TEST DRIVE: My 48 hours with the new Family Tree Maker 2017

TEST DRIVE: My 48 hours with the new Family Tree Maker 2017

I finally was notified Friday night of my eligibility participate in MacKiev’s 48-hour beta test of FTM2017. While I have been, and will continue to be, critical of the process (Mackiev’s latest update engenders even less confidence, puts 2017 release 3 weeks behind with no firm date for release) I was largely happy with the new software, and can’t wait for it to go live.

Listen to their advice: Use a practice/non-critical tree for your testing.

I have over 20 years experience testing software releases (MacKiev 2 weeks late with Family Tree Maker 2017 release, still “getting close”), so I’ve been through this before, however for this beta test I didn’t do an exhaustive breakdown of every feature or even attempt to use the new features. I just kept it simple, focused on how to sync with my existing FTM 3 trees that were linked to Ancestry.com, and went through a few generations of new ancestors to a speculative tree I’d chosen to test with.

That brings me to my first impression. Listen to their advice: Use a practice/non-critical tree for your testing. My concern wasn’t about data loss, and I don’t think there’s a reason to be concerned about that, but since my larger trees have multiple owners/editors/viewers, if I had to re-upload them Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 3.04.24 PM.pngand reassign those it would be difficult. I feel like it was good I was concerned about that as it relates to a test, and like it will be less of a concern when we’re not limited to a short beta.

Other than that, I feel that the interface was easy to understand, and as a long-time user of Family Tree Maker there were no surprises. Due to a confidentiality agreement I agreed to I won’t go into detail about look/feel/placement of things in the application, but I think it’s safe to say I felt like it was not much of a learning curve going from FTM 3 to FTM 2017. My impression was that overall, FTM 2017 felt more modern, updated and refreshed.

My impression is that this is a mature, (nearly?) ready for production release software package that will be a welcome refresh for FTM users. I have some complaints, but since I can’t yet discuss features or how/if various features have changed, I can’t go into them until Family Tree Maker is released to the public. Generally I’ll say that given MacKiev’s spotty rollout of this product, and some of the complaints I can’t yet detail, Family Tree Maker 2017 is likely to keep me satisfied in the short-to-medium term while I start to research alternatives just in-case this is as good as it gets.

Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part One: sources, citations, facts, and proof

Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree – Part One: sources, citations, facts, and proof

The idea behind this series came from the challenge of Member Trees on Ancestry.com being of limited use because they are so poorly sourced. Even worse, these poorly sourced trees often become considered “legitimate” sources because they are repeated so often! So, we decided we’ll walk through how we wish all Member Trees were sourced, so they could be trusted by others and so that your research could be more focused and organized.

Before we get started, please understand this one approach, and it’s our approach. We would never be calling out how someone else is approaching tree sourcing as “wrong”, and this approach isn’t necessarily “right”. It’s right for our research, and if every Member Tree we came across was sourced like this we’d be very happy.

In Part 1 of this series on how to source your tree, let’s talk about facts, sources, citations, and the notion of proof.


Understanding citations, and beginning to enforce the standards you settle on, is one of the turning points as family historians evolve into genealogists. However, for the sake of this series citations are going to be used in Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.13.55 AMtheir most simple form: indicating a source of information to support a fact.


Sources are pretty straight-forward as well, for the purposes of this discussion. They are the pieces of information that indicate a fact about one Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 11.14.24 AMyour ancestors. Family bibles, Ancestry.com indexes, headstones, interviews with family members, etc. are all examples of sources that yield clues about your relatives.


Facts and proof are a little trickier. They tend to both confuse, and be ignored, those newer to genealogy. At their most basic, facts are events that have been proven.

Facts at first seem obvious. My birthdate is April 26, and that’s a fact. But facts and proof are intertwined. How do you know my birthdate is April 26? Honestly, other than me telling you it’s my birthday, you don’t. This is where proof comes in, and already apparent in this simple example that it’s not your duty as the reader to prove my birthday, it’s my duty to prove that date because I’ve made statement that it’s a correct birthday. For me, my mother is still alive, as are some of the family members who were there when I was brought home from the hospital. I have many Aunts and Uncles who remember my mother being pregnant during the time that corresponds with my birth, and I have photographs of her pregnant that were date stamped during that same time, as well as letters and photos (also stamped) after my birth. I also of course have my birth certificate, which was completed and certified near the time of my birth.

