How to Spot and Avoid 9 Common Genealogy Mistakes & Errors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary discusses 9 common mistakes made when doing family history research, and suggests ways to avoid them.

Family history researchers are often frustrated by the mistakes of others—particularly when there is an obvious error in identity, such as the mistake explained in this 1914 Virginia newspaper article. It points out that a member of the Gwathmey family was incorrectly identified as having been a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth.

Rchmond Times Dispatch Newspaper Gwathmey Family Genealogy
Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 17 May 1914, page 41.

This sounds like an obvious mistake, and one that could have been corrected with simple subtraction. Unfortunately, once a mistake is written in a book or newspaper article, the mistake is often carried into other research—forever frustrating the more serious genealogists.

Genealogical mistakes are not often easy to sort out, so let’s discuss some strategies.

1. Abbreviations Are Not Always What They Seem

Two of my favorites are “NA” and “NMI.”

In the case of the first abbreviation, “NA” might indicate non applicable, naturalized, Native American or even Navy, demonstrating the importance of finding the “key” explaining what an abbreviation actually means.

Another abbreviation that sometimes causes confusion is the use of “NMI” in place of a middle name. It is not an actual moniker, but rather used to indicate that a person has no middle initial—no middle name.

2. Age-Related Mistakes

  • Women who are too old to be mothers.

Although Mrs. Steve Pace, of Rose Hill, Virginia, reportedly gave birth to her 17th child in 1939 at the age of 73 (see the Wikipedia article “Pregnancy Over Age 50”), it is rare for women to give birth over the age of 50.

If a woman continued to give birth through her 40s, then it is possible that a report of her having a child as an older woman may be correct.

However, whenever you see such an older mother-child relationship claim, examine the possibility that the family may have been raising an orphan or a grandchild.

  • Persons who were born too young or old to have served during a military event.

If you are researching an ancestor for a lineage society, such as the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution, start by figuring out the beginning and ending dates of the event.

For example, the American Civil War occurred between 1861 and 1865.

Although there are examples of very young veterans, most of the younger set did not serve in a military capacity—unless they were older. One exception was Civil War Missouri veteran George Huffman, who enrolled as a volunteer in the 13th Missouri Infantry on 4 November 1861 at the age of 14. He re-enlisted on 8 February 1864, and was considered to have been the youngest veteran to have re-enlisted that year—as explained in this 1864 Massachusetts newspaper article.

Lowell Daily Citizen & News Newspaper George Huffman Civil War
Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 2 September 1864, page 2.

For the most part, however, it is safe to assume that someone—other than a drummer or bugler—must have been at least 15 when he enlisted for combat service. Therefore, it is unlikely that a combat veteran actually served in the Civil War if he was born after the year 1850.

Now, if a child served in a non-military capacity, then you might find evidence of children as young as seven involved in a war—such as Nathan Futrell, a young boy who served in the American Revolutionary War.

Greensboro Daily News Newspaper Nathan Futrell Revolutionary War
Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 3 January 1971, page 24.

You can also apply an age factor to determine the likelihood of an older person serving in the military.

3. All Applicable Genealogy Records Have Not Been Found

Just because you can’t find a genealogical proof doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. For example, many military records were burned, so look to other types of records for evidence.

In other words, if an original record is missing you might be able to find alternate records. In the case of a missing military record, look for a petition for a pension, or a list of enlistments, reprinted in an old newspaper article. Other possible genealogical sources: a family diary or letter, or church bulletin, that references military service.

4. Children Listed without Parents May Not Be Orphans

Just because a child is not recorded with a parent on a census record doesn’t necessarily indicate that both parents are deceased.

On one of the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records, I noted that the children of my ancestor Permelia Ann (Davis) Drake were living in different households.

Not finding their mother, I at first assumed that she had died. It turned out that she was very much alive, and recorded in the census with her second husband, Samuel Bassett. It’s not clear why the children were with the neighbors in 1850, but perhaps they were mother’s helpers or farm helpers working to support the family.

5. Informants Are Not Always Correct

A primary record is one that was recorded at the time of the event. A secondary record is one that is recorded later, generally from an informant. In the case of a death certificate, the date and place of death is primary evidence, but the birth date of the decedent, along with the stated parents, is not necessarily correct.

In my family, my great-grandfather’s parents were recorded on his death certificate as his natural parents, when in fact court records and other records establish that he had been adopted.

6. Just Because Two People with the Same Name Reside in the Same Area Does Not Necessarily Mean They Are Related (Coincidences Happen)

In the case of my ancestor William Harrell of Virginia (and Indiana) of the late 1700s and early 1800s, it turns out there are three men by the same name. Now that descendants have submitted results from DNA studies, it is clear that they were not closely related.

7. Spelling Errors

Alternate spellings are the norm, rather than the exception.

For example, my Ebling ancestors can be found with the surname spelling Ebeling, Hebling and even Heblinger. As a result, I always browse a book’s index to see if there are similar spellings. When searching online or in a search box, such as at GenealogyBank, I frequently use a wildcard such as a question mark (?) or asterisk (*) when searching for ancestor names.

