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The 3 Genealogy Mistakes You Have to Tame to Improve Your Skills

Do you want to further your genealogy skills so you can research better or faster? Have you run into a problem that seems too "difficult" for your current skill level?

Whatever reason you have for wanting to improve, there are three basic mistakes you have to tame before you can move "up."
There are three genealogy mistakes you must tame before your skills will improve. | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory

In reality, genealogy does not have good "levels." People often talk about beginner, intermediate, and advanced but they aren't well defined.

What skill level are you?

Honestly, unless you just started this month, your definition of your skill level may not be what a friend would label you, what a long-time hobbyist would label you, or what an experienced professional would label you. And they might all disagree!

I don't actually like the concept of three skill levels. That doesn't even come close to providing sufficient information about a genealogist's skill.

Part of the problem is there are so many aspects to being a successful genealogist. I've written about some of the differences in an amateur and a successful professional recently.

But three levels is convenient, so for now, we'll go with it. Today, instead of talking about making your skills go pro, I'm going to step back and give you a baseline for moving out of being a "beginner."

Three Major Genealogical Mistakes

There are three common and potentially catastrophic mistakes you HAVE to overcome to move out of being a genealogy beginner.
  1. Creating impossible fathers
  2. Confusing same name, different man
  3. NOT profiling your ancestors

Before I explain in detail what each mistake encompasses, I want to talk about taming or overcoming these mistakes in general. Understanding this is also important in moving from one skill level to another.

In fact, being too strict is usually like wearing a giant red "A," for amateur. You're so proud of not being a beginner, you're advertising the fact you haven't learned the nuances of the genealogy game.

Taming Genealogy Mistakes

I've really struggled with finding the right verb to deal with these mistakes. "Taming" and "Overcoming" are the two I keep coming back to and "Avoiding," well, I'm avoiding using it.

You do not need to entirely avoid making these mistakes. We are all human which means we all make mistakes. Being an Occasional Genealogist makes it even more likely you will make mistakes.

I make the most newbie mistakes when I'm rushed and working in short amounts of time. It's how I knew there was a need for a blog for Occasional Genealogists. It's not an ideal situation, but it may be your only option.

Thanks to years of genealogy experience, when I make a mistake (I shouldn't have made), I usually recognize it the next time I touch that project. I may have wasted a bit of time but not years of research. Experience is often the only way to achieve this.

With all of these mistakes (and probably any genealogical "error"), the key is identification. You need to be able to quickly identify a mistake. Ideally, you will recognize a potential error before you actually make it.

But that's not always possible, and it's not always best.

This is where the nuance of a very experienced researcher comes in. Experience will teach you that what appears to be a mistake, isn't always. Sometimes the data is bad, not your research. I'll discuss some of the specifics with each mistake to make this clear.

In short, sometimes you need to follow the "wrong" person to determine they really aren't who you are looking for. Sometimes it turns out they are your person, sometimes it was just prudent to make sure, even when in the end they weren't your guy.

Making every effort to "avoid" these mistakes instead of "identifying" them is a stumbling block keeping you from improving your skills, too. Here's how I'd use a three skill level scale and where these mistakes (and your relationship with them) puts you.

The statements within each level represent a range of experience from least experience on up.


You are unaware these mistakes are likely.

You often make these mistakes but eventually will identify them. Unfortunately, it's not until after you've done additional research on top of the mistaken research.


You are aware of all three mistakes and how they occur. You may still make them but you either feel a sense of caution (something's not quite right) or you recognize them before you move on to more research.

You are aware of the mistakes and usually, recognize them but perhaps still struggle with knowing what to do (don't research the person more or ???).


You recognize the mistakes, usually before even making notes, and know what to do. This could be monitoring the situation (a more active version of proceeding with caution) or taking very specific action such as intentionally researching the "mistaken" line. Your notes and reports will reflect your recognition of a potential error and keep you from mixing possibly wrong information into your verified family tree.

These Aren't Hard and Fast Rules

I do want you to realize that anyone can make a mistake when they aren't trying their best, that doesn't demote you (that's not a thing). Being chronically sloppy does keep your skill level from increasing and stalls your research.

Side note: Who really cares what level you are as long as you are doing good research and progressing? Skill levels are really only important when identifying your educational needs. You should naturally progress through all three levels over your genealogy "career" even if you can't clearly define which level you are at.

There are so many variations of how these mistakes can be discovered. It's not reasonable in every situation to recognize a potential mistake in the seconds between looking at a record and making notes.

There's a reason that analysis is a part of the research cycle. You can't process every piece of information instantly. Some information has no significance until it's correlated (compared to other information, possibly from a different research session).

The 3 Mistakes to Identify

I've chosen these three mistakes because I feel these are key to skill improvement. I'll explain why with each.

