Sooner or later, this happens to every genealogist. You are “gifted” with an ancestor one way or another and either they turn out not to be your ancestor at all, or at least not by that surname. Then, you have to saw that branch off of your own tree! Ouch!
There are lots of ways for this to happen, but this past week, we added a new way – and to me – this new avenue is even more frightening because it carries with it the perception of validation by DNA. After all, DNA doesn’t lie, right? Well, it doesn’t, IF it’s interpreted correctly. And that IF should be in the largest font size possible.
Bad New Ancestor Discovery (NAD) #1
Yep, last week, Ancestry.com released a new feature that uses only your DNA to find your ancestors called New Ancestor Discoveries. Great idea. Not terribly accurate – at least not yet. Ancestry has since changed their marketing verbiage to reflect that they aren’t necessarily finding new ancestors, they are finding potential ancestors and relatives, and these are hints, not gifts of ancestors. That’s much more accurate.
If you want to, you can catch up with all of that with my blogs here, here and here, and then a final blog by Ancestry “splainin’ things.” But how I got the new ancestor is much less important that the fact that I did receive two new ancestors, a man and a wife, and they are unquestionably incorrect. This phenomenon is now called Bad NADs on social media – NADs being “New Ancestor Discoveries.” Genealogists do have a sense of humor.
So let’s just suffice to say that if you receive a “new ancestor” from Ancestry, treat it as a hint. It might be a new ancestor. It might be someone related to one of the same lines, which is why your DNA matches. In other words, your real ancestor might be the aunt of the woman listed as your ancestor – and you just happen to share DNA with two of her sister’s kids descendants, which is why you got put into her “circle.”
Or, these people may not be your ancestors at or even related. How can that be, you ask? Easy – if you match each of two people through different ancestors, and they just happen to share a common ancestor – it looks like you might share that ancestor too. As I said, treat this NAD as a nice hint and start your research. Don’t attach these ancestors to your tree without verification…or you may well just have to saw those Bad NADs off.
But Ancestry’s new ancestors are just the newest way to get bogus ancestors. Let’s look at how I’ve obtained wrong ancestors, aka Bad NADs, and then had to go out and chop branches off of my own tree. Is that ever painful – because I’ve gotten attached to all of those people on that branch, thinking they were “mine.
So I’m thinking, maybe I should have titled this article “12 Ways to Get (Rid of) Bad NADs?” Sounds like a social disease. No, wait….it is! You often get it by associating with other genealogists:)
Bad NAD #2
Copying trees, or more creatively put, ancestor grafting. Grafted NADs.
I have to admit, I started to do this once or twice, but thankfully, THANKFULLY, I was just skeptical enough to copy those trees down as a separate file and they are still hanging out there on my computer waiting to be attached. Needless to say, they never will be. They served as great starting or reference points for further study.
And thankfully, THANKFULLY, this novice error was made in the days of Rootsweb trees and not Ancestry trees. What is the difference, you ask? Well, you could copy someone’s GEDCOM file from Rootsweb and then attach some part or all of it to your tree on your computer. At Ancestry.com, it’s much MUCH easier just to copy all or part of a tree and connect it to your own tree. Just click, click and it’s done. Like it was never not a part of your tree. Instant gratification graft – complete with every single one of their errors – all included in the price of your subscription. In fact, they’ll even change YOUR information already input if you’re not careful. Yep, will clean that right up for you.
Had it been that easy for me in the beginning, I would have had an awful mess to unravel – because many or even most of those online trees are wrong. Skeptical about that? Let’s run an experiment.
I searched on Ancestry and checked the first 50 entries for my immigrant ancestor, Abraham Estes 1647-1720 to see how many of them had his wife’s name listed incorrectly as Barbara Brock.
Care to guess how many? Go ahead, guess!
All 50. Every last one.
Ok, well maybe the second 50 aren’t so bad.
Nope, all of those too – so now we’re up to 100 out of 100 wrong trees.
All of these, without one shred of evidence, because none exists.
But wait….there’s more.
