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Don’t Let Mythology Guide Your Genealogy Research!

How can you tell if the information posted by individuals on internet genealogy sites is correct? Some sites have sources but others don't. How do you know what, and when, to believe what you read online??

A good rule of thumb is....

Don't trust anything you find on the internet (or elsewhere) if it doesn't have sources.

The Importance of Sources

Without sources you can't verify the information, which means you don't know if it is accurate or if it came from a reliable source. Perhaps it came from Great Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha may have some of it right, but she may have mixed up a lot too. Word of mouth, aka family lore, is often quite wrong or confused but with a shred of truth. Without verification, a researcher has no way of knowing what’s true and what is not.

The information may have come from a book written by someone 100 years ago who didn't have access to sources we have now.

Perhaps the information was transcribed from a book that was transcribed from a microfilm which was in turn transcribed from the original. The chance of human error is greatly increased with each succeeding transcription.

Verify the Information by Checking the Source

Even if a source has been recorded for the information, you should double-check it personally. That means find the original source and verify that what you found was correct. If the information does not have a source, it is up to you, the researcher, to track down where the information came from.

If you write to whomever posted the information online you might be lucky enough to get a source citation from that person. Then you can access the original source and check to see if the information you found is correct. If you cannot get a response to your request for a source, you will have to go on a hunt or look for other records to verify the information you found.

Evaluate the Source

You also want to think about the source itself. Is the source a good one? If Great Aunt Martha gives me information on the birth or baptism of my 3rd great-grandpa and I put it online with the source recorded as "Remembrances of Great Aunt Martha", that's not necessarily a reliable or accurate source. So while it is important to source your findings, you also have to consider how reliable the source is. After all, Great Aunt Martha did have that fall from a horse when she was a child and she IS 97 years old. How accurate is her memory?

However, if I source the birth or baptismal dates with full details on the church where I saw the original record, or the published transcript of those church records, that's much more reliable. There are many good books available on how to write proper source citations, such as “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition” by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Sources Can Be Misquoted

Sometimes (more often than you might think) sourced information is misquoted or misunderstood. For example on a newsgroup recently someone asked for assistance in figuring out exactly where in Ontario her great-grandfather was born. She provided a quote regarding his being born in a “...fortified town near the border with America” adding that it came from a newspaper article written about him while he was alive.

When I obtained the article I discovered she had misquoted what was actually written. The only reference to his birth stated “[He] is a Canadian…born in a distant fortified outpost on the borders of Canada and America”.

Credit: The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 - 1889). 7 February 1887. http://trove.nla.gov.au/

That’s quite different from her version. The American-Canadian border is found in other provinces besides Ontario. Thus her misquoting of the information was leading her astray. She had a mythical story of her great-grandfather being born in Ontario when in fact he might have been born in any one of several provinces that border on the United States. As well her use of “near the border” instead of the actual wording of “on the borders” makes a difference as to what locations fit the reference given (near vs on). It’s important to be accurate and precise when using quotes as a source.

Sources Can Be Misunderstood

Several years ago a friend asked me to help him find out where in Indiana his grandmother was born. His source for her birth was a family bible. But a check of the bible revealed that her parents were born and married in Ontario and all her siblings were recorded as being born in Ontario. All other records, such as census and death records gave her place of birth as Ontario. It seemed unlikely that she was born in the United States but what about the reference to Indiana? Further research revealed that there was a small village in Ontario called Indiana about 5 miles from where her parents were born and married and about 10 miles from the family’s location in various census records. My friend had misunderstood the original source.  

Keep This Mantra in Mind

When in doubt, remember....

"Genealogy without sources is mythology"

Don’t let your genealogy research be guided by mythology.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the
Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.




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In addition to the issues mentioned in the article, sources themselves can be wrong. A good case in point is the US Census. Names are sometimes misspelled, middle and first names are sometimes reversed, birth years and ages are sometimes wrong, birth places are sometimes wrong, etc. How do we know this? Just look at how the data varies from census to census, e.g. 1930 compared to 1940 for the same household. This type of error is understandable when you consider how a census was done back then. A person, called an enumerator, went from house to house and wrote down the info for each person in the household. The info was given to him by one of the members of the household. So, you could get incorrect data either by the giver of the info or by the enumerator writing it down wrong...or later by the indexer transcribing it wrong. Similar types of errors can happen with about any source, e.g. birth certificates, death certificates, etc. So, sources are undoubtedly much more reliable than family folklore, but they are nowhere near absolutely accurate. So, be aware of this and compare multiple sources...and be prepared to live with unresolved discrepancies.

