8 Ways to Avoid Barking Up the Wrong Family Tree

Getty / Cameron Davidson

There is nothing more frustrating than finding out the ancestors you've been so diligently researching, and have even come to love, aren't really yours. Yet, it happens to most of us who research our family trees at some point. A lack of records, incorrect data, and embellished family stories can easily send us off in the wrong direction.

How can we avoid this heartbreaking result in our own family research? It isn't always possible to avoid wrong turns, but these steps may help keep you from barking up the wrong family tree.

1. Don't Skip Generations

Skipping generations in your research is the most common mistake made by beginners. Even if you think you know everything about yourself and your parents, you shouldn't skip directly to your grandparents. Or your immigrant ancestor. Or the famous person that you've been told you're descended from. Working your way back one generation at a time greatly lessens your chances at attaching the wrong ancestor to your family tree, because you'll have the supporting documents—birth records, marriage certificates, census records, etc.—to support the link between each generation.

2. Don't Make Assumptions About Family Relationships

Family terms such as "Junior" and "Senior" as well as "aunt" and "cousin" were often used very loosely in earlier times - and still are, even today. A designation of Jr., for example, may have been used in official records to identify between two men of the same name, even if they were unrelated (the younger of the two being called "Jr."). You also shouldn't assume relationships between people living in a household unless it is specifically stated. The sole adult-aged female listed in your great-great grandfather's household, may indeed be his wife—or it could be a sister-in-law or family friend.

3. Document, Document, Document

The most important habit to pick up when starting genealogical research is to diligently write down how and where you find your information. If it was found on a website, for example, write down the title of the site, the URL and the date. If the data came from a book or microfilm, write down the title, author, publisher, publication date and the repository. If your family information came from a relative, document who the information came from and when the interview took place. There will be many times when you'll run across conflicting data, and you'll need to know where your information came from.

Often, it's convenient to use a spreadsheet for this purpose, but it can also be helpful to keep physical records. Printing out hard copies for reference is a great way to back up information in case the data is taken offline or changes.

4. Does it Make Sense?

Constantly review all new information that you add to your family tree to make sure that it is at least plausible. If the date of your ancestor's marriage is only seven years after they were born, for example, you have a problem. The same goes for two children born less than nine months apart, or children born before their parents. Does the birthplace listed in the census correlate with what you've learned about your ancestor? Have you possibly skipped a generation? Look at the information you've gathered and ask yourself, "Does this make sense?"

5. Get Organized

The more organized your genealogy research, the less likely that you'll mix up information or make other simple, but costly, mistakes. Choose a filing system that works with the way you do research, making sure that it includes a way to organize both your papers and certificates ​and your digital documents and other computer files.

6. Verify Research Done By Others

It's hard enough avoiding your own mistakes, without having to worry about the mistakes of others as well. Publication—whether in print or online—doesn't make anything fact, so you should always take steps to verify previous research using primary sources and other tools before incorporating it into your own.

7. Rule Out the Other Possibilities

You know that your great-great-grandfather lived in Virginia around the turn-of-the-century, so you look him up in the 1900 U.S. census and there he is! In truth, however, this isn't him; it's someone else with the same name living in the same area during the same time period. It is a scenario that actually isn't all that uncommon, even with names you might think are unique. When researching your family, it is always a good idea to check the surrounding area to see if there is someone else who could fit the bill.

8. Turn to DNA

Blood doesn't lie, so if you really want to be sure a DNA test may be the way to go. DNA tests can't currently tell you who your specific ancestors are, but they can help narrow things down quite a bit.