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Genealogy Research Rules

Updated on October 31, 2012

Rules to research by.

These rules are for those thinking about or just starting their family history research. They are designed to help you avoid "beginner mistakes" and make you feel more confident that you are spending your research time wisely.

I won't lie, genealogy can be extremely time consuming but the rewards of knowing your ancestors are a true gift. These are the "Top 10" things I wish I knew when I was starting my own family research and are listed in no particular order.

Rule #1: Use a pencil!

From misspelled names to conflicting dates, you'll be doing a lot of correcting of facts, so unless you have stock in "white-out", pencil and eraser are your best friends. Even "official" documents may be wrong as they often rely on information given by ancestors who, more than likely, could not read or write. It is not uncommon to see an ancestor age less than 10 years or more than 10 years from one census to the next.

Rule #2: Be organized.

Probably the most important decision you will make when starting your journey into your family history is how you will organize what you uncover. A binder, a notebook, an excel file, free online websites or special software can be used. Each option has its pros and cons. The method you choose must work with you. You can spend fifty dollars on special software to help you track your records but if all your research is on little post it notes that never make it into the software you’ve wasted fifty dollars.

Rule #3: Follow the "Rule of Two".

Always try to find two supporting documents to confirm a new fact or lead. I will be honest, there will be many instances that you will not be able to find a second document corroborating a fact but if you follow every new lead with the "Rule of Two" in mind you will avoid traveling too far down someone else's family history road.

For example, The 1900 census lists your father as Joseph Smith, age 35, living at 123 Main St but the 1910 Census lists a person named Joe Smyth, age 47, living at 456 Main St. and you are not sure it is the same person. Upon more research you discover a WWI Registration Card from June 1917 for a Jose Smith, age 44, living at 456 Main St. His birth date is listed as May 19, 1873. His emergency contact is listed as his mother, Sarah Smyth of 123 Main St. The WWI Registration Card is an alternative document that helps confirm you are on the right path.

Rule #4: View Original Records Whenever Possible.

Many records online have been transcribed by volunteers from local history and genealogical societies. You will inevitably run into transcription keying errors, documents that are difficult to read or perhaps damaged. In many cases only key names on a document are transcribed.

Rule #5: Don't Assume Anything!

If these rules were in order of most important this would be number 1! Don't assume all children listed in a house are siblings. Married children often lived with parents or a widowed older relative lived with a child and their family. A 1908 obituary for my great great great aunt listed two daughters. Further research proved one child was adopted and the other was actually her niece who she raised from age 3 when the child's mother passed away.

Rule #6: Read EVERY detail of the document.

Then read it again. Read the page before and the page after it and the other side if applicable. Many websites that allow you to view the record online bring you to the first page of the document. I have also come across documents that were alphabetized before scanning to view online. The record before or after may be an additional page to the document or it may be the record of another family member.

Rule #7: Know what records are available and where.

You can spend a lot of time and money looking for records that don’t exist by learning what records have survived and where they are held. I would start with a call to the library where your ancestor lived. Ask them what genealogical records they hold if any. From there they can usually tell you if your records are held locally with the city or town or at a state level. They may also know about historical and genealogical societies in the area that specialize in the location where your ancestor lived. Many libraries have access to websites like that can be used by library patrons for free.

Rule #8: Know the place and time your ancestors lived.

Did they live in the city or country? What was the major source of income in that area at the time they lived there? Was it textiles, industrial or farming? Was there a war or other military action going on at the time? Was there a major disaster like the Great Famine in Ireland? What was their religion? What was the common transportation during that time period? All of these answers are relevant to your ancestor’s daily lives and provide clues to where you should search for records. Almost as important as the clues they provide they also provide you with a sense of "knowing" your ancestors and allowing you to feel a real connection to them.

Rule #9: Regularly review every document you've collected.

Regularly reviewing all your documents with a fresh pair of eyes and many more months of research in your head will allow you to see the documents in a whole new light, leading to clues you missed or that weren't apparent the first time around.

Rule #10: Sometimes disproving or ruling out an individual is all you can do.

Sometimes the best you can hope to achieve is to rule individuals out. You may find seven Joe Smiths on a census, all around the same age, and your not sure which one is yours. You may be able to rule out five of the seven but still be unsure of the last two. This should be viewed as a positive not a negative. If you do rule them out never throw away the document. Keep a separate file for “No Connection” documents so that you can review them at a later date. The two individuals you proved were not siblings may actually turn out to be cousins.

Every family history adventure is different as is each family line within a family. I have grandparents from Portugal, Canada, Scotland and Ireland. Different countries pose different research challenges but it's my hope that the rules above will help you get the most out of your search.

If you enjoy genealogy and have your own "Rules to Research By" feel free to comment below and share with others.


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