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. That required a lot of hours to double-check research I had already accomplished, especially since I had not saved any notes describing where I originally found the information. I had to start researching this person all over again.

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-speaking people living in areas that are now called 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 later 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 least-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 my original record entries I had previously researched as the same names and families kept appearing in the family tree of the “new” Joseph Theriault as well as in the family tree of the previous person with the same name that I had previously recorded. Well, I think he is the correct one! 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!

17 Comments

You didn’t explicitly explain the comment “Joseph is undoubtedly the most common first name of all French-Canadians.” but I’m sure you know the reason and it is the same as the fact that “Marie” was the most common first name of Acadian French girls. In fact if your “Joseph Theriault” had brothers (a good bet) they were almost certainly christened “Joseph” as well, just as the Roman Catholic church christenings of his sisters would probably have them as “Marie”s. Of course the children all had middle names and that is how they were addressed. Most of these Acadians simply omitted their Joseph/Marie christening/baptismal names, certainly by the time they became adults. Their parents may have addressed them as “Joseph ___” and “Marie ____” and they will generally appear in census and such records with their full names but for obvious reasons they couldn’t use only Joseph or Marie in their everyday lives or it would be chaos. You also didn’t mention whether the first “Joseph Theriault” that you followed down a rabbit hole had the same second/middle name as the chap who eventually you discovered was in fact the correct ancestor.[I actually would be surprised if they also shared middle names.]
The religious honorifics Joseph and Marie have of course a comparable honorific in the German “Johann”.

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I, too, did this and not when I was first starting my family tree. It happened when I was first researching in Poland. Good news is that I did catch the error and am more cautious now. It did make me feel better, though, to know that Dick Eastman had done the same. Do hold on to the info ; I have found connections liberally decades later and was glad I had held onto the research.

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Carl H. Bloss Archivist Emeritus Bethany Childrens Home June 18, 2020 at 7:46 am

Dick, we must also watch our us of the term UNDOUBTEDLY? This is an assumption but not necessarily based on the fact. I, too, have “barked up the wrong tree” to the tune of 600 ancestors. With 3 men – same time/ same place/ same name – I had assembled everything an then began compartmentalizing each. Early genealogists of these families just grouped everyone together without checking dates or facts.Carefully following the Mills Evidence: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian, I created a treatise for recreating all these families. But I DID NOT destroy my evidence of the wrong families. I just sent that info on to a close Genealogical Society for their records for any future researcher.
Oh, the missing clue to solve most of the problem? My ancestor couldn’t read or write so sign everything from Emigration, Immigration, Naturalization, Will, Deeds WITH AN “X”. There are still gaps to be filled but records not immediately available will show up eventually.
Thanks for your explanation to others who just collect the names not the personalities.. Carl

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Like many, I learned some important lessons the hard way: 1) always record sources – don’t worry about meeting academic citation specifications, just write down every detail about where you found the information and worry about citation formatting later; 2) download and save document images whenever possible – even your own transcription can contain errors and omissions; and 3) separating multiple people in the same generation who have the same name is a minefield. Whenever I have to re-check my data I am very grateful for #1 and #2, and #3 reminds me how easy it is to wander off the correct path.

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I made a very similar error many years ago, I checked Parish Records on-line, visited churchyards in Cornwall and entered the information into my wife’s family tree. Some years later I discovered my mistake and corrected my records and destroyed my notes relating to the incorrect information. Some years later it became obvious that the destroyed notes related to a generation further back of another family that was linked by marriage to the genuine family tree. Well, I learnt a lesson to not destroy one’s notes even if they appear to be not relevant at the time..

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I’m so sorry this happened to you but somehow it’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one. For me it was Hugh Bruton, an ancestor and 19c Irish immigrant to NYC. I found the ‘right’ Hugh and worked on him for about a year til, to my horror, I found a death cert for the Hugh I had been following before his marriage when I mistakenly joined the right and wrong Hughs. During my research, I learned that Hugh was and is a popular first name in the Bruton families of Counties Meath and Westmeath in Ireland. There were and are quite a few of them in the US and Ireland. My right Hugh Bruton was the same age and county. In my tree, I saved’ Hugh Wrong Bruton’ under that name so I can keep cross-checking any new info.

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When I read the examples of barking up the wrong tree, I thought I was reading my own experience. The snag in my tree came from my father, and his father. I had to learn that if a woman, with children, remarried, the new husband would “give” his last name to the children, without the benefit of adoption. I spent 20 years, plus, looking for my grandfather, thinking his name was Pinkham. Even my dad had the name Pinkham. As I learned by the old fashioned way of using research, and pulling out what little hair I had left, I found out my grandfather was born a Connell, as was my father. But, when my grandfather was 11 years old, his mother married a man named Pinkham. My grandfather was never adopted, but was “given” the name of Pinkham. This is how my father, also born a Connell, became a Pinkham, who, also, was never adopted. I guess adoptions, in those days, were either expensive, or unavailable. Twenty years of looking, traveling to homesteads, sending money for documents that didn’t exist, taught me a hard lesson. Don’t ASSUME. I now believe that it’s not what you find, but also what you don’t find.