  • The ? is used to take the place of one letter
  • The * is used to take the place of several letters

For example:

  • Eb*ing* would find Ebling, Ebeling and Eblinger
  • ?Eb*ing* would find all of the above, and include Hebling or Heblinger
  • Cath?rine would find both Catherine and Catharine

8. Transpositions (Reversing or Mixing Up Letters and Numbers)

Many people, including myself, are prone to transpositions. The year 1787, for example, might be unintentionally entered as 1778, or even 1877.

To overcome this tendency, be sure to closely examine recorded figures, such as the reported age at death. Several genealogy programs calculate this figure, and may even note it during an error check.

9. Widows and Widowers May Not Necessarily Be Widowed

In the event of a divorce, separation or bigamy, a spouse might be recorded as widowed on an official record. This may be to handle a delicate issue, or simply to accommodate a census form that didn’t have other options.

These are just a few common genealogical errors. If you have some that you have observed, please share them with us on Facebook or our blog page in the comments section!

28 thoughts on “How to Spot and Avoid 9 Common Genealogy Mistakes & Errors

  1. Very nice article!!!! I love it when I find children who have children that are older than themselves!

    1. I usually can’t avoid making some Smart-a– comment about how gifted those folks were to be able to produce babies either before they wee born or after they were dead. Very precocious!

  2. I learned a lot, thank you. Glad I had you on my Facebook. I feel like I can find more information now because of the above mistake indicators. I need to get back into my also. God bless.

  3. I try hard to double check my work and “think through” conclusions. And I am very happy when others researchers point out possible errors or inconsistencies. But in this era of “shaking leaf” research, I think some people take the attitude that of they find something online it must be true.
    Recently, while doing some research I noticed a public “tree” in which an individual had a military record for both the American War for Independence AND the U.S. Civil War. I dropped a courteous (I thought) note to the tree-owner, pointing out the impossibility of such an occurrence. Two days later I received a note back, telling me to mind my own business, and letting me know that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was: I was told in no uncertain terms that it was impossible that the information was wrong because both service records had been provided in a shaking leaf “clue.”

  4. I noticed that the surname of Temple was also spelled Tempel but the author of the article never explained why. I wonder if it may have been a mistake that got by them as well.

  5. I spent months recently trying to identify family members shown in a photo with an ancestor before finally determining it was someone else with the same name. It had been posted on one site with information for our ancestor and reposted many times on many sites over a period of time and even printed and distributed. There he was in our family album but it wasn’t him at all. A niece commented she was glad we had finally discovered the less than handsome man wasn’t really a member of our great looking family. lol

  6. I encountered a family where 2 persons in the family had the same name…James and James A. They were supposedly brothers but were born and died on the same day.

  7. How do you resolve an issue where the same person with the same parents were given 2 different death dates (14 years difference)

    1. Depending on when in time you are talking about it was common for families to re-use names for their children. One branch of my tree had three Samuels before one lived past age 3.

  8. Truly enjoyed your post on common genealogy errors. I am president of the Wabash Valley Genealogy Society in Terre Haute, IN. We publish a 12 page newsletter six times a year. Would it be possible and would you give us permission to use your post in our next newsletter? We have approximately 170 members. The newsletter is typically sent out via email with a very small number of people receiving hard copies via US mail. If you prefer we not use your post, I perfectly understand. Just thought I’d ask.

    Many Thanks…Mikel Lewman

  9. Allalata Hamza
    منذ ‏17‏ ساعة
    Hello My name is Hamza of Algeria in search of missing family members allalata in Germany during the First World War scientific knowledge that my grandfather, a French military service in World War I and Germany was taken in 1917, and made a girl married and release of the prison and married a German girl German girl top German command, and had a boy and a girl, and after the war he returned to Algeria. Was the war in Algeria because Algeria is occupied by the French army, and before his death he told us the story of his marriage in Germany and wanted to go to Germany to his children and his German wife died back in 1971, going to Algeria. This archive information about the history of my grandfather during World War II. – Http / ———————————— Archive Online: Research ** *** Earnings for the name ALLALATA *** Your search criteria: * Name: Selected allalata (eg Dupont) Date: Name: mohamed (ex: Patrick) Entrepreneurs: 1900 (1925 ) Department: Department all DE ———————————- Name: ALLALATA role of the personal name ad Relevance Name Mohamed ———————————- Nombre “Persons: 1 Year: – http:/ / www. ———————————— Archives en ligne: la recherche *** resuit * * nom de la recherche ALLALATA *** Critères Vos de recherche: nom *: allalata (par example Dupont) Période SELECTIONNEE: nom: Mohamed (ex: Patrick) Entrepreneurs: 1900 (année 1925 ) Department: tous de ‘———————————- Nom de l’Rôle ALLALATA personnelles Nom Nom de la Relevance of annonces Mohamed ———————————- Nombre de «personnes: 1 Année: And I also have a friend in Algeria German girl doing research in Germany and in contact with the Veterans Association in Germany and found the name and the title of my grandfather and his son, this information is a geet years a go of a resharshe germanne the girl and the address in this archive. Title Name allalata my grandfather Muhammad Mahmoud Young daughter Catherine address range is in Stuttgart, rural housing for veterans away. Unfortunately, not seen in this case, my family, according to a study by the neighbors turned out that my grandfather left his wife and his children eventually died to another location after 20 years, I consider my request thank hoping Address: … ALLALATA Hamza bin Abd Elhamid Department: AIN Touila Khenchela PO Box 40005 Algeria Phone 00213667109901 email hamza.40 @

  10. Thanks for posting those 9 common genealogy mistakes and errors. I hope someday when people post on RootsWeb or Ancestry they will be able to go back and correct their mistakes. It is frustrating sometimes to find something only to learn that it is not true.

