Keeping Track on the Road to Proof

by Harold Henderson | Feb 21, 2013

Harold Henderson

Sigh. A few months or years from now, some dimwit is going to read my genealogy notes.

That dimwit will be me, because I will no longer remember exactly what I knew, when I knew it, and what I was looking for when I first went through that deed index. Why did I write "WD" in the margin? Did I mean "Warranty Deed"? "Withdrawn"? "WD-40"?

Planning What to Track

We all want to prove something, whether it's who William's parents are or who Margaret married. In order to make progress in the start-and-stop world of genealogy, we have to plan with our future dimwit in mind. Three rules will help, online or off:

  1. Preferably before starting, describe what we're holding or looking at. Record the full citation in at least one place, and ample identifying information on the front of each page/section/group/file of notes.
  2. Preferably before starting, record what we're searching (or browsing) for, and what search terms we're using.
  3. Make a note when we find nothing. This is the hardest rule, in part because we have to figure out where to put such a note. Rules 1 and 2 make it easier: We can put the note next to the first two! And the third note will be more meaningful to our future selves even if we just scribble, "Nothing in Jones." Because we followed rule 1, we know which "Jones" we're talking about. And because we followed rule 2, we know what there was "nothing" of. And that is what our future dimwit will desperately want to know.

Of course, not everything in our notes will end up in print or in our cousins' hands. Sometimes a negative search becomes an essential part of our final argument; more often, it turns out to have been the preliminary to a more straightforward case. All negative results belong in the research notes; only some graduate to the final write-up.

You've Got To Be Kidding


I know what I once would have said about those three rules: "This guy is nuts! If I did all that I'd never get anything done."

Wrong. This is the only way we'll get anything done, because genealogy does not proceed in a straight line. Even if we pursue only one line at a time, and even if real life never interrupts, genealogy is still a recursive process because it is a learning process: it always involves retracing our steps.

One day I went through a reading of Sand Hill Cemetery in Wabash County, Illinois. Some time later I received a bounty land file and discovered that one of my targets, Aaron Thrall, married Cynthia Balentine. So I needed to go back to the cemetery reading and look again for Cynthia. Was it online? Where? I put it off. By the time I got back to it, I was beginning to wonder whether I needed to look at all: Had I already known her surname the last time I read those cemetery records?

Organizing: Format Frenzy

In the course of researching, we come up with items in a variety of physical and digital formats. Even if we seek to go to the extreme of having all our information digital, some repositories limit or forbid scanners, cameras or laptops. So our research notes and finds may take at least six forms:

  • notes written on paper
  • physical books, magazines, or informational leaflets
  • notes typed into a laptop, tablet, or smart phone
  • photocopies on paper
  • images on a thumb drive
  • images on a camera, scanner, laptop, tablet, or smart phone.

Depending on the situation, we could have all of the above by the time we finish a session at the repository or on the Internet. And it would be a rare genealogist who followed only one trail in a given research session. So for each trail, we may have relevant evidence stashed in up to six different places -- not counting any friends who kindly made their electronic devices available!

Did I say this stuff was scattered? At some point these items have to be sorted out and the parts that belong together gathered and assessed - and the sooner the better. Ideally it would be done as much as possible before even leaving the research session. (I do at least make an effort to upload electronic material to cloud storage ASAP.)

(Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana's Expert Series article "What Do I Do With All of This Stuff?" has great tips for helping you sort through all of the papers that you end up collecting.)

Gathering Up

First I bring the disparate formats together in their raw state, either physically in binders or folders, or virtually in a digital folder suitably backed up. Regardless of my aspirations, I usually wind up with both a physical binder and a digital folder. If you're determined to have everything in one place, then allot extra time for scanning and otherwise changing formats.

Eventually, and hopefully soon, I bring the new information together with what I already have. This normally involves either a database or a written document to start with, but a written narrative with at least one physical embodiment should be our final goal. I know this sounds impossibly retro, but in this case retro is the new future.

  • Physical documents will be readable long after every piece of present-day hardware and software has become first dysfunctional, then incompatible, then antique, and finally forgotten altogether.
  • Normal people crave stories, not databases.
  • A narrative is the fastest way for our dimwitted future selves to catch up after a lapse of time.

This gathering-up process falls into stages. When I receive a pension file as a PDF file from the National Archives, I split my screen and read through it, making notes page by page of relevant information I'll want to return to. Those notes - a rough abstract or table of contents for future reference - will themselves later need to be integrated into the report or article.

Analyzing and Correlating on the Road to Proof

All the above work is preliminary to the main show: analyzing each piece of information for relevance and accuracy, and then correlating them to see how they contradict or confirm one another. Are they independent of one another? Do some show systematic bias? Do they add up? Were they created long after the fact? Were their creators motivated to lie or forget? How might any contradictions be resolved? Have we unwittingly combined two or more different people? (Running out of questions? Reread the first chapter of Evidence Explained.)[1]

It usually helps to write up particularly knotty problems. But writing is just one of a multitude of ways in which we can rearrange the pieces of information, including bulleted lists, tables, graphs, timelines, maps, diagrams, and cards on the kitchen table -- any format that might help us see a new pattern. Don't get wedded to any one arrangement too early. Information is food for genealogists: play with your food!


Genealogy projects can be simple and straightforward. When they are, we can do many of the above things in our heads as we go along. But we should write them down anyway. Even in our most boring lines, we don't know ahead of time which project will turn out to be routine and which will become something else. This way I'm ready when I hit a wall - brick or otherwise. Being ready may make the wall pretty flimsy after all. And I'll be prepared to write up the findings and see if they meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. But that's another story!

[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis," Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007). Ebook available through

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