November 17th, 2011

5 Mistakes Not to Make When Tracing Your Ancestors

Though the following may seem to be obvious, they are mistakes that are commonly and constantly made by researchers, especially beginners. All genealogists make mistakes, and will continue to do so, but there is a difference between honest blunders and serious, avoidable errors. As I pen this blog, I can’t help but laugh, as it is mostly from personal experience that I write. At first I was especially excited to find out if I was related to some famous person, and so I looked for as many famous people of my surname as I could. Sound familiar? Never mind, human beings do humorous things, and in the initial excitement of the desire to find out about our past, we are especially (at least I was) prone to such.

Of course there is nothing wrong with making mistakes, we all do, but by sharing some of the ones I made in the beginning, perhaps you can avoid committing the same ones. Don’t worry, if you’re related to someone famous you’ll find out soon enough, but believe me, some of me less prominent ancestors are actually the most colourful, and I’m sure you’ll find yours are too. Following are five mistakes I and many other beginning genealogists have made, and unfortunately continue to make in the initial stages of their research.

Don’t Depend on Only One or Two Good Sources

The most popularly recommended source for beginning genealogists to use is the Census, and I strongly agree, it is a good starting point for beginning researchers. Census reports are easy to understand, contain good information about our ancestors, and they are very easy to find both online and off. Keep in mind that problems may arise if you rely on them completely to as a source for establishing family connections. However, they are simply a springboard for our research, propelling us onward to further record searches. Keep in mind that census reports often contain errors such as misspellings or incorrect totals, and often people of the same name appear and disappear between reports only to surface again. Always consult as many documents as you can; tax records, probates, deeds or newspapers – search for everything you can to confirm your data. Another often relied upon are BDM Certificates and Indexes, better known as birth, death and marriage records.

If you are fortunate enough to have discovered a death certificate, you have unearthed a genealogical jewel. Death certificates sometimes list the birth date of the person, as well as the location and cause of death, parents names, mother’s maiden name, and sometimes even the person’s occupation. Other than the date and place of death however, all information found on death certificates should be considered as hearsay. Often those who completed the forms were under immense emotional strain, and stress tends to distort the accuracy of information entered. To someone who has lost a loved one for example, it may not seem important to remember the maiden name of the deceased’s mother. Some death certificates were completed sometime after the death date, and consequently information may be vague and sometimes completely wrong.

Birth certificates can be as equally rewarding, but again, don’t rely completely on these vital records. Civil registration only began around the mid nineteenth century in most countries, so before say 1860, birth certificates won’t exist. It is good practice however to search one source at a time, and when you have absorbed the information on that one, let it lead you to the next and so on. And don’t forget – always verify your data with primary sources.

Don’t Immediately Discard Inconsistencies as Errors

I have a dear friend who is a research librarian, and she once told me that the most alarming trend she has noticed with genealogists is the discarding of new information that they might come across because it conflicts with data they already have, especially in census reports. Yes, there are sometimes mistakes in these documents, but don’t immediately discard missing entries as an enumerator’s mistake. A huge mistake is to consult only the census indexes – you must examine the actual report in order to confirm or disregard any conflicting data. If you don’t locate you ancestor, check first to see if neighbouring families are also missing. Find out if there were boundary changes between census reports, or investigate whether your ancestors might have immigrated. These are other factors that could explain omissions, and as a good researcher you must take the steps necessary to tie up all those loose ends.

Don’t Work From the Past to the Present

The first thing many beginning genealogists do is look immediately into the past to see if there is a famous person of their surname whom they might be related to, and then try to link themselves with that person. This is a common and understandable error –I made the same mistake myself – but all it accomplished was to waste my time and distract me from finding my real family. Never forget the most important rule in genealogy – move from the known to the unknown. Begin with your immediate family and progress backwards through time, linking one generation with the previous one. You will have more success this way, and consequently more fun!

Don’t Research Only Your Surname

Unless you are conducting a one-name study, it is important that you also research people who were associated with your ancient ancestors. The records of neighbours and business associates can sometimes reveal information about our relatives we wouldn’t otherwise find. Broaden your horizons as much as possible, and don’t shy away from other researchers who may be studying a name of interest to you – even if it isn’t your surname, but one associated with your family. Find out exactly what they are researching – what time period, or geographic location, to see if their research may be connected with yours.

Don’t Put Off Organizing and Publishing Your Work

Today there are so many people pursuing their family history that there is the potential for linking more families than ever before. Unfortunately, not as many are sharing their research; largely because it is not organized. A good question to ask ourselves is “If for some reason I couldn’t continue my work, what would happen to it, would someone else be able to understand it?” It would be a shame to see years of meticulous research go unrecognized or unappreciated because of some calamity or disaster, or it appears to be a pile of waste paper with notes scribbled here and there. Take the time to carefully arrange all of your documentation and photos or keep a journal of what you have done and what you are working on. Analyzing and arranging your material is as big a part of genealogical research as the search itself, and your work is not complete until it is adequately organized.