error-free genealogy is impossible, no matter how careful one is. But with care, we can limit our mistakes.
Tracing a family backwards in time through census reports is something almost every genealogist does, but it is very easy to take a wrong turn if one isn’t careful. One problem is census reports only provide a snapshot every ten years, and lots can happen in ten years. Another problem is that census takers didn’t always have great handwriting, so the online indexers can easily garble a name.
Perhaps the easiest way to make a wrong turn is if you find what you’re looking for immediately.
Let’s say you find someone in the 1920 US census. They are married to the person you expect them to be married to, with the correct young child. You are certain it is the correct person, but you have no idea who his parents are. The 1920 census indicates an approximate birth year, and the place of birth (State or Country)
So you conduct a search for the person in the 1910 census, using their name, state of birth, and year of birth +- 2. And you find exactly one result – a child with two parents. How do you react? It’s very tempting to be relieved that it was so easy, to write down the information on the parents, and see if you can go further back.
What would you do if you found more than one result?
You’d have to conduct some research to see which family is the correct one.
And what would you do if you found no results?
Probably you’d add some wildcards into the search, and see if the person you’re searching for got indexed with a strange spelling.
Back to the one result…Do you see the problem?
If all you are going on is year of birth, state of birth, and name, it is possible, is it not, that this isn’t the correct person? The person you are searching for could be hiding under a poorly written, or poorly transcribed name. Or it is possible they don’t even appear in the census. The census reports are by no means complete. The more common the surname and given name, the more likely this is possible. Additionally, given names frequently change from childhood to adulthood.
I've made my share of research mistakes, and there are likely some I have made which I don't yet know about. What I feel is important is that I always keep an open mind to the possibility that any conclusions that I make from my research have a potential of being wrong.