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.

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.

21 thoughts on “Format

  1. You made me laugh with your reference to the Delano genealogy. I have used it many times–with distress on every occasion. The pages in the book aren’t even numbered consecutively! I suppose it’s the price that one pays to be a Delano descendant 🙂

  2. A Variation on the Henry System – My distant cousin, James R. Kuttler, produced a massive genealogy of the Descendants of Obadiah Seward Jr., 2nd ed. Oct 2009, in Word/PDF format. It is 2470 pages. The first 35 pages includes documentation regarding the 3 or 4 Obadiah Seward’s prior to the one identified as “Jr.,” b. 1702 Brookhaven, LI, NY., d. 1751 Morris Co., NJ. Mr. Kuttler used a variation of the Henry System using Letters, which I have found easier to navigate than with numbers. One can search the document using the code, the index, or the name.

    Obadiah Jr. himself has the letter A. His children are AA, AB, and so forth, in chronological order. Thus individual AEID, for example, is in the fourth generation [counting Obadiah as the first generation], and is the fourth child of the ninth child of the fifth child of Obadiah, i.e., William Henry Seward, who was Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln.
    William’s first child has the code AEID-A, second child AEID-B, etc. Grouping letters by four also helps as the generations advance.

    All of Obadiah Jr.’s descendants appear in the book in the alphabetic order of their code. This keeps family groups together, and makes it easy to locate an individual once his code is known. An Index gives the code for each descendant, and also for their spouses. Spouses in the index are given a prefix, “s-“. For example, searching the index for s-AEID identifies Frances Adeline Miller, William Henry Seward’s spouse.

    1. Carole, using letters instead of numbers also avoids the problem of having more than 10 children in a family — not too many times when there are more than 26 children! These systems, once deciphered, are useful, but they have a learning curve.

  3. Ms. Crane – I used the Register System for my maternal family’s decendancy genealogy. For all families I would try to follow to the great grandchild [2 – iii – (2) – (a)]. In the more recent families descended from a female (i.e., males would have been ‘branched off’), I am starting to see 2g grandchildren; what symbol is used for that generation [i.e., the child of (a)]?

    1. Howland, apologies for getting back to you late — happen to be dealing with a dead furnace this weekend. I think the outline numbers follow standard rules the same as Chicago Style, etc., but will have to look into that more when I have a chance.

  4. Ms. Crane – also you say the earliest individual. It was my understanding that #1 is the first born in the colonies/U.S.; is this correct? And that that person’s father is A and A’s father is B, etc.

    1. Howland, yes, you are right. Number “1” is usually either the first generation in New England or the first known generation. Letters are used in reverse order on the other side of the pond.

  5. When I publish, I will use Register Format, but that will come later. For now, I am using and have about 200,000 individual profiles. Standards were decided before the Computer Age, and I find that when reading a list of people with the same name, what differentiates them is years of birth and death. Therefore, I decided to use a date format of my own invention, ie 2018 Jan 01, where year is first, then a three-letter month, followed by a 2-digit day. Also, I standardized names like Betsy/Betsey to the shorter Betsy version which I know is inappropriate for publication, but makes it so much easier to find someone quickly. That is, I don’t have to search the 5 different spellings of Rebecca, and can search only one spelling. How many times have I searched in the past, missing someone that has been recorded with an obscure spelling of a very common name? (Many). These non-traditional changes have made my research more efficient although I realize that publishing will require a different tack. As far as a numbering system goes, I think I will dispense with it entirely and record everyone in the index as Smith, John Martin V B 1853-1927, etc. I find it frustrating to look at a list of John Smiths in an index without dates, and try to figure out which one is the correct one to look at. Eventually, I hope to use the computer to solve 3rd generation wives maiden names, and having them indexed this way will be most useful. After all, there was a fixed number of people alive during any particular year, so the number of solutions to a query is limited by that number, plus whatever info we have that is certain. It took me a while to get used to this date format, but not that my brain has adjusted, it’s normal for me, similar to learning a new foreign language. And I still have two spellings for some names, ie Hepzibah and Hepzibeth, which can be seen interchangeably occasionally. But that’s two instead of 10. UGH.

    1. James, adaptability to technology and database formats is important these days. Are you using an “alternate name” field for the other spellings? That can be helpful. If your working system works for you, do it. I wouldn’t give up on a numbering system of some sort in the end, though. Keep in mind that your reader will be unfamiliar with the system it has taken you years to work out.

  6. A good point about the alternate name field. I have not because they just instituted it recently and I had not thought that through yet. As for a numbering system, I’m thinking Noyes Libby Davis and the GDMNH. But I want to make sure that the women get their due so I need to be sure I have it right. As you know, genealogies for years rarely traced daughters and when a woman had multiple husbands and children by all of them, it gets neglected or complicated. I need a 21st century solution here. The patriarchy seems to have fallen in the wake of #MeToo and the ramifications are yet unknown. Easy to read and use is my mantra.

  7. On the subject on naming conventios, I am pushing a few Puerto Rican lines for my siister in law.
    Her gg grangmother is Candida Ramirez y Ferreira de Marino.

    her name, father and mother last name, marriage name.

    Havent’t been able to decide which names, and thus numbers, to use to organize the families. The name structure stays the same, but the surnames bounce all over the place.

    Any advice, or can you point me to a source that might help?

    Thanks so much, love your column !!!

    Veronica in Denver

        1. Wow!! That was really helpful, and it makes SO much sense! No maiden name problems here!!

          The other half of this family is Polish, so I’m having a real brain drain here !!

          Thanks so much !!

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