The 10 Truths Every Family Historian Must Learn

The 10 Hard Truths Every Family Historian Must Learn

Remember that moment when you started working on your first family tree? Maybe it was a grade school activity, or perhaps you just started sketching out your roots out of pure curiosity. Adding details about your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — people you probably know well — is usually a simple task, and watching your tree sprout leaves of new individuals and grow branches of generations is both exciting and fulfilling.

Even lifelong family historians still feel a satisfying rush when another ancestor is identified and slotted into their rightful place!

However, not everything about the pursuit of your genealogy is fulfilling, exciting, or easy. Eventually, beginning family historians will come to a blank they can’t fill, and some will be discouraged enough that they abandon their pursuit altogether.

If you’re just starting to build your family tree, or if you’ve simply put it aside due to frustration or defeat, listen up. You’re not alone in your family history challenges, and perhaps having a better understanding up front of what to expect down the road will help you overcome them. 

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Here are 10 Challenges Every Family Historian Comes to Expect

And how to overcome them

1. Not every record is online.

This might be the understatement of a lifetime. Several years ago it was estimated that only 10% of genealogical documents and records are actually digitized and available on the internet.

That means that a vast majority of details that could help you to solve your family history mysteries are still out there — at libraries, archives, courthouses, and all sorts of other repositories — just waiting for you to find them. And of course, databases like Ancestry and FamilySearch are always adding new records (hundreds of millions of them a year, in fact). And even though all of these records can’t be located via the sites’ search engines, you can always check them out through the browse functions.


2. Other people’s trees are not valid sources.

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We can’t stress this hard truth enough, because even as you’re reading this, someone, somewhere is saving someone else’s collective research to their own family tree.

There are so many reasons that using another person’s tree as a source is wrong that we’ve written an entire article on the subject here at Family History Daily. Don’t get us wrong — collaboration with other researchers is one of the best aspects of genealogy. And using a conclusion from another person’s work as a clue to spark your own research and verification is a great approach. However, accepting any information at face value is a mistake that can quickly take your research in the wrong direction. Which leads us to the next truth …

3. Citing your sources is not optional.

Remember those high school and college research papers that had to include footnotes, parenthetical citations, and a works cited or bibliography page? Those were required for one simple reason: Your teacher needed to know where you found your information, ensure you copied or interpreted it accurately, and check to make sure you’re giving credit to the original source.

These are all the same reasons you cite your sources in genealogy — except it’s not a teacher or professor looking for this data. It’s another researcher, a family member, or even you! After 30+ years of adding information into my family tree, I still find facts that make me ask, “Well, where did THAT come from?” Citing your sources doesn’t have to be hard, and you definitely won’t regret it later.

4. Not all of your family’s stories and assumptions are true.

If you’ve always been told you’re descended from a Native American princess, the Queen of England, or a Revolutionary War hero, be prepared: Thorough genealogy research and/or DNA technology may very well prove this family lore to be unfounded.

On a positive note, though, these legends may be the very reason you got started exploring your family history, and dispelling the myths shouldn’t keep you from continuing your quest for other truths. Whether or not you decide to share your findings with your grandma is up to you, though. My own family still believes certain ancestors were Native American, despite DNA evidence and documentation to the contrary!

5. One single database will not provide all the answers you need.

I’ve had a paid subscription of some sort to since 2002, and for those first few years, that was the only online database I used to research my family history. It wasn’t long, though, before I discovered genealogical treasure troves like FamilySearch, the USGenWeb sites, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Internet Archive, the National Archives, GenealogyBank, and on and on and on!

Some of these are free sites, some are run by volunteers, and others are paid, but offer free trial subscriptions or at least a few record collections that are available subscription-free. But no single database holds exactly the same collections of records as another, so they’re all worth checking out to see what they offer. The old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” definitely applies to your genealogy databases!

6. You will make mistakes in your research.

And these mistakes will take you down rabbit holes and they will eat up a lot of your research time. But — and this is a big ol’ BUT — you will learn from every single mistake you make.

For example, maybe you’ve spent hours, weeks, or years adding facts to build a profile of your ancestor James Pickwickle, only to find a probate record that proves you’ve been working on the wrong James Pickwickle. Backtracking, you find where you veered off onto the incorrect path, and you start over again. Yes, it’s a frustrating realization and do-overs aren’t ideal, but you probably won’t make that same error or quick conclusion again.

Do You Have Errors Hiding in Your Family Tree? Here’s How to Find Out

7. You will hit brick walls.

All genealogists have at least one ancestor who has confounded them. Eventually, you will come to a person who seems to have disappeared from history too.

We’ve all hit roadblocks against which we beat our heads and pound our fists, and return to again and again in search of some new clue or overlooked fact. Believe it or not, chiseling away at brick walls is one of the most interesting and fun challenges you’ll tackle in genealogy. Finally knocking down that seemingly-insurmountable obstacle provides a unique sense of pride and euphoria. Check out our Master Family History Course for an 8-step system to help with this particular challenge.

