Sep 25, 2020

Ancestry’s Story Scout

September 25, 2020

Recently, Ancestry added a new feature called Story Scout. It is based on the family tree that an individual has posted on Ancestry as well as other family trees found on Ancestry and the idea that  individuals on those trees can be connected to historical events. Once Ancestry determines that a certain person is your ancestor, they look for him/her in various records such as the 1900 census and use that document to build a story about the ancestor. At present, the stories are somewhat limited, but presumably the plan is to add more stories as the feature matures.


Since I’m a genealogist who loves to learn as much as I can about the lives of my ancestors, not just their names and dates, I was excited to check out this new feature. Unfortunately, at least for me, Story Scout is a bit disappointing. I have read other researchers complain that some of the ancestors who were listed for them in Story Scout are not really their ancestors, merely folks with similar names. I didn’t find that to be the case for my ancestors, but I did find that some of the so-called facts that they listed for my ancestors were wrong. For example, my third great grandmother Sally Hadlock comes from a well-researched line of early settlers in New England. She herself is documented in town records as having been born in Connecticut, so I was surprised to find that Ancestry determined she was born in England. One of Ancestry’s stories deals with women receiving the vote in local elections in Utah in 1870. Sally, according to this story, having been born in England, only qualified for this vote because she was married to an American.  Another story details the history of early Mormons, and one of my great grandfathers has this story attached to his record. It describes the persecutions and privations that the early Mormons suffered as they were driven from place to place before finally ending up in Utah. It’s an interesting story, but my great grandfather didn’t personally suffer those privations since he was born in Utah, twenty-five years after the Mormons arrived there. Nor was he one of the early Mormons since he was born over thirty years after the founding of the Church.


In fairness, most of the other stories were correct, as far as they went. That’s really the big problem. These stories don’t go far enough. They’re generic stories that don’t delve into history deeply enough to be very useful. A quick check on Wikipedia would probably glean as much information as these stories give. Another problem with the stories is that everyone on your tree who was alive at the time of a specific event gets the exact same story attached to them. One of the stories deals with women’s suffrage in 1920. Any woman who was alive in 1920 and was over the age of twenty-one gets this story. I have half a dozen grandmothers, great grandmothers and great-great grandmothers who were alive in 1920, so each of them has the identical story. Getting the vote was a big deal, of course, but in the case of a couple of my ancestors, they were very old in 1920, were invalids and died within the next year or so. Their lives were not changed much by the vote; they most likely were unable to exercise their rights at their advanced ages. Adding the story about women’s suffrage to a write up about their lives is almost meaningless and says very little about their actual lives.


I understand that the stories need to be generic so that they will apply to the broadest group of ancestors, but I hope that researchers will use these stories as a springboard to do further research to see how these larger historic events actually impacted their own ancestors. In my case, I’ve been looking into voter registration records to see which of my ancestors who were eligible to vote in 1920 actually registered to do so. This will certainly take a lot more effort and may perhaps prove impossible to achieve, but I hope that whatever I find will add specifics to the Story Scout write up and make it more meaningful for my own ancestors. In my opinion, Story Scout is best used as an impetus to further research, not as a finished story ready to be passed on to other members of the family, as Ancestry suggests.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large