Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy

Step 5: Three common research problems 

1. Alternate spellings, especially of surnames, is a frequent research problem. For example, there are ten alternates to the name Smith: Smythe, Smyth, Smitty, Schmidt, Schmith, Smeets, Schmidd, Sinnett, Summitt, Smitto. Also, be aware that many surnames are used as middle names, many middle names used as first names! 

2. Conflicting information in documents. This is where you need to assess your information particularly as to how close it is to a primary source. Information provided by the person themselves is most likely correct. An example of questions to ask when trying to confirm the accuracy of conflicting information is:  Does the information make sense, such as are the children nine months apart and born within normal childbearing years? 

A primary source of information is created at the time of the event. A secondary source is created after the event occurred, sometimes many years after, especially in a compiled resource. 

For example, a great grandfather could be named in official documents as both James Edwin and James Edward. Because his original birth certificate cannot be found, it is best to use a source such as his Naturalization Record as the correct name because he a) filled out the form himself, b) was an adult when it was filled out, and c) it was an important document and he would most likely have been very accurate in the information he provided.  

3. Records have been destroyed or lost. In this case you need to locate alternate sources. If a birth certificate is not available, perhaps church records or school records can help in the hunt. Deeds often give place of residence and occupation. If a death certificate is not available, perhaps cemetery records will answer your need. Think creatively!