Creating impossible fathers 

Creating impossible fathers is such a basic mistake, you will probably be a beginner forever if you don't learn to tame it. | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogymistakes

I've given this mistake a short little title, but it's really a core genealogy skill that covers more than just fathers. I could have said it this way, "DO THE MATH!"

This is mistake number one because you really can't go beyond being a beginner if you don't deal with it. Excluding modern scientific breakthroughs, a man can not be the father if he died more than nine months before the child was born. You can even play it safe and calculate 10 months before the child was born.

This obviously applies to other variations. The mother had to be alive to give birth to the child. People have to be alive to get married, etc.

It all comes down to doing the math.

If you perpetually make this mistake and don't catch it quickly, you will never get past being a "beginner." This is so basic, it reflects on how careful you are with the rest of your research.

This may also be the biggest mistake that puts that red "A" on you if you are violently speaking against all the genealogists that make this mistake as being stupid or incompetent, etc.

Not doing the math is an easy mistake to make. You're excited when you find information you think helps you. The problem is when you don't notice a mathematical error, soon.

However, here's why deriding your fellow genealogists for making this error (regardless if they catch it or not) is a tell-tale sign you aren't advanced. Data (such as a birth date) is often wrong. Record keeping standards were far more lax in the past.

Some families put no importance on a birthday (or any exact date), some, it was a big deal. This can vary by location, ethnicity, time frame, family to family, and person to person. Completely ignoring a possible candidate because one or two pieces of data indicate a "math" problem is not the best idea.

Once again, this comes back to correlation. If multiple pieces of information indicate someone isn't alive to be in the role assigned (whether as a birth parent or other role), that's a different story. An experienced genealogist will decide how cautious they need to be and move forward from there. Exactly what they do is specific to the situation.

If you aren't checking the math with every census record you look at, research is going to be slow. Especially with census records, mathematically perfect ages aren't required. You do want to notice that the record you are positive is for your ancestor is ten years off from the next record you find. It might be the same person, but you need to recognize it.

If you've got the basic math check down, do you realize you shouldn't toss a potential match just because the math doesn't work? Figuring out what to do is complex but realizing it isn't black and white is the first step.

Genealogical Resource: Timelines

A great way to deal with a potentially impossible father (or any similar situation) is to create a timeline. A timeline is a simple way to correlate information from someone's life.

It's a concept you're already familiar with, so you can start there and create more complex variations as your skills improve. The great thing about a timeline is it can help with multiple issues, not just "doing the math."

It can help you identify the geographical equivalent, where someone is making a migration that doesn't make sense. It can also help you identify holes in your research. You may have other uses specific to your research.

I want to make one quick note about timelines. Don't just create them one way and stop. What beginners often today (today, not 20 years ago) is use a timeline generated by their genealogy software. You should absolutely take advantage of this quick option.

It just shouldn't be your only way to create a timeline.

Don't worry about finding the perfect method for creating a timeline. Just get started. Once you've figured out how to use a timeline, be open to other methods and other uses for a timeline.

Here are a few resources to get you started. If you struggle to create a timeline based on these resources, find more suggestions. There are lots out there because everyone has different preferences and different needs. That's a good thing.

Core Text

The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood

Timelines are actually mentioned in Chapter 9 (at least in my edition), section II. Check the index for the version you are using (look for "timelines").

This is a core text beginners should read but it's not the only text you want to start with. I have the 3rd edition, published in 2000 which is on the cusp of computer usage being standard. Some of the information related to technology is not relevant (in 2000, doing all your research online was pretty much impossible and also meant you were using inferior sources, there really weren't online images except in rare cases).

There is a 4th edition, so if you choose to buy this text (and it's a good investment), make sure to buy the most recent edition. You may be using this at your local library, so be aware that the genealogical concepts in the book are sound but some of the specifics, depending on the edition you are using, may not apply. This is a good exercise in evaluating a source, without risking your research if your evaluation isn't good.

I did not know about this book until I was fairly experienced so I used this book by reading chapters as I needed to learn or review a concept. I didn't try reading it from start to finish. It's a thick book so realize part of it's value is as a reference.

If you're a "beginner" (by your own definition) and you want to improve, and a class or institute isn't an option, buy this book and read it from start to finish. Make notes to yourself to direct your future education (what are you confused about, what do you want to learn more about).

Books not the way you want to learn?

Digital Course

"Timeline Tricks to Solve Genealogy Problems" from FamilyTree University

Blog Posts and More

"Using Timelines to Plot Out Your Ancestor’s Life" from the FamilySearch Blog
General Timeline Resources from Cyndi's List

Confusing same name, different man

Do you know how to deal with records with men of the same name, but you don't know if they are the same man? | #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogymistakes

This is a very similar problem to "impossible fathers" in many ways, but it's far more difficult to deal with. Hence, it's not the first "mistake" listed. That's also why I picked the lion, although I keep thinking, "it's a bear of a problem"---either way, you want to tame this problem, or it'll eat you.

