25 Common Mistakes Newbie Family Historians Make

How to Avoid Them and Improve Your Research

Genealogy is a fascinating pursuit that allows us to uncover the stories of our ancestors and learn more about our family history. However, as with any field of research, there are common mistakes that newbies often make. These mistakes can lead to inaccurate or incomplete information and can cause frustration for researchers. In order to make the most of our genealogical research and avoid common pitfalls, it’s important to be aware of these mistakes and take steps to correct them. 

In this article, we will explore 25 common mistakes that newbies make in genealogical research and provide tips on how to avoid them. By learning from these mistakes, we can become better researchers and gain a deeper understanding of our family history. 

As someone who has been researching my family’s history for years, I understand the frustrations and challenges that can arise along the way. It’s easy to fall into common mistakes that can lead to inaccurate or incomplete information, causing us to hit a wall and feel like we’ve hit a dead end. However, I have also learned a lot from my mistakes and want to share some tips with you so that you can avoid them and become a better family historian.

One of the biggest mistakes I made when starting out was not verifying information with multiple sources. It’s important to remember that just because information appears to be correct, it doesn’t mean it actually is. By taking the time to cross-reference the information with other sources, you can ensure that you have accurate and reliable information about your family history.

Another common mistake is overlooking collateral relatives. Often, we focus solely on our direct ancestors and forget that siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins can provide valuable information about our family’s history. Not only can they provide insight into our ancestors’ lives, but they may also have photos, documents, or stories that can help fill in gaps in our research.

Assuming spellings are always consistent is also a common mistake that can lead to incorrect information. It’s important to keep an open mind when it comes to spellings and look for alternate spellings of names. Additionally, not taking historical context into account can make it difficult to understand our ancestors’ lives and decisions. Understanding the historical context in which they lived can provide valuable insight into their experiences and motivations.

It’s important to remember that while mistakes are inevitable, they can also be valuable learning opportunities. By reflecting on our mistakes and taking steps to avoid them in the future, we can become better family historians and continue to uncover the fascinating stories of our ancestors.

In summary, as someone who has made many mistakes in my own family history research, I want to emphasize the importance of avoiding common mistakes like overlooking collateral relatives, assuming spellings are always consistent, and not taking historical context into account. By learning from these mistakes and following best practices like verifying information with multiple sources and citing our sources, we can become better family historians and gain a deeper understanding of our family’s past.

25 Common Mistakes 

Here is a list of 25 common mistakes that newbie family historians make:

1. Starting with assumptions – It’s important to approach each new piece of information with an open mind and not make assumptions that can lead to errors.

2. Ignoring the importance of timelines – Creating timelines for each ancestor can help identify gaps in knowledge, as well as overlapping events that can provide clues.

3. Failing to recognize name variations – An ancestor may have gone by different names or nicknames, and failing to recognize these can lead to incorrect research.

4. Not considering alternative record types – While birth, marriage, and death records are important, other types of records such as probate, court, or military records may also provide valuable information.

5. Not paying attention to location changes – An ancestor may have moved multiple times throughout their life, and researching their various locations can provide insights into their lives.

6. Skipping over naturalization records – Naturalization records can provide information about an ancestor’s immigration and citizenship status, which can be useful in further research.

7. Overlooking local histories – Local histories and newspapers can provide valuable information about the lives of ancestors, including social, economic, and political aspects of their lives.

8. Failing to understand handwriting – Reading old handwriting can be challenging, but it’s important to take the time to transcribe and analyze the information carefully.

9. Not considering the effects of war and disaster – War and disaster can disrupt family lives, and researching these events can provide context for ancestors’ decisions and movements.

10. Not documenting negative findings – It’s important to document negative findings and failed research attempts to avoid duplicating efforts and to keep track of gaps in knowledge.

11. Overlooking historical maps – Historical maps can provide valuable insights into where ancestors lived, worked, and traveled.

12. Believing family traditions over DNA evidence – DNA evidence can provide insights into ancestry that may not be evident in family traditions or stories.

13. Not keeping accurate notes – Accurate note-taking is critical for keeping track of research progress, sources, and findings.

14. Failing to seek out original records – Original records are more reliable than transcriptions or abstracts and should be sought out whenever possible.

15. Ignoring the importance of social history – Understanding the social, cultural, and economic context in which ancestors lived can provide valuable insights into their lives.

16. Assuming that everyone had a surname – Some cultures did not have surnames, and assuming that all ancestors did can lead to errors in research.

17. Not fact-checking information found in published family histories – Published family histories can be helpful, but they may contain errors or unverified information.

18. Believing that everything on the internet is true – Information found on the internet should always be verified with reliable sources.

19. Failing to research the descendants of ancestors – Researching the descendants of ancestors can provide valuable insights into family history and relationships.

20. Not utilizing DNA testing – DNA testing can provide valuable insights into ancestry and family relationships.

21. Overlooking immigration patterns – Understanding immigration patterns can provide valuable insights into the lives of ancestors, including their motivations for emigrating.

22. Failing to account for calendar changes – Historical calendar changes, such as the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, can cause confusion when researching dates.

23. Not consulting with experts – Consulting with experts in genealogy or specific regions can provide valuable insights and advice.

24. Believing that all family secrets will be revealed – Some family secrets may never be revealed, and accepting this can prevent frustration and wasted effort.

25. Not celebrating small victories – Genealogy research can be a slow and challenging process, and it’s important to celebrate even small victories to maintain motivation and enthusiasm.

Learning from mistakes is an important part of personal growth and development. When we make mistakes, we can reflect on what went wrong, identify areas for improvement, and make changes for the future. This is particularly important in the field of genealogy, where accuracy and attention to detail are essential.

Making mistakes in genealogical research can be frustrating, but it’s important to view these mistakes as learning opportunities. For example, if you assume spellings are always consistent and miss an important record due to a variation in spelling, you can use that mistake as a reminder to be more thorough in your research and to consider alternative spellings in the future. If you overlook collateral relatives, you can use that mistake to remind yourself of the importance of researching all branches of the family.

Additionally, learning from mistakes can help us develop better research habits. For example, if you fail to cite sources and later realize you can’t remember where a particular piece of information came from, you can use that mistake as a reminder to be more diligent about citing sources in the future. If you rely too heavily on online databases and later discover errors or incomplete information, you can use that mistake as a reminder to verify information with multiple sources.

Learning from mistakes is an essential part of genealogical research. Mistakes can be frustrating, but they also provide valuable learning opportunities to help us become better researchers. By taking the time to reflect on our mistakes, identify areas for improvement, and make changes for the future, we can improve our research skills, accuracy, and attention to detail.

Genealogical research can be a rewarding and exciting journey that allows us to connect with our ancestors and learn more about our family history. However, newbies in this field can easily fall into common mistakes that may lead to inaccurate or incomplete information, causing frustration and confusion. By being aware of the common mistakes outlined in this article and taking steps to avoid them, such as starting with primary sources, verifying information with multiple sources, and citing sources, we can become better researchers and uncover more accurate and complete information about our family history. It’s also important to remember that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process and can help us improve our research skills over time. With patience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from our mistakes, we can become successful and knowledgeable genealogical researchers.


Published by Darrell Gibbs

A father of three children and five grandchildren who retired in 2015 and began a career as a non-fiction writer in genealogy resource ebooks for new family historians. Aspiring towards the future as a Historical Fiction Author of his premier book "Wessex Reign".

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: