One of my recommendations before writing a family history is to “clean up your tree”. What does that look like? Join me as I start work on my third family history book, based on my mother’s paternal grandmother, Lena Catherine Birenbaum.

The first chapter of the book will be about Lena’s parents, Peter Birenbaum and (Maria) Josphine Ney. My first goal this morning is to dig in to their Family Tree Maker profiles and put things in order. This includes the following tasks:

Organize Citations


Add missing citations

Ever since my tree “do-over” in 2020, I only add facts to my tree when they have evidence to cite. However, mistakes happen! Before I begin writing, I always check to make sure I have a source for every assertion, and a scan of the document when available.

This is especially an issue due to a glitch in FTM a year or so ago. Web Merge randomly stopped adding citations and I did not notice for several weeks. Oops! I sometimes have to go back and re-merge records.

This morning, I had to go re-grab the 1900 and 1910 censuses for Peter & Josephine.

Improve citations

Sometimes I have a document image that someone has sent me, but I still need to go out on FamilySearch or similar to find the original source to verify and document it.

For example, I had to go track down Josephine’s baptism in the Luxembourg civil records so I had a strong source to list instead of “my mom’s cousin”. Besides being good practice, it helps other researchers who may want to follow in my research. They can’t exactly email Cousin Sheila!

How do you search unindexed records in FamilySearch?

I explain it all, with screenshots, on pages 75-79 of my book 🙂

De-duplicate citations

I like to have one and only one citation from a source attached to a fact. Sometimes I end up with 2 or 3 copies of a citation due to using Web Merge and accidentally creating duplicates, so I take this opportunity to unlink all the duplicates. I make sure to keep the version that has media attached, when applicable.

Separate out citations

FTM has a tendency to group citations under fact types. For example, if a census says someone was born “Wisconsin 1863”, it will add that citation to the fact for “Oct 16, 1863 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA”, because those facts don’t conflict.

I don’t personally like to operate that way. I like my citations to be specifically attached to (only) the information present in that document, so I will make separate entries for those two birth facts, and pick one Preferred. That way if I am wondering why exactly I think someone is born on October 16, I can see a list of sources with that assertion. Very occasionally, I have to create a composite fact from multiple sources, but usually there is one source with all the details, like a birth record.

Organize Fields


Clean up Description fields

I always want to make sure my Description fields have been used consistently. Do they list the name of the church in a baptism, or the name of the godparents? There is no right or wrong answer, just consistent or inconsistent. See pages 91-93 in my book for why this matters so much.

One issue in particular that pops up is the automatic “92 Age: 92”-type description that Web Merge loves to create for death and arrival facts. No, thank you! I always need to clean those up.

Consolidate duplicate facts, especially name facts.

For example, “Peter Birnbaum”, “Peter Buerenbaum”, “Peter Beerenbaum”, etc. I keep all varations and make sure their sources are properly attributed. Then I make sure to choose a Preferred Fact.

For Josephine, this is tricky. Her birth name was “Maria Josephine”, but absolutely everyone called her Josephine. We didn’t even know about the ‘Maria’ until we were tracking down her baptism record for our dual-citizenship application. I have gone back and forth on which name to prefer, given that my primary philosophy is to use names on birth/baptism records. I finally switched back to “Josephine”, because it is by all accounts how she lived her life. And it makes database searches easier for me, as almost all records are for “Josephine”. 

Make sure capitalization is consistent

Are you putting surnames in ALLCAPS? I choose not to, so this is not an issue in my tree, but make sure to choose a general strategy and stick with it. 

Make sure language is consistent

Was she born “about” 1868 or “around 1868”? Either is fine, but pick one and stick to it!


Organize Content

Set Profile Pics in FTM

I make sure every person has a profile image in FTM. Sometimes they already have one, but the zoom/crop has been corrupted or changed (as was the case for Peter today). Sometimes I don’t have any photos of them, so I select their country’s Coat of Arms.

(I generally use CoA over country flags, because so many of my ancestral country flags are extremely similar  – red, white, or blue stripes.)

Add photos and docs to FTM

Ideally, everything would already be in FTM, but that’s not how things always flow in the real world. Before I sit down to write a chapter, I comb through the family folder and my “To Be Processed” folder to see if anything needs to be imported.

I especially look through the folders of content I have collected on various research trips, as their processing tends to be “postponed” when I get home.

Today, I found burial permits and funeral cards for Peter and Josphine in my “Birenbaum” folder (one of which offered a cause of death I did not know before) and some real estate records from my last trip to the Sheboygan Historical Society.

Not only does this better organize my genealogical research, but it makes it easier for me when I sit down to write, since I work chronologically and can work my way down the screen in FTM. It also saves space on my computer as I delete duplicates.

Find missing records

I always look for all applicable U.S. census records for each person. Usually they are already in there, but sometimes they have just not popped up organically during the course of my research.

For example, Josephine’s 1950 census record was not in her FTM profile, because I created it before the 1950 census was released. I did a quick search for her 1950s census, but she didn’t come up in the first page of results. I tried specifying her married name specifically, but still nothing.

So I started checking for her children’s 1950 records, as she was likely living with one of them. First, I checked her son John, since she lived with him during the 1940 census. He didn’t pop up for 1950, either.

I looked for her daughter Lena, and couldn’t find a 1950 record. Finally, I found her daughter Mary in 1950, but Josephine was not living with her.

I went back to John and clicked on his 1940 search results, then checked Suggested Records on the right. Nothing. Same for Lena, and finally, hit gold.

Lena Feyereisen and her husband Nick were listed under the ‘Mick Heyereisen’ household, with Josephine ‘Bienbaum’. Sometimes Ancestry search algorithms are on the nose, and sometimes not!

There it was, hiding at the bottom of “Suggested Records”!

Pursue all leaves and hints

Some people like to make sure they have investigated every “leaf” (Ancestry or FamilySearch hint) in their tree before they start writing. I used to do this, but GeneaNet “hints” have become a source of pollution in my opinion (FTM offers an option not to include other people’s trees as hints for Ancestry and FS, but not GeneaNet, which is just as community-based). So now my tree is full of hint leaves that will never be acknowledged!

Follow new rabbit holes

In the course of checking my document scans, I re-read Peter’s obit and saw mention of the fact that he and Josephine lived in Cleveland for 15 years. News to me! I didn’t realize they had ever left Wisconsin. I immediately started searching for them in Illinois.

Nope! While checking a city directory listing for Manitowoc, I realized that Cleveland is the name of the Manitowoc village they lived in. Whew. This is what comes of obituary authors writing for their specific local audience, who would have known this fact already.


Do a test run

After everything seems to be in tip-top shape, I run a test book using Family Book Creator so I can see if any data points are standing out. In this case, it shows me that I am missing profile photos for a few people, and that I haven’t marked some of my newer document scans as “Do Not Print”. I also missed several Description Fields with duplicate ages in them.

I want to make sure I have squared away all of these little details before I sit down to write, so I can focus fully on my biography. Plus, it’s a good way to ground myself in the data so it’s all swirling in my head as I start to write.

You can choose to do this for your whole tree at the start of your project, but I like to spread things out so that I am giving my brain more variety as I work. I check each couple before I start writing their chapter.


There, you’ve done it! Your tree is full of squeaky clean data, and it’s ready to build on.

What's next?

Write a book with all that clean data!