Rule #4: One Source Doesn't Equal Proof
It seems pretty simple. You find a death certificate for your grandfather which lists not only his date of death and place of burial, but also his place of birth and his parents' names. Time to enter the information into your family tree and then move on to tracking down Great-grandpa, right? Nope, sorry. One source just isn't enough to constitute proof, especially when it is a secondary source -- as death certificates are for the date of birth and other information which do not relate directly to the death. I searched for my great, great-grandmother for years under the maiden name MARIN because that is what my grandmother remembered. Then, wasted some more time with the maiden name MOORE (pun intended), because that is what I found listed on the death certificate. Both wrong, of course. The actual name was close enough (MEARES), but close doesn't count in genealogy any more than it does in multiple choice.
Before arriving at a conclusion in your genealogy research, you must first conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all pertinent information. Logically, this means trying to find several different sources for the same information, to give you the best chance at arriving at a well-researched, substantiated conclusion.
More: Evidence or Proof? How to Prove Family Tree Connections
Rule #5: Squeeze Out Every Bit of Detail from Sources
Do you remember all of those records you've looked during the course of creating your family tree? Do you really think there is nothing more to be learned from them? Pull them back out for your more difficult ancestors and take another look at every single detail and ask yourself what that detail can possibly tell you about your ancestor. In her Advanced Methodology class at the Institute of Historical and Genealogical Research, Elizabeth Shown Mills teaches genealogists that there is almost always some other little clue that can be squeezed out of a record. Say, for example, that you find your ancestor in a list of individuals which records the amounts paid to each individual for appearing in court as a witness to a court case (commonly found in county Court Order or Witness books). If the amounts are different for different individuals, have you ever wondered why? This simple little clue may help you approximate how far the individual lived from the Court House (as payments generally included a base stipend plus mileage) and place them approximately on a map (in an arc or circle from the courthouse) even if they never owned land. This information can then be correlated with the names of neighbors from census and tax records to possibly narrow his location down even further. Knowing exactly where your ancestor lived is a gold mine for determining potential family relationships!
The next time you see something in a record that you don't understand, or doesn't make sense, or just seems of no use - look at it again. Use Google or ask a question on your favorite genealogy mailing list to learn exactly what the record might be telling you. Learn why the record was created, the laws of the time and location which may impact its meaning and what each piece of information really means.
Don't Stop Now...Share the Wealth!Family trees are meant for sharing. Unfortunately, however, you'll probably find that most of your relatives could care less about the jumbled (to them) collection of facts, notes, and sources that constitute your genealogy database. If you weave all of those names and dates into a story, however, you may find they are interested despite themselves. And "interested" means you'll probably find them more receptive to sharing what they know. Take some time out from your research today to get some of your information into published form, whether it is creating a CD of collected family photos, a family cookbook of collected recipes, or a written history of the family. Even something as simple as framing a copy of Great-granddad's family in the 1930 census is a form of publishing - and makes a great conversation piece too! It's okay if your genealogy isn't "finished." Believe me - it never will be. Just include what you know, taking the time to carefully document your sources. Don't be afraid to use "weasel words" such as probably, possibly, and maybe for information you aren't sure about. As long as you're careful to explain what is fact and what is still guesswork, your family tree will grow for the sharing.
More: Writing & Publishing Your Family History