10 Genealogy Newbie Mistakes to Avoid

The majority of what I know about proper standards regarding genealogical research techniques I learned the hard way. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I made a number of mistakes and years later I am still fixing them. Hopefully, this list of Ten Genealogy Newbie Mistakes to Avoid will keep you from making some of the same common errors that I made.

1. Assuming That Family Legends Must Be True

Very likely your family has oral traditions that have been passed down for generations. Maybe it’s the one about your family coming over on the Mayflower, the one about the three brothers who immigrated to America, or that your great-grandmother was Native American. These stories have been told so often that they are believed to be true. Via solid research, you just may find the documents to prove the family lore to be actual fact or at least partly accurate. In fact, they probably weren’t created out of thin air so there is at least a grain of truth to them. But be aware up front of the need to prove the details via documented records and/or DNA testing. Your job is to search out the records.

2. Being Determined to Find a Famous Historical Ancestor

It’s exciting to find a famous ancestor or even a modern-day celebrity who can be added to your family tree. Add enough persons to your tree and you very well may learn of someone worthy of excitement. In fact, if you trace back ten generations, you will have 1,024 ancestors– one of those persons is bound to be notable. However, don’t jump to conclusions and assume that just because you share a surname with some famous historical person or that Grandma says so, that you must descend from that person. Do your homework and prove it. Haphazard research trying to prove that you are related to someone will only skew your research due to flimsy supporting details.

3. Ignoring Your Living Relatives

Don’t get so absorbed in researching deceased relatives that you ignore those still living. Gather as much information from living family members as you can before it’s too late. Don’t wait! Your older relatives possess a wealth of information and may be able to provide names and dates to your work, add fascinating details to your notes, or share the background behind a family heirloom sitting in the house. As well, extended “cousins” you run across while working on your tree may be researching the same family lines as you are and can provide assistance. DNA testing is a great way to find genetic cousins who share your ancestral makeup.

4. Publicly Publishing Information about Living People

There are numerous genealogy websites that encourage users to upload their family trees for sharing with others and possibly connect with long-lost relatives. These trees can be a great asset but note that genealogists recommend never publishing information on living individuals in a publicly available medium, such as a website– especially without the approval of the person being referred to. Doing so can not only breech that person’s privacy but could create possible safety issues. A good rule of thumb is to not include names or data on anyone who has been alive in the past 100 years.

5. Believing Everything on the Internet to be Accurate

Sorry, but it is not. In fact, the Internet has made ‘cutting and pasting’ and passing information along so easy that it’s very common for incorrect research to be taken as fact. Numerous family trees exist online that are filled with errors, such as parents who died years before their child was born, incorrect photos attached to the wrong person, or ancestors with a marriage date just a few years after birth. A transcription posted online could have errors or a family history that has been published in a book and is now online may be quite inaccurate. Review the information you find with a critical eye and make certain that it makes sense before you think about adding it to your family tree. It can be helpful to use someone else’s public tree as an aid but don’t simply assume that another researcher’s information is correct.

6. Skipping Generations in Your Research

No one wants to find out the hard way that their tree is filled with ancestors who aren’t theirs; that the work you have so diligently done is incorrect. Lessen your chances of mistakes by moving slowly and accurately from one generation to the next. Don’t move from researching your grandparents to your great grandparents without ascertaining that you have the necessary vital records and documentation to confirm your grandparents to be the correct ancestors before you move backwards in time. And don’t just focus on individuals to the exclusion of the larger family units, family relationships, localities and cultural dynamics of your family. Work to bring your ancestors to life by finding the details that create a story of their lives.

7. Only Using One Spelling of your Ancestors’ Name in Your Research

Don’t ignore a possibly correct ancestor simply because you don’t think the name is spelled correct in the record you just found. The spelling may actually be quite different than you expect. Illiteracy was common during the 18th and 19th centuries and, thus, the spelling of names was fluid. In fact, the spelling of names may change not only between records in a given timeframe but may change quite a bit over extended amounts of time. As well, immigrants were known to change their names when reaching American shores. No, they weren’t forced to change their names upon arriving at Ellis Island but they very likely did it willingly. The person writing down that information may have had poor handwriting or didn’t understand an accent. So don’t get hung up on the spelling of certain surnames. Get sloppy with your spelling and try researching as many variations of the name you can think of.

8. Weak Documentation of Sources

Neglecting to document your sources (a record from which we get our information) is a common mistake of new researchers. It is one I made and, because of it, I have had to re-find sources, making me do the same work twice. Though it may take a few extra minutes now, develop that habit now of keeping track of every document or record you find, including where it was found.

Written citations about a source will help you document, organize, and analyze the evidence you gather to provide proof of your beliefs about the life of an ancestor. A citation includes at least the following elements: Author(s); Article Title; Publication Title (Publisher Location, Name, and Year Published or a Web Name and Address); Locator (such as page number); Date the Source was accessed.

If your information was found on a Web site, you will want to keep track of the title of the site, the URL, and the date you accessed it. In case the data is taken offline or is changed, printing a copy for later reference can be valuable. If you interview a family member, don’t assume that you will remember what was said or when the interview occurred. Keep a record of it.

9. Poor Organization of Records and Correspondence

If you spend much time tracing your family tree you will quickly accumulate a number of documents: birth certificates, marriage certificates, photographs, letters, deeds, report cards, and such. Good researchers, from the start, keep their records organized and well documented, so find and follow a filing system that works for you. Poor organization and note-taking will lead to overlooked clues, redundancy in your searches, and incorrect conclusions. A great starting point is to purchase acid-free binders or file folders to store items. These could include a family group record and a pedigree chart for each family unit, research logs and, of course, originals or photocopies of the source documents such as those listed above. You may want to consider storing irreplaceable originals in a fire-safe box and in a temperature-controlled environment.

10. Not Backing Up Your Genealogy Data

You’ve spent months or years building a well-researched tree. You’ve made sure that you have proper documentation proving your facts. Hundreds of census records and historical photos have been uploaded and diligently attached to the proper person. Now suppose that one day—poof—your computer crashes and it all disappears or the online website you used to create and store your tree is shut down and your tree is deleted. Don’t let this happen to you by ensuring your data is protected with a sound back-up plan. Easy backup mediums to begin with are recordable and/or rewritable compact discs (CDs) or USB flash drives. My trees are first stored on my desktop computer in a genealogy software program. Smaller, private versions of those trees are uploaded to Ancestry.com as a supplement to what is on my hard drive. Files are backed up regularly to an external hard drive. This blog, photos, and copies of documents are backed up on the cloud—usually daily but, at the least, several times per week. Some cloud-based servers worth reviewing include Carbonite, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, and iCloud.


  1. BetsyInVT

    so helpful!

    1. Julie (Post author)

      Thank you Betsy!


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