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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Clean up your genealogical database

This last week I had to shudder after talking with one of the volunteers at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. She explained to me that working with one of the newer genealogy programs, in this case RootsMagic, was just too much of a bother and she was going back to using Personal Ancestral File (PAF). I really was at a loss of what to say. I didn't know the person well enough to say what I was thinking. I guess I was so upset that I had to wait a while for my thoughts to coalesce.

The fundamental problem I see with PAF, among many others, is the inability to adequately edit the entries. Many of the newer genealogy programs, such as Ancestral Quest, RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree, just to mention a few, have powerful tools for editing the content of the database. Although in every program some of the features could be better, all of the newer programs have features that go far beyond PAF in managing the data once it is in the file. It is this data management function that is obviously being ignored almost completely by the obdurate PAF users.

Here is what I am talking about. I will use my own family line data file from as an example. Let's first look at place names. This is a list of the variations for one geographic location on (I have talked about these variations in other contexts in the past, mostly to show the problems with

St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona, United States
Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona
Saint Joseph, Navajo, Arizona
St. Joseph, Navajo, Ariz.
St. Joseph, Navaho, AZ
St. Joseph, Navaho, Arizona
St. Joseph, Navajo, Ariz.
St. Joseph, , Arizona
St. Joseph, Navaho, Az
St. Joseph, Navajo, Utah
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona
St. Joseph, Arizona

I am not making this up. All of these places are absolutely the same location. They are from a list of variations from the birth date of my Grandfather who was born on 12 January 1895. Sorting out some of the issues here is extremely complicated. The name of the place is as follows:
  • Allen's Camp 1876
  • St. Joseph 21 January 1878
  • Joseph City 19 December 1923
 See Barnes, Will C., and Byrd H. Granger. Arizona Place Names. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1960 and about a hundred other references. 

 Now about the county. In 1876 when the town was established, most of northern Arizona, including Allen's Camp, was in Yavapai County. Yavapai was split and Apache County was created on 14 February 1879 putting St. Joseph into Apache County. A later split on 21 March 1895, put St. Joseph into Navajo (the correct spelling) County where Joseph City lies today.

So my Grandfather was born on 12 January 1895 in St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona, United States, the first entry and all of the others are simply inaccurate or in case of the one with Utah, wrong.

The problem is that any database that has not been carefully reviewed will contain many, sometimes all, of the variations in name and place illustrated above. How do you know this is the case if you are using PAF? You don't. You are blissfully ignorant of the variations. Do you see the problem with the variations? Imagine if this individual were the end of your line. Do you think any of these variations, if they happened to be the one you had in your file might cause some research problems? How long would it take you to determine that your relative was not born in Utah, for example?

This issue is trivial in Arizona but might cause all sorts of problems in England or Denmark or where ever.

Now, here is the point. If you are using PAF (or another program with the same limitations) you may not even be aware of the variations. I repeat, most of the newer programs have a relatively simple way of editing the information, such as geographic locations, in your data file. I attribute these types of variations, not just to bad genealogy, but also to the lack of adequate tools. Perhaps you can see why "going back to using just PAF" makes me shudder. I hope she isn't working on my line.


  1. James, your data states the location of your grandfather's birth at the time of the event, but how do you indicate to anyone reading the report that the place names and jurisdictions have changed?

  2. I need to clean up place names such as you show above. Unfortunately it happens over time as one adds records. My genealogy software does prompt me to be consistent and that certain helps.

  3. In the notes field for the event, I put in "now" followed by the name of the current jurisdiction. If the jurisdiction changed more than once, I put in "later" followed by the name of the previous jurisdiction and then "now" followed by the name of the current jurisdiction.