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TIP ONE: Expect to make mistakes, especially if you donít consult original records.

Eric Trudgill    -    5 June 2011

Research Tips for Beginners in Gypsy Genealogy

Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP ONE: Expect to make mistakes, especially if you don’t consult original records.

The first thing to say about Gypsy genealogy is that all of us make mistakes, the most experienced as well as the least. It’s full of traps for the unwary, and even when you know them and try to avoid them, you still fall into them, most commonly when you misidentify someone, or their parents, spouse or children. The second thing to say is we should always be grateful, not embarrassed let alone annoyed, when a well-informed researcher suggests we’ve fallen into one of those traps: we all have gaps in our knowledge, we all make false connections, and we should therefore all be delighted to be put right – where’s the benefit in being wrong?

The third thing to say is, while we can’t eliminate mistakes, we should do our best to do so, not only for our own sake but to avoid perhaps misleading and wasting the time (and money) of others. There are many ways of reducing our mistakes. A crucial one, if you’re a beginner in Gypsy genealogy, is to consult original records to test and amplify the data you find in publications and especially on the internet(here included), to test the accuracy and the relevance of that data before you make it a basis for your research.

Firstly, always test for accuracy what you find on self-published family trees: all of us make mistakes, but some researchers are exceptionally careless. And always test for accuracy what you find on invaluable genealogical indexes like the Mormons’ IGI, Vital Records, and Family Search: in such a huge enterprise there are inevitably countless transcription errors (unusual Gypsy forenames in particular mangled out of all recognition), and there are a lot of compilation errors, entries left out or put in wrong – before you transfer an important entry onto your family tree, make sure it hasn’t been garbled, the right person present in the parish specified but on a completely different date, or on the date specified but in a completely different parish, or in the right parish on a half-right date and with a half-right name. If it’s crucial, and you’re a long way from the relevant Record Office, write or phone them: they’ll often look something up for free, or at worst charge you a fiver for a photo.

Secondly, always test for relevance what you find on self-published family trees: some researchers seem to prioritize quantity over quality, swelling the numbers of their ancestors with people who are not even Gypsies, or, if they are, members of a quite different family. And always test for relevance what you find on the big genealogical indexes, which transcribe only part of their entries, stripping out detail that’s often vital if you want to be sure certain people are Gypsies or the particular Gypsies you think they are (some recent web-sites, bless them, give a digitized image of the complete entry, so your only problem there is working round mis-transcribed names in the index). Given the fact that all British Gypsies in recent centuries had surnames, and often forenames, identical to those used by non-Gypsies, it’s easy to confuse the two, and given the fact that many Gypsy families and clans favoured a particular,unusual, distinctively Gypsy forename, it’s easy to put someone in the wrong branch of a family or the wrong family altogether. But if you go to the original records to amplify as well as check what you found in a transcript, usually after 1812 and often before, you’ll find evidence of ethnicity, as I’ll illustrate in July, and sometimes really helpful evidence of family-position, as I’ll illustrate in August.

Copyright © 2011 Eric Trudgill