How to Improve the FamilySearch Family Tree by Applying the Genealogical Proof Standard
Have you ever wondered why you are asked to type a reason statement every time you change information or add a source to the FamilySearch (FS) Family Tree? Are you a genealogist frustrated with the collaborative aspect of FS Family Tree because others can change your information? If so, read on.
I teach a beginner’s class during Sunday School in my LDS ward with people from all parts of the genealogy world: teens and adults just beginning to use FS Family Tree, hobbyists who have done genealogy for years but are just learning to use FS Family Tree, and those of us leaning towards becoming Accredited or Certified Genealogists.
In the Sunday School class, we cover all the basics of the FS Family Tree. During this last series of classes, I was teaching how to write reason statements and found myself using words such as evidence, analyze, and proof. Then I had an epiphany: you’ll know what to write for your reason statement when you apply language from the Genealogical Proof Standard. What evidence does this source show? How has your analysis led you to this conclusion? What proof do you have to make this change?
Evidence, analysis, and proof. How had these words crept into my vocabulary? I’ve been studying Mastering Genealogical Proof by Thomas W. Jones.¹ In the book, Dr. Jones explains the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) in full and gives the reader sample genealogy reports and questions to answer after studying them. I learned a lot by working through the book for my Accreditation study and that learning is changing my approach to family history. To read more about my new approach to genealogy research, check out my book, Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide.
In this post, I’ll give a simple explanation of each aspect of the GPS then share how we can apply it to improve the FS Family Tree. Understanding the GPS and the importance of proving our information with simple statements can make all the difference in the quality of work we are doing on the FS Family Tree.
The Need for a Genealogical Proof Standard
Have you been the recipient of someone else’s research: family group sheets, pedigree charts, family histories, photos, documents? How do you know if the names, dates, and places are accurate? What if some of the facts on the records don’t agree? When can you determine a conclusion proven? If you’ve had any of these questions, then you will recognize the need for a standard to measure genealogical conclusions.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists recognized this need and from 1997-2000 worked on bringing the GPS to life. It contains five components that when followed help our genealogical work be credible and trustworthy.²
GPS Component 1: “Reasonably exhaustive research”
What does reasonably exhaustive research include? If we’ve met the GPS, we will have sought out all the sources that could answer our research question. If we don’t do this, we run the risk of a new piece of evidence coming to light that might change our conclusion.
FS Family Tree Application
When we look at the details on the Person page, we find a list of sources that have been added for an individual. The first step of research is to review what has already been found. We need to look at each source and ask if “reasonably exhaustive research” has been done. Have all the census records of the individual’s life been found? Are there images of actual documents and not just indexed records?
The image below shows the sources in the FS Family Tree for Robert Cisnie Royston. Note that there is no birth, marriage, or death certificate listed and the 1870 and 1890 census are missing. Also there are two listings of the 1880 census.
On the surface, this looks like there is a lot more research to be done. BUT, birth and death records were not kept in Alabama or Oklahoma at the time of those life events. A civil marriage record could exist, but his wife’s Widow’s Pension revealed the marriage date and place and the courthouse burned soon after the marriage destroying almost all the records.
The 1890 census was mostly destroyed, and Robert is absent in the 1870 census despite my efforts to find him. Where can I document my “reasonably exhaustive search?” One possibility is to record my searches in an electronic research log, then upload it as a source. This would let other researchers see what I have done and also serve as a reminder for me when I review Robert’s source information.
An alternative to the research log, would be to simply “Add a New Discussion.” Notes can be deleted by anyone, but discussions can only be deleted by the submitter. In the screenshot below, you can see where I have added a new discussion explaining where his actual birth and death information originated. Because I added the discussion, I can also delete it. No one else would have the delete option appear. The beauty of beginning a discussion is that other researchers can see what I’m doing and help with the research, give suggestions of further research, or add sources they have checked.
GPS Component 2: “Complete and Accurate Citations”
Attaching source citations to our work lets others follow our pathway to the source. A citation gives our research credibility and shows the quality of our sources.
FS Family Tree Application
Any time you attach a FamilySearch record to an individual, a citation is automatically generated. Here is the citation FamilySearch created for the 1880 census. Does it meet the GPS standard of “complete and accurate?” I would give it a thumbs up. I could easily replicate the search for this census either at the National Archives or searching the FHL microfilm.
“United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MFNP-4S9 : accessed 12 May 2016), Robt Royston, Precinct 3, Johnson, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district ED 83, sheet 293C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 1313; FHL microfilm 1,255,313.
Sooner or later, you will need to create a new source on FS Family Tree, the subject of my very first post. You may find a record on another website, have a certificate in your files, or discover your ancestor on a microfilm.
