Mistaken Identity in Family Trees
Inexperienced family tree researchers frequently overlook the fact that there can be multiple people with the same name, living at the same time, and even living in the same vicinity. This leads to cases of mistaken identity, where completely different people of the same name are confused and merged together, and other families members who are unrelated to each other are mixed together. This fundamental mistake can result in identifying entire branches of incorrect ancestors, wasted time and effort, and disappointment.
One way that this error of mistaken identity originates is through the automated hints and suggestions which are generated on family tree websites, such as Ancestry, and they are blindly accepted as fact by inexperienced researchers. One way that this error of mistaken identity propagates is when inexperienced researchers blindly copy from other family trees which they don't realize are erroneous, and these can also include crowd sourced family trees.
This error of mistaken identity is pervasive with my ancestor George Holland, who is my my sixth great grandfather. One of my distant cousins sent me this humorous cartoon, which I didn't even need to edit for it to be personally relevant.
There are multiple different men named George Holland living at the same time in Virginia, which includes my sixth great grandfather. These men named George Holland are subject to pervasive mistaken identity, which is compounded by the fact that two of them both had wives named Mary. An examination of the basic facts clearly demonstrates that they are not same person, and the following is intended only as a simplistic summary.
They lived in different locations. My ancestor George Holland died in 1802 in Grayson County, Virginia, and is found in the area of Montgomery County and Grayson County. There is another George Holland who is found in the area of Goochland County, Orange County, and Louisa County. These two different men named George Holland lived simultaneously about 200 miles away from each other.
Their families are different. The last will and testament of my ancestor George Holland identifies his wife as Mary, and his children as William, Agatha, Elizabeth, Fanny, Judah, and Sarah. The other George Holland married Sarah Ford, and the names of their children include Mary, George, Judith, and Elizabeth. After Sarah died, this other George Holland married Mary Coleman, and the names of their children include Richard, Salley, Frankey, and Michael.
This error of mistaken identity between these two different men named George Holland exists on countless individual family trees, as well as popular crowd sourced family trees, such WikiTree, Geni, and FamilySearch. The key question becomes how can this type of error be confronted when it is so pervasive?
There are two actions that I've taken to help address and communicate this error of mistaken identity. First, I have researched the family of the other George Holland and included them in my family tree database. Both families are now part of my database, as well as my research notes for each individual. Second, I created the following chart to help visually illustrate that they are two different men, and attached the chart to all listed individuals in my family tree database . As as result of both actions, my research notes and the following chart will both begin to show as hints to other Ancestry users who might have these individuals in their family tree database. Any resulting action is up to the individuals who receive the hints, and whether they decided to correct it, reach out to me with any questions or other research findings, etc.
The following are links to some further reading about mistaken identities in family trees, and Judy Russell sums it up well by stating: "Genealogy isn’t a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. We can’t just find a similarly named family in the same area as our research subject and pin him there without evidence."
A Moore Unmoored - by the Legal Genealogist (Judy G. Russell)
Case Study: Overcoming Same Named People in Genealogy Records - by Family Tree Magazine