A caution about genealogical data

Serious genealogists soon learn to be tentative about their findings. We want verification for our facts. Just because a date is carved in stone doesn’t make it true, as I can attest from one that has one of my great-great-great-grandmothers a decade older than she was.

Transcription mistakes and typographical mistakes are always a possibility, even before we get to outright errors.

Census records, as we learn, can mislead widely, starting with spelling and penmanship. I try to read their entries, as well as any earlier registers, with a phonetic awareness the informant may well have been speaking with ill-fitting dentures – or none at all. What would the name sound like mumbled? That’s before we get to something like the 1860 Census for Montgomery County, Ohio, where my great-great-grandfather’s household appears twice, with the first names and members’ ages varied enough for me to believe for all too long (more than a decade, I believe) we needed to account for a mysterious cousin. And another of my great-great-great-grandmothers apparently shaved her age when it came to official reporting. What was denoted as 35, for instance, should have been 38. Thirty years later, it was 62 rather than 68. (Anyone else want to hear her explanation for that one?)

The hefty county-by-county histories with biographical portraits that were commercially published in the late 1800s can be a wealth of data, but once again, caution is required. By then my McSherry line in Ohio was claiming to be of Scottish origin rather than Irish from Colonial Pennsylvania. (Matters of respectability? Should we footnote how times, too, can change?)

And just because something’s in a book doesn’t make it true. Clay Hodgin’s widely quoted Early History of the Quaker Hodgson-Hodson-Hodgin Family boldly proclaims that Orphan George descended from Robert of the Woodhouse mission and then, in a second mangling, insists that Robert’s linage was from Yorkshire, rather than Durham as Quaker records have it. To repeat my point, there is no apparent family connection between Orphan George and Robert of the Woodhouse. Nor is there any known connection to William and Isabell (Stockdale) Hodgson.

As a final caution, keep in mind that official repositories are no guarantee of accuracy. The massive Latter-day Saints (Mormon) collections name a John Hodgson of Doncaster in Yorkshire as Orphan George’s father, for instance, without any supporting documentation. (I’ll argue that what is available, via Quaker records, instead points to Lurgan, Ireland, and from there back to Lumplugh in Cumbria, England – but I raise that in a tentative context requiring further, definitive research. Go for it if you will.)


As you’ve pursued your own research, what cautions have you discovered? Has wrong information ever caused you pain? How about needless hours of labor only to reach a dead end? Can you think of any ways erroneous information can add to our understanding? What advice would you offer other researchers?


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