Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?

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Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?

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One of the most common research mistakes that family historians make when building their tree (especially for the first time) is also one of the most limiting and potentially detrimental. We like to call it the Direct-Line Mistake, and its effect on your research outcomes is pretty huge.

The direct-line mistake can be defined as the act of researching and adding to your tree only those people who you descend from directly (ie grandparents and nobody else). Family historians do it to save time, to keep the size of their tree more manageable, and to stay focused on specific research goals. On the surface, this kind of research makes some sense…focus your efforts on the people who matter most to you and you will be able to move back through the generations much more quickly. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

What some researchers may fail to see is that limiting yourself to only your grandparents in your tree is equivalent to reading only 1 out of every 10 pages in a history book. Not only are you missing out on a huge amount of information, but the data you do collect can easily be taken out of context. If you want to develop a full picture of your ancestors’ lives, and ensure (to the best of your ability) that the picture is accurate, then you need more than just the records and facts surrounding your direct lines.

Researching a Wider Circle of People Means That You:

Will inevitably end up discovering more facts and records about your grandparents: when we take the time to research the lives of their close relations we discover details and documents that we may have previously overlooked.

Will be able to break down brick walls more easily: if you’re stuck trying to go back another generation, or are unable to find an important fact, researching close relatives may give you the break you need. For every relative you research your chances of locating this information increases dramatically. For more help with using this proven strategy and others to break down brick walls in your family tree, please see our online genealogy course.


Will develop a deeper story about your family: family history research is more than just a collection of names and dates. When we take the time to research our ancestors’ family members we begin to form a more detailed picture of their lives — one that can help us understand our ancestors’ struggles, triumphs, relationships, commitments and goals.

Will be able to differentiate one person from another: There is no better way to ensure that the ancestors you are adding to your tree are, in fact,, the correct ancestors than by making sure that their siblings, children or neighbors match up correctly. When we do not have this information available to us it is much, much easier to make big mistakes.

In addition to your grandparents you should also be researching and including the following individuals.

We’ve marked those people whose details are usually the most beneficial, but each case is unique. You may find, for instance, that your grandparents’ neighbors were deeply involved in their lives and that time spent researching them is the most beneficial. Obviously, most of us do not have the time to research every connected person in detail, but even adding some basic information to your tree can be very helpful.

  • Their biological, adoptive and half siblings (in detail)
  • Their siblings’ spouses (basic)
  • Their siblings’ children (basic)
  • Additional spouses of your grandparents (in detail)
  • Their children from any marriage (in detail). Of course, the siblings of one grandparent are the children of another — but looking at this relationship more than one way helps us see the importance.
  • Neighbors (basic). Look especially for neighbors that lived next door for a long time. These people may be your key to breaking down a brick wall in the future.
  • People who lived with your grandparents. Long term boarders, friends, distant relatives, servants. (basic)
  • Other individuals who you see popping up in your records often.

How far you want to go is up to you but, the larger your circle, the greater the chance you have of creating an exciting picture of the past filled with depth and accuracy.

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We suggest that you start by going through your tree and adding the siblings of your ancestors to start. Try to fill out birth, marriage and death information – this is often where you will strike gold when it comes to locating missing information in your tree. If you do not care to add them to your main tree, you can either create a copy of your tree for this purpose or simply add them to your notes.

If the job feels overwhelming, choose are area of your tree that you have been struggling with and start there, or take out just an hour or two each week to add the siblings for one person. Take it slow if you need to, but do it if you can. Who knows what you might discover!

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  • Kurt Hammond
    January 17, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    So true! I found the name of my 2x grgrandfather in a family history book of the man who married his widow. Totally unrelated family, but it gave me the next name I needed.

  • Annie in Minnesota
    January 11, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    I have also used the noted methods. The one that was the most successful was noting that there seemed to be 2 unrelated families of the same name with the same unusual spelling in 2 neighboring cities in Minnesota. Wondering whether they were actually related I began building a tree for the second family just in case. After my mother’s death I found the names of 2 of the people in the second tree in my maternal grandfather’s journals, phone books and party lists. Then I was sent copies of the front pages of a family bible which showed the marriage date and children’s bithdates and places of birth as well as baptismal dates from this union. The dates matched some of the dates of birth and parents’ names of people in the second family. Then I found the death date and burial place of their father and his burial place and parent’s names. When looking for the cemetery where he was shown buried I found he had been moved to the cemetery where one of my family members was buried found him buried in the same plot. Turned out he was the “missing” brother of my gggrandfather. He had lost his wife, left his kids with his in-laws (whosebible pages were sent to me) and immigrated to Canada where he remarried had a large family and then immigrated to Minnesota shortly before my family. The two families were not only related, everyone in Minnesota with that named was/is related.

