Genealogy's Friendly Fire

How the Best Intentions Can Lead to the Worst Results
by: Stephanie Hoover

Even with all the resources, warnings, and means of education, thousands of family historians still rely primarily on message boards to do their research. The temptation is great to see one's surname on a message board and assume the work has all been done. After all, your John Jones is from the same state as my John Jones - we must be related! More often than not, this is simply not the case. Let's look at a specific example taken from my own family research.

I posted the following on a large and well-read message board:

I am looking for Hoovers from Rockingham County, VA. They may have emigrated to VA from PA. A brief lineage of my ancestors is as follows...

Ernest Franklin Hoover (born 1922)
son of Robert Lavel Hoover
son of Herbert Rosser Hoover
son of Isaac Hoover (born 1847)
son of David B. Hoover (born 1819)
son of Jacob Hoover

I believed this to be a very clear query. I had provided the county and state of origin, birth years to help pinpoint identities, and a line of direct descent. Now, let me give you some examples of responses I received:

"You could be connected to my Hoover line in North Carolina since I have a Jacob born in 1812."

Actually, I could not be connected to this person's line unless Jacob Hoover was seven-years-old when his son David was born!

"My Jacob was born in Pennsylvania in 1818. There could be a connection as Jacob was a common name."

Here again, we have an age problem. And worse, this researcher is relying on given names (rather than surnames) to make a connection.

There is little doubt that both of these respondents had the best of intentions. Had I followed these "leads," however, I might have been sidetracked for days - even weeks - by a totally unrelated line.

So, how can you protect yourself from this genealogical form of friendly fire? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Post clear queries. Use correct spellings, provide as much location detail as possible, and offer verified or educated estimates of dates.

  2. If you are not sure of your data, say so! Don't present guesses as facts. Ask those who post messages and responses about their sources. Not only does this verify data, you may find these sources have other information you need.

  3. Don't post wide-open queries such as: "I'm looking for my grandmother, Mary Jones, born in either Ohio or Florida." Make an attempt to do at least some of your own research before posting on message boards. Even if you do receive a response, it will likely be as vague as your question.

  4. Be willing to share but don't take advantage of others. As unbelievable as it sounds, I've had message board respondents request everything from free photography services to document retrieval in states in which I don't even do research! Like the thousands of others posting messages, I am happy to share my family research. But don't expect others to give their business services or personal time for free.


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Stephanie Hoover is a paralegal/public records research specialist who has been doing genealogy research since 1993. She is a professional photographer and owner of GenoGraphs which provides photography services to Pennsylvania researchers.

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