28 May 2019

4 Quick Family Tree Clean-up Tasks

Keep these in mind each time you work on your family tree and do it right.

Here are 4 things you can do to make your family tree better and more professional. Think of this list as a mental break. These tasks don't take a ton of thought, and you can tackle them when you're:
  • frustrated by a brick wall in your family research
  • bored because there's nothing good on TV
  • trying to avoid doing your chores
  • unable to decide which of your dozens of branches you want to work on.
An ancestor by any other name...would mess up your family tree and reduce its value.
(c) Can Stock Photo / rawf8

1. Add Missing Birth Dates

Does your family tree software let you sort everyone in your tree by birth year? If so, you can easily see who's missing a birth date. If not, scan your entire list of people, looking for gaps in the birth column.

It's much easier to make smart choices—and avoid errors—if you have a rough birth year for everyone. For example, you'll never attach a child to a set of parents if you see their birth years are 80 years apart. And what if you have several people with the same name? You'll never mistake the one born in about 1750 for the one born in about 1900.

Follow one of these 3 rules to give people an estimated birth year:
  • If you know their spouse was born in 1860, give this person the same approximate birth year: Abt. 1860.
  • If you know when their child was born, you can assume the parent may be 25 years older than their first child. Carolina was born in 1790. I don't know when her parents Angelo and Libera were born, but I can estimate it was 25 years before Carolina. I'll give them the birth date of Abt. 1765.
  • If you know when someone's parents were born, you can assume the child is 25 years younger than the mother. Giuseppe was born in 1915, and his wife Serafina was born in 1921. I don't know when their son Joseph was born. I can estimate it was when Serafina was 25. I'll give Joseph a birth date of Abt. 1946.
These estimates may be off by 20 years or more. For example, what if Joseph is the 5th child of Giuseppe and Serafina? He would have been born well after 1946.

But the estimates are going to be useful to you.

Note: I do NOT add a source to an estimated birth year fact. There is no true source. This also signals to me that I used my own rules to estimate this fact.

These simple rules make it easy to add estimated birth and death dates and places.
These simple rules make it easy to add estimated birth and death dates and places.
2. Give Everyone a Real Name

Sort all the people in your family tree alphabetically by last name. Are all the same-named people listed together? Or have you given people fake names that make sense only to you? Anna "Jason's-Wife", Antonio "Greco the Father", Antonio "Greco the Son".

Let your family tree display speak for itself. When we see father and son Antonio Greco in your tree, it's obvious which is the father and which is the son. (It'll be even more obvious when you replace blanks with estimated birth years.)

You can always add your hints to a person's notes.

When I know someone's first name but not their last name (or the opposite), I used to use the word Unknown. It was a placeholder for their missing name. Then I saw a comment by chief Ancestry.com genealogist Crista Cowan. She draws a blank (5 underscores) for the unknown name. "Aida Unknown" becomes "Aida _____". "Unknown Davis" becomes "_____ Davis".

I do think this looks neater and its meaning is unmistakable. But when viewing my list of all individuals in my family tree on Ancestry, the blank last names don't show up in the list. I can search for an individual, like Aida _____, but I can't see all the unknowns at once.

If this matters to you, you might prefer to use Unknown (or another word) instead of _____.

Having real names and a standard placeholder name makes your family tree more professional.

3. Use Approximate Death Dates

I have a TON of people in my family tree with no death date. Here are 3 reasons to enter an estimated death date or a date range.
  • Findability. Let's say someone was born about 100 years ago. You don't have a death date for them. That person will be private on Ancestry.com and assumed to be living. If you'd like to help your distant cousins find you through your tree, make those dead people dead.
  • Note to Self. I haven't found the death record for my 3rd great grandfather, Teofilo Zeolla. But I do know he was dead when his grandchild was born in 1868. So I can estimate his death date as before the baby's birth date: Bef. 14 Aug 1868.

    Better yet, I know he was alive when his youngest child was born in 1859. I can narrow down my search for his death record by recording his death as between his last child's birth and his grandchild's birth: Bet. 20 May 1859–14 Aug 1868.
  • Exclusion. You can avoid unnecessary searches by noting a date by which someone died. Let's say you have a couple named John and Mary. You learn that Mary died sometime before her young child Ann died. Make note of that, and you'll know better than to search for more children born to John and Mary after that date.
4. Enter Assumed Birth and Death Countries

I started doing this so I wouldn't get so many impossible hints. No, Ancestry, my 3rd great grandfather was not in the 1830 United States Federal Census. He was born and died in Italy too early to have come to America for a while.

This also keeps Family Tree Analyzer from telling me I need a census for someone who only ever lived in Italy. (See "This Genealogy Report Shows You What's Missing".)

But I'm conservative with this idea. I don't assume an ancestor born in the 1750s was born in the same town as his descendants. I do assume he was born in the same country. All my ancestors born before 1899 were born in Italy. They didn't move around much. A man might marry a woman from the next town, but not the next country.

I always have this task in mind when I add an estimated birth or death date. Put the country in, too. It's a much safer assumption when the ancestor lived hundreds of years ago.

So don't get frustrated and take a break from genealogy. Make your tree better in these 4 important ways.


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