Caring for Your Family Tree: How to Prune and Graft Branches Based on Sources and Analysis
What is your confidence level in your family tree? Have you been carefully adding new branches – or have you added extra ancestors based on hints and suggestions from online programs without much analysis? How about past research – is it up to current standards? If you are like me, some of the branches of your family tree might need pruning out and perhaps some new ancestors grafted in. How can we be more prudent in working with our tree? It all starts with sources and analysis.
The Problem – Incorrect Family Branch
When Nicole and I first started genealogy research, we focused on my paternal line with the following migration back in time: California > Oklahoma / Indian Territory > Texas. From Texas the lines diverged to all places south – Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia. Of course, this was all pre-1850 where the research gets progressively more difficult.
My great grandfather’s death certificate stated his mother’s name as Elizabeth Welch, but the 1870 and 1880 census records named her as Malissa, born in South Carolina. When we found an Elizabeth Welch of the right age in the 1850 census in South Carolina, Nicole and I determined this was our ancestor and extended her ancestry to Meredith and Susannah Welch, the parents on the 1850 census. Although no relationships were listed in this census, this seemed to be a family grouping.
We reasoned that Malissa was a nickname for Elizabeth and that this census of Sumter, South Carolina, was our Elizabeth. Her parents were Meredith Welch and Susannah. According to online trees, Meredith Welch was the son of James Welch, so we attached him and his ancestors. We worked on the Sumter County, Welch family trying to make more connections but didn’t have much success, so left this branch alone.
Ten years after attaching the parents of Meredith and Susannah Welch to Malissa Elizabeth Welch, Nicole revisited the research and found a set of alternate parents: George and Lucinda Welch. Nicole’s research log shows her progression of research.
The Solution – Good Research Habits
What do you do when something suspicious shows up on the family tree? Research! A proven practice is to return to the known facts, then document each generational link of the family tree using sources and even adding DNA if needed.
The Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS) provides a guide, giving us confidence that we are correctly pruning and grafting branches on our family tree. The GPS contains five elements. (1)
Reasonably exhaustive research
Tests of analysis and correlation
Resolution of conflicting evidence
We want to achieve the genealogy proof standard in our work, but how do we do it? Having a process greatly aids in coming to genealogical proof and determining what information on your tree is sound. In my journey to become an accredited genealogist, I realized that I did not have a solid research process. I had kept research logs for documents I found, but neglected negative searches. I wrote summaries but didn’t back up the facts with source citations. I had a general plan for research in my head but didn’t put much thought into it. I learned a bit about the locality but not in depth. I intuitively did some analysis on the records, but not enough.
Following the research process yields results – whether we are revisiting old research or deciding if we should add a potential ancestor to our family tree. Source analysis is the crux of our research. Learning what the records are telling us and correlating the information in them provides the foundation for our conclusions.
Analyzing Sources for Malissa Elizabeth Welch
When I looked at the evidence, I discovered that the only source of the name of “Elizabeth” came from her youngest son and my great-grandfather Dock Harris. Malissa Elizabeth Welch died in 1887, soon after Dock’s birth and he would have known her name only from his father and siblings. As the informant for his sister’s death certificate in 1925, Dock gave “Lizzie Welch” as his mother’s name which correlated with the “Elizabeth Welch” on his own death certificate of 1957. Who was the informant for his death certificate? Hospital records – information again given by Dock at the time of his entering the hospital.
Conflicting with the name of Elizabeth was the listing of “Malissa” in her marriage record and the 1870 and 1880 census records. Perhaps Elizabeth was a middle name or perhaps she was known as Lizzie or Lissie? Regardless, in all the records of her life, her name was written as Malissa, and when using that name to search, a different birth family was found for Malissa Elizabeth Welch: the household of George Welch and Lucinda. This probable family grouping had a child named Malissa of the right age, born in South Carolina, but their residence was Pickens County, Alabama. Does this make sense?
Malissa Welch and John C. Harris married in Burleson County, Texas in 1865, so the family had to have made their way west eventually. A common pattern for families was to move to a new area for a time, then continue their migration west. By looking at the children’s birth places reported on the 1850 census, we can see that the George Welch family moved from South Carolina to Alabama between 1844 and 1847.
Making a Research Plan
With the hypothesis in place that George and Lucinda Welch were the parents of Malissa Elizabeth Welch, what further research could offer proof? Thinking through additional records that could hold answers, the following research plan made sense.
– Search the 1860 census for the George and Lucinda Welch household of the 1850 Pickens County, Alabama, census.
– Search the 1870 census of Milam County, Texas, (location of Malissa Elizabeth Welch Harris) for other Welch families that could be her kin.
– Search Texas marriage records for possible siblings of Malissa / Elizabeth Welch.
What was discovered from the searches? The 1860 census search proved negative with no trace of the George and Lucinda Welch family. Perhaps they were moving and missed on the census or the names were written or indexed incorrectly.
The 1870 census search did provide the household of Cynthia Welch with son George of the appropriate ages to be Malissa’s mother and brother. An excellent clue to this being her family was their residence in Milam County, Texas, also Malissa’s residence in 1870.
Marriage records for Texas revealed several Welch marriages that proved to be Malissa’s siblings listed on the 1850 census. Finding these marriages led to exploring those families and drawing more connections to Malissa.
Naming patterns became important as we discovered the given name of Malissa’s mother to be Lucindrilla Keaton. She went by both Lucinda and Cynthia in the records, adding even more confusion. Malissa named a daughter Margaret Cinderella Harris, likely after her mother. We had often wondered at the source of the unusual name “Cinderella,” and this discovery added another piece to the puzzle. See Nicole’s article Genealogy Evidence Analysis – Free Template and Lucinda Keaton Sample for more information on Lucindrilla Keaton.
By correlating the evidence, we confidently decided George and Lucinda Welch were the parents of our ancestor.
Because tying our Malissa Elizabeth Welch to the family of George and Lucinda Welch is a case of indirect evidence – we can also use DNA to verify this connection. Currently my Ancestry DNA Thrulines shows 38 DNA matches to Lucinda Welch through various siblings of Malissa. As I verify each match, another bit of evidence is added to this new conclusion.
Correcting the Family Tree
Once you have successfully discovered new relationships, you can make changes in your personal genealogical database, your online tree, and any collaborative trees that you use such as the FamilySearch Family Tree or Wiki Tree. Adding a research summary or report to explain the reason for the change is important. You understand your reasoning but will other family members?
As we use better research methods and carefully analyze the connections on our family tree, we can prune and graft branches as needed to create the most accurate tree possible.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) Board for Certification of Genealogy, Genealogy Standards, 2nd Ed. (Nashville : Turner Publishing and Ancestry, 2019), 2-3.