But facts get much fuzzier as we look backwards. For our African American ancestors who died in the late 1800’s, we might have only 2 Census ages to show when they were born. Going back further, we might be relying on various Family History collections that are quoting dates that are 8 levels removed from the original source documents, and those documents are long since lost to history. Of course no one is around to provide a statement that they were present at the time of birth, and rarely do we have historical accounts of our ancestors.


This leads us to determining how we “prove” “facts” for an ancestor who’s long since gone. How we prove a fact often is determined by why we’re proving it. For example, for Felice’s 2xGGM we have sources indicating birthdates ranging from 1876-1881, but this line is well established, and that variation isn’t critical to understanding hScreen Shot 2017-04-25 at 10.28.35 AMer ancestry, so we likely won’t do much more digging to settle on a date. However, on my Tradewell line, we’re currently researching a theory that Reuben Treadwell (1755-1742) is my 4xGGF, and there is another Reuben Treadwell born in the same area of Connecticut in 1752. It’s essential to our research that we nail down both birthdates as accurately as possible, and then verify which Reuben is being referenced by each source. So, in some cases we don’t need to prove beyond a 5-6 year spread when an event occurred, but in others a 3 year difference is critical.

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS Defined) should be able to guide you on this spectrum. At the most strict definition of proof, the GPS will give you 5 elements you need to address to argue that a fact is a fact. For facts where the proof isn’t so demanding, the GPS still helps you gauge how close you are to the truth. If you’ve just taken a few census dates and settled on a birthdate, it’s clear you haven’t done a “reasonably exhaustive search”, and so you haven’t hit the first element of the formally proving a fact. Again, that might be just fine for some facts, and just the beginning for others, and the Genealogical Proof Standard helps you understand where on that spectrum you are.

In this series, we’ll walk you through having at least one source for every event, attaching online research and your own research to those events, and giving enough information on your ancestors that you, and those interested in your tree, can at least do some basic analysis and correlation of the evidence. There won’t be an attempt to prove facts, but if all Member Trees merely had well sourced and cited events, we’d all be able to get much further in our research.

Next up: Building a good Public Ancestry.com tree Part 2

Mackiev’s latest update engenders even less confidence, puts 2017 release 3 weeks behind with no firm date for release

Mackiev’s latest update engenders even less confidence, puts 2017 release 3 weeks behind with no firm date for release

I’m not even sure where to start with this to be honest…I’ve never been a part of anything like this. Looking back a week ago (MacKiev 2 weeks late with Family Tree Maker 2017 release, still “getting close”) I think everyone expected a quick release, as Mackiev got closer. Instead we had a week of silence, followed by a new plan to use pre-release purchasers to expand the Beta test process, in the hope that they finally have enough resources to finish their software Mackiev FTM Update.

I could write about ridiculous it is to only allow 48-hours of Beta testing, and how poorly prepared for this they were (example: they scramble to create a test plan/group/protocol a week after their target go-live, cheer that they were able have 5,000 Beta testers a week after that, but another week later they need 25,000 Beta testers to finish the effort), but I’m just about beyond words. This is not normal, it’s not to be expected, this is NOT how commercial/enterprise software is developed/deployed, this is not the mark of a company you can trust to continue to manage, support, and grow a product. This is as close to a disaster as I can envision.

In my post last week I prefaced it by saying that I felt confident we’d eventually be satisfied with the product, that they would release it, and it would all be ok. Most of that is gone today, and I have little confidence that Mackiev will be able to deliver a viable commercial software product going forward. Even if they eventually complete this release, there should be no faith they can do it again in the future. I will be test driving the product when they finally release it Monday (and Monday?!?!?! why release an update on Thursday, but not release the product until 4 days later??), and blogging about it, and Family Tree Maker will continue to be my genealogy software for the short term…but the clock is ticking before it’s time to migrate to the next product.