If you constantly compile all the people of the same name into one person, you won't get past the "beginner" stage, and your research will probably become excessively complex.

After all, you'll be chasing details from different people, thinking it's one person. You'll always have contradictions in supporting information when one fact matches.

Here's the point I always make when people reply to this mistake with "but my guy has an unusual name, and I'm checking the ages."


Unusual names are often family names. Ask me how I trace all the daughter lines of one family with the given name Etheldred. It's not common where my family is from, except in my family. So far I've never found an Etheldred in that area that isn't part of my family. I got lucky there were so few sons, the surnames are all different, so I'm not dealing with male cousins of the exact same name.

Normally, there aren't so few sons. Why wouldn't two brothers, close in age, name their second (or third, fourth, etc.) son after the same relative? Those cousins are often close in age. If the family is a cluster, both cousins have the same associates (their aunts, uncles, and cousins), they may have the same job (this is very likely in rural areas where everyone is a farmer).

Are you now saying "but my family is the only one that settled there." They may be the only ones that settled there, but that doesn't mean family didn't pass through. That's the most dangerous situation. It may be hard or impossible to find one record showing there are multiple people of the same name at the same time when that time is only a few years, maybe even less than a year.

It's not always this extreme, but if you prepare for the extreme case of close cousins, you're usually much better at not combining two people just because they have the same name.

In other words, this is an easy mistake to identify and deal with. Simply be aware and correlate all the data you have. Be cautious and don't combine two people unless you're sure.

This is not an easy situation to "complete," though. Identifying potential mistakes of this type can develop your skills past the beginner stage. Actually determining if they are the same person or not can often be an advanced problem.

Genealogy Resources: Separating People of the Same Name

There are a number of resources I could recommend, relating to various topics. Later I'll be writing about "correlation," so these resources are going to focus on one of my favorite techniques, cluster research or the "FAN principle." These are two different names for the same concept but they are sometimes addressed slightly differently (once again, a good thing as variety will help you learn from different angles).

An Easy to Use Starting Place

The Sleuth Book for Genealogists by Emily Anne Croom.
This is the book that got me started with cluster research. This isn't the last source you need to learn about cluster research and related concepts, but it's a very easy to read source that will get you started. Purchase it if you can't check it out from your local library (you may find this on the regular library shelves, not just in a "genealogy room"). You'll want to read this book from start to finish. It doesn't take long, but longer than you want to sit in the library!

An "Advanced" Starting Place

Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones.
At some point in your genealogical life, you want to read and work through the exercises in Mastering Genealogical Proof (MGP). This book is amazing, but it is not a beginner guide. I've listed it for those who really want to ramp up their skills (if you're a "beginner" and really want to advance, go ahead and give it a try). [Also available as a Kindle book, but I find this harder to use for the exercises].

Learn from the Creator of the "FAN Principle"
"QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle" from Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Explained website

NOT profiling your ancestors

Not doing something is sometimes the worst genealogy mistake. You need to profile your ancestors to recognize them in records when all the superficial details are the same. | #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogymistakes
The concept of profiling a person has gotten a negative connotation in the modern world. Don't apply that to your genealogy!

No matter the situation, profiling is done to learn what kind of person someone is when you don't know them or when they are potentially trying to mislead you into thinking they are different than they really are.

This should sound like genealogy! You can't know your dead ancestors personally. You have to profile them.

Some ancestors were trying to appear different in records than they were in person. If your ancestor ended up in court for doing something wrong, how often did they just say "I did it, it's my fault. Oh, and let me put in the official record all my family I'd like to apologize to." Never. Most people will have some kind of spin on the story or flat-out lie.

If you get lucky, relatives will be called as witnesses, and their relationship stated in the court minutes (no, really, I have a record like that). Most likely, you'll find a court docket with the names of the parties and the charge. That's it. There are plenty of similarly vague records genealogists use.

Those records are what you have to rely on. You need something to determine if that person is really your person and if their story fits what you can verify (i.e., if it's a pack of lies, you don't want to waste time searching for impossible information).

Profiling an ancestor is vital regardless if they lie in records. Incorrect records aren't only created when an ancestor lies so don't overlook this technique because you feel you only come from virtuous people.

Errors in records happen for many reasons. A lack of records is also likely.

Here's a hypothetical but possible situation. A profile will help you recognize the difference in the wealthy (in his own mind) fishmonger's son versus the poor but honest fisherman's son.

They might have the same name and age (with related industries, they might be second cousins). They might have similar associates (the fisherman's son perhaps takes the fish to the fishmonger, and then there's that cousin possibility). But one might get into trouble with the law pretty often. He might even like to blame his cousin (convenient with the same name and same associates).

