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Buchanan Estate Scam: Detecting and Navigating Genealogical Hoaxes

Fabricated family trees are an obstacle to genealogical research. Using the real-life example of the Buchanan Estate Scam material, this guide demonstrates how to recognize similar fake lineages that could derail your research.


Bain News Service, publisher. J.C. Smith [about to climb a tree]. Between ca. 1920 and ca. 1925. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Genealogy is history personalized. It is the story of the everyday ancestors in our trees who made history happen. Every experience and personality played a role in shaping larger events. As researchers, we do our best to accurately share those stories, striving to record facts, prove relationships, and provide historical context for every family member. Dedicated genealogists know not to shape or bend the branches of a family tree to make it grow in a specific direction. So, when there is a hoax in the family, both our trees and our good intentions are shaken.

Fabricated family trees often appeal to would-be heirs by promoting branches that ascend to heroes, leaders, or nobility. Schemers capitalize on natural curiosity and name recognition – that famous person shares your name – you must be related. Over generations, scam myths are left to linger in the minds of our relatives. They become family tradition, and because genealogy is so personal, we bond to those beliefs.

There are no warning labels on paperwork generated during an heirship scheme. Documents bear the appearance of authenticity and authority. They may be notarized or published or written in your grandmother's hand.

The Buchanan estate scam is an extreme example. Certainly not every family will have to overcome that specific type of obstacle; however, most genealogists know what it is like to try to correct an error in an online tree that has been perpetually replicated or undo the damage of a published mistake in a go-to book.