  11. My most common mistake is baptisms that occur before the birth. This seems to be very common when people have a program that automatically assumes a default date unless set differently or when civil registration takes place in quarters. ex the GRO index in England may have birth registered in the first quarter of the year which ends in March – the person (or shaking leaf) finds the records and puts in the birth as Mar 1845 not noticing that they have a baptism of Jan 15 1845.

  12. Thank you for such a great list Mary.

    Researchers need to make sure that they conduct a reasonably exhaustive search and not make assumptions based on one document. Some of the assumptions you have listed here help to illustrate that point. My favorite is the last one about widows and widowers. It’s important to back up that kind of claim with additional documentation. Aside from the reasons you list, some people may have wished they had a deceased spouse 😉


  13. I think I have found my great-grandmother when she was 6 years old, living with a relative whose maiden name was the same as my great-grandmother’s. The relative , however, could not possibly be the 6 year old’s mother. I’ve always assumed my great-grandmother was an orphan. Now, thanks to your clue, back to the drawing board.

  14. I have also nicely explained to some that the person on their tree is not the right person. I include the facts, both right and inconsistent. Most are appreciative but a few don’t want to hear about it. I make sure that I don’t add any of their research to my tree without thoroughly vetting it. I have had to go back and take out way too many people that turned out not to be related.

    I keep a public tree with confirmed ancestors. Those that I am investigating or just not sure of go into a private tree. I don’t want people to be mislead by what I am not sure of. When they are vetted I add them to my public tree.

    1. Thank you for doing so…Early on, in my enthusiasm, I was adding information from others that ended up not being correct. I appreciate that you wait to add information until it is correct. I am working on going back and fixing quite a bit of info on my tree. As to information that could be confusing…I find my grand-uncle with his grand-parents on a census taken early April, and then he is also recorded at home with his parents when their census was taken in late April … I am glad that I already had personal knowledge of who everyone was and why he was there at that time :o)

  15. I’ve noticed that “careless” researchers will accept obviously inconsistent data without applying common sense … even when those inconsistencies are shown to them! Programs/sites like “” have wonderful “helper” features, but hints must always be examined before applying to your line. I have run into a researcher/s who, in obvious effort to overcome what they must feel is a “brickwall”, has linked a woman who lived and died in France in the 18th century to an Irish ancestor they have placed in the early 19th century in Pennsylvania. After a bit of pondering. I realized that the “soundex” hint in showed the French woman as a possible link. Rather than consider the impossibility of a dead French woman appearing in Pennsylvania, the researcher made this hint into an “Aha” moment. When I pointed out the improbable link, I was ignored, and that erroneous data is now linked to a veritable crowd of other family trees who have accepted the link without consideration of possible error. Aargh!

  16. My great grandfather was born out of wedlock in 1837. His mother was listed as a “Widow” in the 1880 census. She was living with her son. The family was very sensitive about this subject.

  17. Thank you so much for those tips. Especially the last one about widows and widowers. That was an idea that I’ve never had the occasion to ponder before, but great to keep in mind. And thanks to reading other replies, now I think I’ll set my working tree to private as well because of my odd method of sorting through things. I have the habit, that any of those “shaking leaves” look at all close to right (even if they turn out not to be) I still add them, because I’ve had many times where I can do a better job getting to the truth by having all the information in front of me even if it’s wrong. I’ll compare different generations because they often get mixed up when they have similar names, and sometimes I’ll find the information is right, just attached to the wrong person. I also found a time when brothers were mixed up as the father of the person I was working on, and that mixed up information gave me that clue. It’s especially easy for those kinds of mixups or happen (or claiming a sibling as a parent) when you have cases of multiple generations with the same name. I have one line that started out showing Thomas, son of Thomas, son of Thomas, son of Thomas, son of William and it turned out to correctly be Thomas, son of Thomas, son of William (sibling), son of Thomas, son of William. Dates are so important in cases like that. And as for mixing up numbers in dates, well that’s just extra bad if you’re a dyslexic amateur genealogist like I am. But it also makes you pay extra attention at the same time. Thanks again for this great post!

    1. M.G.

      Thank you for writing and happy to know that you enjoyed the tips. Loved your analysis of how you straighten out issues.


  18. Thank you so much! I am currently going back and making sure everything in my tree is factual and correct–it’s tedious! I wish I would’ve realized that I needed to be more careful in the first place. GREAT article with GREAT advice!

  19. Note: I almost forgot to mention that I was led to your article when performing a Google search for “Nathan Futrell”, the little drummer boy you mention in your article above. I am one of his descendants!

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