Ok, let’s look at the third set of 50. Finally, the last entry on the third set shows his first wife listed as Barbara Burton, which is accurate, and his second wife, from whom all of his children descend, as Barbara Mn? Well, Mn is not accurate either, whatever it means, but at least it’s not Brock and there is a question mark present. But 149 of the first 150 were flat out wrong and wrong in exactly the same way. The 150th one is wrong in a different way.
Ancestry lists these trees in “best first” order, so if you look at the top trees, they will be the ones with the most sources and information. The sources for all of these surnames? Other trees. In other words, hearsay. And repeating hearsay 149 times doesn’t make it any truer than it was that first time when it was 100% wrong.
All 149 people need to saw that Bad NAD Brock branch off of their tree.
Ok, so now let’s look at how Barbara became to be erroneously identified as a Brock.
Bad NAD #3
A book. The Written NAD. In this case, a historical novel – but it could just as well have been a poorly researched non-fiction book. These things, once in print, take on an air of permanence, a life of their own, and authority they should never have.
In this case, there was a historical novel written in the 1980s. In that novel, which included the Estes family, the author gifted Barbara with the Brock surname. He also gifted another one of my ancestors, Abraham’s son, Moses’s wife, Elizabeth with the surname of Webb. I think he found the Webb surname in an early land transaction, so he made Webb Elizabeth’s surname in the book because it “worked” with the historical record in the story. Moses bought land from her family in the book and that became the birthplace of Moses’s wife’s surname, transplanted of course to hundreds of trees like so much kudzu.
Guess what, Elizabeth Webb is just as wrong for the same reason, and just as pervasive as Barbara Brock. Thanks Bud, thanks so much for the Bad NADs.
In Bud’s defense, he did say it was a historical novel, but so much of his novel was based on the truth that it was easy to extrapolate, and believe me, people did.
Just the same, saw off that Webb surname
Bad NAD #4
Assuming and hypothesizing. Yep, this one was my own doing – albeit unintentionally. Self-Inflicted Bad NADs.
I found my female ancestor as a widow in the census with a male of about the same age that was listed as “imbecile” and speculated, with a cousin, that the man living with her could have been her brother.
Well, it wasn’t, because when I ordered her husband’s pension papers from the War of 1812, she tells us her maiden name, her father’s name, her marriage date and more.
But by then, the damage was done. The cousin let it out into the wild and those trees were being copied and now James Claxton/Clarkson’s wife’s name is Sarah Helloms or Sarah Helloms Cook in many trees. There is no “recall” button. By the way, her father was Joel Cook, just for the record, and her mother was Alcy, surname unknown.
If you’ve got something else, get the saw! You know, the only thing worse than sawing off NADs that someone else gave you is sawing off your own Bad NADs.
Bad NAD #5
Bad sources, in particular, wrong mother’s name on death certificate. Talk about a bum steer. So, Wild Goose Chase NADs.
This occurs far more often than you’d think. On my great-grandfather Joseph Bolton’s death certificate, his birth location is incorrect and his mother is listed as Nancy Cristie. Joseph’s mother was Margaret Herrell Martin before she married Joseph Bolton (Sr.) as her second marriage. Where they got Nancy Cristie is absolutely beyond me. And yes, we know that Margaret Herrell WAS his mother both through family, through other documents and through DNA.
I wasn’t 100% convinced until I had the DNA evidence – simply because this was such an official document.
Looking at this, you would think Joseph’s wife, who knew Joseph’s mother, would have gotten her name right – at least her first name. But, if you look further into the situation, Joseph’s wife, Margaret, was herself very ill with the flu and pneumonia and she too would die within a few days. Her death certificate says she had been sick since February 18th, so she could not have been the direct informant on Joseph’s death certificate – regardless of what it says. Either that, or they were quizzing her on her death bed, after her husband had just died, and it’s no wonder the answer made no sense.
This isn’t the first or only time I’ve seen this type of erroneous information on legal documents. I’d much rather see that dreaded blank space than incorrect information. At least with a blank, you’ve not been sent off on a wild goose chase.
