Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Learn these so you don't do the same 
by Gray 

If you are an experienced genealogist, then you have graduated way-y-y-y past these mistakes. As for me, the mistakes below are mine.  I own them. 

Uh-oh. Not safe to assume that other people's family trees are correct.
At the start, you should assume their research contains errors, and their work is not "the answer," so much as it is "useful." Think like a detective: Unless you can prove this information on your own, you are wise to keep your doubts.  Vet every bit of data you get rigorously.  

File:CousinTree kinship.svg

Errors I have made and have seen would make for a long list.  Some biggies include 
1) placing absolute trust in impeccable sources, 
2) conflating people together, 
3) attributing family stories to the wrong branch, and 
4) processing information (like old European political geography) through the lens of our own modern times.  

Consider that Great Story
Keep in mind that a story is just a "story."  It's a great start.  Still, you are searching for the Truth, which is often different, surprising, increasingly fascinating, and sometimes really delightful!  

Some Stories are Tall Tales.  Truth can reside more in the fun if not the facts.
As an adult, I have come to the bemused conclusion that, despite his claims, my great great father (he was called Grosspop) was not really a part of the Kaiser's personal guard.  On the other hand, the fact that he told that story to his little grandchildren does make him something of a character.  His name was George Anton Geisel.

Another Grosspop GEISEL story: his told the grandkids that he carried a bullet on his leg from the Franco-Prussian War. Then he would take a bullet out of his pants pocket and show it to them.   

Silly and engaging humor like that continues through the generations of my family.  His grandson (my Dad, Charlie) glued a dime onto a hatpin, and wore it, and called it his "dime-on-pin."

Uh, which Dorothea Koeberlein do you mean?  Our 2nd Great Grandma?  Her niece?  Her sister-in-law? 
Misidentifications happen, even among the most rigorous and sophisticated researchers.  Similar names in similar times can lead to confusion.  Expect it.

Here's an example: this is one of my misidentification. Hope you don't mind me saying, it was rigorously researched with the best information we had at the time.

The "Family Story" of Philomena Henn (with a MORAL at the end). - included information as we were told by our parents, aunts and uncles...

·         born: Philomena SUTTER (Husband to Joseph HENN),
·         Daughter of Margaretha-Philipina SUTTER,
·         Family came from "Alsace-Lorraine"
·         died: Dayton in 1941
·         Birthdate of 19 Jun 1859 - the funeral card stated she was born 10 years later, but that was a typo. She was age 91, not age 81 as stated on memorial card"

From the above family clues, we find this match from the LDS website
·         born: Philomena SUTTER
·         Born 19 Jun 1849
·         Town of Kogenheim, Alsace
Ta da!  A perfect fit!  

um...too bad it was wrong!

Subsequent research changed the picture, as we repeatedly encountered conflicting data as we solidified  the documentation  (you know, the usual: census, death certificates, marriage data, etc.) .

·         born: Philomena KLEIN
·         Daughter of the late John KLEIN and Margaretha-Philipina SUTTER (nee HUSSONG, married KLEIN, and re-married SUTTER)
·         Born 19 Jun 1859
·         Town of Bierbach, Saarland
·         The mother is of the family HUSSONG; which migrated to Germany from Lorraine
Ta da!  After lengthy, pains-taking research.  A much better fit!  Perfect? At least for now, I consider this correct!

Moral of the Story: 
The research can fit together perfectly, and be wrong.

My Escaped Beast: A dumb thing I did took a life of its own
Do you remember the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode where a new, independent life-form escapes from the hologram chamber?  Well, in a way, I did that.  

In a quick and frantic e-mail exchange, I relented and gave my GEDCOM file to my cousin's young daughter after her computer crashed and she lost her work.  Bad decision. Wha' ya think would happen next?:  She posted an open and free download access to it on the internet - errors and all, including the mis-ID on Philomena. Consequently, that error (and a slew of others) has escaped to cyber-space.

It is still out there with all its falsehoods, roaming wild, and making connections of its own.  I now refer to that file as  

"My Wild Beast GEDCOM."
Fiction-spreading Beasts are lurking in cyber-space!

Now let's talk about the "Geography of Europe"  We'll also stop discussing morals.

What town is your family from? In what country?
Hate to tell you this, but town name and country is not enough to go on. Google maps (great tool) is not enough to go on. Via Michelin (another great tool) is also not enough to go on.  I like Via Michelin a little better, as it will give you multiple choices and a drill-down when you enter a town name.

Example #1 My GGGM is from Mimbach, Bavaria, Germany.  Where exactly is that? Here are some choices:

1) Mimbach, Saarland  (CORRECT ANSWER - YES, it is) 49° 13' 60 N , 7° 16' 0 E
2) Mimbach, Bavaria/Bayern 49° 31' 0" N, 11° 52' 0" E (this was deceptively incorrect, as the above Mimbach, Saarland was part of Bavaria at the time of my GGGM, and showed up as "Bavaria" in legal documents. In other words, it was indeed Mimbach, Bavaria at the time, the town by that name is still there today, but a map of today's Bavaria no longer includes this region.)
3) Mimbach, Rheinland-Pfalz  near Wattweiler 49°14'0"N / 7°19'0"E
Source: http://www.viamichelin.com/web/Maps

Example #2 My GGGF is from Pfannenstiel, Germany.  Where is that?
here's a pic

 Here are some choices:
1) Pfannenstiel, Bavaria/Bayern;
2) Pfannenstiel, but not found in Google Maps nor Via Michelin and now actually called Fachsenfeld.  (CORRECT ANSWER - it's not on the map, but the locals will sometimes use the old Pfannenstiel name for this present-day neighborhood in the larger city of Aalen, Baden-Wuerttemmberg,)

The town name in the family bible, death certificate or military draft document, etc. is helpful.  It's a start, but modern maps may well confuse rather than clarify. It's up to you to figure out where it is.

