Do Not Fall into this Common Genealogy Trap…

This article might start off sounding a little smug. It is not meant to. My intention is to help you to find your correct ancestors, or at least start on the right path, and save yourself a lot of time and frustration.

I am a historian. Not a history “buff”. I am not sure what a “buff” is actually – I know it’s someone who is very interested in something, but you never see “buff” paired with any other word except “history”. The guy down the street with a lot of books and DVD’s on the Civil War on his bookshelves is a “buff”. He might even know more than me about the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean he is a historian.

I hold a Master’s degree in history. I was a history teacher for a decade. I have published a peer-reviewed paper or two. My thesis is in the library of the organization that I wrote about in the paper. I have written many articles about one aspect of history or another. Above all, I have been trained in historical research. One of the main rules of historical research is not to accept something as true until it’s been proven true. Closely following that is: don’t accept something as true because you want it to be.

Many people on sites like Full Family Tree, Ancestry, MyHeritage fall into a common trap. They believe everything they read – especially if it corroborates what they already believe. There are many different reasons people research their family histories – unfortunately, one of them is to find out that they were/are related to royalty (or some other world-shaking figure). First, the good news. Do enough research, and you’ll find that you are likely related to someone like that. The world is a big place and many people have lived and died on it. For example, if you go back far enough – say twenty generations – you will find you have 1,048,576 grandparents! That doesn’t include uncles, aunts, cousins…However, odds are you are not going to find out that you’re related to the one specific person that you wanted to be related to – or that your mother named you after because of a family rumor.

If you want to gather incorrect information, the best thing you can do is be lazy. Many people begin their research by building off the research of others. Why would you do this? You don’t know who these people are…they are just someone with a family tree on the Internet. You don’t need to be qualified to write something on the Internet.

I will give you an example from my own research…I was looking for a particular ancestors father. The last name was uncommon, but not rare – especially in Germany, which is where this branch of my family came from. After having sifted through some official records and having some idea about who was who, I decided (mostly for a change of pace) to check out the family trees of others with the same name. This was problematic in a way, for the people I was looking up were named Peter and Jacob – not unusual names, especially among German immigrants to the US in the late 1600’s/early 1700’s. After a bit of looking, I found a family tree of the last name I was researching that had both a Peter and a Jacob, Peter being the father. I thought to myself “Aha! I think I might have a breakthrough!” Indeed, everything seemed to match up well…until I found out that on this tree, the father had died two years before the supposed son was born. The person who had compiled this tree had clearly cut and pasted this information – likely from another poorly researched tree.

Now, this is a minor error in the long run. It becomes obvious with just a little careful reading. But what if the error had been more egregious? What if the original family tree had listed the father as Russian, instead of German? It’s possible that a casual researcher might waste hours, days or weeks trying to find a Russian family that didn’t exist. Errors of this sort alter history, especially if they are widely diffused within a community.

This is where careful research pays off. Thankfully, we are now able to access another tool to help us in our search – DNA.

The soaring popularity of DNA testing for ancestry has made some things very easy, research-wise. Take the example used above. Supposed my ancestor had indeed been listed as Russian on someone’s family tree? Well, with DNA genealogy, I might easily be able to prove that to be untrue. In this case, that I had Russian ancestors could not possibly be true. My DNA has no trace of Russian whatsoever.

Still, it is good to keep in mind that DNA genealogy is in its early stages. I have tested on all of the major DNA sites, and in one case (, more than once (as they offer very deep and more detailed tests). In one case (, they report me as having 2.5% Scandinavian ancestry, with 20% “Northwestern European”, which they say is anything along the North Sea, western Baltic, English Channel coast. FTDNA has me at 23% Scandinavian. Between the two is a big difference, and a big difference in definition.

For the amateur or professional genealogist, however, DNA ancestry, combined with good research in traditional paper genealogy, should give you at the very least a promising start!


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