07 November 2017

Trade Up to Better Family History Sources

Check your list of sources. Which ones aren't certified reliable?
Reliable sources make a reliable family tree.
No offense to my third cousin once removed, but I can do better. If my family tree has facts whose only source is my cousin, that's not good enough.

Hearsay—even if it's someone's first-hand knowledge—is not a reliable, reproducible source for your family research.

That's why I'm on a mission to verify every fact in my tree that has a person or someone's online tree as my source. They're good leads, and I appreciate them tremendously. But without evidence, they are only leads. I need to find proof.

Clean-Up Makes Your Family Tree More Reliable

I've been scrubbing my family tree in a bunch of ways lately.
  • For every census form in my tree, I added complete details and a link to where to find it online. (Ship manifests are next!)
  • I cleaned up every address in my family tree to have a consistent format and take advantage of Family Tree Maker's address verification.
  • I attached every census form or ship manifest in my tree to each person named in the document.
  • I beefed up my source citations with more information and weeded out duplicates.
Now I'm going after imperfect sources. I started by picking two sources that are far from bulletproof. I'm not happy at all with one large branch from Virginia that relies on (a) someone else's tree and (b) "One World Tree" as its sources.

Two collections on Ancestry.com have a lot to offer this branch. I found Virginia marriage listings and death certificates for several people in my tree. I added the two Virginia source citations to the facts and removed the sources I don't find as valuable.

Now It's Your Turn to Trade Up

Some sources carry much more weight than others.
My reliable sources.

You, too, can fortify your family tree by using the most reliable sources. First, see if your family tree software can show you a list of all the sources you've created or attached to people in your tree.

Family Tree Maker lets me view my sources in a few ways, including by repository. The repository tells others where you found this fact.

I added the Repository (ancestry.com, familysearch.org, etc.) to each source citation that's from a website. I added the New York City Municipal Archives as a repository, too. That's where I went to see lots of birth, death, and marriage records for myself.

I can also view the complete alphabetical list of source titles in use in my family tree. That list shows me which sources I want to replace with something better. When I select a questionable source, like One World Tree, I can see exactly which facts are using it as their source.

If you have FTM, or your family tree software acts in a similar way, look for sources that come from another person's tree or a name. (When the source is a cousin, I name it to make that clear, e.g., "Joseph Collins, my cousin".) While you may believe your cousin, other genealogists have no reason to!

Start working through those facts. Search for a recognized, reliable source to back up your cousin's information. You can keep your cousin's name there if you want to, or put their name in your notes.

An online tree is not a good source. It's just a lead for you to investigate.
Zero in on sources that don't carry much weight and trade up to better ones.

The goal is to make every fact in your family tree provable.

Trade up to more reliable sources and you will fortify your family tree.


  1. Great article. I inherited a lot of genealogy but for the most part, nothing is sourced. I like to think of the un-sourced "facts" as hints and then try to prove them. Going through and proving each event and relationship has shown me a lot of wrong conclusions. It's exciting really to find that my grandmother's surname was really Crenshaw instead of Bolt. Now I can research my family and not someone else's. Thanks for your article.

    1. Yes, exactly! It's a good basis for your tree, but everything must be proven if there are no sources. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thanks for this. I decided a long time back that there is too much rubbish circulating around the internet like the lady who told me that she only had 99,000 plus names in her tree and had been working on it for a whole year. I asked how many she had sourced and proven; she did not know what I meant.
    I have a little tip that may help. When I am absolutely sure that everything is proven I type the surname of the individual in upper case in my on-line tree. I then go to the next name in lower-case and work on from there. If it is not in upper case. treat it carefully.

    1. So, was this woman related to Adam & Eve? LOL. Thanks for your comment and your uppercase-name tip.

  3. I began using Personal Ancestral File before it offered sources-tied-to-events. The only place to enter a source was in the Notes area, and we had to try to indicate which events came from which sources in a clumsy way. Time has passed, and our software is better in that way. So now one of my activities, when I have no web connection, is to transfer those source citations from the Notes area to source citations linked to events. It's a drag, but it's a way to get through thunderstorms.

    1. I had to shut down early for a thunderstorm last night, and then we lost electricity. It made me realize how dependent I am on my computer for fun. All I had left was crossword puzzles.

  4. One of the things I **really** like about Tree Building (tm) on Ancestry. When I add a census record, it automagically attaches that record to everybody in the record.

    I keep my backup tree (as it were) in RootsMagic. Way better reports and stuff.