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02 March 2015

The Step Before We Search For Cousins

For many, family history isn't worth doing because 'it's all be done'. In recent years, a counter to that argument has been, “then search for your cousins” or “you're work isn't done until you can tell me how we're related.”

Helen Zumstein Family Tree
Looking at this 'tree', it looks 'all done.'

These are great retorts but they often do not get to the meat of the problem. The root of the problem is that many folks are looking beyond the mark. If someone opens up a genealogy program or looks at a printed family tree and sees a chart full of names going back many generations, they can rightly assert, "well, it's all been done." If they log into a "how we're related" type program and it tells them how they're related to someone they go to church with, a celebrity or royalty, they'll say, “it's all been done.” They are most likely wrong, but they have valid points.

To tell such folks to look for cousins often misses a step that shouldn't be over looked. Just because someone has linked people together into a tree doesn't mean it's true. Just because a chart has names, dates, and places on it doesn't mean your family history has been done.

Prove It in Genealogy

My brother in his teenage years was a bit feisty when someone put forth their beliefs on a variety of subjects. The snarky adolescent of the 80s would say, "Prove It!" in a way only a tall, rugged teenager could do. Despite the potentially rebellious underpinnings to this statement, I often find myself saying this phrase to the family history resistant. 

How many family trees are undocumented? It doesn't matter if the tree is on Ancestry, FamilySearch, in a book at the family history library, or someone's copied Book of Remembrance. How many names are undocumented yet copied again and again creating this huge database of names that might as well be full of fictional characters like Clark Kent, Harry Potter, or Mickey Mouse.

In the past, I copied many group sheets and pedigree charts without knowing that the sources were important (and rarely seeing any sources to copy). I finally learned that family history without proof is fiction because someone told me to prove it.

Recently I started playing around with a small version of my family tree on The matches flood my portal page but what value are they to me? Often there are no sources to support the relationships on the tree. To make matters worse, won person has 10 trees with the same people on that tree! It's like she'll never leave my potential match stream. How many versions of the ancestor do you need? Stop creating more trees and start attaching records to the people you have found.

To everyone, I say this. Can you prove it?

If a tree is unsourced, it is fiction. I don't care if you entered the name of your parents personally into tree. If you haven't created a source that say, "these are my parents and they're listed on my birth record," it's fiction. (It would be best if you attached the birth record, but if you're living that might be a security issue, so I get it.)

I don't care if your Aunt Betty did all the family research and "she knows." If Aunt Betty's records do not identify where she obtained her information, it's fiction. If Aunt Betty did identify her sources but an unsourced version of her work is online, you might want to grab her sources and get them online. I'd also advise that you double check her work along the way. (There is a good chance Aunt Betty made a few mistakes.)

The harsh reality is this. If a name is on a chart and there are no sources for the 'facts', then you have fiction. You might as well type Poseidon as a relative. (Don't laugh! One can find Thor and Odin in many online family trees. These guys are Norse gods or fictional, depending upon your view).

Family History Is Not All Done Without Sources
Show Me Your Sources, I'll Show You Mine

So, before I ever tell folks to look for cousins, I tell them to prove what's on their tree. Attach sources to the individuals that are presented as their ancestors and relatives.

Note: By the way, Robert Comfort is many several generations back and I didn't add him to the tree. I'm not ready to tackle New England Revolutionary American history just yet. Still working on folks in Ohio, USA and Ontario, Canada in the 1850 - present time.