By Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG®
Do you remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? It was one of my favorites, and also one that my father liked to twist by incorporating my siblings and I. We loved it. And while it may seem like little more than a silly child’s tale now, the moral behind the Three Little Pigs actually has much to teach us about building our family tree.
What is that moral? Hard work pays off, especially when you choose the best materials for the job.
If you recall, there were three little pigs sent out to earn their own way in the world. Each had his own approach when set to the task of building his house. The first pig was the laziest of all, building his house of straw. The second pig was not much better, with his house made out of sticks. These quick approaches to construction did however, make for extra playtime for these two lackadaisical brothers.
Then there was the third pig. The one who toiled all day, building methodically, brick-by-brick, layer-by-layer. He may have missed out on all the fun but his home was as sturdy as they come. This little pig was ready for anything, even the biggest puff of that hungry old wolf.
How might your family tree hold up when compared to that of the Three Little Pigs’ homes? Is it accurate? Is it strong enough to withstand the test of time? Or is it built on unreliable sources and poor analysis that would cause it to collapse under its own weight?
What Might An Expert Say About Your Family Tree?
In the right circumstances, hiring a professional genealogist can be one of the best investments you can make – especially when you approach it as a new perspective and a fresh pair of eyes.
Experts have experience with a wide array of family trees and their critical eye can catch issues you may never see. They know what the best evidence is and the quickest methods to locate it. And, best of all, they can help you break through barriers you have struggled with for months or years.
Luckily, however, you don’t need to hire a professional to take a close look at your research. That’s because expert genealogists often run trees through a set of standard diagnostic tests and tweaks to improve them, and I have created a list of the most important ones so you can apply them yourself. Use this list to examine your own research and see where you can make big improvements.
8 Things a Professional Genealogist Would Do to Your Tree if They Could
1. They Would Look for Errors, Because All Trees Have Them
Harsh as it might seem, every tree built by man or woman has a few errors. And an error filled tree may be more fiction than fact. Errors are like tiny cracks in your tree’s foundation. They erode the soundness of its structure, leading you to connect with families that are not your own and, often, create the brick walls we all struggle with.
How can you fix errors within your tree? One of the best ways is to start by running an error report to catch anything obvious, like weird dates, duplications and more. This article will help you do just that.
Once you’re done with the error report, take the time to actually fix the problems it presented. But be cautious. Discovering one error may mean that other details in your tree are not correct as well. Look for these possibilities and address them.
Then, you can move on to areas of your tree that you have struggled with, such as a brick wall on a certain line. Examine every person and every connection critically – and then do it again. Is there anything amiss? Does each and every fact make sense? Are you missing critical details or sources that may be allowing an error to exist?
Even facts that look good on the surface can be hiding errors, especially if they are not based on solid evidence, and finding and fixing just one may lead to a series of breakthroughs that allow you to move forward with your research. Make sure every fact has a reliable source, or multiple sources, and you will greatly reduce issues in your tree.
2. They Would Start at the Beginning, Not the Middle
More often than not clients come to genealogist asking them to jump into the middle of their tree and begin to research there. More often than not though, their problem, and sometimes their error, is closer to the present. The strategy of starting in the middle when solving a problem is about as prudent as building four stories on top of a cracked foundation.
Starting at the beginning requires genealogists to play the role of civil engineer. Throughout construction, the engineer would survey the land, the foundation and the walls to test stability and avoid structural collapse. The genealogist needs to do the same by surveying the entire tree to ensure soundness of research, evidence and analysis.
So, if you’re facing a problem or brick wall – start at the foundation. Explore every person, fact and source leading to your problem and you just might get your breakthrough after all. I recommend beginning at least 3 to 4 generations earlier than your problem ancestor for the best result, but you can go back less or more depending on the time you have for your project.
Of course, if your entire tree was created without proper attention to detail in general (as is often the case in the beginning) you may want to scrap it and start from scratch. Here’s how.
3. They Would Apply Structure to Your Family Tree
Any expert genealogist would suggest that, well before your family tree grows beyond your reach, it’s always wise to plan its structure and organization. An architect’s job is to draft the blueprint of the house design that guides its construction, while using the standards of her industry, and planning your tree in the same way will actually make your job easier.
While there are many aspects to organizing your research you can start by aligning yourself with standards in the family history research world. This will make your research more readable and make it easier to understand, build on and alter.
Apply these tips:
- Follow industry standards when writing dates, i.e. 12 March 1922 (day, month, year). This will save time when comparing your tree to someone else’s and decrease confusion as to whether a number represents a month or a day.
- In order to differentiate between facts that you have proven and things still left to prove, add language labels or tags to your tree. Use words like circa or about to indicate dates not yet proven. By identifying items in your tree that are proven, this should eliminate the need to revisit that research. Include tags about DNA evidence, brick walls and hypotheses.
- Add full names for each of your ancestors. Add parentheses around nicknames or other names your ancestor was known as. For example, Anna Marie (Annie) McCann.
