Busted! 10 Genealogy Myths and Falsehoods

By Julie Cahill Tarr Premium
Was your great-grandma a Cherokee princess? Mine too! And like lots of Americans, you probably have an immigrant ancestor whose surname was changed at Ellis Island. Oh, and your whole genealogy is awaiting you on the internet, right?
Wrong. Myths and misconceptions like these abound when it comes to genealogy. Some, like the last name changes, come from family lore and some we hear from other researchers. Anyone can fall victim to these myths because they’re so often repeated and sound reasonable. Why wouldn’t you believe that your original Polish surname Tomasczewski was changed to Thomas by an immigration inspector at Ellis Island? It seems plausible. And of course not every historical record is on the web, but genealogy commercials seemingly would have you think you can find your complete family tree just by going online. And how cool is it that you descend from a Cherokee princess? Dear old Grandma wouldn’t have made that up.
We hate to bust your bubble, but we’ll do it anyway. See why 10 common genealogy myths are false and how to avoid falling for them.

Myth 1: Surnames were changed at Ellis Island.

This often-repeated family story would have you believe that Ellis Island officials crossed off immigrants’ names on passenger lists with abandon, scribbling in American-sounding substitutes. But in fact, those passenger lists were compiled at ports of departure as passengers bought their tickets. Officials at Ellis Island merely compared them to passengers’ answers to interview questions, sometimes making notations on the lists. Misunderstandings weren’t an issue: Ellis Island staffed interpreters fluent in dozens of languages.
Why the myth? It is true that immigrants’ surnames did often change; however, the immigrants did so themselves. They may have “Americanized” their surnames (and often, given names) to blend in with their new surroundings, distance themselves from ethnic stereotypes and make their names easier for bosses and teachers to say. The Gaelic Ó Murchadha might become Murphy, or the German Schwarz might become Black, its English translation.
Genealogists encounter a broad variety of surname spellings. Sometimes record-keepers (including ships’ clerks, who listed ticket-holders) wrote the name incorrectly; sometimes the ancestor provided a variant spelling. Keep an open mind and be on the lookout for these variants. Grandpa may have always spelled his surname Smyth, but you might find it as Smith or Smythe in different records. The name at one time might’ve been Schmidt, especially if he was of Germanic descent. Download our free Surname Variant Chart form to help you keep track of these variants and translations.

Myth 2: It’s in print. It must be true!

Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find a compiled genealogy book on a particular family or come upon an ancestor mentioned in a county history. If you read genealogical journals, such as the National Genealogical Society’s NGS Quarterly, you might discover a relative named in another researcher’s case study.

But just because the information you find is in print doesn’t mean it’s true. Errors can creep in due to incomplete research, misinterpreted records or reliance on other inaccurate sources. As much as you want to believe this windfall of genealogical information, proceed with caution. Ask questions such as:
Who is the author?
When and where was the work published?
Does the author cite the sources of the information?
Use the details in the book or journal as clues and thoroughly investigate them to verify the information in original records. If the author cites sources, try to review the sources yourself. Compare your findings to your existing research and draw your own conclusions. You very well may get the same answer, but you can be more confident in the conclusion if you’ve done the work yourself.

Myth 3: All the records you need about your family history are online.

Genealogy information is more accessible than ever, thanks to the internet. Sites like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilySearch add new records every day. Anyone can share family photos with a blog or online tree. Still, the web offers only a fraction of historical records housed on paper and microfilm in libraries, archives, courthouses and other repositories.
You can find a lot about your family from websites. That includes building the foundation of your family tree from basic records with broad coverage, such as US censuses. Online vital, military and even court and church records can help you fill in details. Digitized newspaper websites such as GenealogyBank let you search millions of pages at once.
But those online databases don’t have every county’s court records or every town’s newspaper. In some cases, such as Ancestry.com’s Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, the database gives you only indexed results, which you can use to track down the original record. Some entire record groups are offline, such as the vast majority of Civil War pension applications (a few are on Fold3; others must be ordered from the National Archives and Records Administration) and land entry case files of those who claimed federal land. Venturing out to a local library or historical society may get you access to microfilmed church registers, printed city directories, and records of businesses and organizations—not to mention the expertise of the librarian. 

Myth 4: This is most definitely my ancestor, according to these 423 online trees.

Online trees are great tools for keeping track of your discoveries, and it’s easy to expand branches with the automated “hints” you get on sites like Ancestry.com and MyHeritage. And when you see how many other trees include that same data or record—well, accepting that suggested person or record is a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast. No one independently verifies the trees on genealogy websites. Mistakes proliferate when tree owners accept hints that aren’t good matches. It’s easy to assume a death date is correct when it’s repeated in hundreds of family trees, but repetition doesn’t turn a mistake into the truth.
When you get a hint, check it out carefully. Examine the original record or the sources in the supposedly matching tree. Ask yourself if it makes sense. Remember that many people living in the same place could have the same name and be a similar age. If you’re not 100 percent confident in the hint’s correctness, set it aside for now. Increase your chances of getting accurate hints by including as much verified detail—names, places, family members’ names—in your tree as possible, and see the January/February 2017 Family Tree Magazine for help managing Ancestry.com hints.

Myth 5: We descend from a Cherokee princess.

