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8 common family tree research challenges...and their solutions

Every amateur genealogist is bound to hit a dead end every once in a while. Don't lose hope. The information you're looking for IS out just might take a little more digging to find it. Here are some common problems - and their solutions -- that trip up many family tree researchers:

1. Sorting out names.

Names can get you into a muddle if several of your ancestors share a name. Names were often passed on from one generation to the next, so you could find that three of your ancestors are all called James Clifton Sterling. Who's who? If you're confused about names, the answer is to talk to the older members of your family, NOW. This is a vital first step. If you don't talk to them first, you'll have to do it later. Ask for full names and nicknames, plus dates of birth, marriages, and dates of death of your ancestors. Ask whether anyone in the family has an old family Bible. You may even find that someone in the family has already traced his or her family tree, which will give a boost to your own searches.

2. Where do I start? Which line should I trace?

This is up to you. If you try to trace all your ancestors, it will likely take years because of the huge number of people involved. Start with your own surname; the surname you were born with. If you're a married woman, this means your maiden name. If you know your four grandparents, start with the family that used to live, or still lives, close to where you live now, because you can use the public library and the record's office in your area. If you don't want to follow that line, then choose the rarest of the four surnames, because, ironically, a rare surname is often easier to trace than a common one.

3. I can't find my great-grandfather!

Whenever you come to a complete dead-end, your first step is always to send for the birth certificate of the ancestor that you do know. Yes, it's frustrating to wait, but when you receive the document, you'll probably see why you were stumped. Let's say you're looking for your great-grandfather, Edward Thomas Carmichael, and he doesn't seem to exist. By sending away for your grandfather's birth certificate, you may find that his father was David Thomas Carmichael. In other words, someone's memory has failed them, and they gave you an incorrect name. This is very common; don't simply believe what your relatives tell you - people often confuse names and places and one branch of the family with another.

4. Why is it so hard to find information on European ancestors?

Everyone who was born in England or Wales since 1837 should have had his or her birth registered by the state. However, it's estimated that in some parts of the country, as many as 15% of all births were not registered in the decades after 1837, because there was no penalty on parents for failing to register until 1875. Also, some parents believed that it wasn't necessary to register the birth if the child was baptized. Therefore, if you're looking for your English ancestors, start with the birth registration. Genfindit at offers to find birth, death and marriage certificates for a fee. Alternatively, try these free resources:

* The English Archives Network at (Note: this URL will eventually be changing to

* FreeBMD, which lets you search birth, death and marriage indices in England and Wales from 1837 to 1902, with some records also up to 1983:

5. I'm trying to find __________ and ___________ and ________ but I'm getting nowhere.

Your problem here is a lack of focus. Always start with what you know: that is, with yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and

your great-grandparents. Only after you've gathered all the names, dates and places of birth, dates of marriages, and dates and places of death for those who are deceased, should you attempt to go back further. Always focus on one branch at a time, and one or two names at a time. Once you have all the information on those, you'll find that the information you're looking for turns up and that there was really no need to stress over it in the first place. Also, remember to get proof. If someone in the family sends you a photocopy of great-great-grandfather's birth certificate, that's proof. But it's not proof if someone tells you when and where they think he was born. You could end up tracing a branch of a family that you're not even related to.

6. I spent hours at the library and I didn't find a thing!

We all have days where the pickings are slim, and we feel as if we're not gettinanywhere. However, consider that you did learn that your ancestors are not in those particular records. You've eliminated those sources, and it's one more place you won't have to search in the future.

7. I have conflicting information.

This happens more often than you'd think possible. If the census documents say your great-great grandfather was born in 1840, the old family Bible says he was born in 1852, and burial records say he was born in 1848, which do you believe? When this happens, try and corroborate one of the dates from another source. Census documents can be wrong, as can the information in the family Bible. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many babies died in infancy. Sometimes another child was given the name of a child who died. Burial records can be wrong, too - perhaps the undertaker made an error, or someone in the family gave the date incorrectly.

8. I can't find the family in the census.

If you're sure that your family lived in the county when the census was taken, but you can't find them, there could be several reasons. Check:

* Alternate spellings. * That you're looking at the right county in the right state, several states have more than one county with the same name. * The end of the county enumeration. If pages were stuck together when they were microfilmed, the missed pages were then filmed at the end of the county enumeration.

Don't give up. It's possible that the indexer made an error. Names were alphabetized incorrectly, or misread, or even omitted. If the census that you're checking was indexed by several organizations, check to see whether your family appears in another index. It's difficult for us to imagine how laborious it was to write everything - and to make copies - by hand.

8. I have two people in the same place at the same time with the same name: which is my ancestor?

This is a slightly different challenge from the above, "Sorting out names." When you find two people with the same name in the same place at the same time, and either could be your ancestor, you're going to have to examine the information, and perhaps gather more information, so that you can create a biography of these two people. Find official documents: did they own land? What about the census documents of that era? Can you locate a will for either of them? Study the information that you have, locate more information, and then work out which one was your ancestor. Certain names were popular in families, and in localities, because there was such a small marriage pool: people didn't travel far in the 19th century and earlier, because travel was expensive and difficult. Names were passed on from generation to generation. This makes it difficult for you, so many years later, trying to work out who's who.
About the Author

Chris Simeral is the creator of the 7 Day Family Tree Genealogy Research Toolkit. For a free genealogy mini-course, visit

Written by: Chris Simeral

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