1 Reason You’re Not Seeing the Red Flags in Your Genealogy

Red. It’s the color of warning, of stopping, of taking action. Stop lights and stop signs. Lights on firetrucks and police cars. They’re all signs that we need to stop and look around. There are even red flags in genealogy. If we pay attention, they point out our mistakes in genealogy before things get too messy. So why don’t we see them more often? (And how can we get better at it?)

Take a look at this obituary for Mrs. Kate Danison from the Kansas Agitator, 16 January 1903.

Mrs. Kate Danison obituary, (Garrett, KS) Kansas Agitator, 16 January 1903, p. 5. Image from Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Did you spot the red flag?

Let's look at what the obituary tells us:

  • Mrs. Kate Danison was born in Perry County, Ohio 23 April 1838
  • She died 13 January 1903 at the home of her sister, Mrs. C.H. Lowry
  • She moved with her parents to Illinois in 1884
  • She married Isaac Danison in 1859
  • She spent the greater part of her life in Illinois
  • She moved to live with her sister "about two years ago" [circa 1901]

The key is the sentence:

"She moved with her parents to Illinois in 1884, where she was united in marriage with Isaac Danison in 1859."

Something is amiss. It isn't typical to move with your parents from Ohio to Illinois in 1884, but have gotten married in Illinois in 1859. 

Yes, it is possible for Kate to have gone from Ohio to Illinois and married Isaac Danison there in 1859, then moved back to Ohio, then returned to Illinois with her parents in 1884... but that doesn't seem likely. 

See what I mean about a red flag? it's telling us that we need to stop and look around. 

We need to find other records to get this sorted out. Is the year she moved to Illinois wrong? Did she actually move to Illinois with her husband and not her parents? We can make some guesses, but until we do some more research, we won't know.

Why Do We Miss the Red Flags?

It is completely natural  to want to get to the facts and add them to what we know about that ancestor. (That's what we do!) We miss the red flags in genealogy when we don't look at the "facts" in relation to each other.

In isolation, any of the bullet points I listed from Kate Danison's obituary are plausible. It's when we put them together that we see that something isn't quite right. 

Don't look at "facts" in isolation. Compare them to each other. Consider if it's plausible for all of them to be true. If not, do like they do in football when the red flag is thrown -- stop what you're doing, go to the replay booth, and have another look.

Why we don't see the red flags in our genealogy
Posted: February 24, 2016.

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  • It’s fascinating to see what information we can uncover and questions that are raised when we stop and take the time to truly examine a source. It’s worth taking the time to explore all the data and ensure that the source is internally consistent. It may still be wrong, but you have a place to start!

    • You bring up a great point, Rebekah. In a case like Kate Danison’s obituary, it appears that either the date of marriage or the date of moving to Illinois is incorrect. The thing is, they might both be wrong!

  • She may have moved with her husband & her parents moved too. I have families that moved and married children also moved at the same time

    • That’s true. But it reads that she was in Ohio, married in Illinois in 1859, and moved from Ohio to Illinois in 1884. It *could* be right, but it’s odd enough that we really should look at it some more.

  • After deeply immersing myself in news articles and obits this last month, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the red flags are due to reporting errors, typos, and lack of proofreaders. In some instances, I think whoever wrote the obit/article or submitted info really wanted to be a fiction author! Thanks for these tips, Amy. News articles (much like the internet) shouldn’t be taken at face value without further investigation.

  • If I had to make a SWAG at interpreting this possible inconsistency, I would start with the idea that she moved to Illinois in 1848 rather than 1884. Typo! Needs verification, of course.

    • It could be that. As you said, it needs verification. The point being that we noticed that something isn’t quite right and we need to do more research to figure it out.

  • Just yesterday I was reading a timeline on an Ancestry.com tree where it said the wife of the man in question gave birth to their child 25 years before she was born! Didn’t the submitter notice the red flag? In truth, she was the wife of the man’s grandfather, with the same name. Remember to heed red flags; “facts” posted on Ancestry need verification.

  • This couldn’t have come at a better time for me as I was in the midst of comparing two women…. one being my great grandmother. I was thrown the red flag years ago on it, but too inexperienced to see it. I laughed when this post arrived in my mailbox…. “where were you years ago when I started.” You miss so many red flags when you first begin, but like everything else in life – You learn from your mistakes. It’s much easier to see and compare when you list the facts. Just like a judge in court says…”just the facts.”

  • In addition to your dates discrepancy, the first thing I noticed was that the obit did not provide the maiden name of Kate and/or her sister, for whom we don’t even have a first name. Kate had two daughters, only identified by their husbands’ names. Kate’s parents were simply generic parents, no first or last names. This lack of names will make it difficult to ferret out the correct dates.