At least with this incorrect information, there IS a source. Unfortunately, death certificates and obituaries are particularly bad about having accurate names. I had to have my mother’s obituary run 4 times until it was correct. The newspaper was NOT happy with me – but I was even less happy with them. Often, these records are all we have, unfortunately, that tie people to parents and families together. And let’s face it, who is ever going to find the second, third or fourth copy of an obituary.
Bad NAD #6
Lax research methodology and drawing conclusions when one shouldn’t. So, Assumed Bad NADs.
In Halifax County, VA, Moses Estes’s wife, Luremia Combs interacted constantly with George Combs and his wife, Phoebe. Plus, Moses and Luremia named their first son George. Moses and Luremia bought land from George and Phoebe. Over the years, the correlation or accepted relationship between these people came to be that Luremia was the daughter of George and Phoebe. Indeed, it certainly did look that way. But it wasn’t.
In fact, it wasn’t until a list of heirs came to light in a lawsuit in Amelia County that we learned that indeed, John Combs with an unknown first wife was the father of Luremia, and that George was likely the son of that John, or the brother, who was also named George. In any case, George was not the father of Luremia.
However, if you look at those first 50 trees at Ancestry, every tree that has any father for Luremia has George Combs.
Get the saw…Bad NAD George has gotta go…
Bad NAD #7
Poor, bad or incomplete transcription. Clerical NADs.
Luremia Combs, in an early deed, is difficult to read. If you don’t read any later documentation, it looks like that word might be Susannah. In fact, one transcriber transcribed it as Susannah and one as Lurana. It’s only with the benefit of knowing her name is Luremia that you can see that early document is Luremia, not Susannah. I don’t even need to tell you how many trees say either Susannah or not knowing what else to do, people combined the two and she is now Luremia Susannah. Sigh.
At least in this case, you have the right person, just with a different first name – well – except for those trees who have “made up” the story that Moses married sisters by the name of Susannah and Luremia. I don’t know if you need a saw as much as you need an eraser and glue.
Bad NAD #8
Wrong spouse, also known as the Oops NAD.
A lot of spouses died, and people remarried rather quickly out of necessity. Many children of first marriages were simply listed on the census with their step-father’s name and some used that surname, not their father’s name. That’s just the way it was at that time. Same situation for wives. Just because you find your ancestor in the 1850 census, age 11 or 12, with a family that includes wife “Mary” as the wife doesn’t at all mean that Mary was the mother of all of the children.
Eventually, you may “discover” this if the Y DNA doesn’t match the “fathers” line, but it’s rare to discover this through mitochondrial DNA – although it’s technically possible. More often, you’ll discover it accidentally, like by finding a marriage for your ancestor after his or her first children were already born.
Hmmmm….where’s the saw???
Bad NAD #9
Relying on someone else’s documentation. This would be the Trust Me NAD.
In some cases, you just have no choice in this matter. For example, I’m connected back through many generations through Nathaniel Brewster and Sarah Ludlow to King Edward I. I cannot, if I had the rest of my lifetime to do it, recreate the body of research that has been done on the royal descendants. So, I am left to judge the quality of the information available, and based on that, determine what to use. I guarantee you, I will never in my lifetime look at anyone’s tree as a source. However, wills, deeds, leases, historical documents and books are all sources that I think I can depend on…most of the time.
Be vigilant and watchful with a healthy dose of skepticism. Look for well documented sources – and it’s even better if they include photos of the document itself – even if you can’t necessarily read it! Keep that saw within reach.
Bad NAD #10
Accepting family stories as gospel – aka- the Telephone Game NAD.
No, I’m not saying your grandpa lied to you. But he might have made the story better, so you would enjoy it more. Or his grandpa might have done that with him. Or, someone might have quite innocently gotten the generation wrong, or the location, or, or, or….
Remember that game, Telephone, from when we were kids?
We have the perfect example of this in the Estes family. In 1852 William Estes left Iowa for the gold fields of California. He never came back. That much is fact, and it’s documented in a land sale that the family “didn’t know his whereabouts.”
Everyone agrees that he died…eventually. I mean, he’s assuredly dead now, regardless of what happened then. One story out of that family says he died on the way to California, one says he died on the way back and one just says that they never knew what happened to him and assumed he died because he wrote his wife and told her he was selling his gold claim and coming home (which, if true, means he couldn’t have died on the way out). One version said he was traveling with a man who said he got sick and that he was probably murdered by that man. And these stories are from his children and grandchildren – not generations later.
