December 13, 2019
Last week I attended the annual LCGS Holiday Party at Mimi’s Restaurant with about 40 other intrepid genealogists and their guests. We all had a nice dinner and a chance to talk socially, although for most of us the conversation was dominated by one topic: genealogy. I think for many of us the highlight of the evening was a chance to play with Family Search’s app “Relatives Around Me.” It’s an app that allows anyone who has downloaded the app to search an approximately 100 foot distance for folks who the Family Search Family Tree indicates are cousins. Last week most of us played along and found that we were related to many of the other members of LCGS who were at the party. While it didn’t appear that anyone found any heretofore unknown cousins who were any closer than perhaps 6th cousins, it was fun to check out the trees to see where the presumed matches were.
For a party game it was great and gave us lots to talk about, but as an actual genealogical tool, “Relatives Around Me” probably isn’t something to pin your brickwall breakdowns on. That’s because the quality of the matches is only as good the quality of Family Search’s Family Tree, which, as anyone who’s spent any time looking at it knows, is subject to a lot of errors. For example, last week, I had matches with perhaps eight or ten of the people around me. That sounded exciting until I spent a minute or two looking at the ancestral couple that was supposedly my match and my common ancestor. In nearly every case, I could immediately see that there was an issue with my purported line from the ancestral couple. In one case, I noted that a direct ancestor was listed for me who has been clearly proven not to be my ancestor. In another case, the tree showed my match and I as having the same common ancestors even though the tree also clearly showed that the siblings we descended from were over 60 years apart in age, were born in totally different parts of England and immigrated to completely different sections of the U.S. In other cases, the match and I might be descended from a common ancestral couple, but we just don’t know for sure since neither of us has ever been able to trace our line back far enough to reach the couple.
There was only one person with whom I matched that I could say with confidence that the common ancestors were definitely mine, and that was for well-researched Salem witchcraft victim Susanna Martin, who I descend from. However, my match wasn’t aware of her descent from Susanna and so has no knowledge of whether she is or is not actually a descendant of one of the Salem witches. That’s actually a big problem with “Relatives Around Me” because even if you’ve researched a line thoroughly and agree with the Family Tree line, most of us have not researched all of the collateral relatives forward far enough to recognize whether those other purported lines are accurate or not. The upshot is that even if you know your own line is accurate, unless the match has researched his/her line thoroughly as well, you still won’t know if you’re actually cousins.
I do have to admit, though, that the app is a lot of fun and a great conversation starter. It’s just important to remember that that’s really all it is. It probably won’t advance your research very far at all, unless, of course, you happen to run into an unknown, fairly close cousin who actually has researched a line that you’re struggling with. In that case, the app might help you to jumpstart research, but you’ll still want to reconfirm that the ancestral couple is really your own and that the documentation of the line is complete.
Researcher/Director at Large