Oct 11, 2019

Online Family Trees

October 11, 2019

I’ve long been a holdout when it comes to posting my genealogical information on online trees. I’ve never really felt that my work is “finished” and have worried about putting information online without being sure that it’s accurate. Then there’s the privacy issue –  I know that none of the reputable places to post trees ever knowingly include living people, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to put a tree online that includes my father and mother and sister. All of them are gone, but it hasn’t been very long, and it still feels wrong to put their personal information out there. So, for years I’ve just continued to use my personal genealogy database and never synced it with an online tree.


As the years have gone by, the number of available online trees has grown by leaps and bounds. Virtually every company that provides genealogical databases also offers the ability to make an online tree. That includes the paid sites like Ancestry, FindMyPast, MyHeritage and the New England Historical and Genealogical Society as well as free sites like FamilySearch. Then there are the DNA sites such Family Tree DNA, Ancestry and MyHeritage that encourage the posting of family trees. The list is long and getting longer every day. It would probably be a shorter list to name the genealogical sites that don’t offer family trees.


All of this has meant that online family trees have become one of the first go-to sites for anyone searching for their family. With so many of them available, it’s rare to not find at least a tree or two for almost anyone you’re researching. Although many genealogists steer clear of family trees as a resource because of their propensity for perpetuating errors, those trees often provide clues for further research and can facilitate contact with distant cousins. Despite the fact that I had never posted an online tree, I had sifted through many of those trees looking for connections that might advance my own research and had written to many of the folks who had posted the trees because you just never know when a completely incorrect tree might just offer up one nugget of gold among all the dross.


The advent of widespread DNA testing has made online trees even more important. As anyone who has ever taken a DNA test knows, finding a DNA match isn’t very helpful unless you can figure out how you might be related to that match. Online trees are the best way to figure out those relationships, so when I began to take DNA tests myself, I soon learned that if I were going to have any success using DNA to break down brick walls, I was going to have to post a tree of my own.


I started slowly by adding information and corrections to FamilySearch’s Family Tree since most of my family was already on that group-sourced tree. It turned out that I have some sources of information that no one else seemed to have, so as I gained confidence in my own research, I posted trees on Ancestry and MyHeritage so that I could participate in their “Thrulines” and “Theories of Relativity” programs to gather hints about ancestors that I might not have known. I quickly started corresponding with distant cousins, some of whom could help me and some who I could help.


The trees I’ve put online are basically “bare bones” trees with few sources and some branches of the trees lopped because I’m not positive of their validity. I keep my trees bare bones because I figure if someone sees something that piques their interest, they can contact me, and I’ll be happy to share my sources, which were often accessed offline and are more difficult to add than those that are readily available on the various databases and only require a click or two to add to trees. As I verify some of the “in progress” lines, I will probably add them to my online presence, but for now, I’m happier keeping them on my personal genealogical program since I’d hate to add to the huge burden of inaccurate genealogical information that is lurking online.


Maybe I’m old-fashioned (I probably am), but I feel that I’ve found a happy medium between sharing online and keeping some things private, or at least a bit more difficult to access. After all, one of my goals for online trees is to find and contact cousins, and if they can access everything I know with a simple click onto my tree without ever contacting me, I’ll have made achieving that goal less likely.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large