Family History Tips

Genealogy research can be "tricky" at times. Hopefully, the family history tips provided here will help you to avoid some of the difficulties you would otherwise encounter.

If you have additional tips to offer, don't be shy! Click here. Anonymous tips are welcome! We'd love to hear from you!

Family History Tip #1.

Keep in mind that Genealogy Documents are not always accurate.

This seems to be a restatement of the obvious. However, there are many reasons for people to lie with respect to their age, their marital status, or any other information recorded in the census or other documents. I once found an individual who stated, in the 1851 UK census, that she was a widow.

I originally assumed that this was true; however, when I went looking for her husband's death date, I discovered that he had been transported to Australia as a convict, after committing a break and enter. He was very much alive, as there were records of him appearing for convict musters in Australia, and of a later pardon.

Clearly, it was easier for the wife, back in England, to state that he was dead (and in a sense, I suppose, he was dead to her and the family, as they never saw him again!) than to explain to the enumerator that her husband was a convict.

Australian Convict team ploughs a field.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Australian Convicts ploughing a field

Other examples I have come across include:

  • a woman lying about her age on a marriage certificate, because she was 17 years old, and otherwise would require parental consent (she said she was 22);
  • a man lying about his parents' names on his marriage application, to make it appear that his mother was married when he was born, when she was not; and
  • a woman listing a husband's name on her child's christening records, and stating that he was a "traveller" by occupation, to explain why he was not there, when in reality she was not married.

The moral of the story:

The documents you are reviewing

should not be taken as absolute truth,

but should be viewed

as clues to a puzzle;

clues that may not be

entirely accurate.

This axiom also applies to oral statements made to you, whether or not the persons telling you things are family members. They may not be deliberately misleading you, but memory sometimes plays tricks on you when you're dealing with events that happened long ago.

ALWAYS verify anything you are told,

by finding documentation to back it up.

Family History Tip #2.

What is in the actual document does not always match the typed / transcribed version

Remember that a number of factors are at work here:

  • The writing in the original documents often is very difficult to read.
  • In some cases, the original documents are damaged to the point that the writing is virtually illegible.
  • Also, the spelling rules have changed somewhat; for example, wherever we today put a double "s" in a word, they used to put what looks like an "fs". Thus, the surname Massey, for example, would have been spelled Mafsey.
  • Sometimes the handwriting, combined with the spelling variations, can make deciphering the words on the page a very difficult task, especially if the transcriber is not familiar with the names in that village or area.

Here is a (rather extreme) example.

Portions of the transcribed version of a particular census entry on one database reads as follows:

1891 England Census about Gregory W Gcckerer 

Name: Gregory W Gcckerer 
Age: 6
Estimated birth year: abt 1885

Gender: Male
Where born: Middlesborough, Yorkshire, England
Household Members:
Name Age

John Gcckerer 27
Harriet J Gcckerer 30
Gregory W Gcckerer 6
Agias E Gcckerer 4
Chrestopte R Gcckerer 7/12
Ann Roofe 35

Here is the portion of the actual census document:

1891 UK Census

For me as a researcher, looking for this family, the father's name in the second household (which begins on the fourth line from the top) is fairly clear: John Peckover.

The transcriber, however, is not familiar with that somewhat uncommon surname, and the handwriting in the census document is a little difficult to read.

S/he can be forgiven for thinking the P was a G at the beginning of the name; however, one would think that "Gcck" at the beginning of an English-language word would be a clue that something was amiss!

I'm sure you can imagine that this was a rather frustrating exercise, to say the least, in attempting to find this family in the 1891 UK census!

In circumstances such as this, in which you know that the family is in that area but a surname search is not producing any results, you might try doing a search using a child's first name, and entering the parents' and siblings' first names, without a surname, to see if it will yield any family groupings with those names.

Family History Tip #3.

Remember that surnames often were spelled "as they sounded" to the hearer, resulting in numerous spelling variations for the same surname.

Also, those who acted as census takers often were semi-literate, and those giving the information were illiterate; they would have no way of knowing if an error was made when it was written down.

For further discussion, see "Surname Variations and Name Changes".

Family History Tip #4.

One question that those contemplating doing some family history research often ask is, how and where do I begin doing my research? This topic is discussed in my page entitled "Family Tree Research - Getting Started".

Family History Tip #5.

Another question which often is asked is, When is my family tree complete? Should I research only my direct ancestors (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on up the line), or should I broaden the scope to include collateral lines (brothers and sisters of a direct ancestor at any given level of the tree, and their descendants)? Please see When is my Family Tree Complete?" for a discussion of this topic.


Genealogy research is such a rewarding pass-time! As well as appealing to our "inner detective", it goes a long way to answering the fundamental question of who we are and how we came to be where we are. I hope these few family history tips will assist you in that journey of self-discovery!

Go from "Family History Tips" to "Family Tree Research - Getting Started"

Go from "Family History Tips" to "When is my Family Tree Complete?"

Go to "familyhistoryalive Home Page"

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Don't Always Believe What You Hear / Read In The Family Bible 
I have a family lore, as I'm sure a lot of you do, too. Don't always take what Great Aunt LaLa told you as fact. Often, rumours stuck better than fact …

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