Inaccurate Index Infection
Signs: You just know your ancestor should be named in a particular record set. Maybe you even think you’ve found him before in an online index to those records. But for the life of you, you can’t find him in the index now.
If all else fails, you might have to browse the actual records page by page. Keep in mind, too, that websites periodically change search algorithms in an effort to improve your search results—so keep trying.
Death Certificate Deficiency
Signs: Even though death certificates are what many genealogists call a primary source—that is, a record created at the time of the event—the information on the certificate contains both firsthand and secondhand evidence. Interpret the information incorrectly, and an infection in the record could lead to disease in your family tree.
Census Inconsistency Syndrome
Signs: Federal census records are the backbone of genealogical research, giving you a snapshot of families at 10-year intervals. Say you found your ancestor in each surviving census from 1850 through 1900. Does all the information from one census to another match? If so, you’ve got a rare situation. Most of us find slight to significant discrepancies from one census to another, which can wilt a family tree. One census says the birthplace was New Jersey. Another says New York. One records the ancestor’s name as William. Another gives it as John. According to one census, Great-uncle Joe immigrated in 1894. According to another, the year was 1897. Great-grandma’s age is 52 in one census; 10 years later she’s 58. How does this happen?
Signs: Has a story about a stowaway ancestor blossomed in your family? Stowaway stories are more romantic and adventuresome than buying a ticket in steerage. Interestingly, stowaways are almost always men. You rarely hear about Great-grandma being a stowaway. These family stories may be suffering from a serious disorder that can result in decay of the fruit on your tree.
Along with stowaways, another story seems to blossom in families like dandelions in the spring. Not long ago, I saw someone post on Facebook that Ellis Island officials changed immigrants’ names. I thought this myth had been eradicated a long time ago, but some beloved myths continue to spread no matter how you treat them.
Bungled Birthdate Disorder
Signs: Sometimes the disease you’re battling is information that doesn’t make chronological sense—for example, a baptism that predates the birth. Although some religions practiced adult baptism, baptism in utero is extremely rare. Your ancestor might appear to have been baptized before birth for a couple of reasons. The family might have been waiting for a circuit-riding minister to arrive to perform the baptism, and it’s possible he accidently reversed the birth and baptism dates in his records.
Sloppily Sourced Pedigree Virus
Signs: Maybe someone wrote a family history about your ancestors, or you find a tree online that takes your genealogy back several generations. These are gems—an accurate and documented online tree or published family history can save you countless hours of research. On the other hand, it could create countless hours of research if you discover that the genealogy is diseased and wasn’t well-researched. The leaves on these trees can have some dead tissue.
Family Fable Flu
Signs: Do your relatives speak fondly and confidently of being American Indian—perhaps even descended from a Cherokee princess? Why is it no one is ever descended from a Lumbee princess? Like the story of an Ellis Island name change, this is one of those classic legends handed down in families. Such stories can leave a powdery mildew coating on your family tree, disfiguring new shoots.
Or perhaps Great-grandpa always said you have royal or noble ancestors, people who were entitled to display a coat of arms. But in reality, a good percentage of the people who departed their native land for America weren’t entitled to inherit anything—land, a title or heraldic arms. That’s why they left. Why would a duke or a prince give up his inheritance and leave for the uncharted frontier of America?
Signs: Newspapers can be another cause of spotty infections on your tree. Like death certificates, they might have a mix of firsthand and secondhand evidence. Informants for articles might be full of wrong details. The same goes for that genealogical standby, the obituary. Rarely do lazy, worthless individuals die. Almost everyone who dies is an upstanding citizen, faithful to God, and an all-around-good person. Reading some early 19th-century obituaries, you’d think the deceased would qualify for sainthood.
Signs: Genealogists love finding ancestors’ wills because they often state family relationships. The testator, or person making the will, is like an enormous single cell with thousands of nuclei just waiting to grab his worldly belongings. But if you’re not careful when interpreting the terminology in the will, you might find your tree contaminated with wrong relationships.