I often find valuable tidbits in this "mythology." If I learn a location of a wedding, I might then see a record for "A. Coleman" that I would otherwise have missed. It can also be helpful if a source has a serious misspelling. It can let you know that a family moved across the country unexpectedly, giving you a clue where to look for a common name on a census. It can help you find a woman who marries and has a name change. Avoiding this type of data is like refusing to roll down your window and ask for directions when your GPS fails--it just might point you in the right direction.


I absolutely agree with you! Family stories and myths can be wonderful clues and I apologize if I didn't make that clear in my article. The danger in my mind is accepting such stories as fact without verifying them.


Gary - Excellent points, thank you for sharing.


I just returned from a family reunion and while in the area decided to find out if there was a baptismal record for me. I lived with my grandmother until I was six and she was very religious. When she wanted to have me baptized, my parents said "no." My grandmother told me that I was baptized but when years later I told my mother this, she said it was a lie. At the second church of my search, I found my baptismal record. I was baptized at the age of 5 (Mumma probably knew my parents were coming for me soon). I tell you this story because of the information on this "official" record. My middle name is wrong (Kathleen instead of Cathelyn), my mother's name is wrong (Kathleen instead of Catharine or Cathelyn - it shows up differently in different records) and my father's name is reversed (instead of Adolph Charles, it is Charles Adolph). With all the official records, the accuracy depends on who gave the information.

Hi Lorine,
What you have said about Genealogical Mythology is so apt, recently I have noted a number of cases where clearly a person who has posted the family tree has failed to do proper research.
The person concerned has assumed that what they had found was the earliest birth for a couple John Mc Carten / McCartan and Elizabeth Mc Carten / McCartan formally Grimason and then assumed that a daughter in a properly researched pedigree was the one and same, had they done the research and continued looking they would have found earlier births and not made the mistake of linking to the wrong family, with what they have posted online when checked it would appear that had it been the Elizabeth Grimason they seem to think it was.
The Elizabeth Grimason they think was would have been 10 years of age when the first child that has been found of that union was born.
Had they traveled to Ireland and viewed the micro film for the correct parish and townland then they would have then viewed the original source like myself and would know that what is on that microfilm is not online currently.
Even I having done genealogical research since 1984 still discover new tib bits even when carrying out a One Name Study.
An example of this is that it appears that the Grimason surname was inter changeable with Grimeson, Grimison and Grimson, this is based on individual births and deaths within just one family branch that I have uncovered within the last 48 hours, on top of that you also have adoption of a surname as well.
Having uncovered the link between the Grimason and Grimson surname this now sheds new light on what other research may need to be done plus links my research with another surname that was part of another One Name Study.

David - Agree, agree, agree. :-)

Now if only we could teach this to those who perpetuate this kind of genealogy.



So true and in fact I blogged about this on my blog previously. My own great-grandmother's death certificate info on her parents is completely wrong. It was her 17 year old son who provided the information and I suspect he was confused by the questions as well as grieving as he was now an orphan.


Sometimes the mythology is so much more romantic that it persists. In an official version of Edwin Pettit's history, one version of his escape from Nauvoo is recorded, but family legend has another. The two are connected in essentials, but not in particulars.

In another case, a family member (Woolf) reportedly swam across the Chesapeake under fire from the British navy to join George Washington in Long Island. Geography is not the only challenge here. Someone finally undertook research of British records of Hessian soldiers to find he was honorably discharged at the end of his required time, but then he stayed in the U.S. as many other Hessian soldiers did. Much less romantic, but much more honorable. It didn't help that he seems to have been the source of the exciting myth. :-)

An often told story in my mother’s family stated that when (great) Aunt Elizabeth’s medical practice was destroyed in “the Chicago fire” she decided to “move out west.” On the train the conductor went through the cars looking for a doctor for a man who had become ill. Aunt Elizabeth volunteered to help the distressed man, apparently saving his life. They fell in love and married soon after arriving in Portland, Oregon… After doing my research I found that the two actually met and married in Lawrence, Kansas – several years before moving to Oregon, first to Albany, Oregon then eventually settling in Portland. I have yet to find any evidence regarding their meeting aboard a train, although that may have been a possibility, but on a train from Chicago to Lawrence, not Chicago to Portland. To disgruntled family members who have accepted the family lore story as fact all of these years, I explain: My mother and sisters who perpetuated the story for years were young girls and knew Aunt Elizabeth only in Portland, Oregon. So, while they got the basic gist of the story correct, e.g., Elizabeth came from Chicago, ended up in Portland, and was married to businessman Frederick. They just missed about five years of important detail in between.