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I believe some people add ancestor just to add names. Last week while playing around on Ancestry I found someone had added to their records a supposed daughter of my maternal Grandparents. They had the daughter as Martha Francis when the daughter’s name was Martha Jane. There was a one year difference in birth years, 1853 to 1854. The Martha Francis married a different man than Martha Jane. They had Martha Francis in Iowa where she died and Martha Jane never left east central Illinois and married and is buried there.

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I have been careful of this happening and that probably has a lot to do with my maiden name. The county where my father was born was a small time farm county with two families totally unrelated of the same surname and my ancestor’s name and his wife’s name are duplicated in the other family. YIKES! Then if you take them back to where they moved from, there are once again two families of the same surname but not related. Troubles. But my biggest anger at all this is when I go to the only genealogies, they all have this family so messed up and so much incorrect information attached to them and the children. I get upset. I have even had a lady argue with me over my grandfather’s sister. Sorry, my dad, mom, grandfather, grandmother, etc all knew her. I can take you to her grave. I have no doubt (besides having the family papers, photos, she is related to both my father and mother) who she was and who she married but alas some want her to be someone else.

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Assumptions – – I made a bad mistake by assuming that a wife and mother in mid 19th century would have died before her husband married a second time. There were several daughters, and they continued to live with their father. I found out several years later that the lady had left her whole family, gotten a divorce, married another man, had another family, and lived a long life. Quite a surprise. Fortunately, I keep notes on all my research. I recently found that a professional genealogist who had written a report for a relative many years ago had recorded a wrong surname for a 5th great grandmother. I believe the mistake started as a typo. Fortunately, I checked with other sources, was able to find notes I had made about 20 years ago, and discovered the source of the original mistake. Fortunately, the wrong surname did not result in any wasted research, as that name was one that was actually in my ancestry.

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I spent years recording the history of my ancestors. I fell in love with many of them, was disgusted by some of them, but they were my family. Then I took a DNA test. I ended up having to chop off an entire branch and get to know people whose names I had never heard of. I lost so many people that I had come to know through photos and records. Moral of the story: Records mean nothing if the DNA doesn’t back them up. I don’t do genealogy anymore. DNA only goes so far, because brothers, cousins, etc can muddy even DNA trails. So much heart, time, and money wasted…😔

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I’ve done this a few times, although never with a direct ancestor. I was tracing (with some difficulty) a Permilla Snyder, b.1872 in Shamokin, Pa., which was already difficult due to variations in the spelling of the name. When I finally completed the descendant trace, I realized that I didn’t have any record that the daughter of the parents, and the wife of the husband, were the same person. Sure enough, it turned out that “my” Permilla Snyder died just after the 1880 census, age 8. I had figured “how many Permilla Snyders could there be b.1872 in Shamokin, Pa.?” More than one…

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I spent several months researching the husband of my great aunt. I traced him back 4 or five generations. Later I found an article on their engagement party and found out the city where he was born wasn’t the one I had researched. Turns out his first name that everyone knew him by and referred to him as was his middle name. Had to go back and find him all over again.

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I had the same issue in my family tree. there were two Giacomo Di Dia in my family, only of them being my great grandfather, and the other was his cousin. When I first found Giacomo for a couple of years though he was my great grandfather, I started to notice the D.O.B.’s were not matching up. After hiring another Italian genealogist, she found the correct one, and we found the family connection after going back another generation, and found out that they were cousins.

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For many years I worked with an elderly gentleman on major infrastructure projects. He followed the contract meticulously to ensure a successful completion. He broke down the word ASSUME as follows: it makes an ASS of U and ME.

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Yes! Having a background in research, I learned not to necessarily accept the first answer. Try to ‘disprove’ what you find, before accepting. This is a problem with many trees of individuals.

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Have had a couple of similar trip-ups. One about my g-g-g aunt Rebecca who died in 1838. I saw her gravestone! It said, “beloved wife of Timothy.” But she showed up, married to Timothy, in the 1850 census. One professional genealogist told me that “the gravestone could be wrong – sometimes gravestone engravers got things wrong.” Then, one day I was staring at her name on the census, and noticed her middle initial – a little hard to decipher. But finally got it – and after a little digging found that it was the initial of her maiden name. NOT the middle initial of the aunt who died in 1838. Turns out that Timothy had married two Rebeccas – his first and second wives had the same name.

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