Monday, October 17, 2016

Monday Mailbox: Entering Unknown Persons in Family Tree

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Ancestry Insider,

I know nothing about the parents of my 4x-great-grandmother Mrs. Betsey Ann Embody.

However, from a newspaper report shortly prior to her death, I do know that she was visited by a sister, "Mrs. Hodge of Herkimer." I can create a person named "Mrs. Hodge" in the FamilySearch Family Tree, but to link them as siblings, I need to create at least one person who is a parent to both of these women.

Is there a best practice for naming these people so that I don't interfere with other users' searches and with FamilySearch's record hinting and duplicate matching? Or should I not be creating people when I know absolutely nothing about their names, and instead use notes to record this information until I learn more?

Thanks for any insight you can share.

Jason Thompson

Dear Jason,

This is, indeed, a quandary. FamilySearch Family Tree—and any other tree system that I’m aware of—doesn’t support a true sister relationship. Under the covers, they only support parent-child and spouse-spouse relationship types. Under the covers, they also don’t have a placeholder feature for a parent of a person without a known surname. That’s not a problem in a personal tree. You do whatever suits you, such as creating a parent named “Parent of Betsey Ann [—?—]” and attaching both children. In a shared tree, you don’t have that latitude. You have a responsibility to the thousands of other users of the tree. Such a construct would be confusing and could lead to disastrous merges.

There’s also the issue of independent verification of the sister relationship. In my experience, people sometimes use relationship terms—like sister—ambiguously. I’ve found that particularly so in newspapers where the local town gossip—um, I mean “Around Town” newspaper reporter—makes unfounded assumptions. Mrs. Hodge may be a step-sister, a sister-in-law, or an organizational sister.

I would use the notes option. Reasonably exhaustive research may uncover Betsey Ann’s surname.

The Ancestry Insider


  1. This is a very good question, and though I am not very familiar with the FamilySearch Family Tree, I could not try to add their parents yet. I would now focus on trying to find out what I can about Mrs. Hodge. Through that research, you might find the names of the parents! Then when you do, you can then add them, or they might already be entered in the tree!

  2. NYS required civil registration of deaths, a death certificate for Betsy Ann (1813-1890) should reveal the full names of her parents (and other interesting information), if the individual (likely her child) registering the death knew it at the time.

  3. The Ancestry Insider;

    Each of us has our own way of handling this situation. Here is how I handle it:

    I enter the name based on the record where I found the information and Cite it appropriately.

    But, I don't stop there. I have my way of handling Unknown Names. I use 5 underscores: " _____ " both for first and surnames / birth surnames.

    "Mrs. Hodge of Herkimer."

    I would add an Alternate Name of "_____ Hodge" AND I would add another alternate name of "_____ _____". In fact, I don't know here name at all. BUT, I want hints for searching or in search results.

    I will add her "husband" of "_____ Hodge" to relate to the Mrs. Hodge. Yes, I am assuming that she is married to a Mr. Hodge. Further search and research will prove or disprove my current thinking on this.

    I have to people in the database. A "______ _____" and a "_____ Hodge". I have selected those two entries as my preferred Name, the rest, for now, will be Alternate Names.

    I add one more event / fact for Mrs. Hodge, and that is the location of where that record has a hint of where she was from, "Herkimer". Again, to be proven or disproved.

    So far, search engines have not bulked at my search, in fact have found who the people really are. Now, I don't focus solely on that person, but try to discover other records to help me identify who she really is.

    The other advantage, for me at least, is that the 5 underscores remind me visually that I am missing information and that I need to do some more searching.

    I have played around with the other methods of handling Unknown Names, but searching or visually seeing a name that I might want to find, have not worked as well for me as the 5 underscores.

    In a small database I am working on, 1,120 people, I have 4 males and 40 females where I don't know their surnames. Those numbers go up and down every day based on researching other individuals in that file.

    One of the biggest causes for these unknown names is that I record the Birth location (state) of the parents reported in a Census Record. No names for females and I "guess" the father's surname for a male. Again, to be proven on disproved.

    Just sharing my way of handling this type of, or lack of full names search results.


    1. Russ, The bigger issue is not Mrs. Hodge. It is her father.

    2. Russ,

      I follow almost the exact strategy you detailed (although I use the name "Unknown" vs. 5 underscores), but one thing that I feel is important for me is to clearly identify my "Working/Uncertified" public trees vs. my "Certified" trees. I have a description on my Working/Uncertified trees that states they are not meant to be authoritative, and that it includes conjecture, possible links, and unverified data from other member trees. In my Certified trees every fact is linked to a piece of evidence that has a full Evidence Explained citation attached, and I limit any conjecture/guesses to the notes where I can explain in detail that "extra" information.

      I'm sure there are people that will never pay attention to my tree descriptions, or disregard that a tree might be labeled as Working, but I feel better putting substandard genealogical proof out there publicly and letting everyone know it's best to be used for information, and not as a finding.

      It does lead to some interesting situations where I would have "Unknown Unknown" as a father, "Unknown Unknown" as a mother, and "Unknown [Betsey Ann Embody's maiden name]" as the daughter who is "married" to "Unknown Hodge". However, I would usually only go through that trouble to ensure I have the placeholders for searching/hints as I actively engaged in work to determine the unknown values and to prove the suspected relationships. I have deleted those unknown users before once I couldn't prove the relationships, and just made notes about what I suspect.


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