Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some common mistakes in genealogy

I tend to look at an awful lot of genealogy and some of it is really awful. Here is a compilation of a few of the most obvious and easily rectified errors:

1. Failing to look for and record the correct full name of an ancestor.  One of the side benefits of looking at a large collection of user submitted family trees is that it is fairly easy to compare the submissions of any one individual and see the variations. In this case, I have used's Public Member Trees and New FamilySearch for the lists. All of the individuals I examine in this post as well known and accurate information on the individual is extremely easy to find. I can verify a name of any of these individuals from several online free original sources. Here is the classic example from my family: Henry Martin Tanner. Just to get an idea of the number of submissions,'s Public Trees show 37,110 returns on a search for his name. The name variations are as follows:
Henry Martin Tanner
Henry Tanner
Henry M. Tanner
Henry W. Tanner (obviously wrong)

I started with someone who is well recorded. Here is the second example: Henry's father, Sidney Tanner.
Sidney Tanner
Sydey Tanner
Sydney Tanner

None of these variations are a reflection of the common problem of a lack of a standard spelling. The name variations do not appear in any source records that I have seen. Next example: Ove Christian Oveson.
Ove Christian Ovesen
Ore Christian Overson
Ove Andreasen
Ove C. Oversen
Ove C. Overson
Ove Christian Jensen
Ove Christian Overson
Ove Christian Oveson
Ove Christian Oveson (Overson)
Ove Conrad Overson
Ove Ovesen

I think you can get the idea. Some of these are probably the wrong person. It might help to know that Ove Christian Oveson changed his name to Overson when he came to the U.S. from Denmark.

2. Failure to record the complete or correct location for an event.  This is really common. Usually, the submitter merely leaves out the county or other larger geographic designation. In places like Denmark where identical names are common, failing to identify the exact location of an event usually ends up with the wrong person. Here are the places listed for Henry Martin Tanner's birth in 1852:
San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California
San Bernardino, San Bernardino, California
San Barnadino, California
of Utah
Joseph City, Apache, AZ
Joseph City, Arizona, USA
Toquerville, Wash. UT
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona
Lakeside, Arizona
Date and place not provided

Can you guess which one is correct for 1852?

3. Failure to provide a correct date or giving an approximate date when the actual date is known. Back to Henry Martin Tanner, his birth date is well documented and correct, 11 June 1852. Here are the variations:
11 June 1852
11 July 1852
about 1858
about 1859
Date and place not provided

Come on, there is really no excuse for the variations. There are no records that show different dates for his birth other than those sloppy submissions.

4. Failure to provide a name or date when the name or date is well known. I can't really give an example of this because the information is lacking from the submitter's file. For example, it is common to find an unknown spouse for someone whose spouse's name is readily available. It is also common for submitted family trees to have the first name of the wife when her maiden name is known. The submitter commonly cops out by using Mrs. Jones or Miss Jones where the Jones is the husband's surname. This may be an acceptable practice in some circles but it is unacceptable to me.

5. Considering two individuals to be the same person, merely because they have the same name.  What can I say about this except that it happens all the time.

Well, as you can imagine, the list could go on and on and perhaps it will in the future.


  1. If Ove Christian Oveson was Danish, then I'll eat my nose if his original name was indeed Oveson. No way. Either -sen or in older times -søn, not -son.

    Just looked a bit around. If it's the person mentioned in - which it very much looks like it might be - then his original name in Denmark was Ove Christian Jensen, named after his father Jens Andreas Ovesen ( who again was named after his father Ove Andersen.
    Scans from the parish registers (found at and

  2. Wow. That's so cool, JP. I've done Swedish research on the other side of my family, but I don't know if I've ever gotten around to looking into the Danish records. Thanks for sending those! I'll have to put up a blog post tomorrow or Friday with those two records and a link to your comment.

    As far as the -son and -sen problem: it was not unheard of for Danes to change their name to -son when they came to America. One notable example was Mormon Church Historian Andrew Jenson. He was Danish through and through, but used the -son spelling his whole life. I've assumed the immigrants changed to -son because it was the more American spelling and they were interested in assimilating and having their children be as American as possible.

    Here is a post with Jens Andreas Ovesen's death notice:

    The death notice uses the spelling "Oveson" and "Oversen." His gravestone says "Ovesen."

    (Make up your minds, people!! :)

    The descendants of his sons Lars Peter and Ove Christian use the spellings Oveson and Overson, although as you note in your comment, it should probably be Jensen.

    Thanks again for the info!

    Amy (James's daughter)

  3. "it was not unheard of for Danes to change their name to -son when they came to America."
    It might well have been more common to change name than not to do. And not just the ending. :)

    Doing research in Denmark is easier than many other places as both parish registers and censuses are online for free through Many of the censuses are also transcribed in the Danish Demographic Database.

    Here's the family in the 1840 census:
    Hjørring Amt, Børglum Herred, Taars Sogn, Borup Mark, a house:
    Jens Andreas Ovesen, 29, gift (married), Mosberg Sogn ([birthplace] Mosberg parish), Tømmermand (carpenter)
    Kirsten Marie Pedersd., 32, gift, Ugilt Sogn, hans kone (his wife)
    Ove Chr Jensen, 5, her i Sognet ([born] in this parish), deres Børn (their children)
    Ane Kirstine Jensd., 1, Do
    + two apprentices and a maid

    And in the 1845 census:
    Hjørring Amt, Børglum Herred, Taars Sogn, Borup, a house:
    Jens Andreas Ovesen, 34, gift, Mosberg Sogn, Hjørring Amt, Tømmermand, Huusfader ("house father" - head of family)
    Kirsten Marie Pedersdatter, 37, gift, Ugilt Sogn, Hjørring Amt, hans kone
    Ove Christian Jensen, 10, her i Sognet, deres Børn
    Ane Kirstine Jensen, 6, Do
    Lise Jensen, 2, Do

    Notice that it is Pedersdatter (and Jensdatter). Datter is Danish, dotter is Swedish. And also notice that Ane Kirstine is called Jensdatter one place and Jensen in the other, that's (unfortunately) perfectly normal.

  4. Wow. Thanks again, JP for the resource links and documents and translations. That's a great incentive to spend some time looking at the Danish records.

  5. I would agree with you had you been discussing completed, published genealogies. In those works, all of the above are certainly unacceptable. However, most Public Trees are not completed works uploaded to the site, but research works-in-progress. All of the "mistakes" you mention in this post will likely be corrected in many of the trees as their research continues. Criticizing Ancestry's Public Trees is a lot like criticizing a researcher's private research notes (which are of course public in today's social web).

  6. While I will agree it is best and proper to include full complete names, dates and locations in genealogical research, I have to agree with Michael Hait that most of what you find on or other sites is work-in progress, and those people may not be as far along in their research as you, thus may not have found the full data you are expecting. If you were to see this in a published book, for example, with no explanation of why the data are incomplete or missing, then you could certainly feel justified in the lack.