As a genealogist, you certainly want to be sure your research is accurate. Mistakes made in your work, whether you publish it or not, will be perpetuated throughout the generations by whoever uses your work as a reference. Not only that, but you want your work to be accurate for your own sake, too. If you are doing genealogy, you want to know you are getting the true stories of your ancestor’s lives. You also want to have confidence you are tracing the correct family lines. There is nothing more frustrating to a genealogist (other than a stubborn brick wall) than to spend months, or even years researching a family line, only to discover that a mistake was made somewhere and the line is not your own after all.
The good news is that genealogy mistakes can be avoided, and you can have the confidence you need to know your research is as accurate as it can be based on the information you’ve discovered. These are the biggest genealogy research mistakes and how you can avoid them.
1. Using Other People’s Family Trees Without Verifying Them
In today’s modern age of genealogy, you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of most of your family lines already published online. Lots of other people do genealogy, after all. And, anyone can upload a family tree to any family tree website. You may occasionally come across a family line that no one else has researched, and you are the first one to do work on it. If this is true, you have a much greater likelihood of knowing you are getting correct information.
One of the biggest genealogy mistakes you can make is to use the work of someone else without verifying it first. You never know where they got their information, or whether it is correct. If you do use any information you find on someone else’s family tree, be sure to verify the information for yourself before adding it to your own tree. If there are no sources, find your own to verify what’s there. If there are sources, look them up for yourself to make sure they have been interpreted and transcribed correctly. Your family tree will be more accurate this way, and more trustworthy for other genealogists.
2. Only Using the Census
This is more of a beginning genealogy mistake, but you may fall into it if you are, in fact, a beginner. Many people who are just starting out with genealogy believe that they can get all of the information they need from the census records and don’t make the attempt to look beyond them. Many families did not make it onto certain census records. Some seem to have managed to miss all of them. Other times, incorrect information is on the census, either given by the family on purpose or by mistake on the part of the census taker. Then, there is the matter of the mostly missing 1890 census, where researchers have a twenty-year gap in the records. If you only use the census, you are missing out on a lot of other valuable information and may be putting incorrect information on your family tree.
3. Trusting Family Lore
Most families have some kind of family lore. It’s a tale that has been told for at least a few generations, maybe more, typically about an ancestor and their life story. Many of these stories seem quite fantastical, but the family takes it as the truth, and genealogists often write it down in their research as if it were true, too. While most family lore does have a kernel of truth in it somewhere (and rarely, the whole thing is true… extremely rarely), the telling of the story is usually much different from the truth. Sometimes, the untruths in the story began with the original ancestor who wanted it to seem more interesting than it was. It is the job of a good genealogist to examine the truth behind these family stories. Use documentation, historical records, old newspaper records, books about the time and place, and more to discover what the real truth is. The real truth is always far better and more interesting for a genealogist than a tale of fantasy handed down through the generations.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)