A Dozen Common Mistakes Made by Beginning Genealogists

1. Failing to look at name variations.

Literacy is a relatively modern phenomenon. Census takers, county clerks, military recruiters, etc., did their best at spelling names, but sometimes their best was not very good. Be alert to variations in spellings when researching. Johnson can be Jonson, Johnsen, Jonsen, and so on. As an exercise, try and develop 10 alternative spellings for any name you are researching.

2. Believing that if it’s on the Internet it must be true.

The Internet is full of bad family research. If you find a possible connection, use it as a hint, not as fact. Verify everything with reliable sources, such as censuses, land deeds, marriage licenses, and military records.

3. Jumping to conclusions.

Family history research is a slow process, and new researchers might be tempted to rush to a judgment. If you find the name you have been looking for, it is tempting to conclude it’s your guy, and you are done! Instead, keep it as a theory; then work to prove or disprove it.

4. Becoming impatient, frustrated, or confused.

It happens to us all, but don’t let it stop you. Step back, take a deep breath, and move on. Make a list of “next step” possibilities, such as: asking an “old timer” for help; reviewing your research to see if you have missed something; constructing a timeline of the person’s life for clues.

5. Believing you can get back to the year 1 AD.

Be real and know your history. There were very few records before the Renaissance. Unless you link up to some royalty, the earliest a family can be traced is probably the 16th century.

6. Falling for scams.

Unfortunately, there are a bunch of scams out there. Some of the most common: coat of arms plaques (arms belong to an individual, not a family); family books (often merely lists of a surname from phone books); and “trace your family to Noah” or “find your family in 10 minutes” websites. Be smart before you purchase.

7. Publishing information about living people online.

Besides promoting identity theft, it can be considered a violation of privacy. Please be considerate.

8. Believing everything is on the Internet.

The Internet is great, but it is only one tool. Not everything is on the Internet; in fact only a small fraction of possible research information is on the web. On the other hand, a wealth of information is available at local libraries, county clerk’s offices, state archives, genealogical libraries, and the Family History Centers.

9. Forgetting to proof or review your research for errors.

Typographical errors are common, and mistakes happen. Make sure your research is as free of errors as possible. If your research shows a woman giving birth at four years old or 80 years old, there’s a problem with the research.

10. Avoiding other possibilities.

It’s important to remember that ancestors were people too. While family legends are often based in truth, they may exaggerate. The noble ancestor who fought in the American Revolution may have fought on the British side; great-grandmother may have been Native American, but there’s no such thing as an “Indian princess.” Do not close your mind to facts that are not in line with your vision of your family. You may end up with much more interesting facts.

11. Ignoring history.

It is hard to research your family history without knowing the history of the times. The Spanish Influenza Epidemic, the Civil War, the California Gold Rush, the Oklahoma Land Rush(es), the Trail of Tears were just some of the many events which had huge impact on Americans of that time. On a smaller scale, the history of the area your ancestor was living in may offer clues to help you with your research.

12. Believing that public records are free of errors.

This particularly applies to the censuses. There are many, many errors in the censuses, such as indexing errors, enumerator errors, and sometimes just bad information. To be certain, try to verify each important fact with two pieces of documentation.