By Patricia Hartley
Do you remember why you first started digging into your family history? Although everyone’s “why” is unique, most researchers are looking for something…or someone. Maybe you wanted to learn more about great-grandma Susannah. Perhaps you’d heard that your dad’s people came from Ireland and you decided to investigate. Or maybe you were adopted, or never knew one of your parents, and you just want to learn a little more about how they lived.
No matter the reason, your goal probably wasn’t simply to see just how many names you could add to your family tree. Hopefully, you started your quest to find real, verifiable facts to help you flesh out your family’s story and really understand your family’s past.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it goes. Often, when we first begin our research, we really don’t know what we’re doing and make a lot of mistakes. We forget to verify connections between generations, we don’t always add sources, we copy from other people’s trees…
And then, somewhere down the line, we aren’t exactly sure what’s fact and what’s fiction anymore.
Perhaps you’ve even ended up with an unmanageable mish-mash that does nothing but frustrate and confound…and makes you want to throw up your hands and quit.
As contradictory as it sounds, scrapping your current family tree can actually be a great way to kick-start your research and may save you time over trying to fix buried problems. Sure, the idea of tossing out your 11,472-individual database makes you cringe, but if you find yourself in any of the following situations, maybe it’s time to put that behemoth aside and thoughtfully start over.
Here are 3 Signs You Should Scrap Your Family Tree and Start from Scratch
1. If you started your tree before you knew what you were doing and haven’t gone back to fix errors
Think about everything you’ve learned about genealogy since you added the first name to your tree. No matter how polished your skills may be today, chances are you made some mistakes in the early days that have never been corrected.
Remember those unsourced facts (names, dates, locations) you just went ahead and entered temporarily? The ones you thought you’d find sources for later. Or how about that branch of your tree that you grabbed from another person’s online research? Or that data that your cousin gave you that you never verified? What about that error you identified a few months back but never fixed and forgot to make note of?
If you created a tree and weren’t that cautious about errors and inconsistencies at the onset, it may be easier to put it aside and start all over again (using your current tree as a reference point). This will give you a chance to critically examine every single fact in your tree one at a time, leaving no stone unturned.
2. If you have many unreliable sources, or unsourced facts
One of the most gratifying aspects of researching your family history is the spirit of sharing within the genealogical community. Unfortunately, other people’s trees are very often the most unreliable sources of information.
As a general rule, you should never, ever, take for granted that any online tree–or even one you’ve inherited from a previous family researcher–is accurate. Sure, it’s perfectly OK to make note of the information in another researcher’s tree as a clue to be investigated further, but don’t enter those tidbits into your own tree until you’re certain they’re true.
It is very easy nowadays to copy from another person’s tree without adding a source to copied facts. And the vast majority of people have many unsourced facts in their trees for this reason. If this is an issue for you, starting over – and properly sourcing every single fact — may be in order.
For help with avoiding common sourcing problems, and adding sources to your tree properly, see Family History Daily’s online courses. The courses offer guidance on using Ancestry’s hints, trees and sourcing options as well as general sourcing guidance.
3. If someone important wants to see your research
There’s no better way to ensure your tree is properly sourced and accurate than to go through the process of verifying your work for a third party. Most (if not all) lineage societies like Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mayflower Society require that applicants prove, not only each fact noted on his or her direct line, but also each parent/child relationship.
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Knowing that your family tree will be challenged and scrutinized forces you to double-check your documentation, rethink previous assumptions, and maybe even scrap your old tree in favor of a brand new one.
Whether you want to share your tree publicly online, show off your research at a family reunion, leave your tree for future generations, or apply for membership in an organization, you will want your research to be air tight.
What to Do When It’s Time for a Brand New Tree
Don’t worry…”scrapping” your old tree doesn’t mean that you delete or literally destroy your previous work. When starting over, you’ll use what you’ve already gathered as a starting point for your new research.
The best way to start over is to simply create a new tree on whatever program or site you already use and mark it private. Almost every service allows this. Then, start with yourself and move back through time – adding as you go. In your new tree, you’ll only add in names and facts if you can verify them, and always add your sources. You’ll never make assumptions, copy another’s research or ignore inconsistencies or errors.
Educate yourself and explore new resources to improve your research along the way. The process may take time, but will be well worth the effort. Don’t be scared to start over. You may end up with a much smaller tree and more brick walls but that just ensures that your genealogical journey will continue!
For More Help
For some help identifying errors in your tree, read this article. And don’t forget to check out the rest of the articles on our site as well as Family History Daily’s online courses. From getting organized to finding the right tree program to identifying free resources – Family History Daily can help you improve your research.
Of course, we can’t mention starting over without mentioning Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over challenge. It’s undergoing some changes, but is always worth checking out.
For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about the ancestry and/or descendancy of her personal family lines, those of her extended family and friends, and of historical figures in her community. After earning a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, she completed an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. She lives with her husband Doug, a firefighter and paramedic, on the beautiful Tennessee River. Patricia has two children, Jessica and Jamie, both graduates of the University of North Alabama.