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.

How a Care Giver can play a key role in your genealogy research

How a carer could add extra information to your genealogy research.

I had a lovely email the other day from a lady who had found information about one of my late distant Yarrow cousins via Google. She used to be her care giver.

Having realised that she was looking at my Yarrow tree, she decided to drop me an email to tell me about her work caring for one of my relatives in her later years.

A carer with an elderly woman
Carers may hold the key to some of your un-answered genealogy questions.

This took me by surprise, as I’ve not received this kind of correspondence before, but as she mentioned a few specific details about the relative that she would not have found elsewhere, it got me thinking as to just how much information might your relatives be telling, or have told, their carers?

Think about how many nameless faces turn up in antiques and house-clearance stores – those long-lost loved ones who will rarely find their way back into the families they belong to. Yet, a carer may well have heard many stories about the people in these photos, and be able to give you some small clues as to the identities. Alternatively, they may have remembered being told about the childhood lives of your relatives.

Tracking down a carer for your elderly relative may be very difficult, but if they worked as part of a carer company, then you may be able to ask the company to pass on your contact details in a hope that they might respond. With any luck, they may be able to give you some time for a phone interview.

Act fast…

The advice here, would be to act quickly for two reasons:

  1. Stories can fade or become muddled as time goes on, even those stories that have been told every time the busy carer visited.
  2. The caring profession is generally poorly paid (in the UK at least, with some people receiving no pay at all) and therefore carers move around quickly – and internationally – so if you leave it too long, then you may never be able to trace your relative’s carer.

A word of caution though, carers have no obligation to contact you, and they work extremely hard with a lot of clients – and therefore they genuinely may not have any useful information for you. Some carers work in very difficult circumstances, so recalling details may be impossible or painful for them, or simply outside of their confidentiality comfort zone.