There are some basic rules in life that cannot be broken. Following these rules will instantly make you a better genealogist.
1. You cannot be baptised or christened before you were born. There may be some cultures out there that do not follow this rule, but for most of us this rule applies.
2. You cannot be buried before you die. Well, you could but it would be illegal and downright scary. This rule of course does not apply to vampires or zombies.
3. You cannot be in two places at once. Unless you are an undeclared identical twin trying to fool people.
4. If the ‘father’ was in gaol when the baby was conceived, he is not the father.Unless it was a very accommodating gaol.
5. Similarly, if the ‘father’ died more than 9 months before the birth, he is not the father. Except of course, if science was involved.
6. Sharing a surname does not mean two people are biologically related. If it did, the Smith family would be one very enormous family tree!
7. Women rarely give birth before they are 12 or after they turn fifty. If there are children beyond those ages send them back to their rightful homes! There are variations based on nutrition and time period, and trends are changing but its still a useful guide.
8. Events close in time tend to occur in the same country. A man is unlikely to be buried in Pennsylvania USA if he died in Paddington NSW Australia.
Now go out and slay those online family tree myths!
One of the traps to fall into with family history research is narrowing the target too much. Many researchers focus on just their direct ancestral line – parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is a desire to forge back into the past as quickly as possible, or to make the research task manageable. Or it may be an attempt to focus on the people who are thought to be the most important.
The danger of this approach is that it can result in information gaps, errors or a ‘brick wall’.
Research is the process of collecting information, which is used as evidence to support conclusions. A narrow research approach reduces the amount of information collected. This will mean that the stories you compile about your ancestors are pretty sketchy, but more importantly it means that you will have less evidence. With less evidence, inconsistencies are not apparent and the wrong conclusions can be made. Having more information increases the likelihood of reaching correct conclusions and the likelihood of having a comprehensive and accurate family history.
Information is collected from sources. Increasing the number of sources has the potential to increase the amount of information. It is not as straightforward as that, as the type and quality of the sources is also a factor, but that is a topic for another time.
To increase the information you need to gather as many research leads as possible. One way to do this is to expand beyond your direct ancestral line and research your ancestor’s FAN club. FAN stands for friends, associates and neighbours. The technique is also referred to as ‘collateral research’, but I like the term FAN because it presents an image of something opening up which is what this technique is all about.
Your ancestor interacted with a lot of people during their lifetime. By researching some of those people, you can gather more information about your ancestor. Some of this information will be direct – such as a record of an event that specifically mentions your ancestor and their FAN. Other information will be indirect – such as a story about disastrous floods that affected a FAN who lived near your ancestor.
Researching your ancestor’s FANS also increases the likelihood that you will obtain information from sources that are independent of the sources about your ancestor. Think of it like getting a second opinion. If two sources were created by different people for different purposes contain the same information, it increases the chance that the information is accurate.
How do you find your ancestor’s FANS?
Start by looking at people who were the closest to your ancestor. Within a family there may be siblings, aunts and uncles, half- and step-siblings, multiple wives and husbands, and more. Next, look at the people mentioned in the sources about your ancestor – the witnesses to a marriage, the minister who married them, the informant on a death certificate, the people who appear in the census with them and so on.
Researching your ancestors’ FAN club takes a lot of time, so it’s best to have a research question in mind. You should select the FANS who are most likely to provide information relevant to your research question. However, if you are just interested in collecting as much information as you can about a family, you could broaden your search to the locality in which they lived – who taught at the local school, who attended the same church, who owned the land next to them and so on. Then finally, you could examine groups who were potentially affected by the same broad forces or events that affected your ancestor – for example, the convict period, the First World War, an occupational group.
What do you do with all the information?
There is not a lot of point in gathering all this extra information if you cannot make good use of it. You will need tools and techniques to analyse the information, see patterns and inconsistencies, and draw conclusions. I’ll be writing more about such tools and techniques in other posts.
Some people do not use family history software and manage well without it, but there are a lot of benefits in using such software. Family history software provides a structure for storing your data and for recording the links between people, places, events and sources. In doing so, it helps you analyse the data and see patterns, gaps or inconsistencies.
The examples provided here are from the software which I use – Legacy Family Tree.
There are general patterns in families and Legacy notifies you if those patterns are broken. Here, for example, the red exclamation mark alerts me to the fact that there were five years separating the birth of two children, where the usual pattern is less than two years. I need to confirm whether there was another child or look for an alternative explanation.
