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Watching for Bumps in the Road

By Daniel Hubbard | November 3, 2013

One of the tricky things to deal with in any research is evidence that leads you astray. There are some things in genealogy to avoid some such problems. We try to understand how records are created and how imperfections might sneak in.

The misinformed and distraught informant used to create a death certificate might not know the names of her departed husbands parents but think that she does, or might be so upset that he gives the wrong date of birth for his wife, even though they had observed the correct birthday for many years. The child that is left off the will might have been alive and well and on good terms with his father but has already received all that was due to him, so he goes unmentioned. The census enumerator might have found no one home and simply talked to a neighbor to get the best information that he could. These are all things that can happen and that we simply need to consider as we think about how trustworthy any piece of evidence actually is.


This week I ran into too many examples of closely a related problem. The person who created the record or cataloged it simply made some sort of mistake. Not a slip of memory. Not giving us information in a way that might seem odd today and not choosing an informant that was less qualified than one would hope. Those are categories of problems that we can anticipate depending on the type of record. These were more random. That makes them harder to anticipate but not so difficult to deal with if we keep our eyes open.

Bump 1 Some bumps in the road the record travels are obvious enough. They come with big, yellow, firmly-planted warning signs. I ran into a database of information extracted from a set of annually produced city directories. Very nice. One gets a name, an address, an occupation and of course since the directories were produced annually you get the year as well. Except in this case. Most of the entries had years but the one that was most crucial to me did not. Annual directories come with years of publication often right in their titles but somehow the information was lost.

Bump 2 Missing information is one thing but wrong is another. I found a widow that I was tracing in an 1894 directory. That was quite a coup because she had supposedly died by 1886. This time though, there were proper pages to examine. The book was cataloged as the 1894 directory, but if so, it was an amazing feat of prognostication because the publication date on the title page was 1884.* I think that has to be one of the downsides of digitized books–you don’t see the cover, you just jump right to the place your search leads you, trusting that you are actually in the book you think you are in, trusting that nothing like this example of time travel has occurred. Remember to check that digitized title page.

Bump 3 A microfilm that I ordered to check if the child I was looking for might have been baptized in the parish covered by the film also had a bit of time travel to it. Luckily, I was interested in the baptisms first. I found what I wanted and I was by then familiar with the span of years covered. Then I decided to check the marriages. If I had been interested in the marriages first, I might not have noticed that baptisms and burials ran to much later dates than the marriages. Odd…and wrong. The marriages were supposed to run only to the 1820s. I stopped checking when I got well past 1848, when the baptism occurred. At least two extra decades of marriages were there beyond what the label claimed.

Bump 4 I was looking for a woman on a passenger list. I had the approximate year, I had her birth year but no luck. I tried various combinations of things in the search that I was performing. Some more research turned up her husband’s given name. Bingo, found him right away. She was listed right below him. He was 32. She was 30, just like I would have predicted. Hmm… The index had her as 80. Well, that is too bad but it is understandable, the 30 did look something like 80. What was odd was that in the original, she was listed without a surname, just a blank because it was understood that her name was the same as her husband’s. Hmm… the index has her husband’s surname correct but hers was totally mangled. I still wonder what the exact sequence of events was that led to her nonexistent name being misinterpreted. Presumably, his was once mangled as well but it certainly is not what one would expect.

marriage_300pxBump 5 Finally, pity the poor clerks. They are the road crews of our research—we all know how vital their jobs are but no one likes it when we have things to do and places to go and they have the nerve to get in our way while they work to make our lives easier. They hold up “slow” signs. They send us on detours. They set out those “bump” warning signs. I was very thankful earlier in the week to find that a clerk had made an entry in a marriage register that proved something important to what I was researching. If I had been researching the couple listed on the line above and not noticed “my” line, I would have made a mistake. On the left hand page, the information on the two lines was different, as it should be for different marriages. The information on the right hand page was identical. The same information had been copied into the register twice but only on that page where it was less noticeable. I know from other evidence that my line was not filled with the random information that one would expect from such a mistake. On close inspection, the line above had enough oddities within in it that only some strange and presumably illegal marriage practices could have produced it.

Sometimes when careening down the information superhighway’s genealogy lane, it can be good to take the off-ramp, get on the frontage road, slow down and take in one’s surroundings. They are often not what they are supposed to be. You might even want to stop and check both the oil and the title page.





* Imagine it is 1884 and you receive you shiny, new 1894 city directory and crack it open to find yourself or your wife listed as “widow of…” Not a good day.

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