  • Barbara Ribling
    January 9, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    I have done this from the beginning. My maternal Grt-Grandfather was my Brick Wall. I needed to research horizontally to eventually discover his family and origins. My Father was adopted. It took years just to discover his adoptive family. His real parents were a mystery for many years. I only recently found his birth certificate – he never saw it! Using the BC and a story my Father told me about his childhood led me to his birth family and then on back another generation to Swedish immigrants! I would never have known anything about my Father’s family had I not searched “horizontally” and had kept on trying to go directly back vertically. I still know little about his family but so much more than I or he originally knew.

    • Donna S Wilkins
      January 17, 2017 at 7:03 pm

      Please can you share how you found your Father’s birth parents? My Father was also adopted. He passed away in 1982. I only know a few stories I have been told. None of them have panned out. How did you get his birth certificate? He was born in Kentucky. Put in a home called All-Prayer Foundlings Home when he was 3 in 1928. It closed down many years ago. I am getting no where. Thank you for any help you may be able to give me. Donna Wilkins

      • January 18, 2017 at 12:46 am

        I did have a few clues. I knew that my father was born in Minneapolis and I had the date. I knew who his “parents” were and I had met them a few times. His mother always seemed distant. She died when I was about 7 years old. MY memory of her is of a mysterious woman standing behind my Grandfather and myself and watching us from a short distance. She seemed quiet and cold. I now think I know who she was but she is still mostly a mystery. I have letters and photos from my father’s adoptive family so when I began working on my Family Tree, I was able to learn about them. In time I was able to get my Father’s BC and learn who his birthbparents were. His Mother, whose parents were Swedish immigrants, is still mostly a mystery. I believe that she may actually have been his birth mother! The “two” ladies shared the same first name. I believe I have found his Mother’s family at Ancestry but none of them seem to have any information on Grandmother other than her name and her immigrant parents. I still would like to know the “full” story about my paternal ancestors. I learn little bits about them as I go. It is slow but my Father’s BC wa the key that led me to census records and Family Trees at Ancestry. My Mother’s maternal Grt-GF was discovered by going “sideways” and following family associates until I eventually found her family and a great wealth of information going back to the 1600s. I would never have found them had I not followed family associates and distant relatives eventually returning back to the mystery ancestors that I sought. Click the URL below to read about my father’s family and how I discovered their history.

  • Kristin
    January 9, 2017 at 6:37 am

    I have used this approach for years. I also research family friends and neighbors in their own trees. I have made some very important discoveries looking at everybody. And, as you said in the article, getting a real picture of my ancestors lives and times.

  • Rick Reinckens
    January 8, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    I suggest sort of a “hybrid” approach. From the WW II generation BACK it is VERY common to see families with 5 children who lived to adulthood and most got married. So that’s 5 kids and 5 spouses = 10. Those spouses had 4 siblings. Those 4 siblings had 4 spouses. The 4 spouses of the siblings had 4 siblings. And THOSE siblings had spouses, etc.

    A tree can quickly expand HORIZONTALLY ridiculously. The problem is often compounded by the fact that immigrants tended to live in ethnic neighborhoods. So you wind up with 10 John Fitzgeralds and 15 Mary Coppingers in the same area, around the same age, and often NOT related.

    On Ancestry I have my main tree that is basically lineal ancestors, I create SEPARATE trees for JANE XYZ’S ANCESTORS AND SIBLINGS. My paternal grandmother had 6 siblings and HER father had 8. So I have a separate Anna Coppinger’s Ancestors and Siblings tree. I put things specific to her in the main tree ONLY (city directories, etc) and put all the relatives’ stuff only in the other tree. (I guess I should point out that between documents on Ancestry and from relatives, I don’t have just 5-10 documents TOTAL for her, it’s over 120.) Things like censuses showing the person AND parents and siblings I put in the Siblings tree.

    I generally DON’T put the main person’s spouse and children in the Ancestors and Siblings tree. If you do, you wind up with loads of hints you don’t want–because the information IS in the MAIN tree.

    One thing that IS annoying about the Ancestors and Siblings approach is that Ancestry recognizes the same person in both trees and keeps showing hints from the detailed tree in the other tree. Unfortunately, Ancestry doesn’t have a way to set “Do not use show hints from other trees with the same owner.”

  • Trevor Davison
    January 7, 2017 at 6:34 pm

    This is oh so true. I have found some really fascinating facts whilst researching outside my direct line. Even found that my ex partner of seven years was related to my sisters husband, none of us had a clue until my research showed the connection.

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