click to view original photo

Make Documentation Work for You

Previous eras of family history documentation left much to be desired. The newest form of documentation eliminates the need for looking up a document many times and provides analysis data as well.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1010 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
Short URL:

When Abbie Wells handed me the last of her family history materials, she admitted to burning the letters from which she derived the information. She thought the letters were too gossipy. It broke my heart because those letters were to and from Hannah Free Wells, a wife of Daniel H. Wells, a counselor to Brigham Young. Gossip is just what I wanted! The letters were irretrievably gone, and though, as a young researcher, I grieved for them, I had Abbie's research in my arms.

Abbie was well into her 90s when I first met her. Four times our family visited her. Once she went with my small children and me to the family burial plot. Each time we met, she gave me more of her collection until I had it all. It included, among other things, the family group records compiled from those dratted gossipy letters.

Abbie was delightful, with genteel manners. It is one of the wonders of my genealogical career that my children and I got to know her. And even though her records were sparsely documented, reflecting her research era, as I double-checked her records, I found them to be correct, correct, correct. I was not so lucky with the research of other relatives. When I retraced their work to find the sources, I sometimes found serious errors.

When Abbie was doing research in her youth, sources were not emphasized. Since her time, four distinct eras of documentation have come, and three of them have gone. My own genealogy reflects all four eras, as follows:

First, little to no documentation
Second, severely abbreviated documentation
Third, research paper documentation
Fourth, analysis documentation.

In the first era, none or few sources were recorded on family group sheets and pedigree charts. Many genealogists hadn't even heard about documentation, so those who came later had to do the work again, like I did with Abbie's records.

In the second era, researchers did the best they could with the physical space available. No style of family group sheet or pedigree chart had much room for sources. Even the first computer programs designated little space for documentation. Consequently, family group sheets with abbreviations such as BC, par reg, and obit abound.

In the third era, historians documented as they had in high school English with bibliographic as well as footnote data. This provided readers with a map to find the book or deed or census easily. This kind of documentation made it easy to determine the value of the source: was the source highly believable or barely believable or someplace in-between?

Recently, documentation has taken a whole new twist; one it could not have taken had not the newer genealogy database programs provided so much space for notes and sources. Nor would it have happened without the pioneering work of Elizabeth Shown Mills as found in her book Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, MD 1997).

Some historians have taken her work a step further. Researchers now cite sources with enough information they may never have to find that source again. In addition, they record the source in such a way that it aids future analysis and family connections.

Here's how it works:

During the second era, the sources on a family group sheet for Daniel Hicks included "1851 census" and "auto of Annie Hicks Free." With that documentation, researchers could find each source, but it would take time and energy. And the value of the record is indicated: a census is mostly secondary, an autobiography may be primary.

But if researchers insert complete source information and the data from the source, magic can happen. The "1851 census" becomes: 1851 Census Romford, Essex, England. FHL #207418 p. 197: Daniel Hicks. Popper (sic), married, age 40, seaman, born Essex, Barking. In Romford Union Workhouse. Research by LaRae Kerr and Charlotte Smith 2004.

The "Auto of Annie Hicks Free" becomes: Free, Annie Hicks. Annie Hicks Free Written by Herself. Copy in possession LaRae Free Kerr. "I was born in Barking, Essex, England, on the 8th of January 1837, the younger daughter of Daniel Hicks, a sailor, and Hannah Wenlock Hicks. I knew very little of my father's family. My mother was born of Scotch and English parents. Father being a confirmed invalid, I had, as it were, to keep and care for myself, assuming the responsibilities of a woman when I was a mere child." (See also

With this kind of documentation, researchers don't have to go to the source over and over: it's all right there. And when other Daniel Hicks entries appear, the researcher can use this documentation to determine if the new information refers to the ancestral Daniel Hicks or someone else.

I found three Daniel Hicks entries of about the right age and place in the 1871 English census. Which, if any, referred to my Daniel Hicks?

Entry 1: Daniel Hicks, farmer, age 65 born in Romford, Essex, England, living in Barking, Essex, married to Jemima.

Entry 2: Daniel Hicks, working on a farm, age 66 born in Navestock, Essex, England, living in Navestock, Essex, married to Elizabeth.

Entry 3: Daniel Hicks age 60 born West Ham, Essex, England, living as an inmate in Romford, Essex workhouse, married but no wife's name given, a "late soldier." He was blind.

Which of these three entries is most apt to represent my ancestor? All of the births are off a year or three, which is very common in censuses. They are all in the right area. The first two do not have wives named Hannah, but Jemima or Elizabeth could possibly represent second marriages. However, the third entry fits more of what is known--and what is known is sitting right there in the documentation--than the other two. Daniel was, if not a soldier, certainly a sailor. He was married, and he was an invalid. The third Daniel Hicks fits the description given by his daughter as well as the 1851 census entry.

By giving complete documentation and data information for each entry, researchers can use sources to locate their own true ancestors rather than someone else's. I'm starting today. How about you?

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles