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Eight Ways to Avoid Going Down the Wrong Path

(Kimberly Powell’s About Genealogy Weekly Newsletter November 3, 2015)

There is nothing more frustrating than finding out the ancestors you’ve been so diligently searching aren’t really yours. That the hours and money you’ve spent on your research has been wasted. That the ancestors you’ve come to know and love aren’t connected to you by history or blood. Yet, it happens to most of us at one time or another. Genealogy research isn’t perfect. A lack of records, incorrect data, and embellished family stories can easily send us off in the wrong direction.

How can we avoid this heartbreaking result in our own family research? It isn’t always possible to avoid wrong turns, but these steps may help keep you from barking up the wrong family tree.

1. Don’t Skip Generations
Skipping generations in your research is the most common mistake made by beginners. Even if you think you know everything about yourself and your parents, you shouldn’t skip directly to your grandparents.
Or your immigrant ancestor. Or the famous person that you’ve been told you’re descended from. Working your way back one generation at a time greatly lessens your chances at attaching the wrong ancestor to your family tree, because you’ll have the supporting documents – birth records, marriage certificates, census records, etc. – to support the link between each generation.

2. Don’t Make Assumptions About Family Relationships
Family terms such as “Junior” and “Senior” as well as “aunt” and “cousin” were often used very loosely in earlier times – and still are, even today. A designation of Jr., for example, may have been used in official records to identify between two men of the same name, even if they were unrelated (the younger of the two being called “Jr.”). You also shouldn’t assume relationships between people living in a household unless it is specifically stated. The sole adult-aged female listed in your great-great grandfather’s household, may indeed be his wife – or it could be a sister-in-law or family friend.

3. Document, Document, Document
I can’t stress it enough how important it is in genealogy to write down how and where you find your information. If it was found on a Web site, write down the title of the site, the URL and the date. It is also helpful to either copy the information word-for-word, or print out hard copies for reference in case the data is taken offline or changes. If the data came from a book or microfilm, write down the title, author, publisher, publication date and the repository. If your family information came from a relative, document who the information came from and when the interview took place. There will be many times when you’ll run across conflicting data, and you’ll need to know where your information came from.

4. Does it Make Sense?
Constantly review all new information that you add to your family tree to make sure that it is at least plausible. If the date of your ancestor’s marriage is only 7 years after they were born, for example, you have a problem. The same goes for two children born less than 9 months apart, or children born before their parents. Does the birth place listed in the census correlate with what you’ve learned about your ancestor? Have you possibly skipped a generation? Look at the information you’ve gathered and ask yourself, “Does this make sense?”

5. Get Organized
The more organized your genealogy research, the less likely that you’ll mix up information or make other simple, but deadly, mistakes. Choose a filing system that works with the way you do research, making sure that it includes a way to organize both your papers and certificates, and your digital documents and other computer files.

6. Verify Research Done By Others
It’s hard enough avoiding your own mistakes, without having to worry about the mistakes of others as well. Publication – whether in print or online – doesn’t make anything fact, so you should always take steps to verify previous research before incorporating it into your own.

7. Rule Out the Other Possibilities
You know that your great-great-grandfather lived in Virginia around the turn-of-the-century, so you look him up in the 1900 U.S. census and there he is! In truth, however, this isn’t him – just someone else with the same name living in the same area during the same time period. It is a scenario that actually isn’t all that uncommon, even with names you might think are unique. When researching your family, it is always a good idea to check the surrounding area to see if there is someone else who could fit the bill.

8. Turn to DNA
Blood doesn’t lie, so if you really want to be sure a DNA test may be the way to go.
DNA tests can’t currently tell you who your specific ancestors are, but they can help narrow things down quite a bit. I’ve often considered a DNA test to confirm my descent from the William CRISP family that I’ve been researching for years, but there is also this little voice inside me worried that I might find out that I’m not!

Kimberly Powell, About.com’s Genealogy Guide since 2000, is a professional genealogist and the author of “Everything Family Tree, 2nd Edition.” Click here for more information on Kimberly Powell.

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