I work with people with different degrees of genealogy research experience. They seem to think I have some special talent for genealogy. I’m going to let you in on something. I sucked at genealogy the first couple of years I was researching. I made a ton of mistakes that made my new hobby very frustrating. Almost everyone has difficulties when they start out. Everyone makes mistakes.
It was frustrating when I couldn’t find records or the data I found didn’t seem to fit. I learned from my errors and became a better genealogist because of it.
These are some of the genealogy traps I fell into. Recognizing them can help you move past your own.
Do You Recognize Any of These Genealogy Traps?
- I believed everything my grandmother told me. Why would she lie to me?
- I believed everyone with the same surname from the same locality must be related in some way. Pacheco from Oakland? My grandfather was a Pacheco from Oakland! We must be related!
- I didn’t take time to understand the geography. Hawaii may be a small state. But there is a big difference in being born in Honolulu and born in Kilauea.
- I didn’t realize that there were no Mary and Joe’s in Portugal and France. No matter how adamant someone is that their ancestor was Mary, John, or Frank, if they were born in a foreign country, they will have a foreign given name.
- I didn’t realize that surnames have no permanency. You might take your surname very seriously and see it as a solid, unchangeable part of your identity. I know I do. My Azorean ancestors seemed to change surnames with the weather. Finding varying surnames between children and parents is the norm.
- I didn’t know that most pre-1900 American records would be useless to me. I have what I call new immigrants who arrived after 1845. The last coming to America in 1907. No pilgrims, no Revolutionary War soldiers, no siblings fighting each other in the Civil War.
- I didn’t realize that Hawaii passed through many forms of government and that records available to the rest of Americans were not available to me. Those available records may be kept in different places, too.
- I didn’t realize that how many people came here illegally. Boy, was I surprised to find three illegal immigrants among my great grandparents!
- I didn’t realize that pre-1930 record keeping was spotty at best. Depending on the locality, it can be impossible to find a birth, death, or marriage record before the 1930s.
- I didn’t write down my sources. In the beginning, you think you will remember where you got information because you have so little of it. It’s easy to keep it all straight, right? A couple of months of research and 50 pages of notes, you have no idea where you found a birth date.
How Do You Learn From Your Genealogy Mistakes?
I made most of those mistakes in the beginning. Heck, I still make mistakes. Once I realize what I’ve done wrong, I try to a different approach to my problem. I am really sorry for the cousin I sent to talk to the Mayor of Kauai only for him to realize it was the wrong family. We all make mistakes. If we learn from them, we become better genealogists and we get more from our research.
I spun my wheels for two years because I believed my grandma knew what she was talking about. After interviewing a cousin’s wife, I realized I would never find my people because I was 20 years off on the immigration and had them born in the wrong country.
I didn’t spend enough time learning. This last one is important. Genealogy is an acquired skill. Not only must you write down what people tell you and record what you see in documents, you must know how to analyze records, how to make sense of your findings, and figure out where to find resources that will answer your questions. I just jumped right in which lead to frustration.
Once I erased my charts and started over, I was able to start real research. But, I wasn’t all that clear how to go about it. So, I went to the local public library and I read genealogy books (there was no internet in 1991). Then, I took an independent study course in beginning genealogy. Doing the assignments helped me develop my skills.
Genealogy is like any other hobby. You have to learn how to do it.
What would you add to my list of mistakes? Any tips you’d offer beginners? Tell us in the comments.
3 thoughts on “Ten Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid When Working on Your Family Tree”
11. Resolve all conflicts before moving back to the previous generation. For my 2nd great grandfather b1832, there were several conflicts in the information about the Shropshire, England family where I initially placed him. Rather than resolve them, I spent untold hours pressing the research back to the late 1600’s on that line. Later, found the long missing 1861 census that placed his birth in Staffordshire, England. Oops! Different place, different parents, time wasted…
Bill, That’s an important one! We can end up following the wrong trail especially if names are common.
I remember working on my great grandmother’s maternal line in the Azores and realizing there were two Mello families but they originated in different villages. I had to go back over my notes and verify every descendant to separate the two families. Thankfully, her grandfather’s name was Felicianno and there was only one Felicianno.
Dear Melody, I love your site! it’s crystal clear that it is a labor of pure love. I have been trying to create a family tree that’s accurate but I have no one left whom I can ask all those important questions. I am the youngest grandchild on both maternal and paternal sides of my family. I was a huge “surprise” I was born when my mom was 45 and my daddy was 48 !! Then to make matters worse both my mom and dad were the youngest child in their families. All four of my grandparents passed away by the time I was 11 years old. (they all lived a long and healthy lives passing away in their late 80s too late 90s I’m lucky where that’s concerned because if they didn’t have longevity I would have never known them) my mom and dad have passed my dad just passed away last year at the age of 95. Unfortunately my mother had three siblings and my father had seven siblings yet they were constantly arguing with their siblings and so I never had the opportunity to get to know my cousins and my parents were only close with one sibling each and they didn’t have kids. The point is my cousins are all over the United States I have no idea where they are and it’s very lonely I feel like I’m this one strange person in my family born 40 years after everybody else. My cousins the ones who might still be alive or anywhere from 45 to 35 years older than me. not sure how to get in touch with them but I wanted to ask your advice I know exactly where my mom‘s family comes from right down to the tiny villages in Italy that her father and her mother were from. As for my father’s side, I know my grandfather was born on Madeira he left at 15 to find work on a whaling boat. my daddy’s mother is also of Portuguese, I think her people come from Madera but I’m not sure I do know she was born in Honolulu in 1887. but I can’t find her and her family in the Hawaiian census records, I also can’t find my grandmother and grandfather‘s marriage certificate I always assume they were born they were married in Hawaii. The only concrete evidence taking fine comes from the 1910 census it shows my grandmother and grandfather living in San Francisco and my three oldest uncles Were already born and they were 3 ,5 and 7 years old. I can’t find my grandmother’s birth certificate I know she was born in April 1887 but I can find no evidence on that 1910 census my great grandmother is listed as a widow end it also states that she had six children five of whom were still living I had no idea about that until I saw that! her name is listed as Mary Maderao and her approximate year of birth is 1850 this is all from that 1910 census. she reported to the census taker that she arrived in Hawaii in 1882 and for my grand father her son in law it states that he arrived in the United States in 1900 anyway I’ve even paid for ancestry‘s international monthly membership fee and I can’t find anything I’m so frustrated. Then to make matters even worse I took a DNA test and found out that I am 85% Italian no Iberian Peninsula background ( the other 15% comes from various little spots all around Europe) sorry this is so long and rambling I was hoping you might have some advice I’ve been at this for more than three years and I feel like I’m surrounded by brick walls.
Thank you sincerely, Madeline