But wait, what if he didn’t die right away? What if I subtly changed the essence of the story in my telling of it, inadvertently, by saying that everyone agreed that he died. They didn’t really – they assumed he died. Maybe he just stayed in California, fell in love with a nice widow lady, or a spicy showgirl, remarried and had another family – letting his family in Iowa think he was dead.
Taking this story into consideration, you can see how that Indian Princess story might have happened.
Bad NAD #11
Two men, same name. Same wife’s first name. Same county, same time. This is the stuff genealogy nightmares are made of. The Twofer NAD.
Want to know how we finally told the difference between the men? One could write, the other couldn’t. One had a group of people who witnessed deeds and lived nearby on tax and census lists. The other had a different group.
Yep, saw that branch off!
Bad NAD #12
And of course, there is always the nonpaternal event – where the DNA doesn’t match who it should. I call those “undocumented adoptions.” It’s tempting to think of these as Bad Boy (or Bad Girl) NADs, but they aren’t necessarily. See the step-father surname discussion in NAD #8.
Regardless of how they happened, they are undocumented and they are an “adoption” of sorts. In essence, these are typically discovered when the expected Y DNA does not materialize in a particular line. In other words, it doesn’t match the known ancestral family line. This is exactly what happened in my Younger line. This is also sometimes discovered utilizing autosomal DNA, especially in close family members, 2nd cousin or closer.
How people react to this, and what you do about it, in terms of further testing to determine where the disconnect happened, is entirely a personal decision that is different in every situation.
In some cases, the Y DNA of the tester does match another surname, and the connection becomes immediately obvious, like it’s the wife’s first husband’s surname. In other cases, we never make that biological connection – but the great thing about DNA is that it’s out there fishing for you, every minute of every day.
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just think Roberta, any time now the egg/sperm donor nad is going to show up, a new wrinkle on DNA. one would hope the child of such arangements would know about it, but there are bound to be some that won’t.
I’ve been going through the donor situation with someone who matched me very closely and is looking for the sperm donor who is her “father”. First world genealogy problems.
I have sawed a few branches off, and helped people to correct their NADs. I have learned how to confirm genealogy very well over the past 5 years.
What a fun article! SO TRUE, Too! Thanks for this.
Regarding bad NAD # 10. I found that Andrew Jackson Cooke left for the gold fields and married my 21 year old great great aunt Ellen Dolores Jordan. He appears to have shaved a couple of years off of his age as well as he might have forgotten to mention his wife and six kids, back in Maine. Her death certificate (the wife in Maine) said she was a widow. Oh do I dare tell the decedents that she wasn’t! I enjoy your blogs very much!
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 2015 18:20:16 +0000 To: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for using your gifts as a writer to share these valuable insights. It’s also refreshing to know of a genealogist that has a sense of humility about themselves. Erasers and delete buttons are not evil or embarrassing tools. Please continue to share with us.
Very well said, Robert Harris.
Thanks for this great post. I ran across Bad NAD #5 when I obtained a copy of my Great Grandmother Martha Lane-Smith’s death certificate. For whatever reason, my Grand Aunt Clara listed her mother’s parents as Franklin Pierce Lane and Emaline Holdman. The correct parents were Hardin Smith Lane and Emaline Halterman. In her defense, there are more variations of Halterman (Hallerman, Holtzman, Holtman, Holdman, Haldeman and so on) than letters in the alphabet. As to naming her uncle Franklin Pierce Lane as her grandfather . . . the only solution any of us have been able to come up with is that Emaline lived with her son for years and years and years. She also lived with her daughter Mary as well as her daughter Martha. Luckily, I already had documentation of Martha’s parents from other sources prior to finding the death certificate with the wrong information. Hardin died during the Battle of Murfreesboro during the Civil War. But, if I was a complete novice and didn’t have the family history information at hand, this would have thrown me for a loop. And, I’ve sawed more than one NAD off my tree. Sigh!
I’d like to add to #9. Accepting what was written correctly, but misinterpreted by the person who shared it. Mine was written in an obituary as daughter of “Joseph Gibbon and Nancy Jane Jennings Gragg”. It was given to me as the illigetimate child of Joseph Gibbon conceived with Nancy Jane Jennings Gragg, all because someone didn’t understand how a couple was properly listed. I knew Joseph & Nancy Gragg were married to each other. I had the marriage license and their divorce papers. To this day I cannot convince that person there was not a person named Joseph Gibbon, and he was Joseph Gibbon Gragg. He’s shared that same wrong information with lots of people. LouAnn Cameron
Well, I had to laugh. We all have these in various forms. You forgot the Bible NAD. Bible records must be true, right? Wrong! I saw my own Mother enter a whole tree into her Bible on one day. it’s an old Bible from the late 1800s. It had no family entries in it. Some of the information she entered is incorrect. I know that but whoever finds this Bible after I did will NOT know and will believe the errors. I suppose I should make corrections but if I am wrong about any of it the errors will increase.
My grandmother’s birth year was “adjusted” by a year in the Family Bible – to make her conception date after the marriage:) So you’re right, I missed the Bible NAD.
I have definitely encountered the Bible NAD before in my tree…. great post, Roberta! 😀
Roberta, this is excellent. It is so easy, since electronic age of genealogy began, to collect information quickly, not review it thoroughly, and then move on to the next branch. I have been guilty of that. Perhaps that could be the Electronic NAD, but in many ways, the Internet is pervasive among most of these 12.
Loved this. Informative and very amusing. I guess it helps to keep a sense of humor about things. I have a second cousin who has an extensive tree that has ancestors listed going back to very, very early France (thru her dad’s people). I’ve looked through her photos/documents entries and there are so many portraits of French royalty and nobility that I believe she is grasping at straws with most of them. She does have access to my Ancestry tree and has shared real things with me so I can’t really complain. I did have to set her straight when I saw a photo of my Nana (my mom’s mom) in her collection as she is no way related to my mom’s family. This cousin is young and eager but needs to be more careful. Thanks for today’s posting.
All too true. It is very painful and sad to come to this realization after years or decades of research. But you do have to let them go.
On the funny side my grandmother’s parents came over from Italy around 1905 and both died fairly young, well before my mother was born. Twice she wrote down all her known ancestors for me. Only problem is other than her parents they’re completely different. As you can guess she was quite the embellisher.
Roberta, Once again, you have put my experiences into words. TKU. My only question is: Why do others not want to know their information is incorrect?
Just an aside here concerning errors in legal documents. Several years ago, my husband and I had a similar medical test run at the same surgical center, within a few weeks of each other. We have the same GP and he was the referring doctor. When the clerical person at this center made out the follow up report to the referring physician, she knew she could duplicate a lot of the required information because of the above, but somewhere in there, she got so carried away that she duplicated everything on my husband’s medical history onto my report. Yep, I got his diabetes, his cardiac history and everything else on his chart. That human error made it impossible for me to get health insurance for 3 years, even though the surgery center and my GP sent corrections and letters to the insurance companies. I still get backlash from that error and it’s now been 8 years. I am absolutely skeptical of supposedly “legitimate” documentation because I know from experience that human error can, and does happen.
Roberta – this blog should be required reading for all people doing family research! Thank you for a timely reminder; keep up the good work.
Great article as ever, Roberta. I had my own NAD, two Johann WEILER born 3 years apart, both married to a girl with the rare surname CHRIST and both of them moved about the same time to Duisburg, my hometown in Germany from a rural Eiffel town some 150km away. I picked the first one I found as the parents for my deceased grandmother. All seem to fit well,ok, Maria Anna isn’t Gertrud as a first name but hey, they write down first names as a person tells so maybe she was using Maria Anna when her full first names where Maria Anna Gertrud eg.
That’s how these things happen and I researched the wrong path a long time. Eventually I found out what I did wrong and had to take the saw.
BTW, in case you and your readers aren’t aware of it, there is an online partition asking Ancestry.com to give it’s users a chromosome browser. I’ve signed it, in case you haven’t you might want to do so as well, 1826 did already!
