Volunteer Family History Site Smashed My Brick Wall

If you are having problems researching your family tree then maybe you can learn something from my experience here. I had got nowhere with this ancestor’s birth, marriage or death – on or off-line – then a chance visit to a Family History Website and an hour or two looking at the transcripts and a brick wall in my family history research came tumbling down! This, together with thinking of spelling variations of names, opened up a new line to me.

My paternal line in Dartmouth, Devon, UK has always been a bit frustrating once the census records ran out in 1841. This being the earliest English census on-line after which I had to start looking at parish records. I had worked out that my three times great-grandfather was called John Thorn and from the information given in the census collections I knew that he had been born in about 1795 and his wife, Elizabeth, in about 1798.

As a member of The Society of Genealogists in Goswell Road, London EC1. I knew that they’ve the largest collection of Parish Records in the country on microfiche. They’ve also got some transcripts of parish registers in the library.

Unfortunately Dartmouth parish records were not microfilmed, but a selection of Devon Family History Society booklets of the marriages of some of the churches in the town, including St. Saviour’s, were available. Scanning one book for any likely ancestors I noted down that on 13 April 1817 a John Thorn married an Elizabeth Sissell. With this tentative lead, I hit the Internet. I was looking for any evidence that this was the marriage of my ancestors. I opened the Dartmouth-history.org.uk website of The Dartmouth Archives and found that this voluntary organisation had a very comprehensive family history section with transcribed baptisms, burials, marriages and census records. I could read the very same details, as I had seen in London, on this niche site. The information began in 1586 and ran to 1850! There was the marriage of John to Elizabeth and this time I noticed that the witness were given as John Adams and Sunass (sic) Sissell. I assumed that this last person was a member of the bride’s family and perhaps was her father, but the name Sunass caused me concern as it didn’t seem very likely and I guessed it couldn’t be read properly by the transcriber.

After doing family history for a few years now, I’m aware that names can be transcribed incorrectly. Perhaps written down as the transcriber had seen them (as best practice dictates) and not changed to conveniently fit in with what is consider to be correct. I wondered if both the first name and the second had not been written down by the person in question, as they may well have been illiterate. When you come to do your own research you should bear in mind this point. The minister may have interpreted the name as he had heard it spoken to him and so in this case “Sissell” could possibly been “Cecil” or something entirely different. As for Sunass – at this point I hadn’t got a clue what that could have been!

There were no early enough christening records for John and Elizabeth on the Dartmouth Archives website, but I opened another browser and navigated to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) website or FamilySearch.org and here I did a search for Elizabeth’s christening and was lead to a baptism in one of the other churches in Dartmouth, St Petrox, on the 16 September 1878. The daughter of James and Sarah Sissill was one Elizabeth Gardener Sissill – and here I noted that the spelling had changed to Sissill with an “i” and not an “e”. This record made me wonder if the witness to Elizabeth’s marriage could have been her father “James” and this has been interpreted as “Sunnas” because a flowing “J” for James had looked like an “S” and the other letters had been misread as a “u” for an “a” and the double “n” as an “m”.

So what I am emphasising here is to be wary of names and the way they were spelt. Before more general levels of literacy among the public became the norm, our ancestors relied heavily on a clergyman writing down their names as they sounded.

This breakthrough is down to finding that Dartmouth has an active family history website and then using their indexes in conjunction with other Internet resources, such as the LDS site. I could then take the names and details further by looking for death certificates for John Branton Thorn and his wife Elizabeth Gardener Thorn, as they had died after civil registration of deaths took place in 1837. From here a physical visit to the Devon Record Office to see the parish records may be the next step.

The first lesson is that you should always look to see what other research may have been done, for the area your ancestors came from, and that is published on the Internet. If you find a family history society, or local interest group with a website, can any of their publications or website pages help you with your quest? Secondly, be aware of the misspelling of names and keep your mind open to possibilities. In my case I need to think of other spellings for the Sissells or names that may have sounded like Sissell in order that I may trace this line back further and break down the brick wall.

