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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Analyze Your Research - A Skill Every Genealogist Needs

Question everything. Question everything again. By so doing, you'll build a correct family tree that others can utilize to extend theirs.

Genealogists who implement a heavy dose of skepticism tend to build more accurate family trees. Before accepting someone's family tree or the facts listed on a document, we must analyze how pieces fit together to ensure we are not making or passing on mistakes.

Question Everything

While sound genealogy research is based on quality research questions about identity, relationships, or context, we can not stop our inquisitive nature with crafting our research query.

We must question everything regarding the conclusions we and other historians have compiled.

It's a genealogical myth to believe, "if it's in print, it must be true."

Viewer Debra Larrabee shared her grandfather's truism "paper doesn't refuse ink."

Paper doesn't refute ink

This makes me smile. How true that paper will receive any ink that is put on it, but it doesn't make what is written true.

When I requested examples of falsehoods recorded in print, Mabel wrote this.

Published genealogy hoaxes

Whether you call such fabrications frauds or hoaxes, such inaccurate published genealogies negatively impact family tree building. The FamilySearch Wiki has an article that further explains this topic.

When we question everything, we grow as genealogists which leads us to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. A Forbes article said it like this:

When you ask questions, you pave the way for your own growth and development. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which you tend to think you know more than you do. When you have a little knowledge of something, you don’t know what you don’t know. You can overestimate your abilities.

Hopefully you're now persuaded to be more skeptical when building your family tree. Additionally, if someone questions your research, do not become upset. Perhaps you don't know what you don't know. Review your research and see if there's something amiss. You might just uncover what respected research Megan Smolenyak did when she wrote, "Hillary Clinton Family Tree a Wake-Up Call for Genealogy."

laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps for Successfully Starting in Family History

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Questions to Analyze Your Research

Whenever you have a research query or evidence, questions what you gather. Here are a few critical thinking prompts to get you started.

  • What clues does a piece of evidence (such as a city directory, vital record, etc.) provide?

  • Why was a record created? What was the process behind creating it?

  • Who created the record? What knowledge would they have of the event?

  • How do the clues in each record fit together? Are there any conflicts?

  • What overlooked details appear in or with the evidence?

    • Do suffixes and titles provide clues to answer your query?

    • Does a gravestone have a meaningful symbol etched in stone, in a neighboring stone, or via staked signage?

  • How are all persons named in the source related?

  • Is the source the original record or a transcription or extracted version of it?

  • Do I have enough sources to support a conclusion?

  • Does DNA Matching evidence confirm or refute the documents I have gathered?

These are just a few questions to ask when you question everything you gather on your journey to building an accurate family tree.

Watch this video.

Could Clues Be Wrong?

Without a time machine or looking glass to the past, we must not believe all documents.


Because people lie, make mistakes, or are unclear with their responses.

As such, we can trace the wrong path or hit a scalable brick wall.

My maiden surname is Geiszler. The German immigrant baring that name died leaving a widow with three small children. She quickly remarried but there's a problem. Her marriage record does not reveal that she is a widow or that Geiszler is her married surname.

As such, descendants of the children from her second marriage kept looking for a woman named Caroline Geiszler born to a father with the surname Geiszler.

In short, they were researching the wrong name because a record did not clarify the truth.

As you analyze your research, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What sources provide the evidence for facts about my ancestor?

  • Are the sources another researcher's family tree or a quality genealogical source?

  • Do other sources provide different answers to your research question? Could those be correct?

  • Can you determine who provided the information on a record and whether they had first hand knowledge of the events?

  • Is the source incomplete and unclear about the answers provided?

Regarding Caroline,

  • Her three oldest children in the census record following her second marriage were identified by the surname Billman.

  • Their marriage records and death records were not found with this surname.

  • Instead, when the surname Geiszler (or other spelling variations) was used, you find the vital record for the children.

  • Although you learn that Caroline's surname is Mack, her children’s records conflict regarding the given name of their deceased father.

But that is what makes genealogy fun. More questions to resolve.

Prove It

As a teenager, my brother consistently questioned the answers people provided him. So much so, I frequently heard him say, "Prove it."

While I became the genealogist in the family and he developed a knack for finding living persons, I have adopted his "prove it" attitude with genealogy research.

Question everything. Question everything again. By so doing, you'll build a correct family tree that others can utilize to extend theirs.

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