Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid

Grandmother shares a photo album with her granddaughter

ArtMarie / Getty Images

Genealogy can be a very fascinating and addictive hobby. Each step that you take in researching your family's history can lead you to new ancestors, delightful stories and a real sense of your place in history. If you are new to genealogy research, however, there are ten key mistakes that you will want to avoid in order to make your search a successful and pleasant experience.

of 10

Don't Forget Your Living Relatives

Visit your living relatives and conduct a family history interview, or get a relative or friend who lives nearby to visit with them and ask them questions. You will find that most relatives are eager to have their memories recorded for posterity if given the proper encouragement. Please don't end up as one of the 'if onlys'...

of 10

Don't Trust Everything You See in Print

Even entries of birth, death or marriage in a Bible or register may have mistakes or even intentional falsehoods.
Getty / Linda Steward

Just because a family genealogy or a record transcription has been written down or published does not necessarily mean that it is correct. It is important as a family historian not to make assumptions about the quality of the research done by others. Everyone from professional genealogists to your own family members can make mistakes! Most printed family histories are likely to have at least a minor error or two, if not more. Books which contain transcriptions (cemetery, census, will, courthouse, etc.) may be missing vital information, may have transcription errors, or may even make invalid assumptions (e.g. stating that John is the son of William because he is the beneficiary of his will, when this relationship was not explicitly stated).

If It's On The Internet, It Must Be True!
The Internet is a valuable genealogy research tool, but Internet data, like other published sources, should be approached with skepticism. Even if the information you find seems the perfect match to your own family tree, don't take anything for granted. Even digitized records, which are generally fairly accurate, are at least one generation removed from the original. Don't get me wrong - there's plenty of great data online. The trick is to learn how to separate the good online data from the bad, by verifying and corroborating every detail for yourself. Contact the researcher, if possible, and retrace their research steps. Visit the cemetery or courthouse and see for yourself.

of 10

We're Related To... Someone Famous

Are you related to President George Washington or some other famous individual?
Getty / David Kozlowski

It must be human nature to want to claim descent from a famous ancestor. Many people become involved in genealogy research in the first place because they share a surname with someone famous and assume that it means they are somehow related to that renowned individual. While this may indeed be true, it is very important not to jump to any conclusions and begin your research at the wrong end of your family tree! Just as you would research any other surname, you need to start with yourself and work your way back to the "famous" ancestor. You will have an advantage in that many published works may already exist for the famous individual you think you are related to, but keep in mind that any such research should be considered a secondary source. You will still need to look at primary documents for yourself to verify the accuracy of the author's research and conclusions. Just remember that the search to prove your descent from someone famous can be more fun than actually proving the connection!

of 10

Genealogy is More Than Just Names & Dates

Stefan Berg / Folio Images / Getty Images

Genealogy is about much more than how many names you can enter or import into your database. Rather than be concerned about how far back you've traced your family or how many names you have in your tree, you should get to know your ancestors. What did they look like? Where did they live? What events in history helped to shape their lives? Your ancestors had hopes and dreams just as you have, and while they might not have found their lives interesting, I just bet you will.

One of the best ways to start learning more about your family's special place in history is to interview your living relatives - discussed in Mistake #1. You may be surprised at the fascinating stories they have to tell when given the right opportunity and an interested pair of ears.

of 10

Beware Generic Family Histories

They are in magazines, in your mailbox and on the Internet - advertisements which promise "a family history of *your surname* in America." Unfortunately, many people have been tempted into purchasing these mass-produced coats of arms and surname books, consisting mainly of lists of surnames, but masquerading as family histories. Don't let yourself be mislead into believing that this could be your family history. These types of generic family histories usually contain

  • a few paragraphs of general information on the origin of the surname (usually one of several possible origins and likely having nothing to do with your family)
  • a coats of arms (which were granted to a specific individual, not a specific surname, and therefore, in all likelihood, do not belong to your specific surname or family)
  • a list of people with your surname (usually taken from phone books which are widely available on the Internet)