Stories of Indian ancestry—often, Cherokee—are common in the United States. By 2010, the Census Bureau reports, 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. The stories have a basis in historical reality: The Cherokee and other Indians did intermarry with white settlers. Some Cherokee families (just over 7 percent by the mid-1830s) owned black slaves.

But we’ve got some bad news: Your great-grandma wasn’t a Cherokee princess. The Cherokee never had royalty, nor did any American Indian tribe. Historians speculate the Indian princess myth arose because Pocahontas was touted as a princess in England, or because “princess” was used as a loose translation for Ghigau, a Cherokee title of honor for women. Romanticized notions of American Indians and our fascination with royalty help perpetuate the myth.
Your family may have American Indian heritage: In a 2014 analysis of 160,000 samples, 23andMe estimated that about 2.7 percent of European-descended Americans and one in five African-Americans carries detectable Native American DNA. The only way to know is through research and DNA testing. If your ancestors lived in a place and time they would’ve had contact with Indians, consider taking a DNA test and consult the American Indian research guide in the October/November 2016 Family Tree Magazine.

Myth 6: The courthouse burned and the records are gone.

Have you ever called a county courthouse to ask about a will or deed, only to hear “The courthouse burned in the late 1800s and we have no records prior”? Courthouse fires, floods and other disasters weren’t uncommon, especially in the South, where the Civil War raged. But the “no records survive” claim often isn’t entirely true.
If you dig a little, you might find that some records were reconstructed. For example, after an 1884 riot and fire destroyed Cincinnati’s courthouse, citizens showed up to re-register their deeds and marriages. Or you might discover that a harried or new courthouse employee didn’t tell you that some records were spared, were recovered after the fact, or were stored off-site at the time. Or due to boundary changes, another county may be in possession of the records you need. The local genealogical society is a good source of such details about courthouse disasters. You can record your findings in our Burned County Records Inventory form.
If the records you want were in fact lost, consider what other documents might hold the answers. For example, a church baptismal record might substitute for a birth register. Local newspapers might contain probate-related notices, digests of court proceedings, and lists of property transactions. Our Records Checklist can help you brainstorm substitutes to seek.

Myth 7:  Same surname—must be a relative.

Whether it’s President George Washington, Mayflower passenger John Alden or pop star John Legend, genealogists often hold out hope of finding a connection to a famous relative. But just because you have the same last name, it doesn’t mean there’s a relationship. So for all those Boones whose family lore claims Daniel is a cousin, you’ll have to back it up with some research: Trace your family tree and the famous person’s family tree (which already may be well-documented) and look for a connection. And remember: While it’s fun to find the famous in your family tree, don’t forget about your plain-Jane ancestors. Their role in your existence is just as worthy of your attention. 

Myth 8:  Hey look, it’s our family crest!

The term crest is often used interchangeably with coat of arms, but the crest is actually a part of the coat of arms. Neither, however, belongs to a surname. Instead, the right to use a coat of arms is granted to an individual and is passed down to the legal male-line descendants. Therefore, in order to claim a specific coat of arms, you must prove a male-line descent from a person listed on a country’s heraldic register. (Note that many private, unofficial enterprises will design or register a “coat of arms” for you for a fee.) You can learn more on the website of the College of Arms, the heraldic authority for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Myth 9:  Three brothers came to America …

The story goes that three brothers (not four brothers, or two brothers and a sister) arrived in the United States, where one went north, one went south and one went west, giving rise to families with their surname across the country.
Of course, brothers (and sisters) often did immigrate at the same time, but rather than disperse themselves, families and neighbors from the old country tended to stick together in their new homeland. They were much more likely to settle the same area than to spread across the country. A similar story in your family merits careful research to determine if the immigrants in question were in fact related or just shared the same surname. 

Myth 10: Source Citations are just for professionals.

Most genealogists are hobbyists, researching in their spare time to satisfy a personal desire to know their history. If you’re doing genealogy for fun and don’t plan to share your discoveries outside your family, is it really necessary to go through the tedium of citing sources used in your research?
The answer is yes, especially if you’re interested in knowing your family’s true story. Recording information about the sources of your genealogical conclusions is beneficial for several reasons:
  • It’ll keep you from scratching your head, trying to remember why your tree says Great-great-grandpa was born in 1852. 
  • It saves you time in trying to find a source again. Say, for example, you discover a different record that says your great-great-grandfather was born in 1855. You’ll need to re-check your sources for his birth to determine whether to go with 1852 or 1855.
  • It helps you evaluate the reliability of information you’ve gathered. A county history written long after the events it describes, for instance, is less likely to be accurate than a newspaper account written at the time of those events. 
The tome Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.) is many a genealogist’s citation-writing guidebook. Most nonprofessionals, though, won’t need to craft formal citations. Focus instead on just recording the source information: title, author, publisher, website and database name (if applicable, with date of access), publication date and place, format of the version you used (book, microfilm, digital images, etc.), and page number. For a hard-to-find or one-of-a-kind source, also note the repository or relative’s home where you found it. Your source information should allow you or someone else to easily find the source again. 
Repetition in families and online keeps these myths front and center in American culture. But now you’re armed with the truth. It’s time to break it to Mom that Great-grandma wasn’t a Cherokee princess. 
Tip: You can order microfilmed records from the Family History Library (for a fee) and view them at your local branch FamilySearch Center. Start by searching the FamilySearch online catalog by place, then click the online ordering system link.

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From the May/June 2017 Family Tree Magazine