3 Biggest Mistakes in Genealogy Research

Let’s be honest. We all make mistakes in our genealogy, whether it’s misreading a document or drawing an incorrect conclusion. But the mistakes in how we actually do our research can lead to bigger brick walls, fewer discoveries, and more frustration. Here are the 3 biggest mistakes in genealogy research.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 52

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 15 minutes.

1. Trying to Take Research Too Far, Too Fast

Let’s say that you were going to drive from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. You plug your start and your destination into Google Maps and all the directions say are: “Turn left onto W. Temple Street. Your destination will be on the left.”

Not exactly the most helpful of directions.

Without any context other than the destination, the directions are useless. We need to know the road that we’re turning off of, how long we’re going to be on W. Temple before we get to the destination. And, by the way, how do we even get to Salt Lake City?! Our mapping program skipped some crucial steps, some signs that would point us in the right direction, signs that we need to get to where we want to go.

We do the same thing in our research. Take these examples:

  • Finding an ancestor in Illinois in the 1920 census and it says he was born in Ireland — so you go looking in Irish records
  • Identifying an ancestor as a married adult in the 1940 census and then looking for him as a child in the 1880 census
  • Finding a new ancestor and immediately starting to look for that person’s parents, without knowing anything about that new ancestor besides his or her name

Just like we need more points on our map to make sure we’re in the right place, we need more information before we can really get from “here” to “there.” We have to know more about the ancestor than his or her name before we can make big leaps in our research. Check out this post to learn more about building your ancestor’s identity beyond the name.

2. Stopping Too Soon

It’s exciting when you find a record that identifies a new ancestor. However, we shouldn’t let that excitement cloud our judgment. Sure, we found a record that names a new ancestor… but is that record right?

Do we understand that record? What problems are there with it in terms of accuracy? How does it fit in with what we already have?

We have to evaluate what we’re using, rather than just assume that it’s correct. Check out this post to learn more about evaluating sources, information, and evidence.

3. Skimming for Facts

There’s a Law of Research (kind of like Murphy’s Law) that says the longer and more difficult a document is to read, the less likely it is that a researcher will read the whole thing. 

Wills, land records, pension records, and court records are great resources for our genealogy research, but we only get the full benefit of them if we actually read them. When we just skim through the document looking for specific facts, we lose not only the context of those facts, but we miss out on a lot of detail that could be helpful to our research.

When you’re looking at a deed, did you notice how much the land was being sold for? Token amounts of consideration are a clue that there’s a relationship between the grantor (seller) and the grantee (buyer). Did you notice who was the executor of a will or who were the witnesses? They could be related to the deceased.

Family History Is a Journey, Not a Race

These 3 mistakes have something in common: Speed. We get excited about a new discovery that we want to zoom ahead to the next one. Ironically, we can make more discoveries when we slow down.


3 Biggest Mistakes in Genealogy Research


Posted: October 7, 2020.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Thank you for a very helpful post! As a beginner, I’ve found it helpful to read the blogs of experienced genealogists as case studies in process. The more metacognition, the better!

  • Great advice!! When I skimmed through my great-grandfather’s Civil War pension file, I got distracted by an interview with one of his sisters, who mentioned he had run away from home as young teenager to live with his maternal uncle. So I spent too much time on that detour, instead of my initial goal of determining whether his widow did in fact receive a pension.

  • I like your tip about reading documents thoroughly. I’ve found it helps me absorb more information if I actually transcribe it, either as a Word document or by hand, or occasionally, both!

  • I must admit that I have made the second mistake quite a few times when I first started to trace my family tree. I was amazed as to how much I learned when I went back to my sources.

  • The executor of a will tip got me. I did notice the executor on several of the wills in my Father’s line then later found he was my Mother’s Great, Great Grandfather. I did not even know until then that they had ancestors from the same area.

  • Thanks for all the reminders Amy. And I’m grateful to Randy Seaver for featuring this post in his “best of.” I’d had scrolled past in on Facebook and then couldn’t go back and find, for the life of me.

  • Thank you for this article. I have been doing the speed researching for way to long. I really needed these reminders.

  • I definately agree with Janice’s comment above regarding transcribing. It really help me in University. Yes I could read the textbook and hope for the best that I would remember at least part of it. And yes I could yellow highlight important points. But where I really learned AND remembered was when I transcribed or wrote it down. And the process of writing it down gives you an important perspective because you actually have to ‘think’ about what you are writing down. Same goes for genealogy. Many thanks Amy!

  • I recently created a written style sheet for researching so I will be more methodical when I research. No. 1 is don’t research when tired. No. 2 is when I start skimming or hurrying I am tired. Stop! Make a note in my master research log and stop. When I am refreshed I know just where to go back to pickup where I left off.

  • I love this Amy. You have a gift for sharing great detail in a brief article. Thank you for sharing that talent with the genealogy world! And I love every bit of your advice here. <3

  • Thank you for the guidance! It’s a great reminder. I recently found information on the census records that I had overlooked; the relationship of boarders to the head of household. There’s not always a relation, but it’s worth pursuing. Your words help me remember that it isn’t a race. The information isn’t going anywhere! This is a process and a journey; not a sprint!

  • Thanks for the reminders. My eyes roll in the back of my head when reading old deeds – handwritten metes and bounds descriptions are the hardest! So now I transcribe them. That way I have to read each word. At the end, I have a document that’s easier to read therefore a little more understandable. I can highlight the salient facts.