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.
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, 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.
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 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!
Other Articles You Might Enjoy:
- Another Person’s Family Tree is Not a Valid Source
- Are You Sure They’re Your Ancestors? This Genealogy Blunder is More Common Than Ever
- The 13 Reasons You Can’t Break Down Your Brick Walls
By Melanie Mayo-Laakso, Family History Daily Editor
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Originally published Oct 2017, updated Sept 2018