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Confessions from a Family Historian (What I Should Have Done Right from the Beginning)

Confessions from a Family Historian

Hindsight is 20/20 in most things in life, and genealogy research is no exception. I’ve been doing genealogy research for 20 years and have reached the level of knowledge where I now consider myself a good genealogist (though make no mistake, even good genealogists still have things to learn, and we discover new things in genealogy all the time). I’m proud of the research I’ve done and continue to do, for myself and others. Yet, there are so many things from my early work I could have done differently if I’d known better then…. things which would make my genealogy research even more rich, detailed, and rewarding today. My family tree would be more solid and more like the historical narrative I now aim for it to be.

We all make mistakes when we’re beginning with something before we’ve truly learned the craft. It’s true for anything you learn. However, if I can help some beginning genealogists avoid some of the early mistakes I made when I was learning the basics of this wonderful hobby, I am happy to do so. Here are some things I would have done differently when I began with genealogy if I’d known better. Maybe, by learning from my mistakes, you can get a better start on your family tree and turn it into something wonderful much sooner than I did.

I Would Have Started Earlier

I always had an interest in family history, even when I was too young to understand what it was. I was fascinated by the history of my Moneymaker surname and wondered who the first people were who bore it, I loved looking at old family photos and asking questions about the people in them, and I asked older relatives to tell me stories about their childhoods. But, this was a childhood curiosity of my own, and I had no idea I should be writing down the things that were told to me or asking more detailed genealogy-directed questions.

One of my great regrets is that I didn’t start doing proper genealogy work sooner. I could have gotten so many more stories of long-gone relatives, and saved a lot of time looking up the identities of those relatives if I’d asked the right questions of the people I knew who knew them. By the time I started doing proper genealogy, I was eager for information on my great-grandfather’s grandparents, whose names I did not know, and who I only had a couple of stories about. I tried to ask him, but he had dementia by then, and could only tell me his grandparents were named “Grandma” and “Grandpa,” and couldn’t tell me more stories.

His children never thought to ask these questions when they were younger, so they had nothing to tell me. It took me nearly four more years before I found out those names, as well as their birth and death dates, and even a photo of one set of his grandparents, and I discovered these things when I was helping to clean out his house after he died. You can’t go back in time and begin genealogy sooner, of course. But, I would recommend you begin as soon as you have an inkling you might be interested. Get at least the basic names, dates, and stories from your older relatives while they are still able to give them to you, and follow up on the research later. The research will always be there, but the first-hand information from the people who knew them won’t. Get it while you can.

I Would Learn the Most Common Research Methods and Try Them Sooner

When I first began doing genealogy, I didn’t know anything about research methods beyond talking to older relatives. I bought a family tree book, and went around to all my older relatives, asking them the appropriate questions about the identities of their parents and grandparents, and any childhood stories they cared to share. But I literally knew nothing else. I didn’t know how to expand on my initial research, which was frustrating. I went to the local genealogy library and had no idea what to do with those microfiche and microfilm machines, or even how to find the right books to take me further back in my family history.

I would start reading beginning books on genealogy research methods, and then go out and put those methods into practice, so I would learn hands-on how to use them. I could have brought my research further sooner if I’d known. It wasn’t until several years later when I made friends with a fellow genealogist with a lot more experience than me that I learned about the most basic things, like ordering vital records and doing census research.

I Would Learn to Cite My Sources (and Actually Do It)

Ah, citing sources. One thing most genealogists know they should be doing, but very few actually do. When you’re just starting and only have a little bit of information, you just naturally assume you will remember where you obtained it or who told you. That kind of thing gets a lot harder to keep track of the more information you gather, as you become more adept at your craft. You may look back at an early piece of research years later and have no idea where you got it, or if it’s even correct. Get a book on citing sources when you begin your genealogical research and use it. Citing sources may seem like a chore at first, but you will be so glad you did it later. And, when you make it your regular practice, it will eventually become second nature to you, and much easier to do.

I Wouldn’t Rely So Much on Published or Online Genealogies, or Family Lore

I relied a lot on published genealogy books, online genealogy, and legends about my ancestors that were told to me as a child when I began. I didn’t know that all of these things need to be verified before they can go in a legitimate genealogy. In fact, it is the verification that makes the genealogy legitimate. The vast majority of family tales have some major flaws in them, like a game of telephone that gets played and changed through the generations. Even genealogies that were published in the 19th century have a lot of mistakes, and online genealogies are often full of them, as people copy other people’s work without verifying it. Don’t make that mistake. You don’t want to have to re-do an entire line of your genealogy when you find out the third-party work you relied on was incorrect (yes, I had to do that once).

vAs an example, there was a family lore of my great-grandmother on my mom’s side being from Germany. I never met her, so I couldn’t ask her. I just assumed it was true. But, when I looked further into her history, I discovered she was actually from Virginia and it was her mother who was from Germany. Her son, my grandfather, who I knew, always insisted his mother was from Germany, but it was actually his grandmother. That shows how things can get changed in a story in just a generation in a family. Verify everything, even if it’s from someone with supposedly first-hand knowledge because you never know when someone will make a mistake, or have been given incorrect information themselves. Verify, and make sure your family tree is accurate the first time. You’ll be glad you did.


  • I didn’t cite my sources in the beginning either. Then it was making numerous paper photocopies (one for each person in the census) and filing in each person’s file. It was oh so tedious. Now everyone uses a computer. It’s still oh so tedious to enter the whole citation, take a screen print, write down the repository… has a clipper app that does that auto-magically.

  • The best way to avoid many of these problems in what is a complex field is to take a basic course before you get into all those bad habits. IHGS in Canterbury, England run an online course called “Awaken Your Ancestors”, which is excellent and leads into more advanced stuff.

  • I don’t think you are alone in not citing or keeping copies of records in your early days in the search for your ancestors, I have been researching for almost 30 years and still get excited about the results of my research having to take a deep breath, record my sources and download and store a copy of the find. I now use Evernote to store my information along with a properly written source which I can copy and past when I am writing the Family Saga. I also keep my records in a genealogy program which when I started I thought was the main purpose of my research. My main focus now is having the information readily excessable for The Family Saga. Like all genealogist I also wish I had the knowledge when I first started.

  • I do cite my sources but in way that wouldn’t pass with professional genealogist. For some, sources have become very fussy! I look to the journals “Q” and “The Register” for inspiration on sources. Web sites change, links are gone, a repository might now house those records any more. Date accessed – why??? I expect anyone looking at my work to be a reasonably competent beginning genealogist. 100 years from now they can look to see where Massachusetts Birth Records are currently being located. There is excellent source education for those who publish in journals – what about source standards for the rest of us!

  • Citing Sources!!!! While I don’t cite my sources as professionals do, I shake my head in regret when I have a birth or death date and there is no indication of where I obtained or verified it. SOOOOOOO frustrating! My advice: write it down or print it out.

  • Me too. I did not find out till I had over 10,000 people in my tree. I seems like such a mess to go back through. There are also people that I did not pay much attend if thir parents were related to me. I just followed the line on back. I feel so overwhelmed. What I am doing now when I go to a certain person is check my sourses. It any of them are just someones other tree, I check it against other information. Then delete the tree. To get hints about where to look, I will print a tree on paper and then see if there is a connection or any truth to it now. Wish I knew this when I started. ;-(