Jim that is exactly what happened in my family. My uncle said my great-grandmother (his grandmother) was born in a little village which was quite far from her home as an adult. It was a great clue but not correct. The great part was that the family had moved there at a much later point in their lives - and I would never have looked in such a remote location that far from home had he not pointed me in that direction. He was just slightly mixed up.

LeeAnn, I once had a woman tell me I had "ruined" a beautiful family story when I showed her proof that she and her husband were not related but in fact were descended from two different families who happened to have the same surname. Romance wins over truth I guess!


Like Lorine I once followed an individual that fled the English Justice system to USA and ended up in Mexico near the border. The family story was that this individual's mother never saw him again - much to the distress of the mother & rest of the family. Modern day descendants had built a family Christmas gathering around this long estranged son who was never seen again.
Unfortunately it was a myth, as I found a USA/Mexico border crossing record that proved the mother had visited her son in Mexico.
Whilst I found the truth, I regret telling the family as I spoiled a long held tradition. It would have felt better keeping the information to myself.
My personal pet hate is the plethora of would-be family historians who blindly copy information from other family historians' trees without subjecting the information to any scrutiny at all. My guess is that over half the online trees are the work of copiers and most have obvious errors.
I regularly use other family historians trees to point me in the right direction, but I also subject every bit of information to some scrutiny and wont post it to my tree unless I have some documentary evidence to support the information.


I think it's worth remembering that there's a lot of genealogical information out there that may never be verified by any original record or combination of records. Family stories and statements in authored works that are themselves unsourced are good examples - we really don't know where the information came from, and sometimes it's difficult or impossible to find out. Just because a statement can't be verified elsewhere does not mean it's not accurate, but we will never really know. If no original record can be found, it's still very important to trace the information back to its earliest known secondary source and cite it properly. At least then it can be compared to other sources and records for better evaulation.

Ian, it is very difficult sometimes to know what to share/reveal and what to keep to oneself. I'm a bit hard-nosed and believe the truth is important. But I ask the intended recipient first if they want to know whatever I find, good, bad or ugly!

Mind you if the recipient is quite elderly and the truth would hurt them in some way I keep it to myself. That's actually a good topic for a blog post - thanks Ian!

And thanks for sharing your story of your family's disappointment at learning their romantic story was not true.

Jane I think you hit the nail on the head. Some family stories can't be verified, and that does not mean we have to discard them! What it means is, as you noted, try to find a secondary source that supports the family story. Failing that, document the story carefully so that anyone who later reads your genealogy work knows that it is a story from Grandma that you have been unable to verify.

When I write my family history books I try to be very careful to word a story in this way "Descendants of Joseph have a family story that has come down the generations stating that the family was from Belfast Ireland. (Source: email from Joseph's grandson J. Belkin September 26, 2012)" Since my books are not meant to be published in a scholarly journal I don't sweat getting the source citation to code.

I agree with everything here. A further piece of myth that has cropped up several times in my ancestors (and I am sure in everybody else's) is blatant lies. The most obvious will be my grandfather lieing about his birth to sign up for WW1, but there are plenty of occasions where people have changed occupation to presumably sound better on baptism or marriage records, given incorrect birth locations again presumably because it sounded better, etc. Sometimes I think it may be a mistake but there are occasions when I ***know*** that it is a difference so great that it would not be a mistake.

David, thanks for reminding us of this. Folks often lied. Women often lied about their age, or about the number of spouses they had previously! Men lied about lots of things. Sometimes it was just a matter of not knowing but you are correct about deliberate lies.

It's good to remember that our ancestors had human frailties and vanities just like us.

Anyone using my Great Aunt Maggie's marriage record as a source to research her ancestors will be faced with a major challenge. She was a widow and a first cousin to her new husband, in a place where marriages between first cousins may have been illegal. She didn't want anyone asking how she might be related to her fiance. Her solution? She invented parents!

Oh boy Bill! I guess that's the fun and challenge of genealogy :-) My great grandmother's death cert has the wrong parents - because her 17 year old son gave his OWN parents' names instead of hers.

