Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Expectations and Surprises of a Beginning Family History Researcher

"Really?" was one of those words that was often on my lips when I first began family history research.  At the time I knew little about my family or my ancestors and even less about family history research.  I expected that certain things would be true:  names, ages, locations, etc.  At first I was confounded by research results (Is this my ancestor or not?) and then I was surprised.  Below are some of my expectations and the surprises I found.

Expectation #1
  • Surnames will be spelled the same on all documents.  Our family's names are spelled D-o-y-l-e, M-e-i-n-z-e-n, and G-e-r-n-e-r, etc.  If a name is spelled some other way it's not my family. 
The Surprise
  • What's this:  D-o-y-l, M-i-n-s-e-n, and G-u-r-n-e-r?  Can these be my people when the spelling of surnames changes from one document to the next, from one year to the next?  I deliberated whether a family who looked like it could be my family in a census (same first names and ages, location correct) was really mine because the spelling of the surname was wrong.  I saved the document as a possible match and searched for the family in another census -- and found another spelling variation.  Hmmm. 
And Now I anticipate surname variations and sometimes keep a list of possible spellings at hand.  Occasionally I purposely search the variations.  I take them as clues to how names may have been pronounced.

Expectation #2
  • Ages will be the same in documents from the same year and increase the exact number of years from the date of one document to the next. 
The Surprise
  • How can he be 52 in the 1880 census when he was 40 in 1870, and the censuses are only 10 years apart?  This probably isn't my person.  
And Now I know that ages can vary by at least several years across all documents with ages on them.  I generally search birth dates within a range.  Ages in census records can be different because census dates vary.  Perhaps people didn't keep track of their ages or perhaps ages were less important a hundred or more years ago.  Sometimes it's possible to narrow down a birth month if one knows the census dates.

The Expectation #3
  • Given names will remain the same, will be spelled the same, and if there are given and middle names, they will remain in the same order. 
The Surprise
  • Is it Tressa Rose or Rose Tressa?  Is her name Belle, Isabelle, Isabella, or Belletta?  Did people change their names on a whim?
And Now I have no expectation that given names will have exact consistency over time, though I hope for only small/few variations in spelling and order. 

Expectation #4
  • Well of course my ancestors could read and write.  That's a given for an educated person.  I'm sure all my ancestors had good educations.
The Surprise
  • She's listed as unable to read and write.  Really?!  And so are plenty of others among my ancestors.
And Now I'm surprised when I learn that ancestors could read and write.  My ancestors learned in many different ways and may have known much more than I do about a great variety of things.  Being able to read was less important when not everyone owned books.  Being illiterate does not mean a person was/is unintelligent. 

Expectation #5
  • Skeletons in my family's closet?  Surely not!  My ancestors were fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizens who were normal in every way.
The Surprise
  • He committed suicide?!  He was killed in an accident?  Why didn't I ever hear about this when I was a kid?  (Of course I wouldn't have heard because I came from a family of non-storytellers.)
And Now I think how sad that an ancestor found himself/herself in a such a situation, but I can't change the past.  Dramatic, traumatic, and horrific events are recorded in newspapers (though not always accurately) which means it's sometimes easier to find the ancestors who were "different" in some way or other.

Expectation #6
  • When family "records" tell me that he immigrated with his family in 1869, that's what I expect to find.
The Surprise
  • Immigration records show that he came in 1868 and his family came in 1869.  Are those my people?
And Now I don't accept family "records" as gospel.  I think of them as hints and then search for documents to support, correct, and/or clarify the family "records."

Expectation #7
  • Finding children will be as easy as looking at a census record.
The Surprise
  • There's no "one" list?  One census lists eight children, another says the mother had 12 children with 9 living, and the father's will lists five children. 
And Now I realize there might always be another child and be aware of documents that may reveal them.  If there's a 1910 census I use that as a basis to begin (because it asks how many children the mother had and how many were living at the time).  And just because the census states that she was the mother of 10 children I know her current husband may or may not be the father of all of them. 

Expectation #8
  • His wife's name is Sarah.  I'm sure there's a marriage record.
The Surprise
  • This marriage records her name as Mary, not Sarah!
And now I wonder if either Mary or Sarah are middle names.  And I'm aware that an individual may have married more than once so I search for marriage records for both Mary and Sarah and/or other documents that indicate they were the same person.

Expectation #9
  • Children always know their father's and mother's names.
The Surprise
  • Her death certificate says "doesn't know" for name of mother/father.  How can that be?  How could she not know her own parent's name?
And Now I know that the informant listed on the death certificate may be the one who didn't know the parent's name, not the deceased.  I'm also aware that if a parent died when a child was very young he may not know anything about his birth parent, including name, especially if the surviving parent remarried.  And sometimes, people just didn't keep track of that information, especially a mother's maiden name.

These are a few of the expectations I remember having as a beginner.  Those early years of research were interesting with their misunderstandings and uncertainties but I eventually found and sorted out the ancestors of those early searches.

What were some of your expectations when you first began family history research?  What surprises did you find? 


Copyright ©2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I had many of the same expectations as you and then learned how wrong they were! Many, many skeletons have been revealed along with people switching the order of their names, their ages, and other pertinent details. One of my most fascinating finds was that of my 2x great-uncle Paul and his career as a publisher of erotica in late 19th century Paris - he moved there from London!

    1. Oh, those skeletons we find! That was probably a great surprise to you, Teresa, to find that your great-uncle published erotica. I wonder if any of his publications are extant and available for viewing (not that everyone would want to view, of course!).

  2. My advise, from a 40+ year veteran, is to ALWAYS search as many spelling variations as you know, especially now that many of us are using search engines and databases. Even then, some information may not bubble to the surface.

    1. Thank you for this advice, Kathy. I keep lists of spelling variations I've found in records but not possible spelling variations. I'll begin a list of possible variations and use it, too. Great tip!

  3. Such a good list. These were surprises for me when I first started. Another is that family moves together. That next door neighbor might be a sister. I thought my grandmother came to the US by herself, she did on the boat. But waiting here for her were her mother 3 sisters, a brother and a dozen cousins.

    1. Thanks, Jacquie. That's a great tip to remember that neighbors might be family members. I'll keep that in mind as I continue to search.

  4. Number #5... those skeletons make me feel more compassion rather than angst. Thanks for sharing that one and the others on your list.

    1. Oh, I agree, Devon. How sad for some ancestors and their families. Thanks.


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