As with real trees, all your family tree really needs to grow and flourish is a little of your time (or a lot if you're as addicted as I am!) and some attention to the basics. Digitized census records, DNA tests, and merge-matching software are wonderful inventions, but applying these five essential rules to your family tree research will go a much longer way to achieving genealogy success.
Rule #1: Do Not Assume
I know you've all heard this one, but it bears repeating. "Set in stone" is an expression that just doesn't apply to genealogy! Do not assume that the dates listed on a tombstone are the correct ones. Do not assume that your surname was always spelled the way it is today. Do not assume that household members listed in a census are actually brothers, sisters, or other relatives (unless the census actually states the relationship and, sometimes, not even then). Do not assume something as fact just because it has been published in a book or on the Internet.
More: Do the Ancestors Hanging From Your Family Tree Really Belong There?
Rule #2: Do Your Own Research
Following up on Rule One, secondary sources such as published family histories, indexes, and compilations are an easy way to expand your family tree quickly (the fancy fertilizer approach), but are also highly susceptible to mistakes and assumptions (as second-hand information usually is) that can quickly send your family tree growing in the wrong direction. While it is perfectly fine to use these types of sources to find clues to your family, you should always go back and take the time to verify second-hand sources with your own research in original documents. It only takes one incorrect assumption or fact to have you researching the wrong ancestors!
More: Five Steps to Verifying Online Genealogy Sources
Rule #3: Treat Brothers & Sisters as Equals
Many genealogists, especially beginners, are only interested in tracing their direct line -- grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, there is a good reason it is called a family tree, not an ancestor tree. The further back your research takes you, the more important it becomes to research your ancestor's brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Commonly referred to as collateral ancestors or collateral lines, these family members may provide the clues that your direct ancestor somehow managed not to leave behind. While your great-grandmother may have been born before births were recorded in the state where she lived, her younger sister may have been born just late enough to have that birth certificate with the parents' names you've been looking for. Or when you learn that your great-great grandfather was born in America, and his parents never chose to become citizens, the naturalization record of the eldest child who was born in Poland may provide the only link to the family's ancestral town. Many choose not to follow this sibling rule because of all the extra work involved, but I can guarantee that by ignoring them you'll find your research stuck somewhere.
More: Researching Collateral Lines
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