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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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

image of crumpled paper and crossed out writing

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 beyond-beginner.

  1. Creating impossible fathers
  2. Confusing same name, different man
  3. NOT profiling your ancestors


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" so defining if you're a beginner is hard. It's also common to be a beginner in certain aspects of genealogy and not others (you might be a beginner in Irish research but very experienced in Hawaiian research).

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.

These three mistakes must be tamed by amateurs and professionals alike. If you let these mistakes ruin your genealogy, you wont' be able to go beyond-beginner level, no matter how it's defined!

Three Major Genealogical Mistakes

Before I explain in detail what each mistake encompasses, I want to talk about taming or overcoming these mistakes in general and what that means.

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 that term.

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.

With any genealogical mistake, the key is identification. You need to be able to quickly identify a mistake you've made. Ideally, you will recognize a potential error before you actually make it. But that's not always possible, and it's not always needed.

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. Recognizing a potential error in a source is a key skill, too.

When you work on taming these mistakes, not avoiding them, you are also working on the skill of recognizing potential errors ("potential" is an important word, here).

Sometimes you need to follow what appears to be the "wrong" person to determine if they are the person you are seeking or not.

Making every effort to avoid the mistakes listed in this post instead of identifying them is a stumbling block keeping you from improving your skills, too. 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).

This is one of the reasons the Brick Wall Solution Roadmap (and particularly the emailed educational series that goes with it) focuses so much on review. In the review step of the Roadmap, you get a chance to analyze correlate, and recognize. You review your information to give you another chance to process it AND to process it in conjunction with old and new information you may not have considered together.

Beginners just keep gathering information. If they never learn to review, or "process" all the information together, they will never stop being a beginner. Eventually they'll become frustrated and give up.

Genealogy should be fun. Finding new ancestors is possibly the most fun, but if you want to have that experience, you have to learn to do more than just stick a name in a search field on the Internet and then stick that information into a tree or software. That is data entry, not processing the information. Just reading the information in that format is reading the information, not review. Doing genealogy involves analysis and turning data entry into processing or reading into review is when you add analysis.

Don't worry if analysis sounds hard. It's something you've probably already started doing, you just want to learn to do it better. Dealing with these three mistakes is learning basic analysis. You can do this and your research will be better when you do!

The 3 Genealogy 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.

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. Two people have to be in the same location at least once to conceive a child.

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. But always remember, we're all human, we all make mistakes. The most important part of this mistake is trying to always do the math but if you don't, quickly catching the problem.

Not doing the math is an easy mistake to make. You're excited when you find information you think helps you. But there's a second piece to this particular mistake.

Some families put no importance on a birthday (or any exact date), for 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 a beginner mistake, too.

Once again, this comes back to correlation (comparing multiple pieces of the same kind of information). 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 big problem. One census record that is off could indicate you found the wrong person or the information in the census is wrong. You don't toss that information just from doing the math (and finding an issue), you proceed cautiously.

When you review your problem in future, considering that individual piece of information and the source that provided it, you should correlate it with other information you gathered in other sources. You can then decide if you should do something (toss the information, for example) or continue to proceed cautiously. This is analysis. You are analyzing the information and 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 a potential problem.

Resource: Learning to take great genealogy notes is directly related to dealing with potential problems as that's where we'd tell our future self, "hey, this doesn't seem right but I'm going to capture this information anyway because..." 

If you've got the basic math check down, the next piece to go beyond-beginner is realizing you shouldn't toss a potential match just because the math doesn't work. Figuring out what to do is complex (sometimes even for the most advanced researchers!) 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 correlates information from someone's life.

It's a concept you're already familiar with, so you can start there and create more complex timelines or other correlations 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 do today 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.

("Why?" you ask. A timeline generated from software is automation. The purpose of automation is to keep us from having to think about doing that task. You are creating a timeline becuase you WANT to think about the information. As I said, you should take advantage of how fast it is but realize creating a timeline a different way might be just what you need to get you thinking about your problem in a helpful way. A great way to get started is automatically generate your timeline digitally so you can work with the information. You ideally want to be able to add to what was automatically generated).