While we're on the topic, those Family Crests and Coats of Arms you see at the mall are also a bit of a scam. There generally is no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname - despite the claims and implications of some companies to the contrary. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families or surnames. It's OK to purchase such a Coats of Arms for fun or display, just as long as you understand what you're getting for your money.

of 10

Don't Accept Family Legends As Fact

Most families have stories and traditions which are handed down from generation to generation. These family legends can provide many clues to further your genealogy research, but you need to approach them with an open mind. Just because your Great-Grandma Mildred says that it happened that way, don't make it so! Stories about famous ancestors, war heroes, surname changes, and the family's nationality all probably have their roots in fact. Your job is to sort out these facts from the fiction which has likely grown as embellishments were added to stories over time. Approach family legends and traditions with an open mind, but be sure to carefully investigate the facts for yourself. If you are unable to prove or disprove a family legend you can still include it in a family history. Just be sure to explain whats true and whats false, and whats proven and what's unproven - and write down how you arrived at your conclusions.

of 10

Don't Limit Yourself to Just One Spelling

If you stick with a single name or spelling when searching for an ancestor, you're probably missing out on a lot of good stuff. Your ancestor may have gone by several different names during his lifetime, and it's also likely you'll find him listed under different spellings as well. Always search for variations of your ancestor's name - the more that you can think of, the better. You will find that both first names and surnames are commonly misspelled in official records. People were not as well-educated in the past as they are today, and sometimes a name on a document was written as it sounded (phonetically), or perhaps was simply misspelled by accident. In other cases, an individual may have changed the spelling of his/her surname more formally to adapt to a new culture, to sound more elegant, or to be easier to remember. Researching the origins of your surname may clue you into common spellings. Surname distribution studies can also be helpful in narrowing down the most frequently used version of your surname. Searchable computerized genealogy databases are another good avenue for research as they often offer a "search for variations" or soundex search option. Be sure to try all alternate name variations as well - including middle names, nicknames, married names and maiden names.

of 10

Don't Neglect to Document Your Sources

Unless you really like having to do your research more than once, it is important to keep track of where you find all of your information. Document and cite those genealogy sources, including the name of the source, its location and the date. It's also helpful to make a copy of the original document or record or, alternatively, an abstract or transcription. Right now you may think you have no need to ever go back to that source, but that probably isn't true. So often, genealogists find that they overlooked something important the first time they looked at a document and need to go back to it. Write down the source for every bit of information you collect, whether it be a family member, Web site, book, photograph or tombstone. Be sure to include the location for the source so that you or other family historians can reference it again if need be. Documenting your research is sort of like leaving a breadcrumb trail for others to follow - allowing them to judge your family tree connections and conclusions for themselves. It also makes it easier for you to remember what you've already done, or go back to a source when you find new evidence which appears to conflict with your conclusions.

of 10

Don't Jump Straight to the Country of Origin

Many people, especially Americans, are anxious to establish cultural identity - tracing their family tree back to the country of origin. In general, however, it's generally impossible to jump right into genealogy research in a foreign country without a strong base of preliminary research. You'll need to know who your immigrant ancestor is, when he decided to pick up and move, and the place where he originally came from. Knowing the country isn't enough - you'll usually have to identify the town or village or origin in the Old Country to successfully locate your ancestor's records.

of 10

Don't Misspell the Word Genealogy

This is fairly basic, but many people new to genealogy research have trouble spelling the word genealogy. There are several ways that people spell the word, the most common being "geneology" with geneaology coming in a close second. A more exhaustive list will include almost every variation: geneology, geneaology, genlogy, geniology, etc. This may not seem as if it is a big deal, but if you wish to appear professional when you are posting queries or want people to take your family history research seriously, you will need to learn how to spell the word genealogy correctly.

Here is a silly memory tool that I came up with to help you remember the correct order for the vowels in the word genealogy:

Genealogists Evidently Needing Endless Ancestors Look Obsessively in Grave Yards


Too silly for you? Mark Howells has an excellent mnemonic for the word on his Web site.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2021, Powell, Kimberly. (2021, August 23). Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Top 10 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).