|A boy went to war in 1914 and left his bike chained to a small tree. He never made it home. His family left the bike by the tree in his memory. This is that tree today.|
The story about the boy is not true. Unfortunately, you would be amazed at the number of people who saw the picture, read that caption and believed it. This led us to think about what similar mistakes people make while researching. Here is what we came up with.
1. Don't believe everything you see or read.
One of the biggest mistakes beginning researchers make (and even some who have been researching for a while and should know better) is copying down the information they find in family trees—such as those on Ancestry.com or newFamilySearch and accepting it as gospel truth.
If you see something in someone else's tree that interests you, make a note of it and use it as a clue, but only as a clue. Ask the person who submitted it WHERE they got the information. If they can't tell you, use the information to lead you to an original source. Just because the person doesn't have a source doesn't necessarily mean it is incorrect. What it does mean is that you can't use it with complete confidence until you find a concrete source.
Always look at even official documents with a skeptical eye, especially census records. There are many mistakes on census records, both intentional and unintentional. Even though the 1850 Census states that John Doe was born in Georgia in 1818, you should continue to search for corroborating evidence. Even after you locate a source, you should still scrutinize it.
2. Always document WHERE you got EVERY fact in your tree.
If you don't record the location in which you find something, it will come back to haunt you later. Whether you find Fred's date of birth on a tombstone or on a little slip of paper that was among your grandmother's personal effects, you need to document it. There is a standard way to document your sources but when you are first starting out, the rule of thumb is to make sure you document enough information so that anyone who follows your research path can locate the same source.
Indexes are a great resource, but don't forget to obtain the original documents whenever possible. You wouldn't believe how many errors exist in indexes. Indexers are human and handwriting or faded print can be hard to read. Since you will be familiar with the persons involved, the time period you are researching, and the location where the events occurred, it is less likely that you will make a mistake. Indexers do not have this advantage. You will be able to identify names that are spelled incorrectly as well as dates that are inaccurate.
When a marriage document contains a license and a certificate on the same page, you may not be able to determine whether the date marked on it is the date the indexer recorded the license or the actual date the marriage occurred. For various reasons—such as repositories destroyed by fire or other natural disasters, and otherwise damaged or lost records— you will on occasion not be able to obtain a copy of the original document. In such cases you have no choice but to rely on the index for information. [Recently, my research firm Rootsonomy located the marriage index for one of our clients’ ancestors, but could not find the actual vital record. The original document apparently was lost sometime after the marriage.] This also happens frequently with old cemetery surveys. If the marker is no longer there, the survey will be the only information available to the researcher. The bottom line: find as many original documents as you can but if an index or other secondary source is all you can locate, remember to proceed with caution. Just as with a family tree, the index will be a clue to point you in the right direction, but should not be the ultimate goal.
3. Avoid making assumptions.
If you have two men in the same county who are listed as John Smith, Sr. and John Smith, Jr. don't assume they are father and son. In earlier times it was common for men of the same name in different generations to be labeled Sr. and Jr. even if they weren't father and son. They could be uncle and nephew, or not even directly related.
Other assumptions you shouldn't make are husband/wife relationships and parent/child relationships on census records prior to 1880, when relationships were first recorded. This error can really lead you down the wrong path. Consider the example of an unmarried sister who moved in with her brother, whose wife recently died, to help him take care of the motherless children. The brother and sister would have the same surname and be only a couple of years apart in age but assuming that they are husband and wife would be a mistake.
The same holds true with children. It is impossible to determine if all the children listed on 1850 Census records belonged to the adults whose names appear as the heads of households. Those children listed below adults’ names could be orphaned nieces and nephews, grandchildren, stepchildren, etc. Don't assume anything. You can theorize about the family unit’s makeup, but you need to locate other records in addition to the census to prove the relationships.
4. Don't rush backward in time.
For some researchers it appears to be a race to see how fast they can get their lines as far back in time as possible. It is far better to have four generations that are solidly documented, than ten generations that are shakily constructed. When someone tells you they have traced their ancestry back to the 1100s, be VERY skeptical.
If a prize is to be awarded, it should be given for the tree with the strongest roots, and most often, strength is based on abundant descendancy research. In addition, we have often found that the stronger the foundation, the more likely we are to take the lines further back. Remember that many trees branch out in other directions rather than straight up. The strength of these trees results from researching a side line or that of extended family members.
5. Don't assume you are related to Abraham Lincoln.
Just because you have the Lincoln name in your family tree, does not mean you are related to the Abraham Lincoln. The same holds true for any famous person. If there is a legend in your family suggesting that you are related to Jesse James, don't use his descendant lineages in an attempt to establish connections to your family tree. You may be setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. You MAY be related to a celebrity or even to royalty, but the only way you will ever find out with a certainty is by employing a methodical approach beginning with yourself and working backward in time, one generation after another, documenting every source as you go.
© 2012, Jim Heddell, All rights reserved
© 2012, Jim Heddell, All rights reserved