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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

May 09, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Separate Family Files

Q: I am just starting my genealogy research and I have a file for my father's line, one for my mother's line, one for my husband's father and one for his mother. I'm wondering if I should combine all of these into one family file. Can you advise me? -- Melvina

A: What you have done with your databases is fine. I know many individuals who prefer to keep their family lines separate. Some people fear that they'll run out of space in their family tree database. While this was certainly a concern with early versions of many of the genealogy software programs, it is no longer an issue. Early genealogy programs limited how many people the file could hold, some of them limited files to as small as 2,500 individuals.

Others like to keep lineages in separate files because they find that it is easier to search for a given individual. I find this is especially true for those who are new to computers who might not fully understand how easy it is to search for an individual in a combined database.

Personally, I do not follow the practice of splitting databases. I find that such a practice often requires me to duplicate unnecessarily when I am working on the generations that descend from the individuals who begin the separate databases. For instance, if I need to update my daughter's information, a marriage perhaps, then if I have four databases as you do, then I must enter the same information four different times. This defeats the purpose of having my information in the computer in the first place.

Even if you treat your genealogy software as a glorified 3x5 card (in that you only use it to enter names, dates, and places), you still only have to enter the information once. If the files are separated, then even that bonus is gone.

If duplicating some information is ok with you and you are more comfortable having certain lines separate from others, then it is perfectly fine to continue the way you have been. If you would prefer to have them all together now, you can easily combine the four files together.

You have two options for combining your files into one, assuming you are using one of the most recent versions of Family Tree Maker. Your first option is to open one of your existing files and then add the others to that one. Or, if you would rather create a brand new file, you can create a new family file and then add the four files. To accomplish either of these options, you can use the Append/Merge option found in the File menu in Family Tree Maker.

Sharing Social Security Numbers

Q: Is there any reason not to include a person's social security number in the notes section of Family Tree Maker files that I share? -- Duane

A: My first thought is that the added information is not necessary. Of course, the big question has to do with about whose social security numbers we are talking about.

I suppose if you are talking about deceased individuals, then there is probably not much harm. This information is already readily available online in a number of different places through the Social Security Death Index.

If you are talking about any people in your database who are living, then I would strongly caution against such a move. People are already pretty skittish about the information that genealogists compile (especially on living people) primarily because we then share that information. There is a big concern over identity theft. While I have not heard of any case where such theft was made possible through information that genealogists shared online, this does not mean it is outside the realm of possibility.

Paraphrasing from Jurassic Park, because we can, we haven't stopped to ask ourselves if we should. There is a lot of information available online on both our living and deceased relatives. Just because it is out there does not mean we need to include it in our database that we are going to share with others. In fact, I strongly urge that we err on the side of caution and go the extra lengths of protecting all the information on our living relatives that we may have acquired. Most genealogy programs now offer methods of omitting information on living individuals. We, as researchers, are remiss if we do not use these tools.

Filling in Branches of an Incomplete Family Tree

Q: Why aren't there complete family trees online? I found a tree online that should have included my ancestor (Ulysses Grant Wellborn) but didn't. He was born in Kentucky and died in Des Moines, Iowa during World War II. He was over 70 when he died. I know our family but I have run into a dead end. -- James

A: Indeed there is a lot of information available to genealogists online. Because of its popularity and media hype, there is a misconception among many researchers that it contains information on everyone who ever lived or died in the world. This is far from the truth.

While more and more information is becoming available on the Internet, the reality is that most of it is through the endeavors and hard work of researchers like you and me. Commercial services are making some of the more popular data sources, such as census, available online for researchers to access anytime. This ability to conduct research anytime you want (even when libraries are closed) has been a major advance for genealogists everywhere. However, there is still an operative word here - research.

Genealogists should not just rely on just what is available online. Even if we find a complete family tree, we should verify the information it contains. We should be searching for vital records, probate records, census records and other original documents that were created during the life of our ancestor.

While it is true that some lines have been well researchers, well documented, and placed online, most of us are finding pieces of our tree, but having to rely on conventional research methods to compile the other branches of the tree.

It sounds like you should get the death certificate of your ancestor from Iowa. This should supply you with his date of birth and perhaps his parents names. Armed with this, you should be able to pick up the family in census records. If the parents died in Kentucky after 1911, then you may find they are in the index of deaths made available online through the Kentucky Vital Records Index. You could then request copies of their death certificates. These should give you the names of their parents as well.

When it comes to genealogy, it is important to work from the known to the unknown. With all the information available on the Internet, we often forget this important rule in research. We try to graft our ancestor onto a tree that is already in existence. More often though we must grow that tree the old fashioned way - through research.

World War I Enlistment/Service

Q: I would like to ask for your help to learn to whom I should write in order to obtain enlistment and service records for my grandfather and uncle, both of whom enlisted in the Navy in San Diego during World War I -- Helen

A: World War I offers the best and worst for researchers. Because of the draft, many researchers find that there is an index card on their ancestor for one of the three drafts that took place during World War I. These draft cards offer a great deal of information about the individuals who had to register. If you have an immigrant ancestor, a draft card may only record the place of birth. You can find out more about the draft cards by reading Overheard on GenForum: Looking for a World War I Veteran.

If an ancestor simply enlisted and never went through the draft registration process, you might run into challenges finding information on him. A fire in 1973 at the St. Louis facility, where these records are stored, has destroyed many of the service records for those who were in the military during this period.

There are also limitations on who has a right to see and request copies of the surviving records. To find out if you qualify, you will want to read up on the topic on the National Archives site.

Luckily, the form required for requesting records on service personnel from 1917 to present (Form 180) can be submitted electronically. This is unlike other military record request forms which may be requested online but must be sent through the mail. You will find information and a link to the form on the National Archives' site: Order Forms for Military Service and Family History Records (Research Room, National Archives and Records Administration).

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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