Lorine: I had the same experience with my g-grandmother. Her neighbor or a friend gave her own information as to parents when filling out my g-grandmother's death certificate information.

I bet it happened more than we know, John. Goes to show us that we have to be critical thinkers and be willing to keep an open mind.

My problem is an error made by a professional genealogist using conventional techniques. Many years ago my g-g-grandfather L D and his sister were placed into the wrong D family. I have no idea what documentation led to the error but the mistake is now propagated through more than a dozen genealogies on Ancestry.Com with no practical way to correct it. My notes to the family tree owners go unanswered. Had it not been for DNA testing the error would still be unknown. DNA testing showed that it is a completely different D family. Among other clues LD's middle name is the maiden name of his newly identified mother. LD's sons carried other family given and surnames from his newly identified father's family. Agreed that naming conventions are circumstantial, but none of them appear in the family to which he was mistakenly assigned.

Probably the most aggravating issue is the documentation for his state of birth. All the incorrect genealogies identify him as born in M. For this many offer documentation. That documentation is the US Census. However, if one bothers to look at the document, it clearly states he was born in N. How does one deal with this?

John - I feel your pain. In fact in May of this year I wrote a blog post about this very thing. "Gritting My Teeth About Online Family Trees" at http://olivetreegenealogy.blogspot.ca/2015/05/gritting-my-teeth-about-online-family.html

You can see from my story that what you are experiencing is very common. I've come to the conclusion (after years of trying to right the wrongs!) that it is not worth my time, energy and rising blood pressure. So I write articles and books to get the right information out there. That is an option for everyone to take. Another idea is that you could make a public family tree with sources proving the correct information.

Or you could continue tilting at those windmills but taking comfort in the belief that you are doing the right thing and maybe, just maybe one person will listen and correct their errors.


All really good stories posted here!!! These anomalies make genealogy both frustrating and fun at the same time. I love that genealogy is both detective work (Easter Egg hunt) and connecting with your family (living or not).
Many of the stories here are hard to top. But I may have one. A close friend's mother had a child out of wedlock in the 1950s. Prior to the birth, she arranged to have the child "adopted" by a childless couple. I put adopted in quotes because that is not what happened. My friend's mother entered the hospital posing as the woman that was taking the child. So, on the books this was not an adoption, just a normal birth. Over 50 years later, using my genealogy skills, I helped my friend track down this half-sister - it was a total shock to the half-sister who never knew her parents (now deceased) were not her bio parents. Eventually we arranged a reunion - very exciting. And fortunately, Legacy let's me enter all this convoluted relationship properly.

My first cousin's husband put down the name of his stepmother on their marriage certificate application. So confusing when I had already found another name on his birth record! I asked her about it (fortunately she is still alive) and she straightened me out.


How lucky that she was still with you to fill you in!



I'm so glad your findings had a happy ending and you are connected with a new family member. That is exactly what happened in our family. As one of my young grandsons said "It's more people to love and more to love us" :-)

My brother was very disappointed when I found no evidence of a relationship between our GF and Kaiser Wilhelm or our decent from Joseph Brant's sister, Molly Brant and her husband Sir William Johnson (please don't correct me - although there's no proof, I am positive that they had a Mohawk marriage ritual as SWJ was too well aware of the significance that the match would have among members of the Iroquois Confederacy). But my brother was absolutely STRICKEN when I found no relationship between our mother and the great Hall of Famer, Walter Johnson, "The Big Train" pitcher of the Washington Senators. He lost interest in our genealogy after that.

I, and probably 1000s of others, descend from Hattie Nickerson ("born" from 1612-1627, "died" 1664), the "first wife" of William-2 Lord (1618-1678). The only problem (and it's a biggie!) is that she didn't exist. Yet, she is all over Ancestry and many online pedigrees. I've gone the route of notifying people one by one only to have only a few believe me even with all my careful evidence and this article in "The Connecticut Nutmegger": "The Fictional Hattie (Nickerson) Lord", v.32 no.2 Sept. 1999, page 189-192 by Burton N. Derick, VP, Genealogy, Nickerson Family Association, and Roberta G. Bratti. And like John above, very few people even responded to my initial contact message at all. ->sign!<-

Hi Jay

I won't correct you - but I will suggest that you might look into DNA testing as a way of proving your family story. Wouldn't it be nice to say "I told you so!" with scientific verification to support your statement? :-)


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