- When you have no photos (or in place of), create icons to easily distinguish your second great-grandparents from your third great-grandparents. This makes it easier to quickly identify their relationship to you and to one another.
- Be aware of historical events that might change the name of the place your ancestor lived. For example, my ancestor was born in Baltimore County, Province of Maryland in 1737, but he died in 1793 in Baltimore County, Maryland, USA, even though he never moved. This is so important as it will help you, and others, avoid missing information in the future.
Once you are done with this, get an organization system in place. This is one of the most critical steps to ensure an accurate tree that you can continue to grow over time. Family History Daily is launching a brand new online organization course in Jan, including a helpful workbook. Subscribe to the newsletter or enter your email here to be notified when it goes live.
4. A Professional Would Research Horizontally, Not Vertically
Many clients focus their research in a direct line, moving vertically through their tree. Professionals are aware that no ancestor lived completely alone. One of the best ways to shore up the structure of your tree, generation by generation, is by adding more load-bearing walls. That means researching siblings at every level.
Do this by researching horizontally using cluster research. Identify siblings and other relations whose walls will help to support those of your direct ancestor, and the weight of the next generation. Get some help for sibling research in this guide.
But do be smart about who you add. While adding siblings and other critical connections will strengthen your tree, spreading yourself too thin may damage it (if you don’t take the time to properly research each addition). Discover how to avoid that problem in Why You Need to Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree.
5. They Would Check Your Connection Between Generations
Although this sounds obvious, it’s actually not. You need proof for every link from one generation to the next or your tree can easily go off the rails – and it is not always easy to do. You may think you have this information but, oftentimes, you do not.
Let me share a little secret with you. As a certified genealogist, when I check my work or the work of others against industry standards, the ultimate goal is to prove the links connecting each generation. Once this task is complete, I can move my research deeper into the tree, ever-confident that I have built one on a strong and trustworthy foundation.
To understand why this is such a commonly overlooked problem please read Are You Sure They’re Your Ancestors? This Genealogy Blunder is More Common Than Ever.
6. An Expert Would Look for Emotional Add-ons
Family history can bring with it an emotional connection to the past. We connect deeply with our ancestors when we tell their stories. We interview our loved ones and build an attachment to their words. But, beware, emotions can cloud our perception of the facts.
If your favorite uncle was the family historian and he left you his entire collection, or your grandma gave you a list of critical names and dates, it stands to reason that you would be thrilled. You may also completely believe in the accuracy of their information.
But what if some of it is incorrect?
Materials are always tested before and during construction. The same should be true in genealogy. Always test the quality of genealogical gifts. Take every clue offered by your loved ones with a grain of salt. Use it as a starting point and Test it! Test it! Test it!
Check it for accuracy before you commit gifted findings to your tree. To be even more careful, never invite online family trees into your research as a source. They are not. Doing so will only erode the quality if your work.
7. They Would Expand Your Record Groups
Family history researchers can get stuck repeating the same tried-and-true strategies, and many fall victim to the lure of the U.S. Census. Are you one of these researchers?
Do you rely heavily on following families across the decades with little regard for the years in between? Do you identify birthdates only by comparing the dates in a series of census schedules? Have you investigated other, more appropriate records that may not be so easily accessible?
Review your tree critically, with this in mind. Does the evidence come from a variety of independent sources? Just as choosing the very best contractors and building materials is a wise way to approach building your home, the same holds true for your records.
When choosing records to solve genealogical questions, always choose the best record for the job. Look for records created as near to the time of an event as possible, such as a birth certificate for parentage or a death record for a burial location. And always consider the purpose of a record when determining its value. Why were the details recorded in the first place? This can tell you a great deal about how accurate the source may really be.
Of course this rule doesn’t apply to only census or other population records, but they are the perfect example of why relying on questionable sources is a bad idea. While they can be an extremely helpful research tool their purpose was never to record accurate facts about individuals. They were, and still are, simply an attempt to understand a large population by the numbers. That’s why the information on them can be so inaccurate.
Read Why You Should Never Rely on “Facts” You Find in the Census, and What to Do Instead for assistance finding alternatives.
8. They Would Cite All Sources, Every Time
During the construction of a building, several authorities sign off on the work-in-progress. This acknowledgment allows the owners to review the process and connect with those responsible for the work.
This sign-off process is similar to citing your sources in genealogy. A citation identifies the origin and location of a source, as well as its quality. This information can then be accessed as needed, even long after your tree has been built.
Choosing the best sources is the beginning, and citing them is the end. One should not happen without the other. This is a critical piece that allows anyone who comes after you to pick up from where you left off, and move your research to the next step. It is also a crucial part of building a tree you can rely on and grow for many years to come.
You may also like to read: Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step “Proof” Test?
Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG® practices in Maryland. She is the owner of Be Rooted Genealogy, where she specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland, and Scotland research.