Remember to make your citation complete enough that someone else could follow your steps to find that source. For example, I found Robert C. Royston mentioned in the final settlement of the Thomas B. Royston estate. I viewed the record on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. My citation needs to lead another researcher straight to that record. The citation that I generated follows the “who, what, when, where in, where is” elements that Dr. Jones teaches in Mastering Genealogical Proof.
Chambers County, Alabama, Probate Court, “Settlement records v.9 1876-1884,” estate of Thomas B. Royston, 1883, p. 505″ FHL microfilm 1,862,629, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Citations can seem a bit daunting, which is why I wrote my post “Source Citations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” They really are doable.
GPS Component 3: “Analysis and Correlation”
All research needs our critical eye. Do the sources stand up under thorough analysis? Can they be correlated to provide evidence of a genealogical fact? If so then we are closer to having met the GPS.
FS Family Tree Application
Where do we have the opportunity to enter our analysis of a source on the FS Family Tree? The “Reason This Source Is Attached” box gives the perfect opportunity to discuss the source and evidence it provides.
When I’m working with beginners and the reason box pops up, I always ask questions like, “What do we learn from this source? How reliable is this source? Who was the informant or person who gave the information?” Analyzing the source and the information it provides help us write a good reason statement.
I don’t have a birth certificate directly stating the father of Robert Cisnie Royston, so to prove that his father is Thomas B. Royston, I had to assemble several pieces of indirect evidence. The 1860 census doesn’t list relationships to the head of household, so the Robert C Royston could be a son or a nephew or other relative. My reason statement reflects my analysis.
Correlation is simply where we compare and contrast information to help us come to a conclusion. In the case of Robert C. Royston, I have him in the household of Thomas B. Royston in 1850 and 1860 in Chambers County, Alabama. He’s missing in the 1870 census, but shows up again twice, in the 1880 census of Johnson County, Texas. The 1883 settlement record of Thomas B. Royston’s estate in Chamber’s County, Alabama mentions Robert C. Royston of Kaufman County, Texas. The settlement record is a connecting link between the Alabama Robert and the Texas Robert.
On the FS FAmily Tree, we can add correlation in a reason statement, a discussion, or even in the life sketch. There is no right or wrong way or place to explain our reasoning, it’s just important to write something, somewhere on our ancestor’s detail page.
GPS Component 4: “Resolution of Conflicting Evidence”
As we’re researching, we’re going to come across conflicting evidence: names that aren’t spelled the same, dates that don’t agree, records that just don’t make sense. As responsible researchers, we need to acknowledge these conflicts and resolve them. If we don’t, our conclusion isn’t credible.
FS Family Tree Application
In the case of Robert Cisnie Royston, I have conflicting evidence from the 1880 census. His household is enumerated twice, both listings in Johnson County, Texas, one in Precinct 3 on the 7th of June and one in Precinct 1 on the 26th of June. It seems that the family moved in between the two dates. It’s interesting to compare the information between the two, especially concerning 4 year old “Mary Royston” and 4 year old “Clemsy Carpenter.” This is the same child, a step daughter to Robert from his wife, Isabelle’s first marriage.
On FS Family tree you can add notes to any source. Click “edit” under the source title, then click “Add” in the Notes section. I like to copy the pertinent information from the source in the notes section, but it is also a good place to explain conflicting information. When I click on the source, I can see at a glance what information the source contains and any notes I have added. The image below shows the household members shown in the 1880 census and my explanation of Mary/ Clemsy age 4.
GPS Component 5: A “Written Conclusion”
The final component of the Genealogical Proof Standard is the written conclusion. This can be a simple statement if the evidence from the sources is straightforward. You might need a lengthier statement or paragraph if your conclusions are based on indirect evidence or you have conflicting evidence to resolve.
FS Family Tree Application
The FS Family Tree has many places for your written conclusions: reason statements and/or notes about a specific source, “Discussions” under “Collaborate”, or the “Life Sketch” located at the top of the “Details” page. The image below shows Robert Cisnie Royston’s person page open on the details tab. The Life Sketch I have added is directly below. By clicking the arrow to the left of the “Life Sketch” I can open or close the information.
As you can see, the FS Family Tree provides us with many opportunities to not only record information about our ancestors but to prove it, using the Genealogical Proof Statement. Best of luck in all of your family history endeavors!
For more on this subject, read these 3 excellent blog posts on the Genealogical Proof Standard by FamilySearch.org:
¹Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (National Genealogical Society Special Publication No. 107, Arlington, VA, 2013).
²Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition, (Board for Certification of Genealogists, Washington D.C., 2014)
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