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Golden Rules of Genealogy

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

Here is a list of "golden rules" that I came across online and thought I would share. They are in no particular order.

1. Spelling Doesn’t Count – Back in the day, folks could not spell and many could barely write, so how a name sounds is more important than how it is spelled. Remember…when researching there is the added variant of multiple spellings of an ancestor’s name in German and how English speakers heard and spelled those German names.

2. Assume Nothing – Check all your facts. Do not assume that any particular document is right or wrong and always try to find other independent sources to corroborate your facts as much as possible. Verify, verify, verify. For instance don’t assume that:

  1. your ancestors were married

  2. census information is accurate

  3. vital (or other) records were correct

  4. your ancestor’s life events were recorded

  5. ancestors had the same name as their enslaver

  6. that official documents (i.e. birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates) have always been in existence

  7. that our ancestors recorded the same kind of information we do today

  8. that life events and customs we celebrate today, were as important to our ancestors

3. Use Discretion – NEVER LIE in your genealogy reports, but use discretion when reporting family information, especially when it involves living relatives.

4. Always Document Your Sources, No Matter How Much They Contradict One Another – Over time, you will compile more data and those once seemingly contradictory pieces of evidence may prove to be just the pieces of the puzzle you need to prove or disprove your theory. Be consistent as you cite your sources. There are standard citation formats, but even if you just make up your own format for listing your sources, be consistent with it. You want your descendants to be able to retrace your steps, so you always cite your sources.

5. Most Dates Are Approximate – It’s okay to state that someone was born “abt. 1845,” or died “May 1915” if you don’t have an exact date or where various documents have different dates. Which date is correct?” They all are.

6. If Unsure, Say So – Future researchers will thank you for being honest if you simply say that you cannot prove a specific fact, yet you “suspect” such and such is true. Don’t fudge the facts. EVER.

7. You CANNOT Do it All Online – Yes, we love doing research online and there’s nothing better than using the computer to find new sources, view digital images of original documents and even connect with relatives. For genealogists, the internet will never replace the wonderful work of libraries, county courthouses, archives, and historical societies. Do as much as you can online, then turn off your computer and hit the bricks! And, if you think it is so cool seeing that digital image of an original document, imagine what it would be like to hold it in your hands!

8. Just Because It’s Online Doesn’t Mean It’s True – The internet is a wonderful thing but it’s filled with oodles of bad information. Do not make the mistake of believing anything you find online at face value. Verify against other sources, even if you paid for the information you found online. Consult the original source whenever possible. This includes It are an excellent place to start, but there is a lot of bad information floating around. Never trust a source that does not provide their citations. If you can’t go back to the original, do not believe the information.

9. Pass Along Your Research – No matter how many decades you spend researching your family, your research will never be done. Plan on passing along your research to the next generation of researchers. Leave excellent notes, cite all your sources, explain your shorthand…in essence, leave your research the way you’d have liked to have found it. Try not to abbreviate. If you do abbreviate, write down the code and leave it where it can be found by researchers. Abbreviations used today, did not mean the same today as they did in the past and vice versa; and they will not mean the same in 50 years. Taking the time to write something completely, than abbreviating, will save future generations time in trying to decipher your work.

10. Don’t Die With Your Stories Still In You – Tell the stories as completely and as accurately as possible. Genealogy isn’t about just doing research. Genealogy is about telling the stories and ensuring that your ancestor’s legacies live on for generations to come. Without the stories, the research won’t do anyone much good. The legacy of your ancestors rests in your capable hands. Doing the research is fine, but always remember that you have been chosen to tell their stories.

11. DNA Is Not A Trump Card – DNA is just one of many possible sources of information you can use to verify of deny a relationship. Human error occurs when the results are transcribed, thereby providing false information. DNA results should always be used in concert with other sources.

12. Anything You Post Online Will Be “Borrowed” – You need to accept the fact that any family information you post online will be “borrowed” or outright stolen, and you will probably not get credit for all your hard work. This is the nature of the beast…the internet. Get over it.

13. Don’t Assume Research is FreeResearch takes time and money. It is an investment, just like any hobby. When contacting research institutions, don’t assume they will provide you with all the information you want for free. These institutions have research fees. These fees are used to keep the collections safe, the lights on and the doors open. If you don’t want to pay the fees, visit the institution. Most institutions have websites and research fees will be posted.


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