Local historians bring a one-of-a-kind collection to the public eye

Local historians bring a one-of-a-kind collection to the public eye

The Wisconsin Historical Society published an amazing collection this month that is essential if you’re researching your family history in SouthEastern Wisconsin (Eugene Walter Leach Collection). And, it’s a really cool story of how the public came together to publish some great records. But beyond all of that it’s a fascinating example of how our personal research can mushroom over time, how we need to be aware of the impact of that research can have over time, and how we need to ensure that our records survive us in a meaningful way.

“To a chosen few historically minded persons in each generation is given the privilege of collecting and preserving the sacred facts of history, that they may not be lost to future generations.” – Eugene Walter Leach

Eugene Walter Leach (1857-1938) was born in Minnesota, but moved to Racine as a toddler and lived there the rest of his life (Eugene Leach bio). He was largely a private citizen who took it upon himself to collect, catalog, and publish the history of Racine, Wisconsin. He published 3 books during his lifetime, and was appointed as Racine’s official historian and Custodian of the Racine History Museum 4 years before his death. But his magnum opus was a book (The Story of Racine County – A History) that was not completed at the time he died, and which is now publicly available for the first time.

Capture-leach1His research for the book filled 14 archival boxes, and the manuscript itself was over 1300 pages. Leach had spent decades collecting the stories of earlier settlers to Racine County. Just a quick review of about ½ of the collection shows me that he was visiting nursing homes, sending out questionnaires, reaching out to surviving family members for recollections, and being very active in gathering information about his subjects. All of this was preserved when he died in 1938, but largely lost to history.

Around 2008 a volunteer at the Racine Heritage Museum, John Magerus, PHD, was considering various projects when he came across an entry on the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s website referencing the papers of “Leach, a Racine, Wis. Historian and curator of the Racine County Museum, including an unpublished manuscript.” Further digging led to discovering Leach’s papers were stored at the local university, UW-Parkside, and Magerus published portions of the manuscript in 2010.

Local history buff Todd Wallace began working the Wisconsin Historical Society and UW-P to digitize the collection, which lead to a GoFundMe campaign in 2016 to pay for the digitation. That digitization effort culminated in the WHS releasing the collection digitally earlier this month.

The collection is fascinating, and a true treasure. We’ve gone through and skimmed about half of the documents, and while there isn’t much directly related to our family, it’s still a wonderful read.

Reviewing the collection, a few thoughts popped out at us:

We all start out as family historians and make the transition to historians/genealogists if we’re serious about this hobby 

My 1C1R Peggy is the historian of the Leonard family, and her collection of artifacts and documents is amazing. It was her Family Reunion book from the early 1980’s that got us started on this journey. But it’s a classic collection of great stuff and stories, with no attribution, or citations, or publication. As we all start collecting our information, we will reach a point like Leach where we become keepers of unique and irreplaceable knowledge. As you go longer in this hobby it’s natural to start being more organized, more formal, and more interested in publishing what you’ve found. Reading through this collection it feels a lot like what I hope my work will be 30 years from now, and I can see how my work could progress much like his…from amateur historian, to a historian.

The best part of genealogy is the stories, not the facts 

We knew when we first got into this hobby that we cared about the stories much more than the facts, and this just further demonstrates that truth. We, of course, recognize the utility, and value, of the facts he’s presented, but we’ve spent most of my time consuming the stories of these settlers of Racine County, and of how the community sprang up. I can’t imagine how excited the descendants of these subjects must be to find the stories of their family told.

Digital research has it’s place, but the most valuable work is often what you go out and discover offline 


Many of the vital records, and even most of the newspaper articles, that are a part of these archives available to us today. The most valuable parts of the collection are the research he did with living people, the letters, finding and copying old diaries (that are likely long since lost), visiting nursing homes for interviews, etc. are nothing short of treasures. I was especially impressed by his work with sending out hundreds of pre-printed questionnaires, which led to impressive results. We spend a lot of time looking at our screens for answers, but we need to spend more time out in the field gathering the pieces of this puzzle that can’t be found online.