Thanks Roberta, great reminder for all of us.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read your illustration of NAD #5, who the mother of Margaret Herrell Martin might have been. Reason, I wonder is that on 3 occasions I have discovered death certificates where the informant gave the name of THEIR father or mother (or both) when asked for this information. It has created all kinds of misinformation for my family research.
Thanks, Roberta. Always love your sense of humor and the helpful, stringent info!
How about adding this to the list….
NUTS – Nasty Undocumented Tricks.
Like your Bible NAD I have seen a person change a marriage date in an LDS record and another in an original courthouse record. In both cases it was to make the record agree with marriage and birth of a child dates. Truly both were more than misguided and the last maybe illegal.
There is some good and some bad things in this system.
The bad , I doubt there is a better percentage of 20% accuracy for any 100% completed family tree.
With this inaccuracy, people assume that another family tree which has a family member that is part of their family tree is accurate, so a copy of that portion of the tree into your tree continues the error.
I cannot see anyway this inaccuracy to trees will help in the long term for any family tree
My paternal grandma shaved nine years off her age over the years (each census). Her gravestone is off by nine years. The family bible had her correct birth date.
Larry’s post raises another NAD – the gravestone NAD. People assume if it’s written in stone, well, it’s written in stone. NOT! The dates on a gravestone are only as accurate as the information the informant gives, not much different from the death certificate issue. And it seems the older some people get, the very much older they get – who wouldn’t want to claim they’re 103 when they’re really 96. According to both the dates in his obituary and gravestone my great-great-grandfather was born five years before his parents were married and before he showed up on Census reports. My experience – the earlier the Census the closer in time to accurate birth information. Don’t assume gravestones provide accurate birth dates!
My grandfather’s mother was buried about the time time my mother was born but the death date is a year later. Evidently they couldn’t afford the grave stone and remembered wrong
What surprises me is the number of people that are now willing to accept numerous errors in the way their DNA and trees are dealt with in order to find one possible clue. Finding one clue but creating false information that will be repeated for years is not an acceptable tradeoff for me. Those books of the past that we now criticize are nothing to the rapid expansion of errors now being put into print. Governments around the world have long understood the value of false information and militaries have long used such information to destroy their enemies. False information used for medical purposes can end a life or cause serious harm. And the genetic information may well be making it’s way into medical databases. One clue for a distant ancestor does not make all the bad information a fair tradeoff. But this doesn’t mean I want ancestry to censor it for me. I want access to the information and the ability to process it myself with the appropriate tools. My doctor doesn’t hide an Xray from me because I don’t have a medical degree. Just the opposite, he respects my right to view my own information…and I have the right to a second opinion. Great blog. You hit on so many important items!
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Great explanation of the “hazards” and the need for thorough research. I had to laugh as each day we see hundreds of trees sharing the same bad information… It’s really like running a gauntlet! Excellent article.
I have one of those “adoptees” in our family. She was listed with her birth surname so it confused us as she was found in the household of a 50 year old lady with one surname and her daughter of the same surname, and a son of a different surname from a previous marriage. The girl was listed as a granddaughter with “grand” added as an afterthought. Later on she is listed in the will of the older lady as “my beloved adopted daughter”. Some trees, including Ancestry’s own extraction of the record lists this little girl (4 at the time of the 1910 census and in her late 20s at the time of the will) as the daughter of that son. Turns out she was a neighbor girl who lived with them for some years after her mother died.
I really enjoyed reading your blog. And I totally agree with it all. I have made all of the mistakes you mentioned. I found two death certificates recently where the transcriber listed the parent of the deceased as the person who died. If I had not read those certificates carefullly and knew that what was transcribed was an error, heavens the errors that would continue. Thank goodness that Ancestry will let you edit the information on the documents and records that they cite. Sometimes I think the transcribers do more harm than good in trying to help convert the data to something the computer can read. There are so many errors on my tree, I’ll never trust publishing it until I totally start from scratch. Corrections and merging duplicates and sawing off NADS are impossible tasks but you know you are going to do it because you have to get it right. Thanks for your advice.