Posted by Ancestry Team on October 5, 2014 in Research, United Kingdom, Website

We all make mistakes! The key to success in family history research, as in life, is to learn from them. In an effort to guide you through your genealogical journey, we have created this list containing the top five mistakes to avoid when researching your family tree.

1. Assuming a family name is only spelled one way

Family names can be spelled in a variety of ways. Just because your family name has been spelled in a particular way for as long as you can remember doesn’t mean it always has. Our ancestors, and indeed those people who entered information on our ancestor’s behalf, were not infallible. Mistakes in the recording of your family name may have created the family name you know today. Callaghan could be Callan, Dillane could be Dillon, Smith could be Smyth etc. Search for phonetic variations of your surname and use an asterisk to return more results. For example, searching (John*) will return results for John, Johnson etc.

2. Assuming you are related to a famous person

We all want to find a famous person in our family tree. Many of us will have royal connections, rock stars or heroes from history in our tree, but many of us will not. Never accept a family story or hearsay as proof of a connection. The temptation can be to start with the famous person and then try to find a connection to your family. You should always start with yourself and work back. If there is a famous connection it will appear if you have diligently researched back through the generations of your tree.

3. Researching the wrong family

I know what you’re thinking. How could you possibly research the wrong family? You know who you’re looking for – right? Researching the wrong family can easily happen if you jump to conclusions early in your research. Just because the James Smith you have found seems to fit the bill does not necessarily mean that he is your James Smith. Always wait until the sources prove a connection before moving on. This helps to avoid accidentally researching the wrong family.

4. Skipping a generation

Our ancestors had little regard for the toil they were creating for the family history researchers of the future when they named their children. Many of us have family trees containing more than one Michael, John or Mary! With names running through generations like this it is important to write down and match up your dates and locations for each person with the same name. This will help avoid inadvertently skipping a generation.

5. Not documenting your sources

Keep calm and cite your sources! Always document where you have found your information. Your research is your legacy to future generations who research your family tree. One simple mistake or un-sourced addition to your tree could cause others to make assumptions and in turn make mistakes in their own research.

Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!



  1. I know someone who has all my family info and he is wrong. I have politely tried to tell him but he is still listing the info. Don’t know what to do about this. He says an gt uncle of mine was killed in the war at Ypres. I have assured him I know this is not so as my mother met him and that was after the war. So yes it happens and this must have taken him an age and he’s heading in the wrong direction.

  2. Florence

    this is very good to have and keep, my hubby always would tell me don’t bark up the wrong tree ha ha

  3. Totally agree with your comments Lesley I have had people claim my grandmother as their ancestor living in america when the woman never left Ireland. with the result of having to block them .

  4. Annette Thompson

    Very good recommendations. I have found someone else who has listed my grandad as being killed in the First World War. If that had been the case, I would not be here. It was actually my grandad’s uncle, his name sake who had perished

  5. Patricia Scaife

    I agree with all those points. I have fallen into some traps but always backed up with evidence before I continued. I have found ancestry trees that are wrong but the owners are usually grateful when it is pointed out

  6. Kenneth

    Many people rely on BMD references which are index only and should never be used, they could be almost anyone! Always check for correct name, most likely location, period in time, family occupation etc. before adding. Always be aware of bad transcriptions and spelling. It took an age to find my Gt. grandfather beause of an error in transcription and mistakes for everyone else in the family on the 1891 census.

  7. Cheryl greaversrnola

    i want to know about family greaver because I never been meet family greaver all my life

  8. sammi

    Kenneth, please tell me what BMD is? I won’t know to double check those references if I don’t know what they are!

  9. Elizabeth Farley

    Sammi. I think Kenneth may be referring to the website FreeBMD (Births, Marriages & Deaths). I’ve always found it a useful reference site and most of my findings on there I have managed to back up with other records and evidence. If you are researching a common name there is nothing on the site to say it is definitely the person you are researching only name, date and Town/City of registration, so it helps to have other info.

  10. Tracey Reed

    It’s not just BMD indexes, it is any index. They are simply a lead to a better source which then can give you info to confirm who they are. I know people who have put up incorrect trees based on a baptism from a parish record index. When you go to the actual item on film there is more info that confirms the parents names, abode & occupation. I think confirmation not assumption is the main rule to go by .

  11. Carmel kohlmann

    Hello sir, I’m hearing impaired my true name Leigh now land …… I want know my true family tree please plus I need my true father I not know his true name and I know my true mother name is Roslyn Elizabeth now land … Please help me I want my true father thanks cheerios Carmel

  12. Janice Simson

    I agree with Tracey Reed, confirmation is the key, if I can’t confirm something with other records I put a question mark before the name or dates. If you go by the transcription alone you are asking for trouble, you should always look at the record that the transcription is of and read all the details, after all a man who for many census records is a Farmer does not suddenly become a Lawyer even if he was born about the same time in the same place and his wife has the same name, we must use common sense when researching our family history and CONFIRM our findings.

  13. annette

    I agree it is easy to follow the wrong information I thought I had found my great granddad only to find in the 1911 census all my info was wrong but found him in the end

  14. Jane

    Useful advise – I do use the BMD information on my tree and make notes of the volume and page numbers so i can order the documents when i have the cash for them. My motto is always double check and triple check anything and everything !

