Managing the Multiple Maybes



My question is related to this previous question, but I think I'm looking for a rather different answer because I'm not sure a second software genealogical software package is what I'm looking for. It's also related to this previous question of mine, but now I'm looking for tools/ data storage ideas rather than research strategies. I'm aware of GenQuiry but for my own needs would need something that is not Windows-specific.

As we traverse back each generation, we have research questions ("who was Jane Smith's mother?") and hypotheses ("the Mary Jones who was born in Bradford in 1780 to James and Anne Jones and who married Fred Smith in Leeds in 1802"), which we can support with evidence.

But before you get to anything quite so precise, there are multiple candidates to consider. Suppose you've just found the birth record of an ancestor (and you're comfortable identifying it as such) and now you know the name of their father. Now it's time to find the father. My preferred approach is to do a broad search on a range of sites (I tend to use and FamilySearch together, and independent sources of parish records like the Isle of Man archives if that is relevant) and develop a list of candidate people / records. Then it's a matter of winnowing down the list, ruling out the ones it can't be.

It can't be that one, he died as an infant. And it can't be that one, it's too far from where the Census record said he was born. And it can't be that one, because I'm pretty sure he's the one who married her and moved to this entirely different village and didn't have any children with the same name as my ancestor.

My question is, are there preferred tools or methods for storing

  1. The list of candidate personae to be narrowed down
  2. The bits and bobs of evidence, records and conclusions that result in that narrowing down

Right now I've got Excel spreadsheets of candidate people, Word documents and notebooks on my iPad full of notes and stray sources, and pages of handwritten notes. My core trees (in Mac Family Tree 7), with the things I am confident of, are clean and sourced and nice, but this preliminary stuff is a mess.

To give you an example, here is a transcription of some notes out of one of my physical notebooks, which allowed me to make a conclusion about the birth record and parents of my ancestor Ann Crowe. (I already had her marriage record to Thomas Quayle, and I knew that I was looking for a Thomas and Ann who had a daughter Ann Eliza.)

Found Ann Eliza Quayle in Jurby in 1841 Census, Father Thomas 45yo -> b ~ 1790, mother Ann 30yo -> b 1810-11. There is an Ann Crow born in Ballaugh 1810 (or christened anyway) to Charles Crow and Margaret Caley (d Ann + Dan Caley according to her will [link]).

Although 1841 Census tended to round to nearest 5 years this is too far from birth dates of 1800 or 1802. On this basis we can rule out the d. of Wm Crowe and Anne Keenen (b 1800) or of John Crowe and Ann Boyd (b 1801).

I can imagine something like Circus Ponies Notebook, DevonThink, Yojimbo or Evernote being useful for collecting this source/thought mash-up. But has anyone developed some principles or tools to help manage this pre-hypothesis research material?


Posted 2013-06-19T12:19:36.067

Reputation: 2 978



You may want to look at software designed in template form often used for one-name or one-place studies, such as Custodian or Clooz.

They are more like databases to help you record your source data by source so that you can analyze all the information with respect to weeding out the applicable facts for your people of interest.

Jean-Baptiste Piggin wrote an article in July 2000 for the Journal of One-Name Studies on Four sorts of software for one-namers that might give you more ideas.


Posted 2013-06-19T12:19:36.067

Reputation: 16 148


After some more experience actually doing this sort of weeding-out and sorting, I thought I would share the process I came up with in the days after posting my question. The other software suggested in lkessler’s answer are Windows-specific, so they are not suitable for me as a Mac user.

I realised that there are two stages to the narrowing down, and that they are best handled with somewhat different approaches. I will illustrate this with a particular case I am currently working on: Sarah Hainsworth, born circa 1804 in Armley, Yorkshire, according to the 1851 Census, who married George Hainsworth in 1824 at Leeds (St Peter’s) and is also found in the 1841 Census.

Stage 1: Casting the net wide and narrowing down to a shortlist

The first step is to cast the net wide, so that you don't miss out on a possible ancestor. I do this by searching both and FamilySearch for all plausible baptisms. I strip out the duplicates to get a list of possible candidates, and put them into an Excel spreadsheet. Any other spreadsheet (Apple Numbers, Google, etc) would do just as well.

