Over the centuries tens of thousands of different formats have been used to present genealogies depending on what system the author chose to use. Within the last half-century or so, standards of genealogical format have been developed and accepted by the professional community. Recommended reading: Penny Stratton’s online series on genealogical writing and publishing, and also her book, available as an e-book as well as in a print edition.

However, standardized rules do not ensure, even today, that everyone follows them, nor that they are understood. This means that evaluating a genealogy, old or new, requires consideration of whether the format is a help or a hindrance to our research. Standardized formats we use today have two particular aspects of importance – numbering systems and arrangement of information.

A genealogy following descendants from one individual is most helpful when they are numbered consecutively – the earliest individual is 1 and each descendant who is traced further is 2, 3, 4 in order of birth in their nuclear family. You may find books using the “Henry” system, where each generation is given a number or letter according to their order of birth in their nuclear family, which can be useful for working in manuscript as research adds new individuals, but gets really wonky after more than a few generations (i.e., 13212462 is the second child of the sixth child of the fourth child of the second child of the … you get the point).

Genealogies tracing ancestors of an individual are most helpful when using the Ahnentafel system with the individual as “1”, his/her father as “2”, mother as “3.” From there on every father is double the number of the child, and the mother is double plus 1.

Arrangement of information is most useful when it is standardized chronologically or by record type.

An “all my ancestor” type of work also traces ancestors of an individual, but separates each family by surname, presenting the single line of descent starting from the oldest generation and coming down to the generation where the surname changes (i.e., when a daughter of that surname marries and further information is found under her husband’s surname line). The families are arranged alphabetically by surname, with each family numbered separately.

Arrangement of information is most useful when it is standardized chronologically or by record type. The first system presents every fact by date, regardless of the topic. The second groups information by topic, such as land records, probate, military, etc., and then puts the facts in chronological order within the topic.

The purpose of using standardized systems is obvious – once one knows the standard, one can more easily locate the information one is looking for. Non-standard presentation can be meandering and confusing to both the writer and the reader – see, for example: Joel Andrew Delano, The Genealogy, History and Alliances of the American House of Delano (New York, 1899).

Next week we will talk about citations.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.View all posts by Alicia Crane Williams