Learning from our mistakes

We often learn from our mistakes. A promise that “I won’t do that again” can be a valuable tool. And, if repeated enough times, it becomes known as experience.

A decade ago I had a luncheon talk entitled “My Ten Worst Mistakes in Genealogy.” When the title appeared, Robert Charles Anderson commented, “and he updates it frequently!” In fact, I do update it, but now I separate the mistakes that did not appear in print or in a lecture from those that did. And I’m glad to say the former far outweigh the latter.

To avoid mistakes in the Register, I have a long checklist for each issue, which I update when I see mistakes elsewhere that I easily could have made myself. One of the mistakes I’m always trying to avoid is inconsistency, especially when one little part of an article is changed, and I don’t see all the related pieces to change in the text and footnotes. The main problem is with the English language: singular vs. plural, tense, collective nouns, etc.

Children are often a problem area, as their order may change. Also, some may have actual birth dates, some may have “circa” birth years (based on age at death, for example), and others may have “say” birth years. The last may be based on year of first marriage (if known) or on the order in which they are listed in a parent’s will. Other times “say” birth years are assigned to try to make sense of a list of children, perhaps yielding a clue that the father had more than one marriage. On top of this, each child must have the correct updated birth date when carried forward.

If relationships must be qualified by probably, perhaps, or possibly, it is important to present that doubt consistently, both in the text (including the lineage line back to the immigrant) and footnotes.

When there are multiple marriages among families and the same first names are used, the smallest inconsistency can create unexpected results. The article on Rebecca (Meriam) (Prescott) Parks in the October 2013 Register showed that two of her Prescott daughters married Williamson brothers, and two of her Parks children married Williamson siblings, who were first cousins of the Williamson brothers. These relationships only became apparent during the editing process.

Because genealogy is so heavy with detail, it is easy to make mistakes. I should know! And this is a good reason to submit your work to a journal like the Register that publishes additions and corrections, so that errors do not become a permanent part of the genealogical record.

About Henry Hoff

Henry Hoff is Editor of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and is a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists as well as a Fellow of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. He is also a Certified Genealogist. His genealogical interests include New York and the West Indies. Henry is the author of more than 125 genealogical articles in numerous scholarly journals and is the co-author, compiler, or editor of seven books.

9 thoughts on “Learning from our mistakes

  1. Thank you for the positive and supportive tone of the articles in the vita-brevis blogs. As a person relatively new to genealogy, but sincere in trying to do it right, I am tired of being scolded at every turn. Do all of my citations meet all of the Evidence Explained rules every time? Have I checked every single source for every single ancestor by reading the original documents in Swedish/German/Danish/Norwegian and French or did I trust that a heritage society line is accurate? Sometimes the purists crush the joy out of finding fascinating family stories. I think you have a great balance of encouraging good practice – while supporting the fact that this is complicated work. I appreciate you all.

  2. Thank you, Kathy — it’s nice to hear from you, too! Here at Vita Brevis we are trying to strike the balance between theory and practice — a difficult balance to maintain, of course. Please don’t be discouraged: I think I can speak for everyone who has posted here that perfection is elusive and infelicities of one sort or another all too common. The point is to persevere, as you are doing!

  3. Those sound like pretty small mistakes to me – although I appreciate the problems and the need to catch them. When I think of my Top 10 research mistakes, I blush. (Let’s start with blithely following unsourced family trees back when I was a novice…). I also enjoy the Vita Brevis blog.

  4. So far, thankfully, there haven’t been a lot of errors reported in the Early New England Families sketches, but a whooper just showed up. Despite spending 40 years studying Mayflower lineages and being a former Director of the Five Generations Project, I identified the father of Samuel Fuller who married Jane Lothrop as (his uncle) Samuel Fuller rather than Edward Fuller!

    This is a great example of “I know this stuff like the back of my hand, so why recheck the citations” syndrome. I’m having the back of my hand tatooed “Recheck, Recheck, Recheck”!

    And yes, Henry, I still have Ann Pell on my list.

    1. When my teen-aged son was a new driver, he assured me that he wouldn’t get lost,. “Don’t worry, Dad, I know this town like the back of my head.” The back of my own head is full of “facts” I’m sure don’t need checking. Yeah, right!

  5. Alicia, while a “whooper” might be an off-spring of a “whooping crane”, I think you mean “whopper” and I don’t mean Burger King!

    PS Seems there’s a Whooper Swan, but its pronounced “hooper”. Tip of the Hat to Google.

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