Genealogy Mistakes that Everyone Makes (and How to Avoid Them)

There are some common genealogy mistakes that researchers make. I was going to say that “beginners make,” but honestly, we all make these mistakes. So here are the most common mistakes in genealogy… and how you can avoid them.
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It’s a Mistake to Take Everything at Face Value

You know the phrase, “Just because it’s in print, doesn’t mean it’s true.”? You definitely run into that as you’re researching your family tree.

This plays out in a lot of different ways. It can start with those family stories you grew up with. The more “fantastic” the story or the longer ago the events happened, the more likely it is to be…. not quite completely accurate.

Another way this plays out is what we see on different websites or in books. If you’ve explored some of the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, or MyHeritage, it isn’t always obvious that there are different kinds of sources, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most basic things to keep in mind is that there’s a difference between family trees and records. Other people’s family trees can be great clues… but they can also be utterly and completely wrong.

Attaching things to your tree just because it’s in someone else’s tree is a surefire way to make a mess of things. Think of it this way: If they have a generation wrong—say they have Robert’s father was John, but in reality Robert’s father was William—everything past that point in the tree is wrong. If you’ve attached that tree to yours, you’ve just added a whole bunch of people that you aren’t related to.

Going Too Fast Leads to Errors

That ties into the next biggest mistake that I see, which is going too fast. Ancestry and other genealogy websites make it so easy to see something and immediately attach it to your tree. It’s convenient… sometimes a little too convenient.

We’ll see a record pop up and at first blush it seems to fit, so we attach it to our tree before we really take a look at it.

Let’s say you’ve been trying to find the passenger list for your ancestor John Johnson, who was born in England around 1875. Up pops a result for a John Johnson arriving when you expected, so onto the tree it goes. The problem is that the record is actually for a John Johnson born in Sweden in 1883. Oops.

via GIPHY

Another way that we go too fast is when we don’t explore things that we already have. If you’re just getting started, don’t just straight onto Ancestry. Explore what you already have. Talk to your elders. See what papers, photos, and documents you already have.

If you’re a more experienced researcher, are you reviewing your previous research? Are you going through your notes and files. It is astounding how many times I’ve been able to answer a research question or at least get a good lead just by reviewing what I already have.

 

Skipping Steps

It’s so tempting to find a fact about an ancestor and then start digging into something related to it. Say you discover that your ancestor living in Chicago in 1930 was born in Ireland, so you immediately start looking at records in Ireland. Do you really know enough about that ancestor to be able to accurately identify him in those Irish records?

I see this happen with people trying to prove a family legend. They heard Grandpa say that someone in the family was one of Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguards, so they start trying to find a list of all of Lincoln’s bodyguards and try to spot a familiar last name. The better strategy is to work from the known to the unknown. Keep researching your tree back until you get to the generations that would have been adults during the US Civil War and then dig into those ancestors’ Civil War service.

It could be that the supposed bodyguard was a regular ol’ private who never came close to Abraham Lincoln, but like a good fishing story, the facts got exaggerated over time.

Falling Into a Rut

A mistake that hits genealogists of all levels of experience is falling into a rut. They’ll find a couple of websites that they like, and they end up limiting their research to just those sites. (You might want to check out this post on 7 free genealogy websites you should be exploring!)

We also fall into ruts of searching exactly the same way or looking at the same types of records over and over. Here’s the thing. There isn’t a “one size fits all” search strategy. Also, different types of records will give you different information and lead to more stories about your ancestors.

The Keys to More Success (and Less Frustration)

There’s a reason that I haven’t talked a lot about records. In my experience, the family historians who have the most success and the least amount of frustration with their research are the ones who develop their sense of curiosity, not just about their ancestors, but about the records and the research process.

If you’re new to genealogy – or even if you’ve been doing this for awhile – don’t get discouraged when you don’t know something about a record or a certain research method. Very few people come into genealogy knowing all about these historical records and how to use them.

Stay curious. When you’re looking at a record you’re unfamiliar with, take a minute and really look at it. If you’re on a website, is there anything like an “about” page or a “frequently asked questions” page for that resource? Stay open to learning about different kinds of records and how you can use them.

 

Posted: January 6, 2022.

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