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Overheard on the Message Boards: Where Do You File Possible Relatives?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

February 06, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Where do you keep information about people you have found information about who may or may not prove to be part of your line? I have copied many census pages of people who might turn out to be in my family. Should I enter them in to my software program? Should I just file the census pages and hope I remember that I have them? -- Barbara

A: In our quest to find the next ancestor on our family tree, we often come across individuals with the same last name living in the same town or county. So often we are left to wonder if that individual is somehow related. As we ponder this, we hate to throw away record of this person just in case we later discover that, indeed, they were related and now we must recreate the search.

As a result we have a number of possibilities. We want to save the photocopies or the printouts. We also want to put the information into our computer so that if we do make the connection at some point they are there. But the question becomes, just how do you handle these "maybe ancestors." Should you put them all in your database or should you treat them differently? This is one of those issues that has many sides, and, as such, I present a couple of them for your consideration and then how I handle this in my own research.

Drowning in a sea of possible ancestors.

Segregate Them

One method of dealing with these possible ancestors is to have a file or database in your genealogy software program that only includes these unidentified individuals. This can actually be done in two different ways. One way uses traditional genealogical software such as Family Tree Maker, while the other approach is not a genealogy program but more of a filing cabinet that allows you to track these individuals through the records. Then, when you establish a connection to your family, you can enter what you have on that person in your personal genealogy database.

When using a genealogy program, such as Family Tree Maker, what you would do is create a new family file, other programs may call it something else. In this database you would download GEDCOM files or enter completely unrelated individuals as found in the records you are working with in pursuit of your family tree. Recording them in a genealogical database allows you to build a tree on that individual if you can identify the parents or children and then allows you to GEDCOM the information on those individuals who do turn out to be related. With GEDCOM files you would not have to duplicate any data entry — a real time saver later on.

One pitfall to this approach is that you may have trouble identifying individuals who are related and may have duplicate individuals as a result. While most programs offer a way to merge these duplicates, if you don't think you have any duplicates, you may not go looking for them before adding any of these people to your personal file.

The electronic research cabinet approach doesn't actually link anyone together in a family way, rather the individuals included in such a database are linked together based on the records in which they share. Clooz is one such program. Using a program like this does require a completely different mind set when it comes to entering and tracking the individuals. We are used to linking people into family units and this electronic research cabinet approach has nothing to do with families. It is all about the records and is, in essence, a way in which you can have all the records in an electronic format. For those with a notebook computer, this is an excellent way to have all your information with you as you travel to do your research.

One of the pitfalls to this approach is that it is sometimes hard to grasp the difference in recording individuals. You really have to understand who you have found in a record before you link them to that record in Clooz. Another pitfall is that when you do identify individuals who are related, you must enter the information into your family database, since there is no GEDCOM option in Clooz.

Everything Including the Kitchen Sink

Of course the other approach to these unrelated individuals is to not segregate them to their own file but instead to throw them into your personal database. This means that they are already there if you discover that they are related, but it also means that you have the potential of a whopping big file. (Of course, that is not the concern it used to be when computers were less powerful and had much more restrictive hard drives.)

Even if you have them already in your family file, there is still the potential for duplication. You find a record listing an individual and you do not immediately recognize him or her as your ancestor or that the person already belongs to your family tree. If you enter him or her as an unrelated individual, you now have a duplicate. The up side to this, though, is that you can use the merge feature in your genealogy program to check for duplicates. Some of them will alert you to possible duplicates as you are entering the information, though, this is usually just alerting you to the fact that you have another person of that same name already added to the file.

The plus side to such an approach is that you can easily see how many people you have with a certain name and compare the information on each person. If you recognize that they are the same person there is no GEDCOM file to create or manual re-entry of the information like there would be if you have them segregated.

The downside to this approach is that while you computer may not mind the thousands of individuals you have in the database, you may find it frustrating when searching for a particular individual, especially if you have many of them with that name. Let's face it, many of us are plagued with those common surnames such as Smith and Jones. Others of us have discovered that a immigrant ancestor had four sons, names John, William, James, and George. Each of them had four sons, and you guessed it, they named them all John, William, James, and George. Pretty soon you are swimming in a sea of ancestors, all of whom seem to have the same name.

Practicing What I Preach

These are just a few of the methods I have seen for handling maybe cousins and ancestors. I have plenty of them myself. What I have done with my research is to use a little of the two segregation approaches discussed above.

I have my main family file into which I have entered those individuals I know are related — okay, I am pretty sure are related at this point. No one goes in there unless I feel confident in the records or research I am looking at.

Everyone that I find in a county or town who shares the surname I am researching, provided it isn't something overly common like Smith, gets put into another family file. I frequently create GEDCOM files from this family file so that I can import the information into my person database when I make the connection. Certainly those with unique names are much easier to work with, but there are times when I find I must decipher a number of records to determine the relationships or evaluate the likelihood of relationship. In these instances, I then enter the person in two places, first in the catchall file in my genealogy program and then I set them up in Clooz as well. Putting them into Clooz removes the pressure to link them to someone. Instead I can view them as a standalone individual and see what records they have in common with the others in the area. It is often this way that I see the thin thread that was previously hidden.

I take a similar approach to the records themselves and my filing system. I use a system that creates a file folder for each couple on my pedigree chart. Of course if they are on my pedigree then I have identified them, so what to do with those individuals I haven't yet identified as mine? Copies of records on those individuals are filed in a catchall surname folder, though I do use some additional tricks for the common surnames. For example, I narrow the folder to surname and locality to help me better control the paper in the folder. Each of my folders has an index sheet that lists everything in that folder. For the couple folders, this gives me a road map of the research on that family. For the catchall folders, it lets me see at a glance if I have exhausted all the records in an area. I also include pages of negative research in these folders as well so that I don't waste time looking at the same records over and over again.

Finally, I keep all this research straight through the use of a research log. The log I use now is on my notebook computer in my word processing program, but before I had a notebook I used pre-printed forms I got at my local Family History Center to track my research. I still have the file folder with those forms handy so I can refer back to them whenever I need, especially if it is a line I haven't worked on in some time. And I firmly believe that research logs are even more important now that we spend so much of our time researching on the Internet. If we don't keep track of the sites we have visited and what we found then we may find ourselves visiting those same sites next week or month.

In Conclusion

I suspect you will find there are as many ways to do this as there are genealogists. Ideally what you need to do is decide what works best for you and then stick with that plan. Whether it is a plan for the copies you make or for the names you enter into the computer, it is only as effective as you make it by using it. I can take advantage of the Clooz program and similar approaches because I have a notebook computer on which lives all my genealogy. If I had just a desktop I suspect I would do things differently since I would be making more hand written notes and photocopies. In the end the goal should be your ability to identify individuals who turn out to be related and to keep duplication down as much as possible.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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