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.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com