Avoiding Five Common Research Errors

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A boy went to war in 1914 and left his bike chained to a small tree.  He never made it home.  His family left the bike by the tree in his memory.  This is that tree today.

The storyabout the boy is not true. Unfortunately, you would be amazed at the number of people who saw thepicture, read that caption and believed it. This led us to think about what similar mistakes people make whileresearching.  Here is what we came upwith.

1. Don't believe everything you seeor read.

One of thebiggest mistakes beginning researchers make (and even some who have beenresearching for a while and should know better) is copying down the informationthey find in family trees—such as those on Ancestry.com ornewFamilySearch and accepting it as gospel truth.  

If you see something in someone else's treethat interests you, make a note of it and use it as a clue, but only as aclue.  Ask the person who submitted itWHERE they got the information.  If theycan't tell you, use the information to lead you to an original source.  Just because the person doesn't have a sourcedoesn't necessarily mean it is incorrect.  What it does mean is that you can't use it withcomplete confidence until you find a concrete source.

Alwayslook at even official documents with a skeptical eye, especially censusrecords.  There are many mistakes oncensus records, both intentional and unintentional.  Even though the 1850 Census states that JohnDoe was born in Georgia in 1818, you should continue to search for corroboratingevidence.  Even after you locate asource, you should still scrutinize it.

2. Always document WHERE you gotEVERY fact in your tree.

Notdocumenting (sourcing) is the #1 mistake beginning researchers make.  

If you don't record the location in which youfind something, it will come back to haunt you later.  Whether you find Fred's date of birth on atombstone or on a little slip of paper that was among your grandmother's personaleffects, you need to document it.  Thereis a standard way to document your sources but when you are first starting out,the rule of thumb is to make sure you document enough information so thatanyone who follows your research path can locate the same source.

Indexes area great resource, but don't forget to obtain the original documents wheneverpossible.  You wouldn't believe how many errorsexist in indexes.  Indexers are human andhandwriting or faded print can be hard to read. Since you will be familiar with the persons involved, the time periodyou are researching, and the location where the events occurred, it is lesslikely that you will make a mistake. Indexers do not have this advantage. You will be able to identify names thatare spelled incorrectly as well as dates that are inaccurate.  

When a marriage document contains alicense and a certificate on the same page, you may not be able to determine whetherthe date marked on it is the date the indexer recorded the license or the actualdate the marriage occurred.  For variousreasons—such as repositories destroyed by fire or other natural disasters, andotherwise damaged or lost records— you will on occasion not be able to obtaina copy of the original document.  In suchcases you have no choice but to rely on the index for information.  [Recently, my research firm Rootsonomy located the marriage index for oneof our clients’ ancestors, but could not find the actual vital record.  The original document apparently was lostsometime after the marriage.]  This alsohappens frequently with old cemetery surveys. If the marker is no longer there, the survey will be the onlyinformation available to the researcher. The bottom line: find as many original documents as you can but if anindex or other secondary source is all you can locate, remember to proceed withcaution.  Just as with a family tree, theindex will be a clue to point you in the right direction, but should not be theultimate goal.

3. Avoid making assumptions.

If you havetwo men in the same county who are listed as John Smith, Sr. and John Smith,Jr. don't assume they are father and son. In earlier times it was common for men of the same name in differentgenerations to be labeled Sr. and Jr. even if they weren't father and son.  They could be uncle and nephew, or not even directlyrelated.  

Other assumptions you shouldn'tmake are husband/wife relationships and parent/child relationships on censusrecords prior to 1880, when relationships were first recorded.  This error can really lead you down the wrongpath.  Consider the example of anunmarried sister who moved in with her brother, whose wife recently died, tohelp him take care of the motherless children. The brother and sister would have the same surname and be only a coupleof years apart in age but assuming that they are husband and wife would be a mistake.  

The same holds true with children.  It is impossible to determine if all the childrenlisted on 1850 Census records belonged to the adults whose names appear as the headsof households.  Those children listedbelow adults’ names could be orphaned nieces and nephews, grandchildren,stepchildren, etc.  Don't assumeanything.  You can theorize about the familyunit’s makeup, but you need to locate other records in addition to the censusto provethe relationships.

4. Don't rush backward in time.

For some researchersit appears to be a race to see how fast they can get their lines as far back intime as possible.  It is far better tohave four generations that are solidly documented, than ten generations thatare shakily constructed.  When someonetells you they have traced their ancestry back to the 1100s, be VERY skeptical.  

If a prize is to be awarded, it should begiven for the tree with the strongest roots, and most often, strength is basedon abundant descendancy research.  Inaddition, we have often found that the stronger the foundation, the more likelywe are to take the lines further back.  Rememberthat many trees branch out in other directions rather than straight up.  The strength of these trees results from researchinga side line or that of extended family members.

5. Don't assume you are related toAbraham Lincoln.

Just because you havethe Lincoln name in your family tree, does not mean you are related to the AbrahamLincoln.  The same holds true for anyfamous person.  If there is a legend inyour family suggesting that you are related to Jesse James, don't use his descendantlineages in an attempt to establish connections to your family tree.  You may be setting yourself up for disappointmentand frustration. You MAY be related to acelebrity or even to royalty, but the only way you will ever find out with acertainty is by employing a methodical approach beginning with yourself and workingbackward in time, one generation after another, documenting every source as yougo.

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Written by


October 12, 2012
Wesley is the founder of hello@traceyourpast.com.

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