The Red Herring is a common fish scooped up in its thousands in nets of genealogists worldwide. It’s almost as common in the Mare Genealogica as familia fabula (family myth).
Being red, it stands out on a page of closely packed type with the scintillating header of COR-CRO: 15 of 385 pages. Being friendly (and equipped with special fins) it catches your eye, waves at you as you try to place where you know it from…
It has a familiar face, it’s got your grandmother’s nose and it says it was born only 10 miles from the birthplace you have on your record – can it be – yes it must be – it’s that long-lost relative you thought you’d never find. Hallelujah.
But beware – red herrings are the cuckoos of the seas. Hidden behind that cuddly exterior is a whole shoal of bogus relations who will, before you realise what’s happening, devour your entire family tree.
How can you spot one of these interlopers? Here’s an example – if Auntie Mabel’s husband Fred appears to have been born before his youngest child, maybe he’s not the Fred you thought he was, the one so beloved by the family who could pull rabbits out of balloons. Or another: you gleefully follow the red herring’s ancestors back two generations to find you’re descended from an Uzbekhi tribesman and everyone knows that the family has always hailed from Nether Wallop.
Having spotted one, what to do? Gentle genealogist, there’s no easy way to say this. Get rid of it. Fling the baby out with the bathwater. Whisper ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to end like this’ as you delete it from your files if you must, but it has to go. Think how much tidier your tree will be without Uncle Willie who seemed to have married 37 women in quick succession. Think how you’ll never again have to search the frozen steppes of Russia in vain for Agnes Macklethwaite who married Ernest Jones.
So your tree is a little bare now and only dates back to 1933 – no matter, now it’s echt, it’s real. Your mother doesn’t talk to you any more since you found that she isn’t the long lost daughter of Frank Sinatra – she’ll get over it, tell her you’re doing it My Way. And all those people on rootsweb lists who embraced you as a long-lost 2nd cousin thrice removed and invited you to their ‘cosy home’ deep in the Catskills will soon find someone else to cherish.
And finally, don’t grieve for the Red Herring. He’s guaranteed to be clasped to the bosoms of the next fleet of genealogists to come along with the words “Henry! it’s You!”