12 April 2019

The Basics of a Well-Crafted Family Tree

If genealogy were a race, we'd all lose! Take the time to do it right.

We all know how exciting it is. You finally found that one document you really need for your family tree!

Let's say it's a census form that tells you an immigration year. You're so eager to find that ship manifest that you skip the details. You enter only part of the new information from the census form. You plan to come back and do it the right way. But what if you never do?

If you don't harvest this information now, you may never do it.
If you don't harvest this information now, you may never do it.

That census form may have a bunch of children to add to your family. Or it may have the wife's maiden name. But you might forget you have all those facts waiting for you.

No matter how much that next document is calling you, it's time for some discipline. Doing things the right way, every time, will give you a better family tree. It will help you avoid making mistakes.

Take the time to process each new document as you find it. If it's a census form, record the birth year, address, and occupation (if there is one) for each member of the household. Attach the image of the census to each person in your tree who's on that page.

Being thorough, and following 4 basic guidelines, will give you a well-crafted family.

1. Consistency

Choose a style and stick to it. This will make your tree more professional, and make you more proud of your work.

Names. Do you want to put last names in CAPITAL LETTERS? Then do it each time. I prefer to record everyone's given name. My great grandfather was known as Patsy Marino in America, he's Pasquale Iamarino in my tree. You can record the "also known as" facts separately.

Dates. Countries around the world use different date formats, so try to be more universal. I find that DD Mon YYYY is clear. 29 Jul 1969. 01 Jan 1856. Choose your style and be consistent.

Places. Family Tree Maker is great about suggesting proper place names as you type. If an old address doesn't exist anymore, I like to enter it how it was.

I'm consistent in using the word "County" in my U.S. addresses. I find "Hampton, Elizabeth, Virginia, USA" to seem like a confusing list of names. But Hampton, Elizabeth County, Virginia, USA makes so much more sense. (Note: "County" doesn't appear in this Family Tree Maker view, but it's there in each person's facts.)

Be consistent in how you enter your facts, and you'll reap the benefits.
Be consistent in how you enter your facts, and you'll reap the benefits.

2. Sources

Don't skip them! When you return to work on a particular family 3 years from now, you're not going to know where you got your "facts" from. How reliable are they? Should you start from scratch?

Record your sources immediately. It doesn't have to be hard. See "6 Easy Steps to Valuable Source Citations".

3. Documents

Capture an image of every document you find for your people. Attach them to the right people in your tree. Annotate the images with information about them and where they came from. See "Add Proof and a Breadcrumb to Family Tree Documents".

If you follow the pattern you create, you'll always enter information the right way.
If you follow the pattern you create, you'll always enter information the right way.

4. Logic

I have a new term I want to trademark. GeneaLOGICAL™. We all need to have our logical hats on when we're doing genealogy. Your software program may be able to help with that. It can alert you when you've attached a baby to a man who's been dead more than 9 months, or a girl who's under 13 years old.

If you aren't using software that can alert you to problems, be on your toes. Did you attach a baby to its grandfather instead of its father? Did you attach the baby to the wrong couple with similar names? See "Organize Your Genealogy Research By Choosing Your Style".

So take your time. Be complete, consistent, and logical. That next document isn't going anywhere, and you want your tree to be ready for it.


  1. as always, fantastic advice!

  2. Good reminders...thank you. I have a question: Sometimes I like to print your information to keep in my notebook. But when I do, there is a dark gold background to the page and that takes a lot of ink. Obviously I'm not a computer whiz...is there a way to get rid of that background? Thank you.

    1. I tried printing and didn't see an option to remove the background, so I'm going to scout around for a way to create a printer-friendly version. I save each article as a PDF because I can't stand using up ink or paper.

    2. In the meantime, I just made the background much lighter. Thanks for pointing this out.

    3. Thanks so much for your quick response and willingness to help with this.

    4. BTW, yes you can turn off the background, change font color and all kinds of stuff. In Firefox, it's under options. Change what you need to, print, and then reset. There are wdb sites that I have to do that with Every. Single. Time that I print the article.