is undoubtedly the most common first name of all French-Canadians. I don’t know how many babies have been christened with the name Joseph Theriault over the years, but there must have been hundreds. This is roughly the Acadian equivalent of looking for a man named John Smith in English-speaking countries.

Okay, finding that I had erred in my earlier genealogy efforts, I removed the “errant” Joseph Theriault from my database. The problem is that I had already traced the ancestry of the “wrong” Joseph Theriault back another 6 or 8 generations! By removing the erroneous entry, I also removed more than 100 other people from my (assumed) list of ancestors!

That was a very depressing evening as I realized I had spent many, many hours recording the ancestry of people who were not in my family tree. I had to start all over again with this branch of the family, proceeding with a bit more caution this time. I double- and triple-checked everything and am now confident that my new records have a higher degree of accuracy.

Now let me ask you a few questions:

Are you SURE that every record you have transcribed is 100% accurate? How about the information you obtained from an online database or from a distant relative? Are you SURE the other person’s work is 100% accurate?

Have you independently verified every “fact” you have discovered? By “independently,” I mean that you should always find a contemporary record that agrees with the first record you found. Even then, mistakes are easy to make. In my case, there were contemporary records available that were recorded by the priests at each marriage. The problem was that two different priests performed marriages of two different men of the same name in the same church, although on different dates. In this case, both of the original records were equally accurate but referred to different men. I only found the error by comparing their birth dates, their marriage dates, the names of the wives, and the first names of their children.

How many possibly inaccurate records do you have in your database right now?

FIRST MORAL TO THIS STORY: Use caution and common sense when transcribing records you find.

Here is my favorite line that I have read dozens of times in different messages, written by different people: “I went on the [insert name of an online database] web site and found 1,000 new ancestors!”

Really? How do you know they are yours? All of them?

FOOTNOTE: There is a silver lining in this story. After researching the ancestry of the “new” Joseph Theriault a few generations, I found that he was a distant cousin of the wrong man. They shared many ancestors, although obviously not all of them. I was able to “recycle” many of the original records I had previously researched. However, this time I did double-check each record to make sure I didn’t repeat my earlier error.

SECOND MORAL TO THIS STORY: Never throw away any records you have previously transcribed. You might find a new use for them some day!

18 Comments

This sounds SO familiar, ha. It’s very easy to mix up two (or more) people with the same name.

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When I started researching my family, my aunt cautioned me to verify each “fact” with three different records. Excellent advice! So, as I researched, I maintained a “research” file for all the possible relatives, and once I felt comfortable – with at least three record verifications – then I would add that name to my “family file”. Result: I have tens of thousands of possible, but unconfirmed relatives in the research file, but only about 2500 confirmed names in the family file – after 15 years of research.

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Wolfgang Schwab May 9, 2014 at 2:21 am

I agree that you always have to be careful to add new ancestors to your own list. But in the end you will never be sure. Especially the fathers will allways have a risk to be the wrong man :-)
So, I personally live with the risk that my list might have errors but also will never state that my list is correct.

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Yes, done the same. Mine was on my grandfather Bossow. Funny that you have a Theriault line. My wife has a line with the same name and it is driving me nuts following and double checking it. Yes, French Canadian and moved to Maine.

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Oh soooo familiar!
Many years ago I was advised that one should attempt to discover three “independent” pieces of information about links between one’s ancestors. Three items meant “likely” or “probable”; two items meant “possible” and one only meant “unproven”. No mention was made of how many pieces of evidence was required for “proven”! Oh yes, finding the family at the same address in a series of census returns is really only one piece of evidence about a link between generations.
Like you, I went scurrying up one line without sticking to the “rules”, but fortunately the two Annie Batchelor’s were 2nd cousins so I only had to make slight adjustments.

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Especially when four brothers all name all of their children with the same names (usually after their father and brothers). Then their children do the same, and so on for a few generations in the same town. What a mess.

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    I know that experience. I’ve been more careful to sort out MY line correctly. The family’s of the other brothers may not have received quite the same care. Difficult to admit, but true.

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I am acadian and in all of my research, I have never heard of my ancesers moving to northern Maine to escape the Expulsion. It was assumed that they didn’t know what hit them until it was too late. Yes, a few were able to hide in the woods but usually they eventuall were found. And 2ndly, Maine was a part of Massachusetts, therefore British,so why would they go there? New slant on our history.

