7 Genealogy Do’s and Don’ts You Need to Know

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Here’s what the genealogy pros know…

Don’t just be a searcher. Be a RESEARCHER.

To search is try to find something by looking. Whereas, research is the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish evidential facts and reach conclusions. Genealogy involves resolving complex problems through research.

Are you ready to move from being a simple searcher to a real researcher?

The following genealogy research tips and techniques will help you discover more about your ancestors and feel more confident about your family tree.

Do Keep a Research Log

Keeping a research log is an invaluable tool in genealogy. It will help you search strategically, organize your information, and keep you from duplicating your work.

After you develop your research plan with the sources you will examine, create your research log. At a minimum your research log should contain:

  • the ancestor you are researching

  • the date of the search

  • where you searched

  • what you were looking for

  • the documents located, or not located

  • analysis of the results (both positive or negative)

Additional items you might want to keep in your research log include:

  • a working “to-do” research list for your next research session

  • source citations

  • transcript extracts

  • image file names

  • links

You can keep your research log on paper or online using Evernote, Excel, or Microsoft Word. Several templates are available on Cyndi’s List.

Don’t Accept All Hints

It’s tempting, but beware of those shaking leafs on Ancestry.com. Before accepting that hint, you need to make sure it is for the same person in you tree. It’s not unusual to have people with the same name living in the same place at the same time. It’s not even unusual to have them married to someone with the same name!

To confirm if the hint is a match for the same person in your tree, do your research and verify other facts and details. Check the following:

  • Is the birthdate and location the same? Is the death date and location the same?

  • Do they have the same parents and siblings in the census records?

  • Does the social security number match?

Hints are wonderful and can lead to more discoveries, but be cautious. Accepting a bad hint will send you down the wrong research path.

Do Create Timelines

Timelines are valuable tools to use when researching your ancestors. Start with listing in chronological order your ancestor’s important life events, such as birth, marriage, birth of children, and locations where they lived. Gaps or conflicts in their personal timeline can reveal places to focus your research.

Next add significant historical events to the timeline such as wars, religious conflicts, scientific discoveries, economic depressions, famines, etc. Look for any outside influences that might have affected their life, whether they be world events or a regional ones.

It was a timeline that revealed the answer to a mysterious name on one family tree. I was researching a man born in 1930 Georgia with the unusual first name of Talmadge. All the other children in the family were named after relatives. Even going back several generations, I could not locate the source of the name. In doing a timeline, I discovered a Euguene Talmadge was elected governor of Georgia in 1933. Before he was governor, he was the state’s agriculture commissioner and was an active supporter of rural farmers. My “Talmadge” came from a rural farming family in Georgia and his parents likely named in honor of this man.

When you place your ancestor’s life in the intersection of world events,
you better understand forces that might have shaped their lives.

Ancestry.com has a life story feature that can be helpful when looking at timelines. Historylines.com is a wonderful online tool that allows you to view personal events, family, and historical context with photos on an interactive timeline.

Don’t Piggy Back on Other Family Trees

When you discover someone else has done research on your ancestor, it can be tempting to accept their family tree at face value and import it into your tree. We are all short on time, but this isn’t a time to take shortcuts. A good researcher checks facts for accuracy and evaluates evidence.

When looking at shared family trees, ignore any ancestor with facts that are not supported with documented sources. A fact entered into a family tree without a source is like a fact entered into court case without evidence. The judge wouldn’t allow it and neither should you. Note the information as a lead, but do not accept it into your tree.

If a source or document is provided as evidence, examine it yourself. Does the age, location, family relations, and other information match-up with what you already know about your ancestor?

Recently, I noticed several people online citing the same parish burial record as proof of an ancestor’s death. Upon examining the document image myself, which wasn’t easy because it was handwritten script, I noticed several problems. The surname was not the same, it wasn’t in the same century as the individual it was being used for, and it wasn’t even in the same parish as all the other family records.

I continued my own search and eventually I did locate the correct burial record, which yielded additional clues about this ancestor including his occupation and the town he was from in the parish. Those details led to even more exciting discoveries about the family. Patience and perseverance paid off.

Do Consider Name Variations

It pays to play the name game. Many of our family history records, such as census or immigration records, contain a variety of spellings and abbreviations for both first names and surnames. There are several reasons.

  • Human Error. Family history records were generally written down by clergyman, census enumerators, town clerks, and others. Anytime someone is writing down what they hear or copying from another document, the chances for mistakes to be made increases.

