Monday, November 4, 2019

On the Size of Your Family Tree

"So, how many names do you have in your family tree?"

Have you ever heard this question before? I'm guessing yes. Usually it's followed by comparisons of person counts, with adjoining claims to be able to trace certain lines back to X time period or notable people. Much less attractive in a genealogical bragging contest is something like this statement: "you know, I've tried to work beyond X 19th-century ancestor, but I just don't have the evidence." How much fun is it to admit this? It could be responded to with "I guess I'm lucky; I tie into royal lines."

Today, I'm here to say that you should be more impressed with the person who said he/she couldn't trace back beyond a certain point without evidence. The number and kinds of sources are a much more important indicator of  your family tree's strength than its number of names. A good initial guideline when you're looking at Ancestry trees, for example, is to note whether a tree has more records than people in it. If it doesn't, lots of names are likely getting added without (or with thin) support.

Of course, this is just the beginning. If many of those records turn out to be Findagrave memorials (see my last post), dubious anecdotes/stories, or badly deployed census records, the source-name ratio turns out to be deceptive. But if someone is diligent enough to include many more sources than names, there are sometimes going to be generous amounts of vital certificates, obituaries, or other quality evidence provided. Related, trees which offer non-Ancestry-provided sources can contain the richest treasures; some of these documents may not be available anywhere else online.

Again, the real question isn't how many names you have in your family tree, it's how many quality sources you draw upon to support them. Building a strong tree requires that we be source-centric and adopt what I call the organic approach. This is evidence-based genealogy, where we add facts to our tree only as the credible sources we find reveal them. I say "credible" because sources aren't created equally, and if the only source we have for a name or fact is a secondary source far removed from primary witness, we must note this in our research logs, and/or person notes, and officially add this information when we gather more (and better) evidence to support it.

Genealogy done well comes down to the historical evidence we have at our disposal and how we utilize it. Anybody can add lots of names supported by hearsay, weak sourcing, or nothing at all. But the next time you're drawn into a bragging contest concerning the size of your family tree, make sure yours is hefty where it counts.

(In my next post I will start to tackle the dreaded topic of citations. But this will arrive some time during the coming weekend, since I have work obligations requiring my attention this week.)

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