Exposing the Mythology That Can Hinder Your Genealogy

Bird on a Limb by BFS Man, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved

There are some popular myths in the field of genealogy that are misguiding and may derail your progress in discovering your lineage. You might even recognize some of these myths as assumptions you have relied upon in organizing your family tree thus far.  Below I address some of these widespread notions to guide you in separating fact from fiction and help to rectify any gaps that have arisen in your research.

Your complete family history can be found online and is largely accurate. While there is a wealth of valuable information available online from recognized databases, there is no one stop resource for discovering your entire family tree. Many authentic records do exist, such as census and military information, but there are also errors in online indexes.  As such, information should always be verified for accuracy by locating other records. At some point, you may need to take your research skills to the library to investigate other types of materials. Many libraries have collections that focus on that city’s history, including city directories, ward and fire insurance maps and telephone directories, which may be beneficial in locating more obscure information about your ancestors.

You should focus only on single lines of descent to create your family tree. It can be exceedingly difficult to find a direct ancestor without building a more inclusive family tree. In order to construct a thorough family history, it is often necessary to locate information on an ancestor’s siblings and their spouses. Particularly if your ancestor left little documentation, information pertaining to your ancestor’s siblings could be invaluable. If no spouses are listed, check sources for U.S. marriage records in FamilySearch Wiki or cemetery records. If you cannot locate death information for an entire family, that may indicate that the family has not been adequately researched and is often missing spouses and children in future generations. Wiki is also a great tool to help you locate missing death records.

If your ancestors came through Ellis Island, immigration officials “Americanized” the names of those immigrants with foreign or unusual sounding names.  This myth has been widely debunked among many historians and genealogical researchers.  While many of our ancestral names – both first and last – were indeed changed in an effort to ease integration into American society, this process did not occur at Ellis Island.  These name changes were often the result of voluntary decisions made by immigrants, or made at the discretion of school teachers or employers, and were not implemented by immigration officers at ports of entry.  For this reason, it is possible that members of one extended family had different surnames during some or all of their lives in America. This fact is well supported by examining the U.S. immigration procedures at Ellis Island, which confirm that passenger lists were drafted by the ship’s captain or his representative at the port of departure, not arrival.  Immigration officers at Ellis Island were not permitted to alter the properly documented information provided by each immigrant unless requested by the immigrant or upon their discovery of a factual error.

Discovering the facts behind these half-truths in genealogy may be helpful in overcoming that brick wall you have encountered, or at that very least, send you searching for ancestors and sources in a more comprehensive manner.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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