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5 mistakes to avoid when researching your family history

Family History
3 December 2014

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.

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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.

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