Research best practices

All research

  • Just because Fred Jones is the one-and-only Fred Jones you can find online, it doesn't mean he is the Fred Jones you are searching for. Your Fred Jones may not have been transcribed -- copied from an original source document. The transcription with your Fred Jones may not have been indexed and is therefore not searchable online. Fred Jones may have been transcribed as Fred Janes; once you take a look at a few hand-written records, you can see how easy it is to make a mistake when reading a name, and typing it. (Many of my Bonnetts have been transcribed as Bennetts.) The names of possible ancestors online is still only a small subset of all the ancestors who once were--just because there is a name that matches, doesn't mean it's the only possible person. Just because a name isn't there, doesn't mean he or she didn't exist.
  • Don't expect to trace your tree back to 1066, online, overnight. It's simply not possible, no matter what they say on TV.
  • Remember that the dates of birth given in the UK 1841 census were within a five-year range. Don't expect them to be exactly the same in the 1851 census (which will have a more accurate birth year).
  • Don't be surprised when you look at parish records and find multiple instances of baptized babies with the same first name and same parents. It's likely not a mistake or duplicate. Sadly, infant mortality was horrible, and many families kept trying with the same name until they had a child who lived through infancy. Check the burial records too, to see the full story.
  • If you have your DNA checked, be aware that it will likely only find connections up to six generations back. The shared DNA becomes too dilute further back!
  • If you cannot find a marriage record, see if it was possible for the wife to have had an earlier marriage. The second marriage would have been in her first married name, not her maiden name.
  • Always look at who else is on the census! Take a look at the image rather than just the transcription: next-door neighbours, visitors, in-laws, grandchildren and more may be gleaned from the image but not searchable in the census.
  • Use online maps to help with sanity-checking locations. Google Maps show how long it would take to walk. The bicycle time makes a good rough estimate for horse and carriage. Is the location logical? (I've been using this a lot with the Welsh Hughes family, where there were so very many people with identical names. It's also cool to "walk" down the street where your ancestors lived, especially if the house still exists and you live on the other side of the world!)
  • Remember that people forget ;-) They forget where they were born, and they forget--or alter--the year of their birth. One of my Hughes' fibbed about his age to get into the army earlier than he should have done, and then fibbed in the other direction when he met a young lady years later. Those fibs are public record on military documents and 
  • Remember that people are human beings who sometimes choose to use their second name instead of their first. Or to go by a nickname.
  • Invest in birth/marriage/death certificates. They are the only way to be sure of details such as the exact date of an event, or the name of a parent. In some USA states, a death cert can provide a huge amount of unexpected information. In the UK, the birth certificate gives the mother's maiden name and may also provide info on any earlier maternal marriages. Marriage certificates give the names and occupations of the couple's fathers.
  • If you live near to one, visit your local Family History Center. They have a huge amount of information accessible, PCs and microfiche readers that you can use. If you are looking for records that are not available at your FHC, they can order them from the mothership in Utah and make them available to you locally for several weeks. 
  • Remember that "of full age" means that a person was at least 21 years old. They might be 21: they might be 45. Some transcriptions show the date of birth as being the year 21 years prior to the "of full age" record -- it should be considered to mean at least 21 years prior.
  • Be aware that the census scribe wrote what he, or she, heard, if the people being counted could not write and/or could not spell their name. This leads to some interesting versions of the very same family name over different years of census taking. It's not that the family changed their name: it's that someone heard it and/or spelled it differently. For example: Toon and Toone, Rowbottam and Rowbotham.
  • If you are researching people in the UK, note that the 1911 census not only contains information about the length of marriage and the number of children (living or not) from the marriage, but also was written by the family themselves. You can see your ancestor's handwriting!
  • Read old newspapers. It's a brilliant way to find out what your ancestors were getting up to: not only births, marriages and deaths, but also court cases, bankruptcies, accidents, civic responsibilities, stray cows, broken windows, drunkenness... the list goes on ;-)

  • Use primary and/or official sources such as census data, BMD (birth, marriage and death records), church records rather than relying on hints from Ancestry Member Trees. Other members' trees can point you in the right direction--or completely down a rabbit hole, all the way to somewhere in Philadelphia. Ancestry allows sharing of successful research: it also allows, far too easily, the propagation of mistakes. I know: I still see some of my early, not-quite-right research being shared today, because someone else way-back-when used my research as evidence for their own tree. When you look at a hint from another member's tree, click through to their tree, see the sources, do a sanity check. See if they have left comments about questions and doubts. You might have to click through to many other members' trees to find one with sources--and you might never find the source. Take the hint, and see if you can prove it. 
  • If an Ancestry hint suggests that Great Uncle Fred, who was in Village A for the 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1881 censuses was in City Z on the day of the 1871 census, look at it logically. Don't just click Yes! People often have the same names. Check occupations. Check other family members. See if you can find a logical reason for Great Uncle Fred travelling (e.g., military records, his occupation). Double-check that you can't find Great Uncle Fred in Village A in 1871 by browsing through the census images instead of relying on the transcription. 
  • Be aware that Ancestry Hints seem to be prioritised by the number of trees making the same connection. A hint may appear high in the list because many people have made the exact same mistake, not because it's a fact. 
  • If you have any doubts, document them. It's normal to make an assumption that two people with the same surname born within a couple of years in the same small village are siblings: but if you do not have records/sources to prove the relationship, put a note into your tree. Then anyone who is looking at Hints from your tree--and who clicks through to see the tree--will see the doubts and questions, too. (Also: it's far too easy to forget making an assumption when you return to a person six months later.)
  • If you are tempted to order BMD certificates for UK ancestors through, first check out direct ordering from the GRO (General Register Office). The price difference may surprise you. You'll have to enter a little more information on the GRO site before you can place the order, but it's information that you already have.
  • Please do not "correct" transcriptions of censuses with the wife's maiden name. It's not helpful. Please DO correct transcriptions with transcription errors.
  • Other Ancestry members' trees can be worth checking when you have problems finding a census entry for a given year. Someone may have already found your missing person or family: transcription errors, or unexpected locations, or the census scribe choosing a different spelling to the one you are used to might already have been puzzled out.
Find My Past
  • FindMyPast doesn't yet seem to be very logical about locations--it won't find villages within a ten-mile radius, for example. So if you don't find the person you are looking for within their expected location, search again with the county as the location. 
  • Always look at the lovely document images, when available--they contain so much more information than the transcripts!

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