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

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

The idea behind this series came from the challenge of Member Trees on 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, 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 tree Part 2

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