7 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Researching Your Ancestry

Uncategorized Apr 09, 2020

Researching your family history is an exciting journey. With DNA test kits and genealogical websites housing billions of searchable records, it’s never been easier to begin. But if you embark unprepared, rookie mistakes can lead to wrong turns, and suddenly your journey is a bad trip.

To avoid that from happening, I’ve collected the Top 7 Genealogy Rookie Mistakes to Avoid (and what to do instead). Make more discoveries, and have more fun doing it!

Top 7 Genealogy Rookie Mistakes:

#1. Starting in the Wrong Place 

If you are just starting out, resist the urge to jump online. Family history research starts with what you know, and it begins at home. Gather previous research, bibles, photos, vital records, and newspaper clippings. Review and write down what you know about your ancestors.

Starting with yourself and working backwards, fill in a pedigree chart. Call your relatives to fill in the missing details.

#2. Trusting your Elders

Remember what I just said about calling your relatives? Take what they say with a grain of salt. Grandpa might be embellishing those details, and great-grandma just might have her facts mixed-up. Treat the information they provide as clues for finding documented evidence.

In genealogy, there is no truth without proof, even if nanna said so.

#3. Accepting Online Hints and Family Trees

After you enter a few ancestors into your online tree, hints and shaky leaves are going to magically appear. It’s amazing! You’re going to be tempted to accept all those hints. DON’T.

Shaky leaves are true “hints." Scrutinize the source before adding it to your tree. It could be someone with the same name living in the same place. Also, don’t blindly welcome ancestors from someone else’s tree into yours. You might be infecting your tree with bad (or complete lack of) research.

#4. Being a Slave to Spelling

Your ancestors and details about their lives are waiting to be found if you would only search... using a different spelling of their name. It’s true! Not using surname variations when researching is a common rookie mistake. I should know. In my early research days, I dismissed any records where “Guerrieri” wasn’t spelled correctly. But how often do you think “Guerrieri” is even spelled correctly now?

There are lots of reasons you will encounter name variations. Historically, prior to Samuel Johnson publishing the first Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there were no spelling rules. People spelled names as they sounded, and that was just fine. Other reasons for spelling variations include illiteracy, language barriers, transcription errors, and name changes.

So play the name game and search using surname variations, abbreviations, and even nicknames. Keep a list of all surname variations you find.

# 5. Not Backing Up

For years you’ve been saving documents and uploading photos to your tree. Then suddenly some or all are gone. Materials you find online might not always be online. And that website might go out of business. Always download your tree and copies of documents for your own records. Store them on your computer and in a cloud back-up. You worked hard for your research, preserve it!

#6. Being a Wandering Genealogist

It’s fun to get online and follow clues to your heart’s content. But you’ll soon find yourself like Alice after falling down the rabbit hole: lost and more confused. Don’t be like Alice.

Start with a destination, a research goal, or a question. Make a plan, creating a checklist of documents and sources you will consult. Keep a research log to remember your findings, and more importantly, so don’t repeat your work.

#7. Wearing Blinders

If your research only focuses on your direct line ancestors, you are missing out on family history. None of our ancestors lived in a bubble. Details about their lives can be found in the history of their family, associates, and neighbors. We call this their FAN club.

If you find little information on an ancestor, investigate their FAN club. I’ve busted through several brick walls by researching the siblings of a direct line ancestor.


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