Now What?: Documenting Your Family Tree

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Q. I have quite a few relatives listed on my family tree. I got the information from other people. Am I supposed to document these relatives proving I am related to them? What counts as documentation?

A. Receiving a family tree from a cousin is a great way to jump-start your genealogy research. To be sure the information is accurate, though, you’ll want to document the people on the tree.

“Documenting relatives” is a kind of genealogical shorthand for the process of finding evidence for names; birth, marriage and death dates; and relationships.

When you get family history information from another person, also ask about the sources the person used to create the tree. Maybe the person will even send copies of source materials, such as birth and death certificates, baptismal records, newspaper articles, census schedules, etc. (Offer to share any family information or records you have, and to pay for any photocopying and mailing costs.) If the person names the sources where the information came from, find those sources and double-check them for accuracy. If you’re lucky enough to receive copies of family records, also compare those to the tree.
If the person can’t tell you where the information came from or provide source materials, you have no way of knowing whether the tree is correct. Then, it’s up to you to do research and find records to back up the information on the tree. Treat the tree as a clue to tell you where to start searching.

Ideally, you’ll use primary sources as documentation—that is, records created at the time the event occurred. A birth certificate, for example, is a primary source for the baby’s name and date of birth. A county history book mentioning someone’s birth is a secondary source, because it was written years later, possibly by someone without firsthand knowledge of the birth.

In addition, the best documentation is an actual record, rather than an abstract or an index created by someone looking at the record. If you find your ancestor in a cemetery index, for example, you’ll want to write to or visit the cemetery to get the burial record and photograph the tombstone.

Of course, sometimes primary sources are unavailable—maybe your ancestor was born before the county started issuing birth certificates, or the records were lost in a courthouse fire. In those cases, you’ll find as many secondary sources as you can and evaluate them for their reliability. Maybe you can’t confirm the exact date a person was born, but you can confidently state the year. Or you can’t say for sure where a family was in 1890 (during the US census for which almost all records have been lost), but you can make an educated guess based on your research.

Then, if you want, you can share your work with the person who provided the clues in the family tree.
For more information on evaluating and citing genealogical sources, see Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources From Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
To learn more about how to tackle tough research questions, see Family Tree Magazine‘s book 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges, the Family Tree Magazine webinar recording Brick Wall Strategies: Advice and Ideas for Getting Past Research Dead Ends, and the Family Tree Problem Solver, all available on Family Tree Shop.