Whether you are an amateur or a professional genealogist, you will often come across documents and sources which will prove/disprove that your previous genealogical discoveries did not turn out to be the right ones. That’s fine. It’s fine. We’ve all made them. Making mistakes when tracing your family tree is tremendously common, but fortunately there are some tips (and a few sacrosanct rules) you can and should abide by.
Not asking your relatives about the family
It may sound obvious, but asking the right people the right questions can be crucial (especially when starting a new project). Elements like where our ancestors lived, or where they came from, or whether they were married more than once, or what did they do for a living, may only come after we stumble across our first genealogical crossroads. If you think you’ve made a breakthrough but you’re still not sure whether you’re on the right track, check with those closest to you. Maybe someone has heard of a story that will likely corroborate your findings. So ask the questions and don’t discard the older generations – they are usually a fountain of knowledge!
Quality vs. Quantity
Sometimes we feel the urge to continue digging further and further, and we often lose ourselves in the fringes of time. Take a deep breath and consider analysing what you have found so far. It may be wise to deepen what you have than continue climbing up the family tree century after century. It is likely you will get lost, and highly probable that you’ll literally end up barking up the wrong tree.
Internet and second-hand information
The Internet is an amazing tool, very much essential to any genealogist’s work, but there are thousands if not millions of individuals out there who will happily publish their family tree online without checking whether the information is correct. So, by all means, have a look at those trees, but remember to check the original sources before pinning a new name to the family tree, and remember to note down the source where you found the information so you can always contact the author. Remember that not everything we find online is necessarily true or right, so make use of any information with a pinch of salt.
Because it’s in a book, it’s not necessarily true
Books are in a way the forefathers of the Internet and the most common way of divulging information. That means that anyone who wrote them (or copied them from another source) may well have made a mistake. It only takes one small mistranscription and the same error will be reverberated and repeated throughout subsequent generations. Again, check the sources and note anything that may strike you as odd or mismatching from your other findings.
Sources are limited
Much as we want to dig deeper and deeper, sometimes certain sources we need to consult are simply no longer there. We must accept documents, archives and sources were created for a specific purpose at a given moment. You may be lucky in finding a reliable source that will allow you to go back beyond the 1800’s, the 1700’s or even further. But then again, you may not…
Relations and surname meanings
How many times have we heard someone say that because their surname is King they must be descended from royalty. You will find that blue blood is much rarer than is commonly reported. The same thing happens with surname definitions. Just because a surname has taken a particular form does not necessarily imply a connection with a particular person (with or without the same surname), let alone that everyone with the same surname is necessarily related to each other.
Not everyone is interested in genealogy
Sad but true, genealogy is for most of us a passion, but there are probably many more out there who are just not interested in family roots. Do not pester them, and bear in mind what is fascinating to you may be an embarrassment or a painful memory to somebody else. Whatever you may read out there, do not pick up the phone and start calling possible relatives. They will be shocked at the suddenness of the call and will think you impertinent for asking questions. Drop them a letter, explain who you are, explain how you may be related, and ask if you can give them a call to talk further. A follow up is reasonable; a third attempt may turn you into a stalker.
Not noting down the source
I should have mentioned this before because it’s probably Golden Rule Number One. Write down the source of your findings, whether it’s a particular book or a church record or a website. You won’t remember where you found your information and before you know it you’ll need to go back only to find you can’t actually remember where you go your data.