Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Building a Pedigree from Sources -- The Ultimate Challenge

Do you have a source for every conclusion in your family file? Traditional genealogy began with a pedigree chart and a search for names. From my experience nearly all beginning researchers start out the same way. They begin filling in names and they follow the suggestions from countless books, classes and websites that teach the Research Cycle.

Step One of the Research Cycle is and has been to do the following:

  • Use Appropriate Forms
  • Recall Information
  • Gather Family Information
  • Gather Low-Hanging-Fruit Sources
  • Record Useful Information
  • Organize Your Records
For a more complete explanation, see the Principles of Family History Research in the Research Wiki. 

Of course, it would be heresy to either question this time honored method of approaching genealogy or even to dare suggest that the approach was outmoded and even misleading. But that is exactly what I am going to do. Times and methods change. It is past due time to revise this traditional approach and realize that it is no longer necessary. I have been advocating a change for many years now, however, I have no expectation that the paradigm will change during my lifetime, even though the tools and procedures have been available for many years. 

Why is it time for a change? I can give the entire explanation in two words: the Internet. What is the new methodology? Building a pedigree strictly from sources. How does it now work? Here is the explanation. By the way, I am assuming two things here: that the potential researcher has access to the Internet and that he lives in a country where digitized records are available. Here are two statements from the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • In 2013, 83.8 percent of U.S. households reported computer ownership, with 78.5 percent of all households having a desktop or laptop computer, and 63.6 percent having a handheld computer.
  • In 2013, 74.4 percent of all households reported Internet use, with 73.4 percent reporting a high speed connection.
I might also point out that a significant portion of the rest of the population has free access to computers at libraries and other providers across the nation. 

Let's construct a hypothetical beginning research situation. Doe is a new researcher. For a variety of reasons, he has become interested in his ancestry. What is the best and most efficient way for Doe to get started? The old method would have Doe searching for records in his home and filling our a paper Family Group Record or Pedigree Chart. He would then move on to asking relatives for records, slowly filling in his chart and accumulating a pile of records. What has changed? 

Today, Doe can go onto any one of several online database websites and begin by filling out his name and his parents' names on a pre-constructed family history form. He could use,,,, or other programs. 

Now, before I go much further with this hypothetical, I need to make some assumptions. Some of these programs are subscription services. You could argue that the "traditional" method of starting genealogy was "free." Well, access to all of these programs is already available to over 70% of the U.S. population (actually higher in some countries). I am going to assume that Doe can either afford the nominal cost of subscribing to one or more of these programs or that he can use a computer in FamilySearch Family History Center and gain access for free to some or all of them. 

Now how does Doe begin his research? He doesn't. If he is using either or or, all he has to do is enter a minimal amount of information about himself and his parents and perhaps a name or two of grandparents. The programs then begin to suggest sources for further information. Guess what? 
  • The programs automatically use appropriate forms
  • The programs supply information and do not rely on the researcher's memory
  • The programs gather information automatically and suggest sources
  • All of the sources in the programs are, in a sense, low hanging fruit
  • The programs let Doe record pertinent information with a click
  • Doe's records are already organized
What is more this process of finding sources is cumulative. The more Doe adds to his growing family tree from sources supplied by the programs, the more sources the programs find. I have seen people build a four generation pedigree in a matter of hours, all based on sources. 

The results of this new paradigm are not hypothetical. During the past two or three years, I have sat with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of researchers and have gone through this scenario, adding only a few names and then letting the programs build a pedigree from scratch based on sources, not on hearsay from their families. In many cases, I have seen those same sources correct information that the researcher "knew" to be true. This has had a rather dramatic impact on people, especially when they find out for the first time that they were adopted or that their parents were not married when they were born.

I have to say that many people have to see this happen on the computer screen before they believe it is possible. Many researchers want to "cheat" the system and upload a GEDCOM file or start with entering all of their own research. In these cases, the person has to be willing to change any information they may already have in favor of what is supplied by sources. 

By the way, I have heard dozens of arguments from researchers as to why this doesn't work. These criticisms come mainly from people who have no idea how or why these programs work. The ones who try this out with a fresh, newly added family tree, find out that it does work. The system is not perfect. The researcher still needs to carefully review each suggested source to make sure the program has found the right person, but usually, at least in the first 200 years or so, this is not a problem. 

As I just mentioned, I have been hearing the excuses and criticism of this method of building a pedigree for years now. In order for this to work, the person who is doing the research for the first time needs to be patient. Sometimes it is necessary to prime the pump so to speak and add a little bit more information to the online family tree before the programs begin to supply information, but so far, I have not had anyone who did not get assistance in building a sourced family tree. 

I will undoubtedly get comments from users of all three programs who will tell me their disappointed reactions from their own database. Usually, this comes from people who expect to have the programs supply ancestors back in the 1700s or even the 1600s. This is not going to happen yet. I also hear criticism from those who want to ignore the more recent in time sources and jump back to a remote ancestor. You have to build the pedigree step-by-step and use the sources. Each time you confirm a source, you are providing more information to the program and so it can be more accurate. Take your time. Use the sources provided. 

What will happen if you do upload a huge genealogical database file? In each of the three programs, you will get more suggested hints than you can handle. For example, today I have over 8000 suggested sources from Let's start using these newly developed programs as they were intended to be used and stop trying to fight against the change in methodology. 


  1. I often build a pedigree from sources when working on a client project. However, I liken this to picking the low-hanging fruit you mentioned in your research process.For the problems I've worked on, the method begins to fail in the generation during the great expansion westward after the Revolution. It is difficult by any means to connect the western migrant with his East Coast family. In two generations families have jumped from Boston, MA to New Boston, MI often stopping along the way in NY, PA, and OH. I also agree that starting with a fresh slate can be much faster than trying to fix a poorly done GEDCOM that has little more than names, dates, and a few places if you are lucky. The other roadblock is that not everything you need is on the Internet. Still, the idea of building your pedigree from sources is valid but you will need to develop sources off-line as you go along.

  2. I enjoyed this article and agree with the idea of building sourced online trees. I contribute to the tree on family search and maintain my trees on ancestry. I am curious how you maintain your trees. Do you build trees on all of the websites you mentioned or do you maintain one tree and simply search for records on the various websites?

    1. I put a copy of my family tree on each program and use that to gather sources. I am in the process of transferring the sources to one central program.