Five Golden Rules for Growing Family Trees

Getty / Dennis Hallinan

It's a fact of life. Trees can't live without light, water, air, and food. While fancy fertilizers and high-tech bug killers are nice, all trees really need to survive are the basics and a little TLC.

As with real trees, all your family tree really needs to grow and flourish is a little of your time (or a lot if you're as addicted as I am!) and some attention to the basics. Digitized census records, DNA tests, and merge-matching software are wonderful tools, but applying these five essential rules to your family tree research will go a much longer way to achieving genealogy success.

Rule #1: Do Not Assume

I know you've all heard this one, but it bears repeating. "Set in stone" is an expression that just doesn't apply to genealogy! Do not assume that the dates listed on a tombstone are the correct ones. Do not assume that your surname was always spelled the way it is today. Do not assume that household members listed in a census are actually brothers, sisters, or other relatives (unless the census actually states the relationship and, sometimes, not even then). Do not assume something as fact just because it has been published in a book or on the Internet. Think of the information you find as "assertions" which may or may not be true, instead of "facts," which are absolute.
More: Do the Ancestors Hanging From Your Family Tree Really Belong There?

Rule #2: Do Your Own Research

Following up on Rule One, derivative sources such as published family histories, indexes, and compilations are an easy way to expand your family tree quickly (the fancy fertilizer approach), but are also highly susceptible to mistakes and assumptions that can quickly send your family tree growing in the wrong direction.

While it is perfectly acceptable to use these types of sources to find family clues, you should always go back and take the time to corroborate secondhand sources with your own research in original documents. It only takes one incorrect assumption or misdirected information to have you researching the wrong ancestors!

More: Five Steps to Verifying Online Genealogy Sources

Rule #3: Treat Brothers & Sisters as Equals

Many genealogists, especially beginners, are only interested in tracing their direct line -- grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, there is a good reason it is called a family tree, not an ancestor tree. The further back your research takes you, the more important it becomes to research your ancestor's brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Commonly referred to as collateral ancestors or collateral lines, these family members may provide the clues that your direct ancestor somehow managed not to leave behind. While your great-grandmother may have been born before births were recorded in the state where she lived, her younger sister may have been born just late enough to have that birth certificate with the parents' names you've been looking for. Or when you learn that your great-great grandfather was born in America, and his parents never chose to become citizens, the naturalization record of the eldest child who was born in Poland may provide the only link to the family's ancestral town. Many choose not to follow this sibling rule because of all the extra work involved, but I can guarantee that by ignoring them you'll find your research stuck somewhere.

More: Researching Collateral Lines

Next Page > Golden Rules for Genealogy - #4 and #5

Rule #4: One Source Doesn't Equal Proof

It seems pretty simple. You find a death certificate for your grandfather which lists not only his date of death and place of burial, but also his place of birth and his parents' names. Time to enter the information into your family tree and then move on to tracking down Great-grandpa, right? Nope, sorry. One source just isn't enough to constitute proof, especially when the information is secondary -- as in the case of death certificates for the date of birth and other information which does not relate directly to the death.

I searched for my great, great-grandmother for years under the maiden name MARIN because that is what my grandmother remembered. Then, wasted some more time with the maiden name MOORE (pun intended), because that is what I found listed on the death certificates of more than one of her children. Both wrong, of course. The actual name was close enough (MEARES), but close doesn't count in genealogy any more than it does in multiple choice.

Before arriving at a conclusion in our genealogy research, we must first conduct reasonably exhaustive research. Logically, this means trying to find several different sources for the same information, to give you the best chance at arriving at a well-researched, substantiated conclusion.
More: Evidence or Proof? How to Prove Family Tree Connections

Rule #5: Squeeze Out Every Bit of Detail from Sources

Do you remember all of those records you've looked during the course of creating your family tree?

Do you really think there is nothing more to be learned from them? Pull them back out for your more difficult ancestors and take another look at every single detail in every single document and ask yourself what it may possibly tell you about your ancestor. Say, for example, that you find your ancestor in a list of individuals which records the amounts paid to each individual for appearing in court as a witness to a court case (commonly found in county court order or witness books).

If the amounts are different for different individuals, have you ever wondered why? This simple little clue may help you approximate how far the individual lived from the court house (as payments generally included a base stipend plus mileage) and place them approximately on a map (by distance from the courthouse) even if they never owned land. This information can then be correlated with the names of neighbors from census and tax records to possibly narrow the location even further. Knowing exactly where your ancestor lived is a gold mine for determining potential family relationships!

The next time you see something in a record that you don't understand, or doesn't make sense, or just seems of no use - look at it again. Use your favorite search engine or ask a question on your favorite genealogy mailing list to determine exactly what the record might be telling you. Learn why the record was created, the laws of the time and location which may impact its meaning, and what each piece of information really means.
More: How to Analyze a Historical Document

Don't Stop Now...Share the Wealth!

Family trees are meant for sharing. Unfortunately, however, you'll probably find that most of your relatives could care less about the jumbled (to them) collection of facts, notes, and sources that constitute your genealogy database.

If you weave all of those names and dates into a story, however, you may find they are interested despite themselves. And "interested" means you'll probably find them more receptive to sharing what they know. Take some time out from your research today to get some of your information into published form, whether it is creating a CD of collected family photos, a family cookbook of collected recipes, or a written history of the family. Even something as simple as framing a copy of Great-Granddad's family in the 1930 census is a form of publishing - and makes a great conversation piece too! It's okay if your genealogy isn't "finished." Believe me - it never will be. Just include what you know, taking the time to carefully document your sources. Don't be afraid to use "weasel words" such as probably, possibly, and maybe for information you aren't sure about.

As long as you're careful to explain what is fact and what is still guesswork, your family tree will grow for the sharing.
More: Writing & Publishing Your Family History

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "Five Golden Rules for Growing Family Trees." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Powell, Kimberly. (2017, March 3). Five Golden Rules for Growing Family Trees. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "Five Golden Rules for Growing Family Trees." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 14, 2017).