  • Name Changes. Individuals, especially immigrants, often Americanized their surnames or chose to go by the American equivalent of their first name. For example, after moving to America from Italy, Giovanni might start going by “John.”

  • Nicknames. Occasionally, people appear by their nickname. Mary for example might be recorded as “Minnie” or Joseph as “Joe.”

  • Illiteracy. Not all our ancestors knew how to read or write. They may have incorrectly written their name or were unable to confirm the spelling.

  • Lack of Consistency. The further you go back in time, the less consistent surnames become. People didn’t care and care wasn’t taken when writing them down. Prior to the first Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there were no rules. Spelling didn’t count.

So when you are looking for Smith, consider Smyth or Smythe. Looking for Wright? Consider Write, Right or Rite. Using the all name variations in your research will cast a broader net for finding elusive documents. As always when you find a source, be sure to verify it is your ancestor by making sure it is consistent with other facts you already know based on evidence.

If you find a name alternate, change or variation, be sure to include it on your online family tree. This will help the back-end search functions match you up with additional records or others researching the same individual.

Don’t Forget About the FAN Club

If you’ve hit a brick-wall in your research, the FAN Club might help. Coined by genealogist and author Elizabeth Shown Mills, the phrase “FAN Club” involves researching your ancestor’s Friends/Family, Associates, and Neighbors to solve research problem. This is also known as cluster research.

The basic idea is if you can’t solve a research problem around your target ancestor, researching those individuals around them might reveal clues.

Examining the records of your ancestor’s family, might provide details about their life. I’ve uncovered information by reading the obituaries, death records and census records of other family members. In one case I hit a brick wall tracing the immigration history of an ancestor because I could not locate his parents names. I researched his siblings and found obituaries for two of his brothers. They contained detailed information about the extended family, including the names of their parents and their birthplaces in Italy.

In looking at the census records for a target ancestor’s sister, I discovered her living for a brief time in another household in a distant town and working as a teacher. I recognized the first name of another woman in the household as my target ancestor’s future wife. Further research led me to find their marriage record in that town. The family lore was that the sister had taught school with the future wife and made the introduction. Here in the census was the proof, with both of them living together and teaching school.

To research neighbors and associates of your ancestor look in the census records, city directories, school and college yearbooks, court records, and newspaper articles. If similar surnames start appearing, you might make some surprising connections.

Researching the FAN Club around your ancestor not only might help you break-through a brick wall in your research, it can provide context about your ancestor’s life and tell their story.

Do Use Maps

Professional genealogist spend as much time researching the place as the person. Knowing the location well can help you locate information during your research. Many records are not available online and are kept at state, county or even city levels. If you know where your ancestors lived at a certain point in time, you can identify the courthouses where you can call or make record requests.

Tracking your ancestors on maps will also give you a better sense of their life, where they were born, lived, traveled, went to school, worked, married, raised families, opened businesses, owned land, and where they were buried.

When researching use contemporary maps from today as well as historical maps. Your ancestor might have lived in a city that no longer exists today or has changed names. State lines, county boundaries, and even entire countries have changed much over time.

Here’s how looking at maps solved conflicting evidence in my own research. While researching an ancestor, several documents I located had the same date of immigration but different birthplaces. Some documents cited Russia as his birthplace and others Poland. A good researcher resolves conflicts. Were these documents for two different people with the same name and birthdate who immigrated at the same time? Consulting historical maps from the time of his immigration, I discovered Poland was under Russian rule during the time of his immigration. While he identified as Polish, Poland wasn’t an option to declare until it regained its independence from Russia in 1918. This explained Russia being used in his immigration records prior to 1918 and Poland forever after.

Google Earth is a wonderful way to interactively explore online where your ancestors lived. A source for U.S. and European historical maps is the David Ramsey Map Collection. A good source for Historical Maps of Europe is the Perry-Canstaneda Library Map Collection. For U.S. Maps the Library of Congress has an extensive online collection.

Want to find out more about your family history? Have you hit a brick-wall in your research? Or worse yet, have you had to throw out your family tree and start over?


Hi, I’m Kimberlie Guerrieri. I’m a Certified Genealogist with more than 15 years of experience helping people discover their family histories and solve some pretty cool mysteries.

Do you have any research tips or questions? I’d love to hear from you. Follow me on facebook or contact me here.