Given Name(s) Last Name

Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  6/1/2005

The Importance of Tracking

When data conflicts, confusion is the result. Failure to adequately cite sources may only increase the confusion and add more bricks to the brick wall. My great-grandmother is an excellent example in conflicting data.

Depending upon the document, Ida Sargent Trautvetter was born in 1874 in:

  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Illinois
  • Alexandria, Missouri
  • Adams County, Illinois
  • Lima, Adams County, Illinois
  • Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois

Various references list Ida's place of birth with varying degrees of precision, ranging from a small town to an entire state. Fortunately, the locations are in close geographic proximity and are not as conflicting as they initially appear. Earlier columns have discussed this great-grandmother whose family has eluded over twenty years of searches. This time the confusion is mentioned to illustrate the importance of tracking the specific source of each piece of data when the data is not consistent.

When an additional record indicates yet another place of birth for Ida, the temptation may be to simply overtype the old location in my database and replace it with the new. I have seen many individuals do this when entering data into their genealogy database. This fixes the entry, or so it seems. Such a type-over is a big mistake. Doing so may eliminate the earlier place that may have actually have been correct.

Most genealogy software programs allow for multiple dates and places for any event contained within the database. These multiple entries should be utilized when appropriate. Those new to genealogy sometimes wonder why anyone would need multiple dates and places of birth. After all, an event can only happen in one place and at one time. Ida is an excellent example of why such a capability is allowed.

Obviously, Ida was born at one time and in one place. It is imperative, as I collect different places of birth for her, that I track each alternate place of birth along with the record or the source from which that place was located. When my data entry is complete, Ida will have seven places of birth in my database.

Confusing? Yes. But it is less confusing than simply entering in one place of birth and not providing any source at all. Does that mean I think all the places are correct? No. Does that mean that one of the places listed is actually the "right" place? No. I may never be certain of where Ida was born. Ida may not have known where she was actually born, and certainly had no first-hand knowledge of the location. But inputting each location in to my database separately provides me an opportunity to track where each location was originally referenced.

Recording where I obtained each location makes it easier for me to determine which of the birth locations, if any, I can reasonably eliminate. Unfortunately for me, none of my sources for Ida's birth are primary (primary sources for an event are those recorded close to the time of the event by someone who reasonably had first hand knowledge of the event). There were no civil birth records maintained in the Midwestern United States when Ida was born and her family was not a member of a church that practiced infant baptism.

The Iowa birthplace has three sources:

  • 1880 Census for Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois
  • 1900 Census for Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois
  • 1898 Marriage to George Trautvetter in Hancock County

Her Illinois place of birth has one source:

  • 1930 Census for Keene Township, Adams County, Illinois

The sources of the other locations are omitted here in the interest of space. Not all of these sources should be given equal credence, and we are not evaluating them here. Tracking the location of each reference allows me to:

  • Compare the relative accuracy of each source.
  • Obtain additional information from the original source if applicable.
  • Determine if transcriptions or other record are available.

Does it take time to enter in the birthplace and the source? Of course, but it is time well spent. How can I compare the places of birth if I do not keep track of where the information was obtained? Analysis without sources is impossible because one cannot attempt to judge the veracity of a statement without knowing from where that statement came. But data analysis is not the only reason for tracking the source. Here are some others:

The Need to Revisit
There are times when it is necessary to view a source a second time, usually to see if the transcription originally used was complete and correct. In some situations it may even be necessary to view record book entries of non-related individuals to see how the records were entered. This approach is especially true with early church records and other records written freeform in ledgers without column headings.

Are There Alternate Copies?
An entry for the christening of an ancestor may indicate the date and place of the event, but if I have not clearly identified the source that was used, I may be potentially be overlooking additional information. How is this possible? Did I obtain the christening entry from a published transcription or from a microfilm copy of the original? A published transcription may contain errors or in some cases a transcription may not include "everything" in the original record. I do not know unless I look. Some transcriptions are very carefully proofed and edited by highly qualified and conscientious editors. Others are not. If I have not indicated precisely where I have obtained the information, I may inadvertently neglect following up on locating original sources where possible.

Few genealogists love to cite sources. However, good genealogists readily admit it is necessary. Otherwise, it can be nearly impossible to:

  • Analyze the information already located.
  • Verify previously located information.
  • Double check with the original or sources more closely related to the original.

Guides to helping you cite information include:

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael's other  genealogy articles