3 Common Genealogy Problems & How to Solve Them

3 Common Genealogy Problems and How to Solve Them

Tracing your family tree is not always an easy pursuit and some problems are more common than others. The 3 issues detailed below are some of the most common problems afflicting genealogists. These ‘nightmares’ keep even the most experienced of genealogists up late into the night! Don’t despair though, help is at hand and you might soon find you’re able to turn that challenge into a triumph.


Number 1: Common Surnames

You know that feeling you get, you know…the one when you finally discover a female ancestors maiden name, and it turns out it’s Smith? Or Brown, Clark(e), Davi(e)s or Williams? Yes, we’ve all been there. We all have those ancestors. We’ve all felt that impending sense of doom. Ancestors with common surnames can be challenging, especially when coupled with a popular first name and a rather indistinct occupation – such as ‘labourer’. But try not to despair, although challenging they’re not always impossible!

Creating a FAN network can help you to solve this common genealogy problem
Creating a network of connected individuals can help you to solve your genealogy brickwall

There are research techniques that can really assist with searching for popular names. One of the most helpful, is the FAN technique. No not FAN charts. FAN, as in: Friends, Associates and Neighbours. FAN members are all people that interacted with your ancestor at some point in their life. Each of these persons may provide clues about your ancestors life, or their heritage. It’s amazing how often neighbours, work colleagues, marriage witnesses, turn out to be distantly related.

You can spot FAN’s on almost every genealogical record. Census are full of Neighbours, Trade Directories are full of Associates, Criminal records might include the names of Friends.

If you can’t find your ancestor, try looking for members of their FAN. You never know, they might just reveal a vital clue.

For more information on FAN read: https://www.genealogyexplained.com/research/cluster-fan-club/

Number 2: The Missing Page

Its Murphy’s Law that your ancestor’s details are going to fall on the one page that’s missing, destroyed or otherwise illegible. Sometimes it’s really difficult to overcome this gap in information. War has had a terrible impact on several record collections, from the patchy recording during the English Civil War, to the WWI records burnt during WWII. Anyone tracing Irish family history will be able to tell you how difficult it is missing pre-1901 census records.

Missing pages are a common genealogy problem

However, there are often alternatives sources that can be used. Parish Records were copied out and submitted to the local Bishops. These ‘BT’s sometimes survive whilst a PR does not – and of course, visa versa. No one knows every alternative available for every record, but there are lots of guides that can help you. Sometimes finding a substitute can be as simple as googling your ‘missing record’ along with the word ‘alternative’. You could crowd source answers from Twitter chats (such as #AncestryHour) or Facebook Groups. Archive and Record Office guides are also a mine of information, and are normally my first port of call.

The National Archives has literally hundreds of helpful guides: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/?research-category=family-history

Number 3: Frequently Used First Names

William and Elizabeth had son called William. He married a lovely lady, called Elizabeth. They had a son, and named him…you guess it, ‘William’. Little William had a cousin, born about the same time and in the same village. His name was also William. He probably married an Elizabeth too. Repeat this pattern across several generations and you can see why I decided to give my children unusual names!

A frequently used first name is a common problem, like looking for a face amongst a crowd
Finding your ancestor in a crowd, can be a challenge

The frequent repetitive use of the same names can make it hard to distinguish between ‘your’ William and a cousin ‘William’. One solution to this problem is to try to ‘disprove’ a possible ancestor. Generally it is easier to prove that something is incorrect than to prove it is correct. In order to prove that a William you’ve found is the correct William you might look for a marriage, or birth. But if there are lots of William’s born around the same time and place than finding a birth doesn’t actually prove you’ve found the right William. In fact it’s better to assume that the William you’ve found is not “yours”. Search for a death, or marriage or some other record that proves he is not your direct ancestor. In doing so you will either rule him out (i.e. find evidence that he cannot be yours) or rule him in as a possible candidate.

For more information on disproof you might like to read:

Focus on Disproof and Cross Referencing