(One thing to bear in mind is that some baptisms are duplicated in because the bishop’s transcript and the parish record have both been scanned into the West Yorkshire Parish Records collection, and they are sometimes recorded as being at separate locations if one of them was at a chapel rather than the main parish church. Pudsey Chapel in Calverley Parish is a good example of this. You can sort out these duplicates by going through the scan images. These will state at the top of a scan page whether the event occurred at a chapel.)

Since I have a birthplace from the Census, I then work out how far the various places are from that supposed birthplace using the walking directions in Google Maps. This rules out a few, as does the exact birthdate. It is important to use the residence rather than the church location if this is recorded, because they can be different.

I then search around for other records that might rule out those that I’m left with. Things to search for include:

  • whether they died young (as for the top row, the Sarah born 10-Dec-1806 in Bramley), and
  • whether I can work out if they married someone else.
  • whether they are clearly recorded elsewhere in the same Census that I have a record for, for that ancestor - both the 1841 and 1851 ones

enter image description here

There is no point including all these weak possibilities in your main database, so this Excel file is the collection of conclusions for these non-ancestors. I have one worksheet for each person in a single Excel file per family tree I am researching.

Stage 2: Filling out the shortlist

Once you have 2–4 candidate people to choose from, you can start filling in the details in a “scratch tree” saved as a separate file in your favorite genealogical software. As I noted in another answer, Mac Family Tree from Synium Software allows you to add unrelated people to a single file and visualize unrelated trees together.

enter image description here

Adding in other family members to these scratch trees and whatever notes and conclusions you want to draw will, with luck, result in narrowing down to a single candidate person. Once you are comfortable with that conclusion, you can export / copy /transcribe that information into your main database.

The advantage of the two-stage process is that you can limit the amount of effort you need to gather information about people you can rule out relatively easily.

Of course, if you don’t have place of birth from a Census record or some other clue, it is much harder to narrow down a list of 15 or 20 people.


Posted 2013-06-19T12:19:36.067

Reputation: 2 978

1If you do it this way, don't throw out or delete the results of the first step. Those people might turn out to be related after all - though likely more distantly so. – Martin Sojka – 2013-06-23T10:45:03.843


I tend to just use my genealogy tool of choice (in my case webtrees, but most of them are capable) to record all the sources (and relevant excerpts thereof), documents, notes and so on; as well as everyone who's a possible candidate for inclusion into the family tree, even if all that's linking them is a common surname and place of residence.

The downside is that I can prove direct relationship with me for only about 25% of the people recorded in my family DB (... and another 10% have family ties by marriage which I can prove), but that's fine. Disk space is cheap and recording the fact that some specific people don't belong to the immediate family is as important an information as recording that they do (and where they do fit in).

The upsides are a few, but the most important for me is that I have a centralised repository of everything I found related to my family research.

Martin Sojka

Posted 2013-06-19T12:19:36.067

Reputation: 941


Evidentia is supported in the Mac environment, although I don't know whether it will handle this kind of bulk assessment on its own any better than GenQuiry would.

My own methodology is to use a spreadsheet (very similar to yours, although I have one spreadsheet per 'problem' rather than one worksheet) and use OutWit to automate harvesting into that spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is linked into a task or assertion in GenQuiry. Within the spreadsheet, I use color coding as well as note columns, and filtering and sorting to manipulate the data to see patterns and correlations.

My largest (and so far inconclusive) spreadsheet is tracing all the Mary/Mary Ann(e)/Maryann(e)/Ann(e)/Marian Harpers born in England and Wales from 1855 to 1870 through all the census and bmd records I can find up to 1970 (my person of interest died in 1932, and married in 1883, claiming to be 18).

Disclaimer: I am the author of GenQuiry.


Posted 2013-06-19T12:19:36.067


I'm glad that someone mentioned color-coding. As my notes tend to be too long and haphazard to fit nicely into spreadsheet columns, I've found that just keeping notes in multiple font colors does wonders for tracking. – cleaverkin – 2013-06-25T21:36:40.933