The past is often a mystery. But when you want to dig into your family history, it can be even more confusing. If you’re an amateur genealogist (or genetic genealogist) you may not be aware of some common pitfalls. Here are 10 of the most common myths and assumptions that might make it harder to find your family history.
1. People with the same last name must share a common ancestor
While this is a common myth, this simply isn’t true. Many individuals who share a last name, especially a very common last name (like Smith, Brown, Williams, or White), may not be related to each other or share common ancestors at all.
Be aware of this misconception, particularly if you think you might be related to a famous ancestor. If your last name is Adams, you’re most likely not related to the two early U.S. presidents and founding fathers.
Of course, it’s possible you are a descendant of these famous 18th- and 19th-century ancestors, so you shouldn’t rule that out entirely. However, simply sharing a common last name with a well-known historical figure probably doesn’t make you much more likely to be related to them than someone who doesn’t.
2. Believing you’re likely to find a secret family fortune
While it’s not impossible that you’re an heir and don’t know it, the chances that this is the case for you and your family are slim to none. Mysterious family members you’ve never met before are highly unlikely to leave you a multimillion-dollar fortune, nor are you likely to come across a long-lost family estate.
It’s equally unlikely that you or your family has wealth stashed away in the form of land or other types of assets hidden within a labyrinth of obscure trusts. In fact, it’s far more likely that anyone claiming this is trying to swindle you out of money that you might legitimately inherit, so be very careful about investigating any such claim.
3. Historical records are always complete and accurate
If online family trees don’t get it right, paper records—especially old historical records—barely stand a chance. While the court clerks, recordkeepers, and archivists of long ago likely tried their best to keep accurate records, some mistakes are inevitable.
For example, a last name may be spelled incorrectly on a marriage certificate, or a date and place of birth on a birth certificate may be inaccurate. Other times, events that should have been recorded may have been omitted entirely. A list of a town’s residents may have unintentionally excluded a few names, or an obituary of your great-great grandparent could have omitted the mention of their second spouse.
In short, in the hundreds or even thousands of records that may be relevant to your family or family tree, there are bound to be a few errors. Make sure to cross-reference sources when possible, and don’t immediately assume that everything listed on (or left off from) a historical record is entirely true and accurate.
4. Relying solely on family trees
Online family trees provided by genealogy websites and DNA testing companies rely on millions of data points to generate family trees. While this information is useful, it's a good idea to look up your family records in other sources as well.
Make an effort to cross-reference with other sources, particularly offline ones, even when multiple online family trees say you’re related to a certain ancestor. Oftentimes, the data used by online family tree resources is shared or aggregated together, so if one site displays your family tree inaccurately, other websites may as well.
5. Old records are lost forever
A mere century ago, nearly all buildings were built out of wood and brick. This made them susceptible to natural disasters such as fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes—and it’s part of the reason why fires like the Great Chicago Fire had the potential to burn down entire cities.
When entire cities burned, this meant that official records, often kept at local courthouses and other public venues, were also burnt to a crisp. While it would be reasonable to assume that the information contained in those records was lost permanently, luckily, this isn’t always the case.
Just as structures lost to natural disasters are rebuilt, records and documents lost to these same tragedies are often reconstructed. In certain cases, copies may be stored elsewhere, so that even if one copy is destroyed, other copies remain unaffected.
In any case, it’s worth keeping an eye out for old records that may, at first glance, seem to have perished.
6. All records are available online
While modern-day court records and family tree data from DNA test providers like MyHeritage and AncestryDNA are likely to be available online, this isn’t the case for all records, especially for very old documents.
Some old records are still in their original format, such as pieces of paper in a filing cabinet, and can only be accessed at courthouses and other official public locations. This means that you shouldn’t limit yourself to online research.
While there is a wealth of information online, good archival research should extend beyond the web to include physical documents as well. After all, old rosters, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, property deeds, photographs, and other historical documents may only exist as paper copies. Keep this in mind as you do your genealogy work for best results.
7. Thinking your ancestors were illiterate
If you can trace your ancestry back to the early colonial period, illiteracy may have been more common, so it’s certainly possible this is true. However, keep in mind that families whose colonial-era ancestors had records about them likely descended from at least moderately well-to-do families. In other words, even though literacy rates were lower a few hundred years ago, the ancestors that you know of from those times were likely lucky enough to have been taught how to read and write.
If you can trace your lineage back to the Civil War era, then it’s likely that most (if not all) your ancestors who lived in this time period were literate, even if they left no surviving records. The literacy rate in 1870 was around 80%, and over half of people aged 5 to 19 were enrolled in formal schooling. Suffice to say, widespread literacy has been common for an extended period of time, at least in the United States—and as a result, more of your ancestors could likely read and write than you might think.
8. Assuming your ancestors died at a young age
While it’s undoubtedly true that the average life expectancy was far lower up until about 200 years ago, it doesn’t mean everyone died young. Rather, life expectancy is calculated as an average of lifespans across live births, meaning that high infant and child mortality rates can bring those figures down significantly.
In fact, that was exactly what happened. As recently as 1800, the child mortality rate, or the percentage of children who died before age 5, was as high as 50%. However, the prospects of children who survived until adulthood were far better, and many lived into their sixties and beyond, just as people do today.
Ancestors who lived long enough to marry, have children, and have records and documents produced about them likely lived decently long lives. Unfortunately, those who did die as children (your ancestors’ siblings, children, nieces, nephews, etc.) likely left behind scant records.
9. The family last name was changed at Ellis Island
While this is a common myth, this simply isn’t true. While Ellis Island did serve as the main processing center for immigrants into the USA from the late 19th century until the first half of the 20th century, it’s probably not where the family last name was changed.
Rather, if your family’s last name was changed at all, it was likely changed by your ancestors after they had settled into their new homes and communities—not by immigration officials.
10. Details and citations don’t matter
Even if you’re not a professional and are just doing genealogy for fun, making sure you have enough context and accurately keeping track of details and citations are still important tasks, especially if you want to make sure you get your family history right.
Keep in mind that citations (e.g. a legal description of a plot of land that references the county property records) and other details such as footnotes may contain crucial information about your ancestors’ lives. Neglecting to include these seemingly minute details in your research and analysis means you risk interpreting the more “important” parts of a document completely without context, which may lead to hasty (and often inaccurate) conclusions about your ancestors and how they lived.
Whether you’re doing genetic genealogy with a DNA testing kit, old-fashioned genealogy, or combining the two to get the fullest picture of your family tree, you should conduct your research in a thorough, detail-oriented, and systematic manner.
The easiest way to start putting these good habits into practice is to get rid of inaccurate ideas that don’t stand up to the weight of historical records. If you want an accurate picture of your family history, strike these myths and assumptions from your mind, and you’ll have more chances to find the most information possible.