  15. Maria

    I had such a problem one of my family has already done her family tree but I noticed some of my relatives were wrong. On rechecking I was correct as she had gone off at a tangent slightly so now I’m researching each branch of my tree very carefully.
    I too have many James Smiths in the family and too many Williams all without second names all very confusing!
    I’ve only been doing research for 2 weeks but getting there slowly.

  16. Carol Thomas

    It is so easy to latch onto the wrong family, it happened to me when I first started my research. I was looking for my grand mother and on a birth certificate it said that her father was a farmer with his first name of John. Then I found her death certificate which stated that she was the daughter of Griffith Rees, luckily my mother gave my older brother our great grand fathers name, as his middle names. So now I always check and cross check all my findings and get certificates when funds allow.

  17. Colin Allen

    There is a facility on Ancestry to search other people’s trees when searching for information. I have now turned this feature off, as it is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that they are correct. I found that in the majority of cases the information had no evidence to back it up, and was incorrect. Never make assumptions unless you document clearly that this is the case, otherwise you will forget in a few months’ time and go off at a tangent.

  18. Janice

    I am having an awful time with cousins born the same year with wives if the same name and who foolishly (in my opinion) named their children the same names!

  19. Susan

    I assumed that I was NOT related to the famous Beechers even though a grandmother said we were. However, in carefully working backward and forward, it was true (although very distantly).

  20. Daniel

    Don’t always assume the info on these official records are correct. Census info is gathered by a human that gathers that info from those in that family, but sometimes that info can be incorrect. Sometimes that family may not be there to give correct info, so the census taker may ask their neighbors. You have to blur some of the details until you have more than just one official document. Many people could not read or write, so how could they know what was written was correct? I say, find as many docs as possible, keep an open mind, and then look for more.

  21. Susan

    even if you have traced the weong tree, that research is never wasted… Save it as a gedcom file, then upload the gedcom as a separate tree on your site… That way, anyone researching that family may be led to your research, which may help them enormously

  22. Sally

    Very good advice, Brian, which I too, must adhere to. I have found that other people have many mistakes in their trees which I know personally, are wrong. Hence, I have decided not to make my tree public until I have made sure I am also 100% correct, (if this is possible!!). Thank you.

  23. Sharon

    Do not copy a public member tree without checking out the sources. You may not agree with their assumptions –

    Learn when a county was formed and what the area was called before. You do not want to say someone was born in 1808 in Cobb Co., GA when the county was not formed until 1832.

    Ancestry provides data that MAY be your ancestor. You have to be selective as to which ones are really yours. If your ancestor lived and died in PA, one piece of information with the same name in Oregon may not be yours.

  24. Charlene

    Years ago when I first started doing genealogy I posted the limited and undocumented information that I had to the Arnold List website. Two men on the same list were very rude when pointing out that the my info was wrong because certain counties had not become counties yet. They told me, in a very rude manner, how irresponsible I was for posting the information, I stopped researching that name for years. My advice is to be kind to anyone who has posted information because you don’t want to discourage them from digging deeper.

  25. Cindy

    Be careful when ‘following’ others. I spent a lot of time tracking my GGGrandfather only to eventually realize he was only 4 years older than my GGrandfather…oops! On the fun side, my dad said that I was named after someone in his family, but since his dad died when my dad was only 6 years old, he couldn’t remember who it was. Also, his dad had relocated to another state and the family connection was lost. Ta da…I found her…my GGrandmother. Mystery solved.

  26. Arlin

    I had a run-in with my Mom’s cousin, the family historian, who had a lengthy family history worked out and had documented everything in the process. I was duplicating the process, gathering copies of the supporting documents as I went, when I noticed that my great-grandfather’s census data didn’t match. His wife and first child’s name matched, but the birth dates were all wrong. Further research showed that there was a second family with the same names living within 10 miles of my true great I grandfather, in an area with a very low population. She had assumed since there were so few people that this must be her grandfather, but all her research before this time was on someone else’s family. She had spent decades and lots of money traveling and researching them. Funny thing is, we grew up living next door to another family by the same name, and we already knew by word of mouth that we weren’t related.

  27. Nancy

    I am trying to trace my family back to England, but Lee is such a common name and lots of lists don’t use the middle initial. I have only the approximate year. Suggestions?

  28. Michelle

    Hi Nancy

    Without knowing the country you are in, nor the time frame of the migration to it, I suggest a few things, Find all the info you can about the family and their side branches in the country they moved from the UK to, so you can help narrow down info when you see UK info. You might be surprised at finding a tidbit pointing to the names of the parents, or the town they grew up in or the school, which will help when trying to work out if that UK census family is your census family. I also suggest you join the Ancestry surname board for Lee. Others might have eliminated various family groups which will help you narrow down your search. If you happen to be in Aust or NZ there is a Down Under Checklist you might find useful to make sure you have gathered all the info possible for any one individual. Good luck.

  29. Jenny

    first thing I ask people when sharing my information with them is could they please let me know if they find any errors in what I have, think this is more important than if they can add anything new to it. Always listen to any comments on your research, don’t assume you know it all. Seen one of my branches on ancestry where they had a mother who was born 4 years AFTER her son!?!

  30. Heather

    I had difficulty with my grandmother had date of birth but it was her first name found 5 names she was under and last name as in spelling infact is the same as Brian Gallagher maybe a relative

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