Genealogical Nightmares: Common Names, Geographical Black Holes

In recognition of the upcoming Halloween celebrations, Geneabloggers has suggested writing about Genealogical Nightmares. What are my genealogical nightmares? Ancestors with common names and locations with a dearth available records.

Having started doing genealogical research when I was nine years old and currently sporting gray hair, I’ve been at this racket awhile. For the most part, the families that make up my heritage have names that are familiar enough to be spelled relatively few ways but uncommon enough to be easily distinguishable from their neighbors.

However, there are exceptions. Of course.

Isaiah Moore. Nancy Henderson. Daniel Harris. These are some of my ancestors who sit at dead ends on my family tree. These are the ones who make me wish to be related to the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper.

What’s more, all three of these ancestors live in areas with large, large families of the same name. In one case I can’t prove it, but in the other two the families who are colocated are absolutely not closely related. This means that in searching for my family members, I have a steady, discouraging stream of people contacting me from that other family. I politely refer them to the other side of the message board, indicating, “There’s your party. Over there. That big, fun group. Cheers.” (Sigh.)

These ancestors have caused me fits, sleepless nights (for upwards of forty five minutes) and all sorts of other trouble. Imagine my embarrassment at genealogy get-togethers when I have to admit I have ancestral lines only traced back to the 1820s! (gasp!) (gulp!) … I know. Horrible.

My other research nemesis is the Location of Doooom. You know the ones: Those locations where they kept no records, used the records for kindling (ok, not aware of this actually happening, but I do have nightmares about it), were shortsighted enough to have had a war or flood or courthouse-swallowing earthquake.  Something like that.

My personal nightmare in this category is Rensselaer County, New York. (-shakes fist towards northeast-)

Rensselaer County, New York appears to be normal, but I know the truth. Obviously, they put in place a plan, long long ago, to stop researchers like me (or maybe just me) from figuring out anything about their families from this location. This has to be it. Nothing else explains it. I mean, just try to find out anything about someone there from, oh, I don’t know, 1840.

Good luck.

OK, so maybe there are wills, and newspaper records nearby, and ok, maybe there are people with local area expertise I just haven’t run into, or maybe I just haven’t become familiar enough with the location. Well, maybe you couldn’t cite your way out of an Elizabeth Shown Mills-made paper bag!

OK, sorry about that. I just get a little crazy (or crazier) when discussing these topics. They may seem benign enough to you, but believe me, once you spend years alone, locked up in a little room with them and piles of records and notes proving they’re not related to ANYONE but you, it gets a little… nightmarish.

For my part, I know what I’m going as this Halloween:

A ghost named Daniel Harris from Rensselaer County, New York!


Well, I’m scared.


About glamberson

I am an amateur genealogist and a professional technologist, having experience in both areas that goes back to the 1980s (at least). My genealogical interests really began in 1979 when my grandfather died. Computers & technology have been primary interests since the early 1980s. My first personal computer was an Apple IIe bought shortly after they first became available.
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3 Responses to Genealogical Nightmares: Common Names, Geographical Black Holes

  1. Susan says:

    Truly terrifying! Especially because you have written one of MY nightmares (far more eloquently than I could) only having changed the names and locations. Stephen King best beware.

  2. What a great post – I second what Susan has said…change the name and location and it’s MY nightmare. That’s especially true of the name with a large group of people who are all NOT related to MY ancestor. I love the idea of being that person for Halloween – but that might just be TOO scary.

  3. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that is a recurring nightmare. What a great post. My current blocker is an itinerant Civil War veteran by the name of O’Donnell from western Pennsylvania (though, fortunately, not one of those that settled in Donegal County). Fortunately, his wife from England with the maiden name of Smith, left behind letters to her family in Sheffield and let me get further back than 1820 with her.

    Fortunately, most of my other lines haven’t proved as challenging, including my Lambertson connection (via Robert Nelson Lambertson of Iowa). So not quite so many sleepless nights.

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