Tracking your GRAMPS


Author: Joe Barr

I have good news. If you’re interested in tracing your roots — I’m speaking ancestry here, not super user accounts — you’re in luck. Linux is blessed with a number of free software tools for doing just that. I’ve been learning my way around one of them the past couple of weeks. GRAMPS is easy to use, produces a variety of reports, handles GED
files with ease, and allows you to add notes, photos, and other data to individuals in your database.

Citing its web site, “GRAMPS is a genealogical application, the name being an acronym for Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System. It allows you to store, edit, and research genealogical data, with similar functionality to other genealogical programs.”

My family history is largely undocumented, but there are two oral traditions that I’ve always been interested in learning more about. The first is about our Native American connection, via my maternal grandmother. The second is about a connection to a Quaker who served as a spy for George Washington during the Revolution. It was later learned that he had also been spying for the British, too. Naturally, that kind of subterfuge occurred on the paternal side. I wanted a tool that would help me research and document those oral traditions.

If you have similar curiosities in your genetic background, or if you simply want to explore your personal history, there is a wealth of information available on the Internet today to make your search easier than ever before. So much so, that you’ll soon need something to help you keep things straight. That’s where GRAMPS and similar tools come in.

If you search for genealogy on Freshmeat, you get 18 to choose from. As I browsed through the results of that search, I had no prior knowledge of any of them, so I chose the one with the friendliest name. Without judging the others in any way, I have to say I’ve been very pleased with GRAMPS. It does everything I need as a noobie ancestor-tracker. And a whole lot more.

GEDCOM is the Lingua Franca of the genealogy world. It provides a standard to use
text files to exchange genealogical data. You can learn more about GEDCOM here. For our purposes, it’s only necessary to know that it is the standard, and that GRAMPS speaks it.

Getting started

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Since I’m running Debian, getting GRAMPS installed was as easy as running Synaptic, selecting GRAMPS to be installed, and clicking Apply. The download page also offers GRAMPS in RPM style packaging for Red Hat and SUSE users, and — of course, it is GPLd software — you can always simply grab a tarball and compile it yourself.

The first time you start GRAMPS, a wizard guides you through the initial setup. You’ll be asked for your name and address data, and if you enter it, it will be included with any GEDCOM files you create from GRAMPS. You can also select alternative date formats, calendars, and LDS-specific extensions.

Once you’re through the setup, you’re ready to begin. GRAMPS keeps all of its files — including its internal database — in a directory of your choosing. When you are creating a new database, as you will be doing the first time you use it, select an empty directory for it, not a file. After that, when you are working with a previously created database, you’ll provide the directory name when asked for the database to use.

If you start GRAMPS from the command line, you can specify the directory name there using -i directory and skip the database dialog altogether. Actually, if GRAMPS is on your task bar, you can do the same thing on your GNOME or KDE desktop. Right-click on the GRAMPS icon, select properties, and enter the appropriate gramps -i directory as the command. That’s how I have it set up on my desktop.

The GRAMPS UI has seven icons along the left-hand side: People, Family, Pedigree, Sources, Places, and Media. Each of them represent a different view of the database. I began my journey in the default People view by entering people in my family, beginning with my grandparents on my mother’s side, then my parents, then myself and my siblings. It’s quick and easy to add someone.

Make sure the People view is selected, then click on Edit-> on the toolbar at the top of the GRAMPS window. A ten-tabbed window appears to let you enter as much information about a person as you have. Or as little. I began just be entering their names, sex, birth and death dates if I knew them. Same thing for the locations of those events. You can enter either birth name or married name, whichever you prefer. Just be sure to indicate which it is. The default is birth name.

After I had entered the individuals in my immediate family, I began to structure my family tree. I clicked on People again, and tabs with the first letter of each surname I had entered appeared under the window panel. I selected the appropriate tab, and a list of all the individuals whose last name matched appeared in the window. After selecting my grandmother’s name from the list with a single click, I clicked on the Family icon on the left of the screen.

The Family view appeared, with my grandmother’s name shown in the panel marked Active Person. There were other panels for Active Person’s Parents, Relationships, Spouse’s Parents, and Children. I clicked on an icon — their function is revealed as you roll the mouse over them — to the right of the Relationships panel to add someone from the existing database as a relationship/spouse of my grandmother. All the likely males in the database appeared in a new window. Then I selected the appropriate grandfather from the list and clicked OK. The default relationship type is Married, but you can also select Partner, Other, Unmarried, or Unknown.

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Next, I clicked on the same icon used for Relationships to add Children. From that list, I selected my mother and clicked OK once more. I went back to the main page — the People page — and repeated the process for my grandmother on my father’s side. Then I selected my mother, clicked on Family, and added myself and my siblings through the Children panel.

Let’s stop entering people at this point and take a look at what we’ve got. I think you’ve gotten the idea how easy it is to add people to the database and to organize them in the tree. The image alongside shows my Pedigree chart from the data just entered. When you realize that the family tree could have been built in an entirely different way than I did it, you begin to appreciate some of the sophistication of the program. All the linkage in the Family window, for example, could have been done after entering the first person, then entering the people required to add spouse, children, parents, and so on. GRAMPS is very flexible in this regard, which makes it very easy to add new people to the database, as you find them or need them.

Entering other data

Now let’s take a look at a few of the things we rushed by when entering family members. The third of the ten tabs across the top of an individual’s data is labeled Events. Click on it and a new window pops up. In it, you can enter additional information about any of 35 different topics — selected from a drop down menu — for the active person, from Adoption to Military Service to Occupation. Once you’ve selected the topic, you can enter a date, place, cause, and description as appropriate. You can also flag the item as being Private. By default, Private information is not included in GEDCOM files you export from GRAMPS. Tabs across the top of the Event window allow you to add a Sources, a Note, Witnesses, or a media file, such as a digital image.

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The next tab is Attributes. The Attributes window is similar to events, except the number of topics is smaller. Caste, Description, Identification Number, National origin, or Social Security number can be entered here. The Sources tab allows you to identify your source of information, whether that be the 1880 U.S. Census, the Dawes Commission Final Report, or a death certificate from Bexar County in Texas. The Gallery tab allows you to add digital images to the database.

GRAMPS is capable of producing a number of different types of reports. The drop-down menu that appears when you click on Reports on the toolbar offers you the choice of a Book Report, seven different kinds of graphical reports, ten different text reports, two different views, and an option to generate a website. The graphical reports, by the way, can be created in Draw format, PDFs, Postscript, or SVG format. You also have the option of opening the report in as it is created, or simply printing it.

The Tools option on the toolbar is also surprisingly well stocked. There are two items designed for analysis and exploration, five others for database repair, data extraction, duplicate searching, and the renaming of items, two for debugging, and four utilities, including one that builds Soundex Codes for names in the database. Barr, for example, has a Soundex code of B600.

Sharing the tree

Sharing your family tree research with others is a popular thing to do. That’s what makes the GEDCOM so important. GRAMPS not only imports and exports in GEDCOM format, it can export your database in GRAMPS own format and in the native tongue of the Web Family Tree.

I’ve enjoyed learning how to use GRAMPS as I’ve gotten started in my personal family research. It’s another very fine free software offering, and it seems to have an active community of developers and documenters working on it to make it even better.

There is excellent documentation for GRAMPS available. Check the Documentation page for links to a FAQ, mailing lists, and a comprehensive manual in PDF format.