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

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What are the chances of making a mistake in your family tree?

One of the realities of doing any kind of work is the possibility of making errors or mistakes. This is a fundamental part of our universal life experience. How we deal with our mistakes and errors is a very personal matter. Some of us refuse to believe that we could be in error, but more commonly, we believe that our genealogically inclined ancestors were perfect and never made any errors.

Some of the most common errors in family trees come from orthographic and typographical errors. Some researchers assume that their ancestral names were spelled in one way and one way only. This viewpoint overlooks the fact that consistent spelling of surnames did not become common until well into the 19th Century. Adopting one form of spelling over another turns out to be arbitrary and there is no one "right" way to spell names historically.

The reality is that our "genealogy" is based on records of the past. We are advisedly limited in compiling our genealogy to what is in the historical record; right or wrong. But all of us who pursue genealogical research into original historical records, as opposed to indexes and narrative accounts, will unavoidably encounter contradictory records purporting to record the same event. This is the most persuasive reason for discovering as many historical records as it is possible to discover. Reconciling contradictory historical records is a constant challenge.

One of most persistent activities of my long involvement in genealogy has been the need to "correct" the records that have been copied and passed down from generation to generation by my relatives. Inevitably, some of our most highly cherished traditions and ancestral links have been found to be inaccurate. Some of us have difficulty in remembering what we did yesterday. Some of us can't remember the days of the week or what we ate for our last meal. Personal memory is chronically unreliable. So even though relying on the memories of our relatives and ancestors may be our only source for some information, we need to treat orally transmitted specifics and some traditions with skepticism and make an attempt to verify the information whenever possible.

You can get into a never-ending epistemological quandary if you begin doubting that you can ever achieve historical accuracy. But if you are a careful researcher and take the time to document every conclusion, you will be as accurate as is possible given the nature and reliability of historical records. If you would like to get into a more detailed analysis of the nature of historical and scientific limitations, you can begin by reading one of the many editions of the following:

Descartes, Rene. 1637. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. 
To make any headway in our genealogical research, ultimately we need to accept the inconsistency and inaccuracy of historical records and move on to building a logically structured pedigree based on the best available historical records and substantiated with carefully crafted conclusions. We can never be absolutely certain about our ancestral narrative, but by creating carefully crafted conclusions regarding relationships supported by sources, we can achieve a high degree of accuracy.

So what are the chances of making errors in our family trees? Very high. This conclusion supports the need to become involved in an entirely collaborative family tree where anyone with information on a particular person or relationship can contribute, edit, correct or delete information. The possibility of inaccurate information remaining in such a family tree is diminished by the number of participants.


  1. In my view the above is an excellent post spoiled by the second last sentence.
    “This conclusion supports the need to become involved in an entirely collaborative family tree where anyone with information on a particular person or relationship can contribute, edit, correct or delete information.”

    Any dataset that anyone may edit, correct or delete information is only as good as the most inaccurate contribution.
    Allowing anyone to edit the information allows accurate information to be replaced with guesswork. Many forums already carry comments and complaints from researchers who have spent painstaking years of careful research compiling accurate information to have it edited or replaced by another’s inaccurate assumptions.

    Collaboration is good but for accuracy there has to be constraints on editing and deletions. Without constraints there can be chaos.

    1. There are certainly different perspectives and views on this subject. I guess I need to write about backing up your data one more time. My guess is that more data is lost through genealogists hoarding their data on paper or on their own computer than is lost on a truly collaborative family tree program such as the Family Tree. I have had extensive data on the Family Tree for years now and have not "lost" any data despite almost constant changes. Thanks for the comment. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, even your own basket.