Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Australia, Tips and Hints

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Everyone makes mistakes! And a mistake while you’re researching your family just helps you move up that genealogy learning curve. Here are ten of the most common mistakes we all make in our journey of discovery and how to avoid them.

1. Forgetting to record information on family history forms

Organisation is key when researching your family. Either get hold of standard forms, or chart your findings using appropriate software and keep it in one place. Not only will this help you, but it will help future generations carry on your work. You can download a range of forms for free right here.

2. Ignoring your ancestors’ siblings

Don’t narrow your search too much. Siblings can be incredibly valuable in unlocking important family clues. When looking at a census, for example, you might find the parents of an ancestor living with one of their other children. Which means you get the names of the parents, and potentially a new location. Researching siblings could lead to a previously unknown relative who is also doing research on the family. Paying attention to the names of all the siblings in a household will also help confirm that you have the right family, especially if one of the members has an unusual first name. If you can see all the names you expect to see in a household as you go back through the census years, it’s likely you are following up the right family. 

3. Overlooking the maiden names of female ancestors

It’s easy to think of our female ancestors by their married names, enter the information, and then ignore their birth names. Birth names can provide a valuable clue for future research since some families use the mother’s maiden name as a middle name for the oldest male child, for instance. This information could help identify the correct male ancestor when there are two or more candidates in the same place and time.
4. Assuming you are related to a famous person

It is tempting for people with a family name such as Jackman to assume they are related to a famous person with the same name. Then, based upon that assumption, they try to work from the famous person to themselves. This is not a good research approach. Always start with yourself and work backwards, proving the connection between each generation. Then, if you prove you’re related to Hugh, you’ll really have something to brag about!

5. Skipping a generation

In lots of families, it’s common to have the same name running through three or more generations of male ancestors. This can easily trip you up if you’re not methodical, leading you to list someone as the father when he is the grandfather. Record as many dates as possible and carefully evaluate things like place names to avoid this happening.

6. Assuming a family name is only spelt one way

Family names can be spelt in a number of different ways as our ancestors (and the people who recorded their events) were very fallible! Smith can be Smyth, Rawlins can be Rawlings and Kitson can be Kidston. Make sure you check all the phonetic variations of your name just in case – although this is time-consuming the results could make it all worthwhile. One thing that could help save time during your searching is using the wildcard search character, an asterisk, in your searching. Enter the surname as ‘Rawlin*’ and you’ll get occurrences of both Rawlins and Rawlings. ‘John*’ will bring back all surnames starting with John, such as Johns, Johnston, Johnstone and Johnathan. Find out more about wildcard searching here.

7. Jumping to conclusions

Genealogy is all about proof. Start your research with yourself and work backwards, one generation at a time. The key to success is to prove conclusively the link between the generations, and you can only reach a conclusion if you have enough evidence. Reaching a conclusion based upon incomplete evidence can throw your whole tree out. If you’re not sure about a connection, make a note of your theory first, and then try to prove that theory – but don’t assume it as fact! Whenever you find a record that possibly matches a person you are looking for, you can put it in your Shoebox. This feature is available to anyone with a monthly or annual membership.

8. Researching the wrong family

This can happen so easily. If you jump to conclusions (mistake number 7) you can easily set off in completely the wrong direction and end up researching many generations of the wrong family. Do not start working on the next generation of research unless you have concrete proof of a link!

9. Relying on data found in an online family tree

While the internet is a fantastic aid to our research, not least on Ancestry.com.au, it is a big tool to navigate and you should be wary of which sites you rely on. Even the smallest piece of incorrect information posted on a forum could impact a huge number of research projects. Always approach an unfamiliar source cautiously: just because you’ve found the information doesn’t make it accurate.

10. Failing to document your sources

The biggest mistake you can ever make is not documenting where you found your information. Remember that your research is only part of a much larger body of information. We owe it to future generations to be accurate so that we don’t set off a chain of events that could mean someone out there is jumping to conclusion (mistake number 7) or researching the wrong family entirely (mistake number 8). See your research as your heritage, and your story!

9 Comments

Jan Barron 

And what about the conflicting information between Ancestry records and LDS records. I looked on LDS and found 4 marriages for a person I was searching. Two were irrelevant, one was correct (this was for the second marriage when groom was a widower)and one differed for his true first marriage. LDS said wife’s name was Ann when it should have said Alice. The three children from the first marriage were baptised with mother stated as Ann according to LDS, but the Baptism records according to Manchester Baptisms gave Alice as the mother, who was dead by the 1841 census. I have taken the Manchester records as correct. Another mistake to beware of.

September 9, 2013 at 9:53 am
Geraldine Tibbits 

I particularly like the wild card option as I have found discrepancies in the spelling of many quite recent ancestors names.

September 9, 2013 at 10:05 am
kanahookarob 

I write all my findings in a big exercise book (up to 4 now)- then I index the notes. From time to time I review all the pages and highlight bits to explore further. Usually I’m further down the track by then and a quick note 50 pages before may provide a link or hint to go back and research. eg a chance citing John marries Wendy Smith turns out to be Fred’s sister and the witnesses at the wedding are siblings.
Sometimes it is useful in not exploring the same thing twice.

September 9, 2013 at 10:26 am
Brian Burgess 

The advice about dates is very valid however the other information that I have found to be of great concern is the inaccurate listing of location details. Town, County and Country names are critical. As an example I have found that others have recorded the same town and county details as being in America; it wasn’t the USA until a later date as well. Wales is not in England etc which can lead to following a family down / up another route.

September 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm
Lagoona 

All very interesting I just wish I had a young brain to take it all in.

September 9, 2013 at 3:58 pm
Woodmistonz 

It always pays to check back to the original document if possible. Sometimes the indexers, especially with the UK census, are unfamiliar with spelling of names of people and places, and they can be totally different from what they should be. Same with dates or ages. Sometimes they interpret a 3 for an 8 and so on. If you check back to the original, at least you can decide for yourself.

September 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm
Belinda 

Be very cautious about copying other people’s trees that don’t supply any source information. It is tempting to use this as a quick way to grow your tree. I have seen, many times, trees using my own ancestors names and dates,connected to wrong partners or parents. My own cousin has listed my grandfather’s name as Andrew when it is actually Albert (on every document and on his gravestone)yet so many people have copied her incorrect information. I always provide documented sources. If they don’t show sources with their info, contact them and ask where they got the information before taking it as gospel.

September 9, 2013 at 8:11 pm
Pam 

Do not rely on some one else’s research even if it has been published. Always go back to the original source and hopefully you won’t have a child’s date of death which is earlier than the birth date or similar.

September 10, 2013 at 11:13 am
Patricia Edmondson 

I spent considerable time researching my family tree ,but when i decided to collate my information I found that I couldn’t print off my sources ie the census info given. My friend had been able to do this when she introduced me to having a go at researching my family tree .Did she use some software? I’m afraid I’m only efficient at computer “stuff” as far as I’m shown !!!! I have the software Family Tree Maker for my mac laptop ,but that didn’t seem to help.I called a halt to my research because of this and also I cannot find info on my grandfather and he was the one I most wanted to trace back . If I can solve the prob with the records I might have another go as I have got an amazing amount of facts .Thanks for keeping in touch

September 10, 2013 at 12:15 pm