Legacy has a standard list of potential problems and this can be handy for identifying where wrong conclusions may have been reached. My great great grandmother, for example, is reported on her 1931 death certificate as having been 101 years old. However, her last child was born in 1880 when the death certificate suggests she would have been aged 50. Although it is not unheard of to have a child at that age, it is enough evidence to make me suspect her supposed birth date.
The Chronology view generates timelines which are another useful analytical tool.
Changes in the location of events may highlight an error in your research or, in this case, indicate that a family moved around looking for coal mining and gold mining work. In another family, a discrepancy in the location of the births of children led me to conclude that one child had been included in that family by mistake.
These are just two of the many features of family history software that can help your research. I’ve only ever used one family history software program, so I cannot provide an opinion on which is best. From discussions with other genealogists I have come to the conclusion that they all do a great job. However, one thing that is great about Legacy Family Tree is that you can download a free version to try before you decide whether to buy it. It is for that reason that I usually recommend it to people who are just starting family history. The free version is completely functional, it just doesn’t have the fancier features activated.
If you haven’t tried using family history software yet, I would recommend that you do. If you already use it, learn more about the analytical tools it provides and you will not regret it.
Excel seems to be made for family history. It is designed to manage large amounts of data and one thing we can say about family history is that it generates a lot of data!
Let’s see…. If you had 5000 individuals in your family tree with just the basic data for each one (two names, birthdate and place, christening date and place, death date and place, burial place and date, and one source for each of those), that’s 20 bits of data; plus say five events for each person, with age, type, date, location and one source, that’s another 25 bits of data; some certificates and images for each one, with sources, another ten bits of data; alternate names, cause of death and identifier, add another five…. say 60 bits of data for each person, that makes a total of 300,000 bits of data in your family tree. And that’s a conservative estimate, as many of us have a lot more than five events per person.
One of the key reasons to use Excel in family history is that it not only stores a lot of data, but it has numerous ways for you to manipulate that data. This means that it is a really important tool for analysing your data and solving family history problems. By having a lot of data in one place, you can play around with the data and see patterns that you wouldn’t notice if your information was just in a family history database, a word file or a paper file. Plus, Excel lets you have thousands of columns and rows, which means you are not limited by what can fit on an A4 or A3 page.
Excel is great for research plans. The sort and filter features allow you to create subgroups of your data by where the records are held, which tasks are incomplete, by the location of events and so on. It is also great for timelines and lists of references or photographs. This example is an extract of the table I use to track how and when each of my ancestors arrived in Australia.
I will be running a workshop on using Excel for family history at the Society of Australian Genealogists on 28 July.
I have a photograph of my great great grandparents that I found on Facebook. At least, I have been told that it is a photograph of them but it was posted without a citation so I do not know where it came from, when it was taken, who took it – all those details that would convince me that it really is them. I keep the photograph because it is the only one I have, but it bothers me that they may not actually be my family at all.
Citing your sources is important if you want to share your family history with others, so that they can trust what you have found and so that they can take a look at the records themselves. It is important for your own research for the same reasons. A source citation also makes it easier for you to take a second (or third) look at a source because, let’s face it, we rarely understand a source fully the first time we look at it. How many times have you copied a page from a source, then realised you needed the page before or after it? How many times have you transcribed a handwritten document or taken notes from a source, then gone back to your notes later and found that they no longer make sense?
If you do not cite your sources because you do not know how or it takes too much effort, then here are my tips:
If you use family history software, learn to use the source citation features.
Unless you are writing for a publication, do not worry too much about whether it complies with APA, Chicago, Harvard or other formatting styles – you just need a citation that you and others can understand!
The general rule is that a citation has four main elements – Who, What, Where and When. Analyse each source with these questions and note down your answers. The order doesn’t matter very much, but the author usually goes first and the date usually goes last.
Who wrote it or created it? Who published it? What is the title? What format is it (a book, a certificate, a microfiche etc)? Where was it published? Where is it stored? When was it written? When was it published?
Include as much information in the citation as you would need if you wanted to find it again. More is better….
Many online repositories and websites, such as Ancestry and NSW State Archives, provide suggested citations or guidelines on how to cite their sources.
If it is a source that is often found in libraries, consult a library catalogue and copy their citation.
If you want a handy guide with examples of the main types of sources, try Noeline Kyle’s Citing Historical Sources: A Manual for Family Historians (available for purchase at sag.org.au).