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    The area that is now northern Maine and the adjoining lands in present-day New Brunswick and Quebec were claimed by both the United States and by Great Britain following the American Revolution. The U.S. folks believed it to be a part of Maine but the British claimed that everything north of the Aroostook River was a part of Canada. (I used to live on the north bank of the Aroostook River.) Government officials from both governments rarely visited there because they could be arrested and incarcerated by the other government’s representatives. The area wasn’t really governed at all. The area had many French-speaking residents whose ancestors had earlier migrated southward from Quebec City and the shores of the St. Lawrence River in search of available land.

    Many of the Acadians who left Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) during the expulsion went north and west into the wilderness, both before and after the American Revolution. Many of them traveled up the St. John River and settled amongst the French-speaking communities that were forming in the area. The U.S. census records of 1810, 1820, and 1830 show many Acadian names for families in the area, although not all the towns and villages were recorded by the U.S. census enumerators. After all, they were representatives of the U.S. government and were not welcomed everywhere. Some villages were enumerated while others were not. I have a number of Acadian ancestors who settled there and some of them appear in the U.S. census records of the time. Acadian surnames still are common there: Theriault, Arsenault, and many others, along with many Quebecois names.

    The boundary between the two countries was finally defined by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. It effectively split the contested area in two with the southern half going to the United States and the northern half to Great Britain, later to be Canada.

    For details, go to Google.com and search for “Webster-Ashburton Treaty”.

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Thank you for this great reminder. Early in my research I found a document that told me that my 3rd great grandfather’s name was Henry. On that trip to that archive, I ignored multiple other records that linked a Jacob to the same wife and children, in the same place, in the same time period. I was looking for Henry. Years of experience later I realized that the first bits of information we learn should not become our blinders. We should keep our eyes and minds open, and document every potentially reasonable thing we find. If it doesn’t fit now, it may fit later.

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    Yes I have seen this to be true. I have also seen where in some records the middle name is used and then in others the first name….it’s like they tried to think of ways to make researching family history that much more challenging!

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I discovered sources and fact checking through Ancestry.com. When I discovered I had the wrong ancestor and had to remove first a branch of about 200 and then another branch of about 100. I then realized that those shaky leaves did not lead to guaranteed factual information. Deleting them one person at a time was very time consuming; it took longer to remove than to add them. However, I then discovered that some of them were relatives indeed, just through a different relative. That is when I realized that knowing where you are NOT connected is also valuable information.

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Excellent blog post! Great reminder! Makes me want to start from scratch!! I am actually always amazing at how there can be sooo many people with the same name who marry someone else with the same name- and be living in the same area- or at the same time period- and sometimes one or the other spouse even has parents with the same name- I think they kept reusing names like “Sarah, Mary, William, Charles, Martha, Zephaniah, Elizabeth, etc etc etc….”

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    Family names are a huge hurdle! My mother kept telling me about her family – grandfather was Robert Henry and he had two sons – John and Robert. Each of the sons had two sons with names of John and Robert! All the while she kept telling me about them, she was able to picture each Uncle and cousin and know who they were, but I was lost for years. Only when I met them all on a trip to England did I actually sort everyone out. Now my daughter just sighs and tunes out when I try and get them sorted for her!! Oh, and the two John and two Robert cousins also named their sons – guess what?
    On the other hand, the Scots side of the family used the naming patterns of the day and that is really a help is sorting out who they all are, even with the same first names, the 2nd name is usually a family sir name and different in each case. Mine you when one child dies and the next uses the same name, it gets complicated again.
    No one ever said that doing puzzles was easy, did they?

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Great article Dick, and also the comments are helpful too! I have so many of the same names on both sides of my mother’s family, and then, even their spouses parents often have the same name. As someone else pointed out. Very confusing but good training for us researchers.

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Dick, I’m sure many have had similar experiences with the wrong ancestors–I certainly have. But very good of you to share your experience. And yes, it is way more time-consuming (especially in Ancestry) to take out erroneous ancestors than to put them in because it usually messes up other ancestors’ connections! I have put people in my tree without references (other than another family tree!) but I consider them to be a “maybe” or even “suspect,” just a place-holder until I can get better info to prove or disprove them. I often add a remark that I have no corroborating evidence. Most perplexing to me is when people show relatives whose children’s birth dates precede the birth dates of the parents. And, of course, when looking at someone else’s genealogical data that contains REALLY LARGE numbers of people, well, we should all take those with “a grain of salt.” Another good rule, don’t work on your family tree late at night, especially if you’re over 50 . . .!

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We’ve attached ourselves to the wrong tree several times. One error still persists, but we aren’t sure of the correct information, so we just leave that alone. On another, luckily, my inlaws tree that went on one of the early FTM disks was corrupted so that it was broken around the incorrect information, so we don’t have to fix that.

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