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Secrets to Avoid Barking Up the Wrong Family Tree

Anyone who does research will testify to how frustrating it is to follow leads up blind alleys. In terms of genealogy, this could mean following wrong family lines. Anyone who has had a go at genealogy will undoubtedly be familiar with this scenario. It could be that you have been given a bad lead or perhaps misread some information that you have found. Either way, it mounts up to a lot of wasted time.

So how can this pitfall be avoided? Far from giving you a clever answer, I don’t believe that there are any, there are some general tips that I can give that might help you with your genealogy research. In fact the general principles could be applied to any type of research.

The first thing you should always do is keep a track of all of your resources, every book, every article and every web site. And get detailed information too. If your source was a book for example, get all the detail down to the ISBN number. If your research is by word of mouth, write down names, times and dates. Genealogy is all about information, so backing up your facts is critical.

Following a similar theme, you need to organise yourself and your research. File everything and file things where you know how to locate them. You will find yourself back tracking continuously, so make that side of genealogy as painless as possible.

Check your facts. Not just the literal snippets of information that you pick up, but also the logical order of things. Do the facts that you have collected make sense? Apply common sense to all of your findings and question them.

Do not accept carte blanche research from sources you don’t know. What I mean by this is really the types of research that one often sees advertised, offering to write up your family tree for a fee. Beware of these types of offers. The type of research upon which these tress are founded are often questionable. Save your money and do the research yourself. That is after all, part of the fun of genealogy!

If your family has spread it’s wings across borders, be very careful when collecting facts. As one example, dates can be written differently depending on where in the world you are at the time. Easy mistakes can be made under these circumstances. The date 05/04/75 means something different to people in the USA than it does to people in the UK.

Do not make assumptions about any piece of information that you might come across. Stick with the facts that you yourself have collected. One small assumption can lead you in all sorts of directions that you didn’t really want to go down. Remember that we refer to things differently now than we did in years gone by, so when something is taken from letters 100 years ago, it might not mean the same thing to you as it did to your forefathers.

Join up with web sites that have expertise in genealogy. Talk with like minded people and get the benefit of their experience. Not only will they have tips of their own to share to help you, they will have access to sources you might never have thought of. It is well worth your time talking to other genealogists.


Get an extensive look at one of the most remarkable Genealogy Reference Books there is available on the market today. Discover what going on in genealogy today!

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Am I really sure about that ancestor?

Family Tree on a computer

In my ancestor research I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of narrow thinking sometimes. Have you?

What I’m talking about here is the occasions when I’ve focused too strictly on what I am sure are the correct facts about a forebear.  I may have been sure that I knew that his or her name had been spelt in a particular way, or that they came from a particular place. Now here is the warning I am guilty of ignoring: Am I really so sure I know the facts?

When we, as family historians, ignore this question then we can so easily cause ourselves unnecessary grief and so much wasted time. Perhaps we were searching in the right place, but were we guilty of searching in the wrong way? What we need to do is to open up our minds to researching in a smarter fashion and often we will be rewarded by finding that record that we were looking for.

Just think how your on-line research could possibly improve if you were always to:

  • keep handy a list of the known surname variants for your ancestor’s name. For example in my family I have names that could be spelt as Thorn, Thorne, Stephens, Stevens and all manner of spelling of Sissill.
  • think about what common first-name nicknames may apply and also any regularly used shortened forms of names. For example Thomas may be written as Thos. Elizabeth as Eliz. or Eliza. and I have found a John as Jono.
  • have written down some of the capital letters that can easily be confused like J and I, for example
  • remember that place names can be confused – in my Devon branch there are two Galmptons very near each other and I jumped to the conclusion that my great grandmother came from the one near to where they lived. Wrong!
  • think about the length of normal life-spans and don’t chase someone with a similar name thinking they are one and the same. What about the date ranges for their marriages, deaths and births of their children?
  • keep notes, or research logs for your family searches so that you keep track of what you have already done.
  • remain aware of the gaps that there are in any particular record collections. If you are searching a particular period and can’t find an ancestor and this time frame also matches a known gap in the data, then this will stop you wasting more time than necessary looking.

So just remember these seven ways to avoid family research pitfalls and don’t make the mistakes that I did in the past!

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