Make sure you have a formal plan to pass your research on when you’re gone 

We’re just coming around to this, but we will be adding a formal Codicil to our Will that details how to process our genealogical work. We’ve already reached out to the Racine Historical Museum to make arrangements to donate objects we have that are priceless, and that we can’t maintain to the level they deserve to be. We’ve made digital copies, so we’ll be able to continue to enjoy the content, but we have no business trying to maintain the originals. Either way, it’s critical we have a formal plan in-place to ensure our work survives us.

Store your research archaically 

Building off the previous point, we started from day one using archival paper, folders, storage boxes, ink, sleeves, etc. to store our documents. They are never stored in the basement, and they should easily survive us. We’ve had friends who received the trunk of family photos and documents when Grandmother passed away, that were soon destroyed when the basement flooded. Looking at Leach’s collection, I shudder to think how easily it could have been lost and to think of how many similar collections were lost due to family who didn’t care about these things as much as we did.

Get involved in your local historical societies 

Eugene Leach’s work eventually BECAME the local historical society. This collection is seeing the light of day this month because a local historian volunteered at the Racine Historical Society, and took it upon himself to dig the collection up, and other local historians raised funds to have it digitized. We can have a huge impact, and it can’t help but further your research as well.

Give back wherever you can 

You see sharing across this entire story. Leach built his work off of the work of various historians who preceded him. 100’s of relatives of early Racine settles shared stories and artifacts with Leach, that then were shared with us. Local historians banded together to share money so the collection could be digitized. We approach this work collectively, and no one builds their research on their work alone. We stand on the shoulders of others as we build our family histories, and we have a duty to share our work freely so that others will build on our work and take it further than us.

Thank you so much to everyone who worked on this collection, and I can’t wait to read all the way through this collection!

Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!

We’ve known for some time that our research strategy is not focused as well as it should be, and our undisciplined methodology ( lack of research logs, research notes, well defined questions, formal output, etc.) was slowing down our work. Not only that, it’s been sloppy, and lead us down some dead ends…twice.

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work.

This week it came to a head when we identified a DNA match with my wife’s Grandmother (who is African American) that comes from a tree that is almost entirely white, and has a strong slave-holder history in their line. This would be the first confirmed slave-holder/slave child we’d identified (if we could identify the line), which is a pretty major step in African American genealogy.

We went back to a “Working” Tree on Ancestry (because I can’t sync our Family Tree Maker!) for the white Thornton line, and built a good link from the DNA match to the brothers in Coffeeville, AL we’ve long suspected were the likely parents of her slave ancestor. We were completely excited.

It wasn’t until the next day as we poked around the Working tree, and our main tree, that it dawned on us: the slave ancestor with the Thornton surname was likely never in Alabama and the brothers were never likely in Arkansas. We’d hit this dead end before, but forgot all about it. We knew better, we’d just forgotten it…and we left the speculative tree intact without any notes.

It’s been a thought for awhile now that we were getting too cowboy in our research. We felt too pulled in whatever direction a whim drew us, often getting sucked down DNA result rabbit holes, and not making a lot of good progress. We’re getting to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

As I laid down for a nap this afternoon, I wanted to do some genealogy reading without working on any project, and after searching on “genealogy research plan” I immediately hit upon one of our favorite resources: Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is fantastic series of Research Reports on the Association of Professional Genealogists website where Mills presents the fascinating case of Samuel Witter (Essential Research Reports for Genealogists: 3 Samples). We read through all 3 examples, and were immediately inspired!

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 10.49.18 PM

Take a look for yourself, and the first thing that will strike you is that they are long and detailed. It might feel daunting to draft something like this. But as I started to think of several of our brick walls, and involved projects, we can see how having the discipline to produce something this detailed should both highlight the areas we need further research, and give us the path to the best next steps to attack that research.

We clicked through a link to Mills’ website Historic Pathways and found not only the Witter examples, but an entire library of GREAT documentation (Historic Pathways – Research Reports).

Today confirmed for us that we need to pause our research and reset our work: clean up our main tree by moving the speculative links to Private/Unsearchable trees, clean up/verify the citations for all facts in our main tree, get our paper documentation and filing up-to-date, and draft more formal plans to answer specific questions when we start our research again.

We’ll update everyone as we start following this process, and start creating these documents, but in the meantime, take a look and let us know what you think! How formal is your research documentation, and what works for you?