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

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, great-grandparents etc 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. Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

What some researchers fail to see is that limiting yourself to only direct ancestors 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.

Make Instant Discoveries in Your Family Tree Now
Imagine adding your family tree to a simple website and getting hundreds of new family history discoveries instantly.

MyHeritage is offering 2 free weeks of access to their extensive collection of 18 billion historical records, as well as their matching technology that instantly connects you with new information about your ancestors. Sign up using the link below to find out what you can uncover about your family.
Make Instant Discoveries in Your Family Tree Now
Imagine adding your family tree to a simple website and getting hundreds of new family history discoveries instantly.

MyHeritage is offering 2 free weeks of access to their extensive collection of 18 billion historical records, as well as their matching technology that instantly connects you with new information about your ancestors. Sign up using the link below to find out what you can uncover about your family.

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.

  • Their biological, adoptive and half siblings (in detail)
  • Their adoptive, step or foster parents (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 (or finding your relatives in a future census when names were misspelled)
  • 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.

We’ve marked those people whose details are usually the most beneficial, but each case is unique. You may find 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.

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.

We suggest that you start by going through your tree and adding the siblings of your ancestors. 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 create a copy for this purpose – or simply add them to your notes.

If the job feels overwhelming, choose an area of your tree that you have been struggling with and start there, or take out 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!

18 Billion Genealogy Records Are Free for 2 Weeks
Get two full weeks of free access to more than 18 billion genealogy records right now. You’ll also gain access to the MyHeritage discoveries tool that locates information about your ancestors automatically when you upload or create a tree. What will you discover about your family’s past?

18 Billion Genealogy Records Are Free for 2 Weeks
Get two full weeks of free access to more than 18 billion genealogy records right now. You’ll also gain access to the MyHeritage discoveries tool that locates information about your ancestors automatically when you upload or create a tree. What will you discover about your family’s past?

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By Melanie Mayo-Laakso, Family History Daily Editor

Originally published Oct 2017, updated Sept 2018

24 thoughts on “Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?”

  1. My original DNA profile listed me as 72% Western European and only 2 % English. In the new Profile, I am in the new grouping; England, Wales & Northwestern Europe at 80 %. Originally my English Heritage was 2%. My Mother, sister, brother, and cousin showed predominately English Heritage. Myself, my Great Aunt and nephew were predominately Western European. I am no expert with genealogy and DNA technology but when I was teaching school, this would be like giving a student an A on Friday and then amending my criteria by Monday and changing their grade to a C. It would have been nice to know this was coming and that my original DNA in 2012 could change so drastically. To me, this was poorly handled and makes me question whether I should seek out another genealogy site to continue my research. Many, many questions ???????????

  2. Hey..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.

  3. My original DNA profile listed me as 72% Western European and only 2 % English. In the new Profile, I am in the new grouping; England, Wales & Northwestern Europe at 80 %. Originally my English Heritage was 2%. My Mother, sister, brother, and cousin showed predominately English Heritage. Myself, my Great Aunt and nephew were predominately Western European. I am no expert with genealogy and DNA technology but when I was teaching school, this would be like giving a student an A on Friday and then amending my criteria by Monday and changing their grade to a C. It would have been nice to know this was coming and that my original DNA in 2012 could change so drastically. To me, this was poorly handled and makes me question whether I should seek out another genealogy site to continue my research. Many, many questions ???????????

  4. Lisa,
    I am not sure that you will understand this about records, but they too often are MIA never to be located again. As groups rearrange, files and artifacts are purged or left behind inadvertently as other records are relocated; natural disasters -floods, fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. cause loss of records. And sometimes the record never existed.
    For those who were immigrants or refugees names too often were anglicized without consent from the person whose name was changed. US immigration was and still is a disaster, far too ethnocentric and controlling. Assimilation is a very inhumane expectation and mandate. Immigrants came with documentation -applying for visas meant producing documents. Refugees fleeing their homelands barely came with clothing never mind documentation.
    And adoptees have their identities stolen, few managing to access their own original birth certificates because the states too often have closed adoptions and sealed records. As an adoptee ages, the chance that his/her records -all of them-will be purged and destroyed, without benefit of digitalization or microfiche, grows greater.
    Recently I discovered that the state in which I was adopted has no record of me or my younger sister ever having been wards of that state-medical records, DSS records, adoption files, etc., are gone, and probably irretrievable as the state does not microfiche or digitalize. All that exists is the false birth certificate in vital statistics manufactured by a court in 1950 to steal my identity and replace it with another which resides in the state’s dept. of vital statistics. As I was not born in that state, my original birth certificate is not attached to the amended redacted certificate in a name not my own. Fortunately I have the original along with my sister’s, but I had to make great effort to obtain them. 16 years of my life history have vanished…
    Your Indiana great grandfather could possibly be an adoptee-one reason which could account for your inability to locate records. Even if he is not an adoptee, you would need details of his birth to have access to his birth certificate-if you fall under the state’s criteria for having access to it. My suggestion is that you contact Indiana’s office of vital statistics to inquire about this grandfather, or contact the state archives or a historical society or family… 3rd cousins sometimes know what we do not, and grannie’s notes and books (like a bible) often contain useful information.
    There are many German-American groups in the US including genealogy societies specializing in Germanic history of immigrant families. You may wish to explore those in your area or the area in which your ancestor lived.

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