Now, give me that again:  How exactly do you spell your name?
Name changes happen all the time. It's easy and so common that personal records over time can look like different people. In my recordkeeping, names change from given to middle, sometimes the spelling will change, nicknames come in, and obvious misspellings.  Like baseball cards, I collect them all.  These are the  "AKAs" in my genealogy software package.

Zooming in to the front: the Morphing of Given Names 
Here are examples of  altered given names from my Tree.
  •  MINNIE from Minneapolis, Wilhelmenia, Philomena, Phillipina
  • PHILOMENA from Minnie from Phillipina (same person)
  • WALTER from Valentine, Valtin
  • JOHN from Johann, Johannes
  • JOSEPH from Johann-Josef (Josef as middle name).

Zooming in to the rear: the Morphing of Surnames
Here are examples of altered surnames from my Tree.  Some of them are quite cringe-worthy!

2.      HUSSON (French) into HUSSONG (German)
6.      FRANZ into FRANTZ, FRANY
9.      GEISEL into GEASEL

Reasons for Surname name changes include
  • Spelling convention from German to English   (WAIZMANN into WAITZMAN) 
  • Spelling convention from French to German (HUSSON into HUSSONG)
  •  Translation from French to German(MEUNIER into GOELTZER 
    • in English, this means: miller, or "grinder of grain")
  •  Conscious decision to differentiate legally from other family member (HENN into HENNE) 
    • in this case, two brothers lived at the same address; their wives had the identical and unusual given names, leading to confusion to outsiders (like bill collectors).
  •   Typed transcriptions of difficult handwriting (FRANZ into FRANY; HUSSONG into HURFONG; HAUENSTEIN into HANENSTEIN) - this is so common
  •  Mispronunced and then spelled wrong (GEISEL into GEASEL) 

 Strange but true: Two diffferent Surnames with identical spelling
  • WAITZMAN - a unique Old North Dayton name that is a morph of German WAIZMANN
  • WAITZMAN - a Jewish Eastern European name associated with Ukraine, Russia, Poland

The Personalities of Genealogists.  With this, you have been warned.
People rightly take a strong sense of ownership in their work, so not every researcher will be glad to be informed of your corrections or even your questions. The reality of life is that there are all sorts of personalities in this world.  In your pursuit of genealogy, you will find one of each.  We are all really nice people most of the time.
Yikes! Agglomerators: The Borg of Cyber-Space.  
You might prefer to steer clear of the on-line "agglomerators". These are people who do not actually research their data.  Nor do they vet the sources.  Instead, they are focused on amassing a really, really huge interconnected genfile.  They hungrily link into family trees regardless of the blood-relationship to themselves.  An in-law of an in-law is fair game, as they help connect different trees together.  "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated." 

Recently, a dreaded "Agglomerator "sent me information from my "Wild Beast GEDCOM," and then asked me to add to it.

There is no substitute to gum-shoeing.  You are more than just a compiler of work that others have done.  So you will go to courthouses, cemeteries, churches and visit old distant living cousins.  You will do primary research that no one else will do. Why? Because you are a detective, and that is what detectives do. This is honorable.

Web Research Spots that I like 
The Genealogy Blog sites - these folks are writing, not just compiling.  Much of it as at a level of sophistication that causes me to look in awe. Will I ever be worthy? 
·         LDS Family Search - free/  LDS Pilot Project - free.  I love the Mormons.
·         Southwest German Emigration site (for Baden-Wuerttemberg) - free (a good fit for me!)
·         Geneanet.com (French / German) free (another good fit for me)

·         That really large genealogy company that is gobbling up every small genealogy web service in sight.  I have very mixed feelings.  (Sorry).   On the downside, this can be a risky place to look for information because 
  1. it is highly populated with beastly, error-laden trees that been put together by beginners, (they DO make it so easy for you to get started) 
  2. they will try to charge you for information that can be found elsewhere for free. 
  3. they have tried to sell me info that I (me! mysef!) had compiled and posted on their sites.  Arrrrgh!

On the BIG upside, it's a great place to connect with other researchers.  My cousin from the Arizona-Mexico border visited with us in Dayton recently with her family.  Our wonderful friendship blossomed from meeting at a website like this.

Well, there it is:  Wisdom or rant? You be the judge.
Happy Researching!   

All errors contained above are mine!


  1. Thanks for your blog. I have found it personally useful, funny, touching and interesting and I'm recommending it on my blog Family History Writing (FamilyHistoryWritingService.com) with an "ancestor approved" award. You can use the image if you would like to and write your own list of 10 blogs you like as well as publish a list of 10 things that have humbled, enlightened or surprised you.

  2. I ran across this blog and I believe your family tree on Geneanet and believe there may be a family connection on the Koerner side. I'd be interested in sharing information. Kari