Building a good Public tree – Part Two: Attaching facts to sources, and using “wrong” facts in your tree

Building a good Public tree – Part Two: Attaching facts to sources, and using “wrong” facts in your tree

In Part 1 of this series (Building a good Public tree – Part One: sources, citations, facts, and proof), we talked about some of the fundamentals of how to understand the components of a properly sourced a tree on In Part 2, we’re going to talk about a critical way to approach your trees before we walk through putting everything into practice and building your tree.

Attach all sources to the preferred fact, or list a fact for each source? 

There are two schools of thought on how to attach facts to sources online. The most common method is to attach all facts of the same type (say Date of Birth) to the primary Date of Birth, even though they don’t match. The other will link each source with the fact asserted in that source. For instance, my 2xGGF Wesley has an obituary that indicates a date of birth of 16 Dec 1837, and there are census entries that indicate he was born abt. 1836, abt. 1837, Dec 1837, and abt. 1838. The method most people use for their trees would have you set the primary date of birth as 16 Dec 1837, and have the census birthdates attach to that date since it’s primary.

The other approach, and the one we use, is to attach each fact to each source as they are sourced. So, for example, we have chosen 16 Dec 1837 as Wesley’s Preferred birth date and we’ve attached the two sources that indicate that date: his obituary and his family bible. For the 1850 Census has Wesley’s birthday listed as “abt. 1836”, and so we have an Alternate Fact for that, with the 1850 Census attached as a source. The same for the 1860 Census and “abt. 1837”. Repeating the process we end up with 5 dates of birth for Wesley.


A lot of people avoid this approach because your ancestor end up with many events like dates of birth, when in reality an ancestor can only have one birthdate, and because all the records can clutter the ancestor’s record. We couldn’t imagine having all the records tied to a single, preferred fact because it would be so difficult having to research each source attached to a birthday in order to find which actually supports that fact.

Here’s an example. While preparing Part 3 of this series, we used an ancestor Ephraim Treadwell as an example, and when clicking through to review the sources attached to other’s Member Trees, in an attempt to resolve a conflict on his place of death, this is what we encountered:

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Why would we search through 7 sources to find out which one has the wrong death location?

This is how every Member Tree was sourced, and looking at his death fact, it seems to indicate that every source supports that date of death and that his place of death is Fairfield, CT. But, in-fact, none of the sources support his death location, and only some support his death day. To determine which sources support which facts, we have to review each source individually. We sure wish they had chosen to link each source to the fact as it was sourced, but by choosing to link all sources to the preferred death fact, we have to dig through each source to determine what those sources actually support.

In the end, we’re big advocates for showing what the sources support, with facts listed as they are asserted, as the best way to get a true picture of the facts that make up your ancestor’s record. Even when those facts aren’t precise, or even correct.

Connect all facts, even when they don’t appear correct 

It’s counter-intuitive that we’d attach facts that we know to be incorrect in-order for us to better understand what’s correct, but when you consider that you can never know the accuracy of any historical fact, it’s hard to support ignoring facts you only think are inaccurate.

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 9.10.46 AMTaking a look at Wesley’s father James, we see a range of birth dates that range from 1790-1799. We don’t have a great record that indicates his birth date, but most of what we have clusters around 1796-97. Seeing the range helped when we found a Family Bible entry for James that indicated 11 Aug 1796. Even though the bible entry was completed at some point after 1855, so it wasn’t entered at his time of birth, but we can be comfortable that the date fits the previously known range. It also helps when reviewing early censuses. We reviewed the 1820 Census with the idea that his age would likely be between 21 and 30, but that since we only have one outlying record that shows 1790, it’s likely he’d be <30 years old. It’s also likely his age was closer to 23-24 and it was not uncommon for male children to be living on their parent’s farm at that age. It’s helpful to be able to understand all of that from a quick glance at his record in our tree, instead of having to dig through 9 sources to figure out his birth day.

Only through the complete presentation of all records can you review and identify what facts are likely correct. Because of that, we prefer to present all of the facts as they are sourced, and later interpret what’s likely accurate/inaccurate. If you’re editing as you’re attaching sources, it’s very easy to make the facts fit your current understanding of your ancestor when it might be more appropriate to use the facts to change your current understanding.

In the end neither choice is officially right or wrong, but we wanted to put it out there for your consideration, and to let you know why we will approach facts and sources differently than most other researchers.

In the next installment of this series we’ll get to work and start building a good Public tree!

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