The records probably won't paint you a detailed Dickensian tale. You will need to recognize the difference in economic (and possibly social) status. After enough research, you might discover the fisherman's son is honest and the fishmonger's son, not so much. You'll then have a profile that goes beyond name, age, and occupation so you can usually differentiate the two in records.

Profiling an ancestor starts simply at the beginner level. You should have already been doing it. Your ancestor is defined by a name, approximate birth year (used as age in many records), known residences (you don't go looking in California for your South Carolina ancestors without good reason), and possibly occupation.

As your skills improve and you do more research, you build up the profile. You might notice someone moves a lot or very little. There may be one occupation, and it seems to extend to most of the family (my husband comes from Italian barbers, the daughters even married barbers). Conversely, the person may constantly change jobs, but that means they won't have a job that requires years to become proficient.

The more your skills improve, the more you are able to glean from the information you have, and that adds to the profile. I once did some pro bono work on a family that seemed to have the strangest migration and wild job changes. This was an urban family, and I was used to working with rural families.

After a few days, I figured out why things didn't make sense to me. Turns out the family worked in the shipping industry along the Mississipi River. Once I started following the river instead of looking for land migrations, it all made sense.

The patriarch was a boilermaker, but his occupation could be listed as all sorts of metal-working jobs. Once I figured that out, I could find him almost everywhere. He wasn't the mail carrier that stayed in the city, he was the man moving from Texas to Iowa and all points (along the river) in between.

The family also seemed to have a problem with alcohol, so he did just suddenly disappear. I never found him or his death information after a certain point (as I said, it was a pro bono project, so at some point, the project just ended).

Without his profile, I was just confused.

I was already a professional genealogist when I worked on that project but working with a different type of family, not rural farmers, really improved my skills. I had done some superficial urban research before. After that project, I found urban research much easier. I recognized data that was probably part of the person or family's profile almost immediately.

Identifying the man and his family's profile was vital to the project. Creating a different kind of profile than I was used to (and was actually easier than my rural farmers' profiles), improved my skills.

Basically, NOT profiling your ancestors is a mistake you can't afford to make.

Genealogy Resources: Profiling and Database Investigation

I first become aware of "profiling" as a specific genealogical task from the following resource. Prior to that, I was familiar with cluster and FAN research, but I didn't think about a "profile." These concepts all work hand in hand. Being aware of them early in your genealogy career can save you a lot of mistakes and later heartache.
Core Text

Forensic Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD

Don't let the title of this book throw you off. There is a genealogical job, being a "forensic genealogist." That wasn't something people were aware of (or weren't using the term) at the time this book was published. The book has nothing to do with a professional career, it's for any genealogist.

The first time I read this book, it opened my mind to so many new possibilities. Unfortunately, for many rural families, there isn't enough data available to use the techniques suggested (or the data is very time consuming to gather). You still want to be aware of the possibilities. You never know when a technique will apply to your situation.

If you do urban research, you should buy this book. If you do rural research (like I do), try and get a copy from the library to read. If you love it, you can always buy a copy. Most likely, you will need a copy of the book to help you implement the strategies the first time. Once again, this will probably take more time than you want to spend sitting in a library with a book you can't check out (and as an Occasional Genealogist, you may need to do this over time in little segments, far easier at home).

So, it turns out Googling for "profiling" related to genealogy (such as "genealogy profiling" "ancestral profiling") mainly brings up genetic genealogy links. Google, of course, returns 1000s of results. I'm not inspired by what I see (and I did also exclude the term "DNA").

My recommendation for this subject is to learn more about cluster research or the FAN principle, (after you've checked out Forensic Genealogy). That is closely related and an easy topic to identify educational material. As I was preparing this post, I saw mention of this topic, not necessarily by name, in Evidence Explained (the book, not the website, although it will be covered in some form there) and in The Researcher's Guide. In both cases, what I saw was less than a page. Hence I didn't list it here.

If you use these core texts, you'll be exposed to this concept, even if it's not an in-depth article. Find a day to spend at your closest genealogy room, if you have to. Just sit and read. Your next research session will probably be much more productive!

Some online sources talk about "profiling" to learn who your ancestors are in the same way you'd want to read a biography. It's about relating to your ancestors where I'm talking about a research technique to find more relatives.

If you find good online sources or any additional sources (courses, books, etc.) specifically about profiling as a research technique, leave a comment. I've done so much self-education related to cluster research, I haven't gone looking for "profiling" sources. It ended up being covered with the related topics. Also, leave a comment if you find an alternative search phrase for genealogy profiling.

You can also leave a comment for another reason, I just want to encourage anyone to share more resources for profiling.

How do you improve your genealogy skills? Tame these 3 family history errors to get better at genealogy. | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogymistakes

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