Why getting your family tree wrong is the best thing you could do

Why making a mistake in your family tree research is one of the most important things you can do.

Getting something wrong is not something that we like to admit, but it’s probably one of the best things that you could do when researching your family tree.

My sister, who is an avid horse-rider, taught me at a young age the saying ‘You can’t ride a horse until you’ve fallen off’. This easily applies to researching – you can’t research, until you’ve got it wrong.

But… there’s always lots of moaning about the quality of data when you discover online that your family tree has been ripped to bits by another less-careful researcher, thrown back together with some random names from say – Ohio, leaving you obliterated from existence in their tree.

So why is getting a tree wrong actually important?

Scaring away the cuckoo

PatPatPatPatPatMat Great Great Great Great Grandmother, Avis
Avis Wisbey (formerly Martin, née Tall) or ‘Mary Waters’

Discovering an error in your family tree is something that every genealogist should do at least once during their research. If you’ve never done this, then maybe you’re staring at a ‘cuckoo’ – a person who is using your tree to borrow the love and care that you have for your ancestor, when actually they are from a completely unrelated line.

Saying goodbye to that surrogate family is hard. If you’ve invested your time and effort, and perhaps some affection, then it can be a sad moment when you have to lose them.

Admitting your error

Okay, so here we go…

For years, I stared at the photograph above, of my Great x 4 Grandmother – thinking ‘what a great photo’ and ‘how lovely Mary Waters must have been’, when actually, she was Avis Tall.

I’d allowed a simple mistake creep into my research and onto my website – where I’d simply scrimped on spending time checking sources that I had in my files before adding data to my database and to my website.

A Mary Waters did indeed marry a James Martin, and together they had a son also called James Martin, but it wasn’t until revisiting a marriage certificate in my files for James Martin Jnr, that i realised that the father was actually a Robert Martin a couple of villages away, which then led me to finding his marriage to Avis Tall, and then finding references to them having the son called James Martin.

Marriage certificate
Revisiting the marriage certificate gave me a terrible realisation.

This changed my tree significantly, as I’d put a lot of effort into tracing back the Mary Waters and James Martin families, and had even found modern-day relatives who descended from them.

Updating… everything

Once you’ve found that mistake, your attention and eye for detail is swiftly improved. After finding that Mary Waters was completely wrong, I was straight back to my core tree and re-checking my trees using various sources.

Avis Tall as Mary Waters on Ancestry.co.ukI updated my website, I updated my database, and then I updated my distant relatives who had also run with the information i’d fed them.

Whilst my site is updated, even now, years on, the effect of the cuckoo lives on – with my ancestor enjoying an existence as ‘Mary Waters’ in new trees within sites such as Ancestry.co.uk.

Getting it wrong makes your research better

By getting your research wrong, realising it, and correcting it, you end up being a far more diligent researcher. Having got it wrong once, you know the pain and embarrassment of sawing off large boughs of your family tree, and then staring at the weedy twig that’s left behind.

So, before you commit that ancestor to your tree – check. Check again. Then cross-check, or the cuckoos will get you.

Author: Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin is a British author, family historian, tech nerd, AFOL, and host of The Family Histories Podcast.

8 thoughts on “Why getting your family tree wrong is the best thing you could do”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I couldn’t agree more – it is definitely a learning experience and valuable lesson! I, too, have gone off the wrong path because I did a search that was too broad and ended up not looking at all the information in front of me. I remember that all the time and a certainly a better researcher because of it!

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I like your reference to cuckoos – that is very true!



  2. Not my family, but similar experience – I researched a cabinet photograph from a Thomaston, Maine, studio of an older man and young children that had “[John Doe] and family” on the reverse and put the photograph and my research online. Egg on face! A reader let me know that the photograph was of a different, but related, man – a well known and recognizable sea captain – and his grandchildren. Apparently the phrase on the reverse connoted the relative and family to whom the photograph was to be given. Lesson learned… I hope


  3. I am new to this group, but I would also have to agree, that a mistake can assist with your research. My mistake was not on my family tree, it was on a paper for my masters thesis in the fall of 2011. I had used a quote from my 3rd great grandmother’s book: Life of Mrs. Ellen Stewart in an earlier class and I wanted to use it again in my thesis paper, when I realized I had the year of the book wrong (was it 1855 that I originally cited or was it 1858, which I found out was the correct date – my copy of the book was a digitalized copy and I had photocopied it and some pages were hard to read). On a whim I googled the title of the book and to my surprize it showed up as a book review in the newsletter for the special collections division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library. To sum up my story, my mistake lead me to the book review, the book review mentioned several other authors (Vaughn and Hickox) are distant relatives that I have since connected with them and I have shared additional information with them about Ellen Stewart and the librarian who wrote the review. If you would like to check out the review and book go to: http://sc.akronlibrary.org/files/2011/03/pursuits-10-1.pdf

    Click to access EllenStewart-4.pdf


  4. i so agree who would have thought there could be so many john and robert martins or james burns. i meet alot of great people messed up alot of trees mine and any one nuts enough to follow mine. what a way to learn your real family tree.


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