31 May 2019

How to Make Your Sources Clear and Accurate

NOTE: There is a way to make your sources indisputable. Please see "Taming a Tangle of Source Citations."

Don't practice smash-and-grab genealogy. Make this method an unbreakable habit.

Seventeen years ago. That's when I graduated from scribbling in a notebook to building a family tree on my computer. I've had Family Tree Maker and an Ancestry.com subscription since 2002.

From the start, I never liked the option of saving a fact or a document to my family tree on Ancestry.com. I hated the ridiculously long source citations it added to my tree. I wanted my sources to be clear and easy to understand.

Because I run a tight ship, I have 275 sources in my Family Tree Maker file. And I have 20,963 people at the moment.

Here's how I keep my sources neat but thorough and retraceable.

Once I found the citation detail and citation text on Ancestry.com, it became too easy not to do.
Once I found the citation detail and citation text on Ancestry.com, it became too easy. I had to do it.

One Name to Rule Them All

When I started building my family tree, most of my sources were census pages and ship manifests. I didn't know what other people were doing. I only knew I wanted clarity. So my census source titles are as simple as can be:
  • 1900 U.S. Federal Census
  • 1910 U.S. Federal Census
  • 1920 U.S. Federal Census
  • 1930 U.S. Federal Census
  • 1940 U.S. Federal Census
If my tree has that the source of a person's address as the "1930 U.S. Federal Census," there's no mistaking where it came from. It doesn't need to say, "United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls."

But a simple source title does not give us everything we need in our family tree. Behind the scenes, we need all the information. We need an absolute way to get back to the source. We need a link to the proof of each fact in our tree.

Fill in these details for the main source, not for each fact or document.
Fill in these details for the main source, not for each fact or document.

More Details Under the Hood

Family Tree Maker has a Sources tab where you can see and control all your sources. I've gone down the list of source titles looking for a few things:
  • Are people attached to this source? If not, I can delete the source. Maybe it belonged to people I've removed from my family tree.
  • Are there duplicate or very similar titles? If I decide to merge a couple of sources, I have to update each person with a fact linked to the source I want to merge.
  • Does each source have a clear title, citation details, a web address, and a repository?
If a source needs more detail, I go look it up. For example, I'll look up the 1915 New York State Census on whichever website I prefer. It can be Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or any of the other official sites you may use. (Yes, it may be in a book, too.)

Instead of going to a particular document or record, go to the top-level page for that collection. On Ancestry.com, that page has the source citation detail and text, the exact name of the collection, and its URL.

These extra details make your family tree research more reliable.

Add enough details to each image to allow anyone to find it for themselves.
Add enough details to each image to allow anyone to find it for themselves.

Specific Micro-Details Where They Count

I want each document image in my tree to show exactly where it came from. It should tell anyone who's looking at it how they can find the original.

On the image of a 1920 ship manifest, for example, I added a breadcrumb trail to the description.

If you view this immigration fact in my tree, you'll see only the source title: "New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957". But the image itself has a description. And that gives you everything you need to know to find the original image file:
  • Line number(s). For a ship manifest or census form, I note which line number(s) to look at.
  • Source title. This is the exact name of the collection as seen on Ancestry, FamilySearch, or wherever. This will match my source title mentioned above.
  • Location of the film. Most of our genealogy documents exist on a roll of film somewhere. If I were trying to find that roll of film in a drawer at an archive, where would I look? This is always shown beneath the source title on Ancestry. For example, Roll > T715, 1897-1957 > 2001-3000 > Roll 2853. Or Wisconsin > Milwaukee City > 14 > Draft Card S.
  • Image number. If I asked you to go to John Stefaniak on a roll of Milwaukee, Wisconsin draft registration cards, it'd still take you a while to find him. So I include the image number. For example, image 664 of 973.
  • Web address. Sure, a URL may be different today than it was 5 years ago. But maybe it won't change for decades. And if it does, the film location and image number are even more important.
If you haven't been capturing these details for your documents, you may feel overwhelmed. Don't feel that way. Make it a habit going forward. Add a chunk of this annotation work to your annual genealogy goals. I finished all 630 of my census documents, but I have to go back and fix many of my 365 ship manifests.

The name of the game when it comes to your family tree's sources is usefulness. Each source should be useful in these 3 ways:
  • Understandable. Anyone can see where your information came from in general.
  • Retraceable. Anyone can follow your breadcrumbs to get to the original document collection.
  • Specific. At the document image level, anyone should be able to see exactly where this one unique image came from.
Make this a mandatory part of your fact gathering from now on. Don't just get the image and put it in your family tree. Don't just add the facts and let the image serve as your source. Gather all the facts about your source and record them where they belong. Right away.

Doing it right, from the start, makes the whole process much easier.

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.

24 May 2019

3 Ways to Keeps Strangers Out of Your Family Tree

Name 3 reasons why you're positive this man belongs in your family tree.

I started this blog out of some frustration. Someone stole my grandfather and added him to their family. They didn't care that he was from the wrong part of Italy and had a well-documented family. They put him and my grandmother in their tree.

But it happens. When you step out a little further onto a distant branch of the family tree, the names are less familiar. It gets easier to make a mistake.

So what are the best ways to avoid adding the wrong person—and everyone attached to them—to your family tree?

Here are 3 smart ways to make sure you're adding the right people to your family tree.
Here are 3 smart ways to make sure you're adding the right people to your family tree.
©Can Stock Photo / leonidtit

1. Compare All the Facts

Let's say you find a man in a census document. His name matches the missing son you're trying to find. You don't know who he married. You only know he isn't with his parents anymore.

How do you know he's the right man?

Take the time to compare all his facts to the person you want him to be.
  • Do his age and place of birth fit your family?
  • Does he have a job that would be impossible based on what you know about him?
  • How many years has he been married, and does that make sense based on what you know?
Consider all the facts on the document you found. Are you sure you've got the right person?

2. Follow the Person Through Time

Imagine you're trying to find the death date for a man in your family tree. You find 2 men with almost the same name. One man served in the Army and is buried in a military cemetery. The other man has almost the same birth date. But his Social Security Death Index has a different death date than the veteran.

How do you know which one is your guy?

The answer is to research both men. Follow them through time. Find them in the census. Find their military record. If you can find their burial site online, who is buried next to them?

Research both men with the goal of ruling one man out of your family, as much as ruling one man into your family.

Check and compare all available facts. Are they the same person?
Check and compare all available facts. Are they the same person?

3. Check Other Family Trees

I wouldn't rely on someone else's family tree any more than I would rely on their hand-drawn map of the world.

But you can check other people's trees for corroborating evidence. Let's say you're wondering if this person with limited documentation belongs to you. You find 5 family trees that have him, and they all firmly place him in a family you don't know. That's a lot of evidence that he's not yours.

You can use other people's research to decide to pass on this particular person.

You probably have some unrelated people in your tree by accident. You didn't do it because you don't care about getting the facts right. You did it because this person is way out there on a distant branch. You're not invested in him. You grabbed him on the way to find someone else.