3 Mistakes That Will Topple Your Family Tree

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3 Mistakes That Will Topple Your Family Tree

I love genealogy. I think it started with stories from my parents and grandparents, and came into full bloom when I was twelve. My great-great-aunt had died the year previously and my grandmother gave me a book that had belonged to her. It was a family history book: of our family. Starting with my grandfather’s grandmother’s parents, it followed all of the descendants by generation. I poured over that book. I could recite names, share anecdotes, and calculate relationships on the fly. The internet didn’t exist at that point, but within 10 years I was joining groups on Yahoo! and Rootsweb, browsing GeoCities websites (those were the days!) and connecting with folks who might help me track down “missing” ancestors. I had this one book, but my other family lines were unknown to me.

Fast-forward to today. With television shows and DNA tests, genealogy has become much more mainstream. Everyone is exploring the online tree-building websites hoping to strike gold. And they are as likely to topple their family tree as they are to build it up. So what should you avoid?

  1. Mistake #1: Accepting Tree Hints Willy-NillyMistake #1: Accepting tree hints willy-nilly. Most, if not all, online trees have some sort of hint feature. You’ve probably seen the “shaky leaves” on Ancestry.com. Not all hints are created equal and the sources for those hints are not gospel truth. Do your due diligence when reviewing a hint. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t accept it. Do other research to try to prove or disprove the hint. If you find corroboration, then you may have found a true fact. Sometimes you may have to write up a proof statement. Share the research you found and why you believe or do not believe the fact is true. This will help others coming after you to understand your thought processes on the hint. And might help you two years down the road when you run across that “fact” again and wonder why it’s not in your tree!
  2. Mistake #2: Collecting NamesMistake #2: Collecting names. Just because a person is linked to someone on your tree doesn’t mean you should add them to your tree. First, have a plan for your tree. Are you trying to follow a certain line back to a certain point? Are you trying to locate every blood relative near or far? What about cousins of spouses of in-laws? Do you add friends and neighbors since many times there are links between close families? Once you have your plan, be sure to only link people who belong. As mentioned above, do your due diligence. Frequently, you will find someone with the same name, in the same area, with similar vitals — and it’s a totally different person. In the same vein, you may see what looks like a fourth child — but it’s really that pesky third-born going by their middle name on the 1920 census. Here’s a fun idea: do a one-name study. You can learn more about them here.
  3. Mistake #3: Adding Facts Without ProofMistake #3: Adding facts without proof. This is a biggie. Most of the online trees add a form of source citation to each fact that you add to your tree. But not always and sometimes the citation is no help at all in locating the record again. I can’t stress this enough. CITE YOUR SOURCES. There’s a ton of info online about this, and I expect to write some more thoughts on this later. You must have something to fall back on when Cousin Tillie says, “Prove it!” One thing you want to do for certain, if you are using a stand-alone computer program, is to attach scans of the record. And you may want to write proof statements for any facts that have differing data, such as birthdates recorded three different ways in five different records.

I’ll share more in the coming weeks, digging deeper into how to make sure you are avoiding these mistakes and maybe some tips on organizing your research, which genealogy programs are better than others, and cool websites to help with research.


  1. Nice post. Interesting. I teach in my genealogy classes about citing sources and how important it is even to cite when you get information in a conversation.

    Sure enough, recently digging around in my genealogy program, I had stuff not cited. It’s always good to be reminded.

    • Susie,

      Thanks for commenting! When I first started, I was focused on names, dates, places and not really about WHERE the data was coming from. I didn’t realize at the time that there would be discrepancies in various documents. Going back through and citing everything is daunting, but oh, so important!

      Thanks for teaching up and coming genealogists the right way to start!


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