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 of correlation and other uses for a timeline.

Here are a few resources to get you started.

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 its 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?

Online Program

My hands-on program Brick Wall Simplified will help you with all three of these mistakes. One of the things you learn is step-by-step how to create my signature D.E.P.S. Chart which is a timeline's super efficient cousin. Start by requesting The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap (these three mistakes are dealt with during steps 2 & 3 of the Roadmap which is the focus of Brick Wall Simplified, but you want to see the whole Roadmap).

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Genealogy Mistake #2

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 for the graphic, 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 and likely you'll get and stay stuck.

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. Mixing up multiple people as one person creates a fake person. That fake person can't have real family so at the extreme, you won't be able to continue building a family tree from that fake individual.

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. The given name Etheldred 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 becauser there are so few sons. Most of the Etheldreds have different surnames..

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, too. You can often find families with extremely similar given names amongst all the children. Toss in the random use of middle names, it's easy to mix up two people or even two whole families.

A great technique to avoid mixing up people of the same name is using their cluster, the people they are related to, live near, and interact with. But with cousins, the cluster can be the same. Cousins may have the same job (this is very likely in rural areas where everyone is a farmer).

Cousins can be the most tricky situations for mixing up "same name, different person." Keeping that situation in mind can help you remember to always be cautious about this issue. Even when only one family unit migrated, it's likely their cousins (not a stranger of the same name) followed them, even if they didn't remain in the same place.

Thinking about how easy it could be to mix up cousins should cement in your mind that this is a serious situation, regardless if you're researching John Smith or Etheldred Ledford.

You don't have a quick check for this issue like checking the math. Instead, you need to review regularly and correlate information. Anyone in your tree could potentially be mixed up with someone of the same name. The genealogy research process involves regular review and analysis and correlation because you need to make sure you aren't making this mistake.

Once again, you can't just decide to avoid this mistake. Sometimes you need to gather all the records mentioning that name and then process them to determine which ones are for your person and which are not. This usually isn't easy or fast but it's necessary (always gathering all the documents for a name is not what is necessary. Sometimes it's obvious a record is for someone different. If you can't decide which records are for your person, you need to gather them and then review, analyze, and correlate).

Remember, the consequences of not dealing with this mistake are dire.

  • You might combine information from multiple people into one. That fake person will be a brick wall you can't solve because it's not one person.
  • You might put the wrong person in your tree (mix up people of the same name). You could continue researching that person but your tree will contain more and more people that are not your ancestors (you'd need to lop off that whole branch because it's wrong).

The only solution is to slow down. Be careful when researching and regularly take time to review your research, don't just do more and more new research.

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

Genealogy Mistake #3

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" has gotten a negative connotation in the modern world. Don't apply that to your genealogy!

No matter the situation, genealogical, criminal, etc., 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 and sometimes they intentionally try to misrepresent themselves in records. You have to profile them.

Using a detailed profile isn't always needed until you hit a tricky problem. But it's much easier to set yourself up to be ready by understanding the general concept and gathering the information as you go.

In genealogy we also refer to problems related to a profile as a question of identity. The profile or identity is more than just a name. Many people have the same names. It's the collection of informatoin about one information that makes them unique. That's their profile or identity.

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. A person's religion or lack of religion is part of their profile.

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 Mississippi 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.

Initially I profiled this man as a urban metal worker. That was a land-based occupation but definitely not a rural occupation. My profile helped me exclude some characteristics correctly (he was unlikely to be a farmer or even a rural blacksmith). Misunderstanding his occupation, thinking it was land-based, was a huge issue, though.

Without his correct profile, I was just confused.

Using a profile is one of the ways you will be able to separate people of the same name. It also provides clues for other places to research (both locations and sources).

Some genealogists gather this type of identifying information because they just want to know about their ancestor. Some are focused on other goals so they miss the smaller details like occupation, religion, or migration. The small details are what you need when a problem gets hard. You won't know when a problem will be hard so capturing the small details in your notes gives you a head start.

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 the books listed above, 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 genealogy how-to guides. 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. Both are valid but recognize there are two sides to this type of research.

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