Saturday, July 21, 2012

Questions About Find-A-Grave, Citing Your Sources and Missing People

Question from Pat:
"How reliable do you think the information is that is on Find-A-Grave?"

It depends. If there is a photograph of the marker then it is very reliable. The problem you will have on Find-A-Grave are those memorials that don't include a photograph of the gravestone. Is the information listed transcribed directly from the marker or did the contributor just type in what they think they know about the person? I want to know EXACTLY what is inscribed on the marker. It is okay to include more information about the person as long as there is a photograph so that the researcher knows what came from the marker itself and what came from the person adding the memorial. If there is a person of interest on Find-A-Grave that doesn't include a photograph I immediately request one. I record the cemetery as an "event" in my genealogy database program and I transcribe exactly what is on the marker. One very important clue that you will only have if you can see the stone itself is whether or not the marker is consistent with the death time period or is it more contemporary. If you have a person that died in 1795 but the marker is of a material and style of the 20th century then the information inscribed is suspect as it was placed well after the death. A good book on cemetery research in general is Your Guide to Cemetery Research.

Question from David:
"I took a genealogy class and learned about how important it is to cite your sources. I have 15 years of research that I just wrote down. Some of it has sources but most of it does not. How can I fix this?"

Been there, done that. I think most researchers start out this way and pay the price later. Believe it or not, this is actually a blessing in disguise. You will need to go back and re-research everything from scratch but as you do this you will see things that you didn't notice before and some of your brick walls will be broken down. It is always good to go back over your research from time to time anyway just to see if you missed anything. Start with your direct line and get them all tidied up first. After that, work your way collaterally from the marriages within your direct line. If you are using a genealogy database program that has a tagging option, you can tag everyone in your file and then untag them one at a time as you get them sourced properly. This is a convenient way to monitor your progress. The gold standard for citing your sources is Evidence Explained:Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. This book is excellent but can be a bit daunting to the beginning researcher. Ms. Mills' earlier book Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian is not as extensive and some of the citations are written is a slightly more simplified format. The two important rules to remember are 1) cite the source so that someone coming behind you can find the document easily 2) be consistent in how you cite your sources.

Question from Karyn:
I can't find someone in the 1880 census. Do you think that they were just missed?

I picked this question today because there has been a lot of discussion on Facebook this week about this. It is possible that a family group was just missed but this isn't usually the case. The problem usually lies within the index. The enumerator could have simply spelled the person's name wrong. The name could be very hard to read and the indexer had to make a best guess. Before, FamilySearch, Heritage Quest and the like, this wasn't as much of a problem. Yes, there were index books you could consult but if you knew the exact county you would just pull that microfilm and start looking. Because you knew who you were looking for you would spot the person even if the name was hard to read or misspelled. Don't worry, I don't want to go back to that method. I too am grateful for the searchable images available on the internet. You just need to learn how to do effective searches in the index. Start with the very specific and then slowly change your search parameters outward to capture more possibilities. has the ability to do a combination of "fuzzy" searches. FamilySearch puts the exact matches at the top and then their fuzzy search results below. Sometimes you will need to search by just a first name (don't forget nicknames). Sometimes you have to even go further than that and search by a combination of sex, age, place of birth, and relationship and leave the name completely blank. If it is a fairly small county, you might have to just bite the bullet and run a list of everyone in that county and go through them one by one. Another trick is to check different indexes. I am constantly flipping between and FamilySearch. I recently got access to Heritage Quest through Galileo so I plan to use their index as a resource as well. If you get stuck, ask one of your researcher pals to give it a go. They may use different search parameters than you do. It takes me quite a while before I give up. So now back to the possibility that a family was just missed. With all of the boundary changes going on in our history sometimes the lines got blurred in one of two ways. Sometimes someone got enumerated in the wrong county because they were close to the line or certain area was missed altogether because each of the surrounding counties thought it belonged to someone else. The easiest way to check for this is look for the family in the previous census and note who their neighbors were. Search for those neighbors as well in the next census. If you are missing several families then the problem might be that they were simply missed.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Glad to see someone willing to answer some questions directly from folks out in the field. Am delighted to have found you via GeneaBloggers, and will be happily following along.

  2. Thank you for your nice comment! When I first started out (before the internet) there wasn't anyone to ask unless you lived in a city big enough to have a knowledgeable genealogical/historical society. You had to learn everything the hard way. I am still correcting research mistakes from 20 years ago.

  3. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels:
    "Back to the Homeplace" and "The Homeplace Revisited"
    The Heritage Tourist at In-Depth Genealogist:

  4. Thank you so much! I have a lot of respect for Thomas MacEntee and I am very appreciative of GeneaBloggers :)

  5. Welcome, fellow GeneaBlogger! I look forward to reading more!

  6. I love the idea of questions beings answered. Good for you and welcome to the Geneablogging community. And you managed to put a great spin on having to do research over again - which as you say is really a blessing in disguise because you see things with older wiser eyes :)