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Kevin Airrington is a professional genealogist & historian with 15+ years experience. Specializing in adoptions - It's Who I Am!™
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Genealogy Tip of the Day!
The Problem With Data Entry

Genealogical databases sometimes want us to know more than we do and encourage us to conclude more than May be actually implied in the record. An estate settlement from the 1870s indicated that the deceased was survivied by the children of his sister–and then it goes to name her two sons and one daughter. The […]

Genealogy can be a very fascinating and addictive hobby. Each step that you take in researching your familys history can lead you to new ancestors delightful stories and a real sense of your place in history. If you are new to genealogy research however there are ten key mistakes that you will want to avoid in order to make your search a successful and pleasant experience.

1. Dont Forget Your Living Relatives

If only…. is a lament that you so often hear from genealogists who regret having put off visits with elderly relatives who have since passed away. Family members are a genealogists most important source and often the only source for the stories which bring our family history to life. Visiting with and talking to your relatives should be at the top of every genealogists to-do list. If you just cant get in a visit right now then try writing to your relative with a list of questions send them a memory book to fill with their stories or get a relative or friend who lives nearby to visit with them and ask them questions. You will find that most relatives are eager to have their memories recorded for posterity if given the proper encouragement. Please dont end up as one of the if onlys

2. Dont Trust Everything You See in Print

Just because a family genealogy or a record transcription has been written down or published does not necessarily mean that it is correct. It is important as a family historian not to make assumptions about the quality of the research done by others. Everyone from professional genealogists to your own family members can make mistakes! Most printed family histories are likely to have at least a minor error or two if not more. Books which contain transcriptions (cemetery census will courthouse etc.) May be missing vital information May have transcription errors or May even make invalid assumptions (e.g. stating that John is the son of William because he is the beneficiary of his will when this relationship was not explicitly stated).

If Its On The Internet It Must Be True!
The Internet is a valuable genealogy research tool but Internet data like other published sources should be approached with skepticism. Even if the information you find seems the perfect match to your own family tree dont take anything for granted. Even digitized records which are generally fairly accurate are at least one generation removed from the original. Dont get me wrong – theres plenty of great data online. The trick is to learn how to separate the good online data from the bad by verifying and corroborating every detail for yourself. Contact the researcher if possible and retrace their research steps. Visit the cemetery or courthouse and see for yourself.

3. Were Related To… Someone Famous

It must be human nature to want to claim descent from a famous ancestor. Many people become involved in genealogy research in the first place because they share a surname with someone famous and assume that it means they are somehow related to that renowned individual. While this May indeed be true it is very important not to jump to any conclusions and begin your research at the wrong end of your family tree! Just as you would research any other surname you need to start with yourself and work your way back to the famous ancestor. You will have an advantage in that many published works May already exist for the famous individual you think you are related to but keep in mind that any such research should be considered a secondary source. You will still need to look at primary documents for yourself to verify the accuracy of the authors research and conclusions. Just remember that the search to prove your descent from someone famous can be more fun than actually proving the connection!

4. Genealogy is More Than Just Names & Dates

Genealogy is about much more than how many names you can enter or import into your database. Rather than be concerned about how far back youve traced your family or how many names you have in your tree you should get to know your ancestors. What did they look like? Where did they live? What events in history helped to shape their lives? Your ancestors had hopes and dreams just as you have and while they might not have found their lives interesting I just bet you will. One of the best ways to start learning more about your familys special place in history is to interview your living relatives – discussed in Mistake #1. You May be surprised at the fascinating stories they have to tell when given the right opportunity and an interested pair of ears.

5. Beware Generic Family Histories

They are in magazines in your mailbox and on the Internet – advertisements which promise a family history of *your surname* in America. Unfortunately many people have been tempted into purchasing these mass-produced coats of arms and surname books consisting mainly of lists of surnames but masquerading as family histories. Dont let yourself be mislead into believing that this could be your family history. These types of generic family histories usually contain

  • a few paragraphs of general information on the origin of the surname (usually one of several possible origins and likely having nothing to do with your family)
  • a coats of arms (which were granted to a specific individual not a specific surname and therefore in all likelihood do not belong to your specific surname or family)
  • a list of people with your surname (usually taken from phone books which are widely available on the Internet)

While were on the topic those Family Crests and Coats of Arms you see at the mall are also a bit of a scam. There generally is no such thing as a coat of arms for a surname – despite the claims and implications of some companies to the contrary. Coats of arms are granted to individuals not families or surnames. Its OK to purchase such a Coats of Arms for fun or display just as long as you understand what youre getting for your money.

