Five family history research tips

I recently enrolled in a Family History course through the University of Tasmania, and during the week some reading became available – one being The 10 Golden Rules of Genealogy by Betty Horskins. Things like ‘Always check surname variants when researching’, and ‘Never completely trust the spelling of surnames, places, etc’.

It’s a great read, and provides (quite humorous) examples of people avoiding these rules.

It also made me reflect on my own efforts to date, and some of the mistakes made along the way. While some of these may not be ‘common’ (I’m looking at you, number 4) I have definitely learned from them, and these days am much more organised and productive.

So here they are – my five family history mistakes*:

*conveniently disguised as tips


Calm down, Clicky McClickerson


1. Verify information before adding events and people to your tree

When I first started out years ago, I was as green as the ‘hint’ leaves on; I thought that public family trees were some ‘official’ thing, and was super impressed with how far back (and across) people had gone with their research. I admit to being like a kid in a candy store.

Not just in a candy store, but one who had gorged on lollies and was on a sugar high.

Accept all the hints!  Add all the people!

Then the high wore off, and I took a closer look. Some of those people were apparently time lords, some belonged to totally different families, and others were older than their parents…somehow.

Yes, I got excited. Yes, I came to regret it.

I then spent hours deleting. In the end I started a new tree.

Lesson learned. Now when something is verified, I attach (or make note of) a source, and also add a comment to remind myself (and help others) how it came about.

Don’t be that kid. Eat add responsibly.


Excuse me – do I know you?


2. Write things down and keep records

When you’re immersed in a particular line or group of family members, you know their details (and how they connect) inside-out. If you were to take a quiz on them, you’d nail it.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll remember this level of detail down the track – especially when your tree grows, and after you take a ‘break’ from them for a while.

If you’ve ever seen Game of Thrones, think of it like watching most some episodes:

“Who’s this?”

“Who’s that?”

“Have we seen him before?”

You get the idea. The point is that even though you may have a great memory, also ensure to keep notes.

Putting together a timeline is really useful, and not only helps to piece things together, but is a good way to keep track of your sources as well.


Channel your inner-five-year-old


3. Question everything!

Working collaboratively can be great, especially if someone else has done similar research, or points you in a certain direction. But – it really does pay to view the original sources (or copies) yourself. This includes questioning information from Indexes as well. We all make mistakes, and even the wonderful transcribers out there don’t always get it right. Take this one for example: an error, but you can see why ‘David’ was transcribed as ‘Daniel’. They do look really similar.

Index Versus Original Record

A wrong name or date can make a big difference to your efforts.

Similarly, relying on other information – even including published works – can also sometimes lead you astray. One thing I try to do is gather as much information as possible concerning a particular event, and evaluate it to determine how ‘correct’ it may be. Just to be completely sure (or on track to being sure).

Don’t be afraid to question, check, and look for other information to support your findings. It will be worth it in the end.


I don’t think that means what you think it means


4. Clarify unfamiliar terminology to avoid embarrassment

Sooo…anyone else think that ‘On the town’ meant having a night out with the girls? Complete with high heels clicking, music and laughter?

Oh – just me then.

Well this is awkward…

For those of you that are familiar – where were you years ago?! I could have done with the correction. 🙂

I still laugh when I think of it, and can clearly remember when a lovely lady at the local historical society politely informed me that ‘on the town’ often meant ‘prostitute’.

Luckily I hadn’t shared my theory with her…

Another favourite (almost-blunder) was reading that someone was arrested for ‘Keeping an improper house.’

Cue train of thought:

“Wow, they must have had high standards for doing housework back then.”

Some time later….

*lightbulb moment*

“Ooooh. Brothel. They meant brothel.”


Don’t just join the dots, colour the picture too


5. Brush up on your history

In putting together family stories, the where and when an event takes place will help to provide context, and paint a more accurate (fuller) picture. Looking into the social history of the time is a great way to help build an understanding of why certain events happened as they did.

Tip: this is especially helpful to do before you recount the story of a WW1 soldier who died at a hotel in France. Before assuming that he must have been on some kind of leave (and therefore quite an unlucky chap) it may be wise to find out a bit more on the ‘ins and outs’ of the time.

Confession: it wasn’t until I watched a documentary on WW1 that I discovered that due to the hospitals being full / overflowing, some hotels in France were ‘converted’ into temporary hospitals. Whoops!

Yes, that really happened.

Yes, I’m fine if you tease me about it.


Feel free to share your tips too, and happy searching!

2 thoughts on “Five family history research tips

  1. Excellent tips. I especially like the first one and sometimes wonder if people pay much attention to what they add to their tree. Never trust what someone else says unless they sourced it, or you can find the source yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Susan. 🙂 In hindsight, the first one was what led me to be so questioning. I luckily had my tree on private back then (so didn’t lead anyone else astray), but definitely learned a valuable lesson about sources.


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