Pitfalls to AvoidDon't believe everything you read.
One of the biggest mistakes that beginners make is copying down everything they find on the family tree section of Ancestry.com and taking it for gospel. If you see something in someone else's tree that interests you, make a note of it and use it as a clue. Ask the person that 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 mean it is incorrect. What it does mean is that you can't use it until you find a source.
Also, always look at official documents with a skeptical eye, especially census records. There are many mistakes on census records, both intentional and unintentional. Just because the 1850 census says that John Doe was born in Georgia in 1818 you still need corroborating evidence. In this case you do have a source but even so you still have to scrutinize it.
Document WHERE you got EVERY fact in your file.
This is the #1 mistake beginning researchers make. I promise you that if you don't record where you find something it will come back to haunt you later. Whether you found Henry's date of birth on a tombstone or on a little slip of paper found among your grandmother's effects, you need to document it. There is a standard way to document your sources but at this stage of the game just make sure you document enough information so that anyone that comes behind you could find that source if they needed to. I will be doing a blog real soon about the basics of documenting your sources.
Indexes are a great resource but don't forget to get the original documents if at all possible.
You wouldn't believe how many mistakes there are in indexes. Indexers are human and handwriting 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 took place, it is less likely that you will make a mistake. Indexers do not have this advantage. You will see names spelled wrong and dates messed up. When a marriage document has a license and a certificate on the same piece of paper you don't know if the indexer recorded the date of the license or the date the marriage actually took place. Sometimes you will not be able to get the original. I have a marriage that appears in an index that was created in the 1930s. The original document was lost sometime after that. The index is the only thing that I have. You will also see this with old cemetery surveys. If the marker is no longer there then the survey is all you will have. However, you need to get as many of the original documents that you can. The index will point you in the right direction to get them.
Don't make assumptions.
If you have two men in the same county that are listed as John Doe, Sr. and John Doe, Jr. don't assume they are father and son. In earlier times it was a common practice 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 even totally unrelated. Another assumption you shouldn't make are husband/wife relationships and parent/child relationships on census records prior to 1880 when the relationships were first recorded. This one can really lead you down the wrong path. An unmarried sister might have moved in with her widowed brother to help him take care of the children. They would have the same name and only be a couple of years apart in age. Assuming they are husband and wife would be a mistake. Same with children. There is no way to tell if all of the children in a list of children in 1850 belonged to the listed adults. They could be orphaned nieces and nephews, grandchildren, step children of one etc. Don't assume anything. You can come up with a theory of how the family is put together but you need to use other things besides just the census to prove the relationships.
Don't rush backward in time.
For some new researchers it is a race to see how fast they can get their lines back to 16th century. I would much rather have 4 generations of a well-documented line then 10 generations of a poorly researched one. When someone tells you they have their line back to the 1100s be skeptical, be VERY skeptical.
Don't assume you are related to Daniel Boone.
Or any other famous person for that matter. If there is a story in your family that you are related to Pocahontas don't go and find descendant lineages of Pocahontas and then try and work your way down to you. You are setting yourself up for failure and frustration. You MAY be related to Pocahontas but the only way you will ever find out is through a methodical approach working backward in time one generation at a time. Here is a true story from my own family:
When I was little my grandfather always told me that we were related to Daniel Boone. Since my grandfather said it I believed it. When I started researching my family tree this was one of the first things I worked on. It turns out that I AM related to Daniel Boone! Unfortunately it isn't THE Daniel Boone from Kentucky but rather Daniel Boon (no e) from Mississippi. My grandfather's uncle, William Isaac Simmons, married Daniel Boon's daughter Mary Catherine. Not only am I not related to Daniel Boone, I am not even blood related to Daniel Boon. Of course my grandfather was perfectly aware of who Daniel Boon of Mississippi was and he was playing a little trick on me but I never knew it and my grandfather died before he confessed to his mischief. Here is a picture of Daniel Boon's grave in the Boon Family Cemetery in Lamar County, Mississippi. The photo shows Daniel's last 6 living children (out of 15). This photo was taken about 1920. My great, great aunt (by marriage) is the 2nd from the right. Daniel Austin Boon was born 01 Aug 1819 and died 10 Oct 1886.
Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis