3 Times Genealogy Records Were Wrong

3 Times Genealogy Records Were Wrong

Sometimes, genealogy records about your ancestors have big, misleading errors that make you think you've found the wrong record (or keep you from finding the record at all). Here's how you can deal with those wrong records.

Sometimes genealogy records are wrong.

I don’t mean your garden-variety variant spellings, or ages that are off by a few years. I’m talking about flat-out wrong names and dates that make you think the record is for a different person. Like the following wrong records from my research.

Fortunately, each wrong record showed me a little something about spotting and fixing errors in my tree—or avoiding them in the first place. Have you found any wrong records like these in your genealogy research?


1. A married infant?

This death record is for my cousin three times removed, who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis Nov. 8, 1918:

wrong birth date on death record

His birth date in the record is “September 24th, 1918.” Yet he’s 28 years, 1 month and 15 days old.

It’s easy to see how the clerk would accidentally record the current year as the person’s year of birth. Alexander was married and had a job as a conductor, so we can be pretty sure he wasn’t an infant when he died. Other records also showed his birth date in 1890.

But if you’re searching databases for a person born in 1890, it’ll be hard to find a record with a 1918 birthdate. If you’re not finding the genealogy records you need, try accounting for errors like this one by eliminating search terms, one at a time.

Also make sure to read an entire record to help you catch such inconsistencies.


2. A mother at age 10?

This 1930 record marriage record states the wife of my cousin four times removed was 34 when they married, making her born in 1896:

wrong age in a marriage record

My cousin was 57, so their age gap would be 23 years. Not unheard of, but enough to make you take a second look. Marie had a daughter born in 1906. An 1896 birthday would make her a mother at age 10.

According to the 1940 census and Marie’s 1953 death record, she was born in 1886, a much more reasonable year. Be on the lookout for discrepancies in genealogy records, and ages and places that don’t make sense in your tree. They may indicate where you need to do more research.


3. A wrong surname?

Volume 3 of the book A History of Kentucky, published in 1922, includes a biography of the husband of a cousin three times removed. (At the time, I wasn’t sure whether she was a cousin.) His bio also names my cousin and her parents:

Kolbeck in A History of Kentucky

The book says Teresa’s maiden name was Kolbeck. But it wasn’t. Teresa was the sister of my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Arnold Seeger. Their mother’s maiden name was Kolbeck, and Teresa married a man of the same surname. The jury’s still out on whether they were related.

There’s also an error of omission here: The “one son” wording might lead you to believe George and Eleanor Heuer had the one child. But records show they also had a daughter, Virginia, born in 1908.

Genealogists usually consider a local history book as a secondary source, because it was derived from sources created long after the events happened. Think about how the book would’ve been put together: Authors interviewed locals who might or might not have given correct information.

The authors would write up the biography, possibly omitting facts or getting them wrong. Then the editing stage introduced more opportunities for errors.

Anytime you have a secondary source, you’ll want to look for primary sources (such as censuses and vital records) to confirm the information. I already suspected Teresa and Eleanor were my relatives when I found this book online, so I kept looking. Eventually, I confirmed my theory with  Teresa’s baptismal and marriage records.

Learn simple steps to evaluating the reliability of genealogy sources in our Evaluating Your Sources downloadable video class with expert instructor Sunny Jane Morton.

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  1. You’ve found three really interesting errors, which might have steered you wrong. But they didn’t, because you researched further. However, I don’t think a census record is a primary source. The enumerator can mishear the spelling, or just plain miss a family because they’re not home. They’re supposed to go back until they find them, but back in 1940 and before, especially in rural areas, they didn’t always. Sometimes people lied. I’ve got a great aunt I couldn’t find in the 1930 because I knew the facts and put them in. She didn’t show up where she should have been. Someone suggested I just put in her first name because it was an odd one. There she was, having lost several years from her age. Nearby, I found the correct listing for the man she married a few years later. He was considerably younger than she was! Apparently she didn’t want him to know. On the other side of the family, my mother is shown in the 1940 census as being naturalized. That’s not true. She was born in Canada, to be sure. But her FATHER was the one who was a naturalized American citizen. Her mother was born in the US, so by the time my mother was born, both her parents were US citizens. My mother had at birth dual American and Canadian citizenship. The family moved to the US when she was a young teen, and when she turned 21–well before 1940–she gave up her Canadian citizenship so she could vote in the US. So the 1940 census was incorrect. Both these examples show that census records aren’t primary sources, even though they’re created at or close to the time of the event. Some of the errors can be trivial, like these, but they can still throw you off. And they do mean that the census isn’t a primary source in the way a vital record, a will, or a land record is. Thanks for your pointers.

  2. This is an especially interesting article to me because I have found so many errors in my family. Things that I know, first hand, and can’t change on the official records. I’ve found errors in obituaries, death certificates, tombstones and marriage records. Thanks for your article. It shows me that I’m not the only one.
    Kay Thomas