We all make mistakes in our research, especially when we’re new to it or when we’re unfamiliar with what we’re looking at. Old handwriting, for example, can be tricky to read. Variations in surname spellings can lead us off in the wrong direction. And believing other people’s research to be correct without fact checking… that was the shake of a rabbits tail that took me down the wrong warren in the early days of my researching.
Oops! A Cautionary Shaking Rabbit’s Tale
I started researching my family tree in 2009 with my mother after her father passed. We didn’t know a lot about the people who came before her parents, though she knew all her grandparents and cousins. I was living at home and we set up an Ancestry account on the home computer to work on our tree together. Mum is a lot more organised and practical than I am, but I think outside the box a lot, so we worked well as a team. We had some very productive visits to Register House picking up the trail of our ancestors!
After I left home for university, an undergraduate degree in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Studies with History not genealogy, I kept our account going (in fact, it’s the still account I use and pay for myself, mum doesn’t have access to it now I’m away from home). I would only paid monthly when I had some spare money in my budget. I was not a party animal at university as an older not a straight-out-of-school student (mid-20s), so I wasn’t spending my student funds on the assumed student lifestyle. Not that I was a stick in the mud either, but partying every night was my idea of hell.
At the time, I was volunteering at a local family history society helping to rearrange the bookshop and any other small tasks that they needed help with. They were the people that helped me to set up my original Scotland’sPeople account in the days where you had to pay credits for each search page as well as the certificate. With a surname like Smith, I think you could find yourself broke before you found the page with the certificate you wanted. Thank goodness they changed their system since then.
I was sat in my student halls bedroom, which was the size of a shoebox, and I was playing around on Ancestry. I was researching some family who came from Fife in Scotland. I didn’t know a lot about them, but there was hints from other people’s trees flagging up. So with a twitch of a nose and a shake of a tail, I followed that rabbit down into a vast warren of information.
As I kept adding the information to my tree, I started noticing more nobility appearing as the generations went back. I wasn’t sure I was quite believing my eyes as I delved further and further and deeper and deeper into the roots of a tree that led passed good old Charlemagne but all the way back into the Roman Empire…
I called my mum.
“You won’t believe what I’ve found looking at the family tree on Ancestry!” I said to her. “But, I don’t think the information is right. Especially now it’s going back to the ROMANS!”
Of course, I had studied a couple of courses in my first semester of university looking at Scottish history as well as the impact of the Romans on the Celtic world (including the areas where “Celtic languages” are still spoken). I was very sceptical, but I had no credits on ScotlandsPeople at the time and it must have been about 9pm at night when I called my mum.
“Oh that’s fascinating!” she said. “What were the names you found? I’d like to have a look to see what I can find out.”
So as I laughed and tried to work out where the axe needed to come out to chop back the tree; mum went on the Wikipedia rabbit hole search for all these famous people.
Where the Axe Fell
The following morning, I bimbled along to the family history society. If I bought a card for credits on ScotlandsPeople through them as a member, it worked out cheaper than paying online. I bought a couple of cards, had a chat with the volunteers about my trip down the vast warren and then headed back to my shoebox room to see where I’d gone wrong.
“Oh!” I said out loud. There were two couples in the same area of Fife with the same names, from the same time period. So which couple were mine? It was the same parish, it wasn’t a set of banns for the wife’s parish and a set of banns for the husband’s parish…
I bought both marriages to compare. And so it seemed that I had fallen at the very first hurdle. I hadn’t looked for the original documents before heading off on a magical mystery tour. One couple appeared to come from aristocracy, the other were shepherds. Guess which ones were mine…
I called my mum. “Well, as much fun as it was thinking we were linked to Charlemagne, we’re really just related to shepherds.”
She laughed. “Well I had great fun looking into all these people and learnt a lot about who they were and how important their roles were.”
We both ended up with some lessons over those two days; mum learnt about Charlemagne’s wife and the history around that period via Wikipedia and I learnt that I need to find original sources for myself rather than trusting the hints and research of others. It was a valuable lesson in the early stages of researching that I think most family historians and genealogists can relate to in their own early stages of research.
Making a mistake in your tree doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that you are a bad researcher. Everyone has made a mistake at some point. We learn from mistakes, we correct them, we make sure we keep note of our sources so we can go back and double check for errors, for misunderstandings, for any “oops” moments.
Have you had an “oops” moment in your research?
This blog is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestor challenge. If you’re blogging about your own family history, do check out the weekly themes and see if you can get yourself involved. It’s a lot of fun to do and there are a lot of bloggers already taking part (it’s worth looking for #52Ancestor hashtag on WordPress and on social media).
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