One of my favorite things in the world is teaching beginner genealogy researchers how to start compiling their family history and looking for more details about their ancestors. Within the last decade, the question I ask has changed from 'what can you tell me about your family" to "what has already been done?"
Since I can't be with everyone in the world as they start out, I'd like to share the five questions that you should investigate when you begin your genealogical journey.
1. What trees exist for your families?When you want to climb your family tree, the best organizational tool is a pedigree chart, and it's companion, a group sheet. If you inherited paper genealogy, the charts are sketched or completed pre-printed forms detailing relationships and the vital facts for an individual. You might also have a printed book that has your family tree organized in charts and chapters. If you inherited a digital family tree in a GEDCOM file viewable in RootsMagic, LegacyFamily Tree, or other desktop database program, your charts are different interconnected screens that display the same information from the old paper files. If you're starting from scratch, chances are your family tree is hanging out on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, WikiTree, or other online tree programs.
It's of vital importance that you discover where your tree has been published so you can add to or take away from the tree. You can multiply the efforts of other researchers to strengthen the quality of your family tree. Once you know where your tree exists, you'll begin to examine the trees for accuracy before trying to extend the lines of the different branches.
2. Are the trees well documented?Do not believe every family tree that you encounter without examining the supporting evidence. To do so is like thinking the sky is red because you came across a record that says it was so. The record had no explanation or supporting experimentation that says the sky is red, but you believe it because you found a piece of paper that says it was. It's possible the sky is red when you look at it at a particular time of day, or someone has a color disparity in their eyes. However, in most cases, the sky is blue (or gray if storms are rolling in) during the day.
In order to determine the strength of a tree, you need to see if it is well documented. Just because it is in print, doesn't mean that is documentation. Two things to know:
- People compiling such books, paper charts, or digital family trees make mistakes. I've made mistakes or perpetuated errors on family trees that did not have any sources to support the claims on my charts. As I found records (birth, marriage, death, census, and so forth), I discovered the errors and made the changes. Don't believe a tree and the content thereon until you check to see if the tree has supporting evidence.
- Some family trees are fraudulent. In the 19th century, immigrants to America wanted to document their lineage which had been lost as they left their homeland. Genealogists answered the call for family tree building, but not all roots-sleuths were honest. There are some notable books and family trees that were made up out of whole cloth, yet they continue to circulate and believed.
3. As you review the documentations, do you agree with the conclusions?It's not enough to have a tree with documents; you should also examine the documentation and decide if you agree with the findings. I've written previously about how I had documented Caroline Puesecker. In so doing, I combined her with two spouses, at the same time, but she was not a bigamist. When the records were reexamined, those documents revealed that the one Caroline Puesecker on my family tree was two separate individuals each married to a separate husband and each having a different set of parents.
Check the records that support the relationships and facts on your family tree. You might discover a mistake that another researcher made. In fact, recently Hillary Clinton's family tree was found to have had a wrong conclusion because a researcher reviewed the documented evidence and noticed that someone made a wrong turn on her family tree.
While you're examining records, make sure the records exist. Referring to the fraudulent family histories mentioned in Step 3, some of those books had documentation for record sets that never existed. On the surface, one would say the tree was well-documented, but upon closer examination of those sources, you can not come to the same conclusions because the record sets were pure fiction. Thus, the likelihood of the tree being accurate is highly doubtful.
When you're examining what has been done, review the sources other researchers have linked to the tree and evaluated them. In reviewing those documents, do you agree or do you have doubt? When in doubt, that's where you can do more research.
4. What are the trees missing?Some old family trees were built based on one or two record sources as accessing records was limited by time, money, and accessibility of the record collections. With vast databases of genealogical information online and growing, the pace of research has increased exponentially. It's easier than ever to find birth, marriage, and death records. One can often find census records for an individual's entire lifespan, especially if they're from the United States, Britain, or Canada. Military records, city directories, newspapers, and immigration records are also available in various degrees.
When you are reviewing individuals on your family tree, discover what additional records were created during their life span and then examine the record collections to find your ancestors. These record collections may have more clues as to who your ancestor was or additional relatives that are awaiting discovery. I learned about the rags to riches to rags story about my great-grandfather Sherman Lewis Brown by researching city directories. I inherited a digital family tree that had his birth, marriage, death, and census record files. The addition of the city directory entries filled in many of the smaller details that his grandchildren never knew.
More often than not, I'll encounter a relative who was added to a family tree based on one record. The next step is to determine what other documents this individual could appear in. Did they live at a time when civil records were kept for major life events? Did they live at a time when drafts took place? Did they live at a time when census records are available? When you review what has been done, you can also look at what has not been researched.
In genealogy, there is a severe lack of peer review. Often people will pass on their family trees to others, and the recipients accept the without question. I can't tell you the number of individuals who say they're related to a famous ancestor, but their tree is based on shoddy research. Had someone taken the time to review what has already been done, the errors could be corrected. The family tree may no longer have that famous ancestor, but isn't it better to be linked to the right ancestor?
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