Beware Mr Smarty-Pants Database

The most common mistake made when starting research online is surprisingly counter-intuitive: too much precision. The fact is, the more detail you include when you query a genealogical database, the less likely you are to find anything useful.

Just think. You know your Michael Barrett was born on March 17th 1868 (March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, being the most common birthday for the nineteenth-century Irish), married Mary Murphy on September 14th 1890, had children John (1891), Mary (1893), Michael (1896) and Delia (1898), and lived all his life in the townland of Ballybeg, Co. Mayo. Carefully enter all of this  into a search form and you are guaranteed to find nothing.

All it takes is a single non-matching item: in the originals, (the page recording Michael’s birth was used to light a fire in 1898); in the database transcripts (the transcriber had a late night and dozed off over the marriage record); a single item misreported by the family (John was actually born in 1890 and there are four  Ballybegs in Mayo). The response from Mr Smarty-Pants Database will be the same for all: No Match.

nothing-like-some-birth-records-to-get-a-good-fire-going
Nothing like some birth records to get a good fire going

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing these details may eventually provide evidence to unlock the truth. But to start off, you need to cast the net as wide as possible. How many Barrett births are registered in and around all of those Ballybegs between, say, 1864 and 1870? How many Michaels? Can you identify the precise marriage registration, using only the names, not the reported date? What are the ages given in the 1901 and 1911 censuses? Do they match each other, or the ages you think you know? (Unlikely.) Are there other Barrett households in and around Ballybeg in 1901 and 1911? Any with heads of household of an age to be siblings of Michael ?

The biggest sites – ancestry.co.uk, FindMyPast.ie, irishgenealogy.ie – all funnel their users like this, starting off broad and ending narrow, because it’s by far the most productive way to use their records. Their search interfaces force you into it. They know what they’re doing. They know their databases are stupid.

If you’d like an even more ranting version of this, I’ve gone on (and on) over at YouTube.

15 thoughts on “Beware Mr Smarty-Pants Database”

  1. I agree entirely. There are also all the spelling variations, census takers who swapped first name and surname, census house numbers that aren’t house numbers, transcribers who mix up two rows of data, and databases that don’t make it clear that the birth year you search for is actually registration year, which is weeks or months after birth, so end of year births may be recorded under the next year.
    There are so many traps for the unwary.

  2. Thanks so much for this especially wonderful rant in print and in person. The rant part helped me calm down from my own hair-tearing curses against bureaucracies this morning, completely unrelated to genealogy. The information helped me realize with more focus what the next level in research will look like. Thanks for showing us on YouTube how to access and compare different data bases and for revealing their many omissions and flaws.

    And, as always John Grenham, thanks for the smiles and laughs.

    Deirdre G.

  3. The most common error that I find is that people’s ages are almost always wrong, because (I think) birthdays were rarely celebrated, and people didn’t remember their own precise age as the years passed.

    I would say that almost all US records of Irish emigrants (census etc.) are out by a few years, and if you compare ages in the 1901 and 1911 census (in Ireland), or the different census records of the same family in the US, the ages of the Irish-born relatives don’t match. So I usually search for births with a range of at least 5 years. In census records, the ages of kids often vary, but their order (eldest to youngest) rarely does, so that has helped me find matches that at first look wobbly.

    As John alluded, birth dates are also surprisingly unreliable, with a huge number of people being ‘born’ on St. Patrick’s Day. That seems to be particularly true of Irish emigrants to America, where I suppose Patrick’s Day was a much bigger thing.

    1. Me too. As my mother would have said, “right church, wrong pew.” I knew I had the right family but I knew my gg grandmother as Delia, not Bridget.

  4. And then, of course, Michael was, in reality, Patrick but always called Michael because his father grandfather and uncle were also Patrick so he was known as Michael.

  5. This chart (https://tinyurl.com/yvvw6c4x) shows the bunching of ages around multiples of 5 and 10 in the 1901 and 1911 censuses. It was particularly bad for older folk, who were born when most people were illiterate and didn’t have calendars. You can also see the bump in 1911 where people exaggerated their age to get over the pension age of 70.

  6. Dates,especially 1864,are significant.Dates prior to this,in my experience are problematical.My experience is from the 1901 census from which I deduce the ‘age’ of a g-parent.However the births of two children,both unregistered and prior to 1864 would have meant his marriage as an infant if his assessed age of death in 1905 was accurate.1838 is the best guess as a birth date-at least it suggests that the birth of his eldest child was to a person ‘of age’ as usually described.

  7. This is really helpful and affirming while I am looking at ancestry of an Irish ancestor that I have as born 20 years younger than the rest of the people with this person in their tree. Also this person would’ve been too young to father the children and his wife 20 years older but who also died 10 years before the last child was born. It’s things like that that make me go batty, close down the Computer, and go have some O’Mara‘s.

  8. 1911 English census information is erroneously recorded on some Family History sites eg that my Grandfather( James Buckley) was a widower!! No, he wasn’t. My grandmother was in hospital; I have seen the records and have a photo of her in 1915. She died in December, 1915.

  9. Very interesting John, thank you. There are often errors in transcripts!
    FMP and Ancestry have both mistranscribed dispensations (clearly named as such) from 1830-1845 in the Kilbeggan register (0476/01), calling them deaths. This is several pages of the register, and every name is male! I noticed this while looking for the marriage of my gg-grandfather Michael Garland, to Ann Clyborn (Clibborn). I believe she was either brought up as Church of Ireland or Quaker, hence the dispensation which he obtained on Feb 9 1839. They married in the next parish the same day and the entry is there in the Philipstown register, although not very clear.

  10. Even trusting official Irish records can be foolish! After all when someone went to report a birth and couldn’t read, write or sign their name whoever heard their thick Irish brogue wrote down what they “heard.” Thus my ggrandmother’s last name was recorded incorrectly as Lee vs actual name Reed. Had to go back to Parish for copy of original document to correct for my citizenship application.

  11. In my family, where everyone is named Robert you have to deal with the joys of pet names as identifiers that were so extensively used that no one in the family actually knew the real name. Or the daughter who was registered under one name which clearly the father upon returning from sea did not like because for the rest of their life she was called something entirely different.

  12. And, at least in the USA, do not ever believe ages given at time of marriage, at least marriages that took place before ID was required. Both parties will say they are older than they are in order to get married while underage. Women, and very occasionally men, will say they are younger than they are if they think they need to.

  13. These are just some of the complications I’ve come across:
    – Names spelt differently across different records and even within one record.
    – Different versions/variants of first names, pet names, first and second names being reversed on some records but not on others
    – Latinisation of names especially on church marriage records (Mary/Maria) and anglicised again in some transcriptions but not others also errors more likely to arise
    – Transcription errors
    – Baptisms taking place before births (late registration of births often gave a later date to avoid fines) or births not registered at all
    – The discrepancies in ages between birth/baptism, marriage and death records and censuses in 1901 and 1911.
    – Occasionally people marrying someone from way outside the area
    – Place names spelt differently, even between 1901 and 1911 censuses; addresses changing between records, especially if houses on border of townlands, places of very similar names
    – Generations using the same first names – G Grandfather, Grandfather, Father, Son (and several cousins), Grandsons etc
    – First names being reused with families if children died in infancy (sometimes more than once)
    – Second cousins marrying each other and fathers have the same name.
    – Children born before marriage
    – Wives killed off before there time on censuses (Husband described as widower)

    Surprised I’ve got as far as I have with my family tree!

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