The Tree Tip #3: Documentation is Key

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January 31, 2012 by The Editor

1860 Grosse Pointe, Michigan Census

One of the most important things you can do as a family researcher is to always keep good documentation. With the amount of information we have at our disposal today via numerous websites and databases that contain millions of records, becoming immersed in the study of genealogy can quickly seem overwhelming. Keeping documentation will allow you to pick up where you leave off and to help others with confidence.

It’s great to go onto a family tree website to start your research only to discover that a distant cousin, a 4th or 5th cousin perhaps, has done a fair amount of work already that may be useful to you. Taking up a “tip” or a “hint” from the site can in fact provide useful links for further research. The danger is that the researcher becomes complacent. It’s too easy to just plot in names and dates. I have run into far too many instances where it is obvious a person has just been copying names from other family trees with no verification whatsoever. The most egregious examples are where a child is “born” several decades before a parent. I’m not even sure why you can plot in such dates when they are clearly impossible!

If you want your family tree to be “history worthy” then it is vital as you do your research to be able to prove your lineage. For example, say you want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution: be prepared to prove your links to that war. Hearsay won’t be enough.

Proving your lineage requires documentation. By documentation, I mean birth and death certificates, church registers that record baptisms, marriages, and burials, family bibles, letters, obituaries, census records and many other types of official and unofficial documentation. Without corroboration, a list of names and dates is just a list. It may be useful as a way to start the search, but standing alone it does not become authoritative simply because it exists.

Documentation can become very difficult for many people because sadly it is not always easily available. Sometimes it is gone completely or never existed to begin with. I think of the legacy of slavery in America. Although many African-Americans can trace their lineage for several generations, all too often it becomes difficult or impossible. I think of the legacy of the Holocaust and the destruction of Jewish cemeteries and records. Churches burn and communal records are destroyed. Historical legacies are lost.

One famous example of the need for documentation is the controversy surrounding the Monticello Association, made up of descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, a slave owned by Jefferson, have been denied membership due to lack of documentation, despite DNA evidence and contemporaneous accounts linking the two.

Language can also be a barrier. I do much of my research on French Canadian ancestors and the records are almost always in French. I am lucky enough to be able to read French. For others, it might just be a matter of learning enough vocabulary in another language to decipher records. Many genealogical organizations have volunteers who will help people translate records.

As you continue your research, think of it as a building process, with each record that you find and save, you are putting in place another support. Without the records, and unless you are part of a culture with a strong oral tradition that maintains family histories in another way, it will be a house of cards. It may be entertaining to consider, to toy with, but in the end it will not withstand the scrutiny of other researchers and may have the effect of leading others astray. By keeping good documentation, your family research will be something that stands the test of time and which your children and grandchildren can draw on with confidence and pride!

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