7 Mistakes that Are Holding Your Genealogy Back

Genealogy is much like a Rubix cube.You search through endless combinations before you hit on the right one that will enable you to complete the puzzle. A mistake in making a move can set you back, causing frustration and lost time while you struggle to get back on the right track. Are you making mistakes that are holding your genealogy back?

Mistake #1-Not Citing Your Sources

There's a reason professional genealogists cite every source of information they use in their research. While it lends authenticity to your work, there's another more important reason to cite. It leaves a trail for you to backtrack through if you hit a wall.

If you've been researching merrily along and suddenly hit a solid brick wall, one of the first steps to try is retracing your steps. This helps you to find details you may have overlooked at first glance. It can also show you where you may have made a mistake.

Mistake #2-Relying Only on Online Sources

It has been said that only a tiny percentage of existing genealogical material is online. If you're relying only on what you can find at your seat behind the keyboard, you may be missing out on valuable clues to your ancestors' lives.

When a brick wall pops up, the answer to solving it may be hiding away in a courthouse basement. Take some time to go back through your research. If the only sources you have are ones available from your computer, it's time to step back from the keyboard and seek out other record sources.

Mistake #3-But Grandma Said...

While it's good to talk to family members for clues on your ancestry, it's important to verify everything you hear through other records. Information can be wrong for a variety of reasons-a fading memory, hiding less savory aspects of family history, wishful thinking or an informant not having the correct information to start with. Even if the informant doesn't intend to give you misleading information, it can and does happen.

This also applies to published genealogies or online family trees. The person researching for the book or tree may have gotten bad information at some point and unknowingly passed it on. If you're taking their word without looking for yourself, you will be passing it on yourself.

Mistake #4-Not Looking at Less Reliable Sources

A core element of the Genealogical Proof Standard is a reasonably exhaustive search. While this is generally assumed to mean reliable sources, to exhaust all possible sources means you need to look at the less reliable ones as well. Just like a broken clock is right twice a day, unsourced trees and books can hold kernels of truth.

When exploring an undocumented tree online, take a minute to send a polite message asking where the tree's creator got their information from. You may be surprised. The creator may have something that you don't such as a family Bible or other record.

Mistake #5-Disorganization

If you find yourself constantly hunting for where you filed a document, whether in paper or digital form, it's holding you back. Wouldn't that time be better spent on actual research?

Take some time to research organization systems and commit to one. There are a variety of systems available, all good in their own way, but the best is the one that works for you. After a few years of trial and error, I've settled on a combination of systems, modified to fit my needs.

Mistake #6-Needing Concrete Evidence

Genealogy is much like a police investigation. Except in rare cases, police generally don't see a crime in progress. They have to gather the evidence, analyze it and piece together who did it based on what they have. Sometimes in genealogy there is no concrete evidence of a relationship. If vital records weren't recorded in your ancestor's state until 1900, it's a waste of time and energy searching for a birth certificate for an ancestor born in 1800.

Look for clues in other areas. Have you researched siblings? The name of your ancestor's parents may be on a younger sibling's death certificate. Have you looked at wills from the area for people with the same surname? It might list your ancestor as a child of the deceased.

Mistake #7-Not Resolving Conflicts

Going back to the Genealogical Proof Standard, another core element is resolving conflicting evidence. When there is conflicting evidence, it's generally a sign that something isn't right and you need to take a closer look at the evidence.

If you've run across conflicting evidence in your research, take the time to see if you determine why there is a conflict. Is there a reasonable explanation for the variation? A woman may have claimed to be older so she could get married without parental consent. Are you positive you're tracing the right person? It's not unusual to find people with the same or similar names in an area.


  • mekelle says:
    December 13, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Thank you for interesting article. I made first mistake from you list in the past. I lost lot of time because of this fault. Your article will be useful for many young genealogist:)

  • Denielle Radcliff Koch says:
    December 13, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    Thanks for stopping by. I made the same mistake starting out. Now that I have all these random bits on information and can't figure out where they came from, I'm kicking myself. The important thing is that we learned from our mistakes.

  • parolee_j says:
    December 16, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    If only #1 were my first or only mistake! Guilty on all counts, but organization is the worst. I started over 10 years ago, tooka a break, changed computer systems, had not organized the paper data properly...oof. Doing it all again, even with help from other researchers & new family members, is the best grounds for getting organized the 1st time and staying that way!

  • Delores says:
    December 9, 2013 at 11:45 PM

    Thanks for the info.

  • Fast and Free says:
    December 15, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    thank you for this information. I have my desktop and laptop both running Family Tree Maker 2012 and finally got them both in sync. Using my Microsoft Onenote 2007 to copy and past and organize information notes and photos.

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