8. Technology doesn’t solve every genealogical problem.

Don’t get us wrong, technological innovations over the past 30 years or so have revolutionized genealogical research – but they’re not the only tools you have.

Photo scanning apps, online databases, podcasts, DNA tools, email, and social media have been tremendously helpful with organization, communication, collaboration, and so much more. However, some of the old school tools, skills, and practices we used before the advent of the internet are still highly functional and worthwhile today, like family group sheets, research logs, letter-writing, Soundex, microfilm, ordering records via snail mail, and interviewing your living family members. Don’t forget to employ them. 

9. Original records will contain errors.

As much as we’d like to hope that our ancestors’ names will be consistently spelled only one way, that their number of children will never vary, that a probate record will read exactly like the will it supposedly quotes, or that a birth date will be accurate on a death certificate — these things simply don’t always happen.

Your ancestors and the recordkeepers of the day were human, and humans make mistakes. They were often also challenged with unfamiliar dialects or accents, less reading and writing education, and few reliable records of their own to which they could refer. Developing techniques to double-check the facts on original records, determining what alternate spellings your ancestors might have used, or trying different search or research tactics to verify information will help you identify potential mistakes.

Why You Should Stop Your Research and Reexamine Every Single Genealogy Record You Have

10. You are never “done” tracing your roots.

If only we old-timers had a quarter for every time we heard someone say, “Oh, yeah, my Aunt Bessie did our genealogy,” or “I’ve already finished my family tree.” We would have enough money to pay lifetimes subscriptions to all the genealogy databases and fund several trips to our home countries!

There are always — and we do mean always — new family members and new facts to be discovered, and each one of these individual pieces helps you to bring your family’s stories to life. You’ll always have great-great-great-uncles, fifth cousins twice removed, land grants, birth records, and resting places out there just waiting to be added to your tree!

Patricia Hartley has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. 

10 thoughts on “The 10 Hard Truths Every Family Historian Must Learn”

  1. The 1930’s recorded my father’s name incorrectly and now it is incorrect on many online trees that I observed.

    In my family there were 2 brothers with different Yiddish names, but identical English names. They were married to women with different Yiddish names but identical English names. Both families had 4 children and both had a son with the same name and a daughter with the same name. You can tell the families apart by looking at birthdates, death dates, marriage dates, citizenship applications, etc. Research is essential. Without it, many mistakes are made. Genealogy sites multiply the errors. So be careful.

    I have a note on my tree explaining the English name similarities and the composition of the two families.

  2. The list of 10 is a good one to follow, but may I add to it number eleven. Don’t wait, do a DNA test now and persuade the older, and equal age generations to also do DNA tests NOW.
    Unfortunately I have witnessed a family that was going to do DNA tests, three years later still hadn’t even bought the kits, only for the father to pass away a week after the kits were ordered; when the kits arrived, only 2 instead of ordering 6, still didn’t do anything. I asked and said do it now, don’t wait. But didn’t and shortly after that the mother died.
    I am always envious of those who are able to get their parents and grandparents/aunts/uncles DNA. For me DNA became the “in thing” too late and so I will never know who my paternal grandfather’s father was. Unless of course he fathered others and they also had children who may hopefully sooner rather than later will do DNA tests (for me either via Ancestry or myHeritage and upload to GEDmatch — with a tree of 3 to 4 generations — please).

  3. I am the editor of the newsletter of the Italian Genealogical Group, a non-profit dedicated to fostering research into Italian family history. Our newsletter comes out each month from September to June. I am wondering if we could have permission to reprint your list of 10 Hard Truths Every Family Historian Must Learn in a future issue. I would like to print the list and then refer the readers to your article and website for further explanation. Of course, we would cite the source of the article.

  4. Some old handwritten documents are transcribed incorrectly. Meaning, the neat, printed copy you see was different from what was originally written in old ink on now very old paper in a writing style that is difficult to read and interpret.

  5. Wonderful article. All of the topics are true. I found someone had added ancestors that were not in my family line and they had been disproven by DNA. I called Family Search and the line was disconnected from my line. I am finding new information all the time. I try to cite my sources at least one time, but try for more.

  6. The one thing, I’ve always found is just because it’s the same name , maybe place,
    and location? It doesn’t matter the biggest
    Mistake is that you don’t check the race before accepting the sources many trees.
    I checked and recheck the sources because
    of this? The information doesn’t seem to match most of the time.

  7. Brilliant article. It’s the simple things that help keep my research on track. And you are right – when you finally break though a brick wall that has been in the way for months its great feeling.

  8. Oliver Ben Caldwell

    Oh, how true all of these are. Wish I would have had this list sooner, would have helped ease frustrations. Thanks for publishing this piece.

  9. I have to disagree with #2, Patricia. Although I understand the point you’re trying to make, this one is technically incorrect: on my blog. Basically, it depends on the “claim” you’re making, and whether the source supports or refutes it. Such a source would clearly not stand on its own as an only source, and so this point is related to complex arguments being written up.

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