Pitfalls and Pratfalls in Genealogical Research

While working on the Jeffrey Ferris lineage, I have seen the pratfalls of other researchers and fallen into a number of pitfalls all by myself. Here are a number of the issues that I have seen, a few solutions and a caution or two. I will use examples from the Ferris family tree as illustrations.

A great deal has changed since 1635, when Jeffrey Ferris is first mentioned in a document. In the 379 years since, governments have changed, place names have been abandoned and new ones created, spelling has become more consistent and mistakes are more easily repeated at electronic speeds on the Internet.


While the British and the Americans retain a few differences in spelling, color vs. colour, it is fair to say that most spelling in the English language on both sides of the ocean has stabilized. That was not the case in colonial America. In the Ferris family tree, there are women named Phebe and there are women named Phoebe. My suspicion is that they are meant to be the same name. The use of Phebe fades and Phoebe becomes primary as time passes. The same holds true for men named Abram and Abraham.

Census takers have had problems with spelling, as well. Ferris becomes Farris or Faris in a few lists. Not every Ferris was literate, so the wrong spelling may have come from our family. On the other had, not every census taker was as as literate as one might wish.

Ahasureus Ferris (1750-1824) has a tough name to spell. Benajab Ferris (1798-1878) looks like a misspelling of Benjamin on the census, but his gravestone reveals that this was his real name. Eliphalet Ferris (1774-1859) is another toughie. Not all names that look like misspellings are.

One of the oldest families associated with the Ferris lineage remains a series of names “Hoyt / Hait/ Haight”. My suspicion is that all three current uses can be traced to to the same families in colonial times but that no one use was correct at that time. Records may be found under any of the spellings, or even other variants. The same issue is found for those named Mead or Meade.


One source on penmanship in colonial America suggests at least ten styles were present among the English. The source also notes that abbreviations that we no longer use were common in those times.

Michael Pollock, in an article on colonial handwriting, points out a character we no longer use, but that was in use in the 1600’s. It represents a double s “ss” in a name or word.

The best discussion about the perils and pitfalls of penmanship is an article from genealogybank.com titled “The Mystery of Ammi Ann Ferris“. The author traces Ammi Ferris through a number of U.S. Census reports and catalogs the spelling issues. Ammi is the husband of one of the Jeffrey Ferris lineage and I found this article while trying to trace his family tree. He may also be from the lineage but I’m still working on his bona fides. Lesson – if you have any doubt concerning the penmanship, keep looking and don’t just leap to a conclusion. I did that with poor, old Benajab Ferris but he was never a Benjamin.

The Long S

Printed colonial era documents present a few issues for the modern reader but the most common is the apparent substitution of an “f” for an “s”. It is actually a character called the long s.

Perhaps the fentiments contained in the following pages are not yet fufficiently fathionable to procure them general favor

Math iz hard!

As researchers post their family trees on line, and other borrow from them, simple errors can multiply. The bane of my existence at this time is one Joshua Ferris (1735-1848). Did you catch the pratfall? Josh lived to be 113 years old.

Not all researcher provide a year of death for Joshua. Those that do use 1848, a year that is virtually impossible. Online records for Joshua Ferris are very slim and provide no assistance in resolving the matter.

The software I use does some basic checking of input data. It is not uncommon for me to discover that the birth year of Child A is after the death year of their mother. In other cases, mom or dad were too young to have begotten a child, age five for example. And… two siblings cannot be born from the same parents five months apart, at least not as often as the Ferris Family research would have you believe.

Before you enter data, take a moment to check that the dates are all consistent and make sense. Some colonial women were mothers at age 15, and men were fathers at age 65. Yet, living to be 113 or having children at age 5 is a bit much to accept.

On the Borderline

Place names change. Connecticut, as one example, began as three colonies and did not become one colony until well after Jeffrey Ferris and family had helped settle Greenwich. The border between Dutch New Netherlands and British Connecticut moved about and some English settlers may have had to pledge their loyalty to one or the other at different times.

New York City, as we know it, came into existence in 1898. Prior to that time, there were a number of municipalities and geographic entities that vanished when the city was created. Places like Bushwick, Throgs Neck and Gowanus play a roll in the history of the Ferris family in the region but all are now just a neighborhood name in the big city.

The primary records will refer to places that may no longer exist. Putting births, deaths and other genealogical data into their proper place requires noting, I believe, the current location as well as the name that our ancestors knew it by. Doing that also places the Ferris family into the history of the United States, as I have illustrated in other parts of this site.

Papers, Papers, Please!

It may be difficult to believe, but there once was a time that you did not need the permission of any government to marry. Or to be born or to die. No birth certificates, no marriage licenses and no death certificates.

Churches kept the only records and many of the earliest records of the Jeffrey Ferris lineage are from such records. Cemeteries also kept a ledger for burials. Keep in mind that records of a christening or a burial only approximate the actual dates of birth and death.

The earliest census records are also reflective of their times. Only the head of the household had their name recorded. The rest of the family was ignored or counted without being named.

Updated: March 17, 2014 — 9:34 pm