 6. Dont Accept Family Legends As Fact

Most families have stories and traditions which are handed down from generation to generation. These family legends can provide many clues to further your genealogy research but you need to approach them with an open mind. Just because your Great-Grandma Mildred says that it happened that way dont make it so! Stories about famous ancestors war heroes surname changes and the familys nationality all probably have their roots in fact. Your job is to sort out these facts from the fiction which has likely grown as embellishments were added to stories over time. Approach family legends and traditions with an open mind but be sure to carefully investigate the facts for yourself. If you are unable to prove or disprove a family legend you can still include it in a family history. Just be sure to explain what’s true and what’s false and what’s proven and whats unproven – and write down how you arrived at your conclusions.

Example:  In the 1990 Reese Family History book.  (My family) It was recorded that my grandmothers brother Herman died from a burst appendix when the horses and snow bob could not make it over the snow banks when he was 1.  They could not locate a death certificate or any other records.  This was the story that they had always heard growing up.  I found the death certificate.  The mothers maiden name was spelled Ewert instead of Ebert.  His last name was spelled Riese instead of Reese.  I also found the HOSPITAL and the DOCTOR reports.  He had his appendix removed.  He lived for two weeks after his appendix was removed.  He was doing fine and was nearly ready to return home when a developed an infection in his stomach and passed away.

The family legend is far more interesting…but the factual story differed considerably.

7. Dont Limit Yourself to Just One Spelling

If you stick with a single name or spelling when searching for an ancestor youre probably missing out on a lot of good stuff. Your ancestor May have gone by several different names during his lifetime and its also likely youll find him listed under different spellings as well. Always search for variations of your ancestors name – the more that you can think of the better. You will find that both first names and surnames are commonly misspelled in official records. People were not as well-educated in the past as they are today and sometimes a name on a document was written as it sounded (phonetically) or perhaps was simply misspelled by accident. In other cases an individual May have changed the spelling of his/her surname more formally to adapt to a new culture to sound more elegant or to be easier to remember. Researching the origins of your surname May clue you into common spellings. Surname distribution studies can also be helpful in narrowing down the most frequently used version of your surname. Searchable computerized genealogy databases are another good avenue for research as they often offer a search for variations or soundex search option. Be sure to try all alternate name variations as well – including middle names nicknames married names and maiden names.
8. Dont Neglect to Document Your Sources
Unless you really like having to do your research more than once it is important to keep track of where you find all of your information. Document and cite those genealogy sources including the name of the source its location and the date. Its also helpful to make a copy of the original document or record or alternatively an abstract or transcription. Right now you May think you have no need to ever go back to that source but that probably isnt true. So often genealogists find that they overlooked something important the first time they looked at a document and need to go back to it. Write down the source for every bit of information you collect whether it be a family member Web site book photograph or tombstone. Be sure to include the location for the source so that you or other family historians can reference it again if need be. It makes it easier for you to remember what youve already done or go back to a source when you find new evidence which appears to conflict with your conclusions.
9. Dont Jump Straight to the Country of Origin
Many people especially Americans are anxious to establish cultural identity – tracing their family tree back to the country of origin. In general however its generally impossible to jump right into genealogy research in a foreign country without a strong base of preliminary research. Youll need to know who your immigrant ancestor is when he decided to pick up and move and the place where he originally came from. Knowing the country isnt enough – youll usually have to identify the town or village or origin in the Old Country to successfully locate your ancestors records.
10. Dont Misspell the Word Genealogy
This is fairly basic but many people new to genealogy research have trouble spelling the word genealogy. There are several ways that people spell the word the most common being geneology with geneaology coming in a close second. A more exhaustive list will include almost every variation: geneology geneaology genlogy geniology etc. This May not seem as if it is a big deal but if you wish to appear professional when you are posting queries or want people to take your family history research seriously you will need to learn how to spell the word genealogy correctly.Here is a silly memory tool that I came up with to help you remember the correct order for the vowels in the word genealogy:
Genealogists Evidently Needing Endless Ancestors Look Obsessively in Grave Yards
GENEALOGYToo silly for you? Mark Howells has an excellent mnemonic for the word on his Web site.
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