The Science & Art of family trees in today’s world

As I wonder through other peoples research looking for tidbits of info, I see a variety of methods employed by previous researchers that they found helpful before the advent of computing. Some of those have endured through to this very day.

I’m very particular about how the data appears in my database and wanted to share a little insight to help everyone improve their search results. First off, it is very important to realize that are not just working in your family tree. You are preparing a database and the old adage of “Garbage In, Garbage Out” really applies here.

The file I started on last night is for the Staffordshire Babbs and it typifies these outdated approaches that actually stand in your way of finding the right records to prove your family tree. Here are some hints on how to be more successful in your searches.

Rose by Any other name:
Your Great-Aunt Rose married a Fitzpatrick, though no one wants to be reminded and they forget his first name. Entering his name as “Unknown Fitzpatrick” or “<no name>” only hinders your ability to locate their marriage license. This happens because the actual record doesn’t say that. If you instead leave the first name blank and only enter “Fitzpatrick” you have a chance that your record search will turn up the real record. But as there is no Unknown Fitzpatrick listed in their database you might not locate the match. I use Family Tree Maker and, which does a much better job of suggesting records these days than in the past. You must always look at those with a critical eye, particularly on common names. But at times they can really help you break through the wall.

Another variety of this is the word “Living” having been substituted in place of the first name to indicate that the person is still alive. The problem is that the database you are looking at could have been last updated 30 years ago and Living is no longer the case. But you will never know because you don’t have the correct name.

My best practice is to strip out any references to “Unknown”, “<no name>” and “Living”. I enter the first and last name only for those born after 1940 (The most recently available US Census) or who I am aware have already passed. If their birth record has become publicly available there is no hiding from it. Different places do this completely differently. In Texas your birth certificate is opened to the public after 50 years. But in Alaska it is 100 years. Alaska hasn’t been in the US that long, so has never released a birth certificate. If it appears from your file that the person may still be alive, Ancestry will automatically restrict access to this information. It keys on the death date.

Where on the map is GRATWICH (Baptized 9-1-1842)?
I found a wide variety of this type of entry in this file. It’s a practice I hadn’t seen Ian use previously, which means he may have gotten this data from another researcher. Always be aware of what information you are entering into your file and be very careful with any sweeping file merges. Often researchers did a lot of shorthand when writing trees out by hand and what you see above is a great example. I happen to know Gratwich

is a city in Staffordshire, but most others would be hard pressed to come up with it. What if, for example the entry just said London, Middlesex? Would you assume this is London, England? That is logical, until you find out that the family had moved from England, to Canada and located in the City of London, which is in the district of Middlesex in Ontario, Canada. Now everything is in doubt and room has been left for misinterpretation.

In the Gratwich example, the researcher has left us a tidbit of info that isn’t usable in the map field. It is necessary to add a fact for Baptism and relocate the data to that field.

My best practice is to always complete the full place name in a consistent predictable order. I’m no Elizabeth Shown Mills, but here are a few tips on how to enter the place name.

  • Always use Commas between each level as that is how the mapping software knows how to break it down. Semi-colons and periods just mess the whole thing up.
  • Always enter the full location as presented in the source document: City, County, State, USA
  • For Church documents, or to list the hospital or cemetery name it is best to include those in the accompanying Description Field. The hospital will often not come up on the map, but the City will.
  • Don’t use abbreviations or leave out part of the full place name. Any acronym you think makes sense, may not to a fellow researcher. This is especially true of sources. The researcher needs to be able to relocate the same information using your source info. Your goal is to make your research repeatable should someone need to retrace your steps.
  • Your birth and your baptism are two different events. Enter them separately and don’t mix the dates up.
  • Your death and burial are also two different events. If you have both records record them accurately. There are many periods in history where the church record stood in place of a Civil document. This is fine, but if you only have a record of the Church Burial on  11 Oct 1906, you can enter that in the Burial Fact and the Death fact is “About 11 Oct 1906”. Same goes with the Birth and Baptism.
  • While I’m on the topic of dates, never leave a date open for interpretation. 10-11-1906 could either be Oct 11th or November 10th depending on where in the world the entry came from. The Genealogical Standard is to remove all doubt and record it as 11 Oct 1906. By spelling out the month you remove the possibility of misinterpretation.
  • Finally, church locations can be tricky, especially in English records. I see lots of places where the map location is the name of the City, Church, County, Country. The problem is that this isn’t a place on a map and the mapping software can only reconcile it to the Country level, which isn’t very helpful. Reversing the Church location into the first spot is more technically correct and allows the mapping software to bring your records to the city level and gives you a better chance of making a connection with other branches in the area.

If it isn’t apparent by now, I’m a little Obsessive Compulsive about the way I keep my tree. With 20,700 people and 4,000 place names, I’ve had lots of practice and time to perfect my approach. It takes more time to go and do it the right way, but I feel it is extremely important in helping to make the connections and bring our full tree into view. It is a blend of Art and Science that will help you break through on those tough to find ancestors.



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