May 29, 2020

Using Online Family Trees with Care

May 29, 2020

With so many websites hosting online family trees, they have become one of the first places I look when I’m beginning a new genealogical project. Ancestry, My Heritage, FamilySearch and Find My Past are just the beginning when it comes to searchable online family trees. With so many trees available, it is usually possible to find a tree of some sort for almost anyone. However, as most genealogists know, using all of those family trees as a way to leaf out your own family tree can cause big problems.


In spite of the ability in some cases to incorporate whole branches of a family into your own family tree, that’s never a good idea because errors are rife on these online trees. For example, the other day I was looking for information on one of my second great grandfather’s lines. I wanted to confirm the siblings of that ancestor and was happy to find a tree that had a lot of information, including the specific death date and place for one of my ancestor’s brothers. This was good news since I hadn’t been able to trace this particular sibling’s later life. At Least, it was good news until I looked a little closer. The tree also included two censuses that enumerated the brother – one a year after his purported death and the other ten years later – a full eleven years after he’d supposedly died. A quick check of the two census entries made it clear that both were for the correct man, making the listed death date clearly impossible. Although some deceased persons do get listed on a census taken in the year they died, this clearly wasn’t the case here.


I wish I could say that this is the only time something like this has occurred with online trees; sadly, it’s all too common. I can’t number the times I’ve found women having children at the age of seven or men marrying at the age of eleven, not to mention the trees which show couples producing children when the husband and wife were both well over 80 years old! And then there was the woman who had a child in England in 1845, emigrated to New Zealand (a multi-month journey in those days) the next year and supposedly returned to England to bear another child in late 1846, only to return to New Zealand in time for another birth in 1847. While I know that people do some strange things, it seems likely that in this case the tree maker confused two women with the same fairly common name and conflated the New Zealand going one with the one who stayed in England.


With problems like these on online trees, it would be easy to do as so many genealogists do and dismiss the trees completely. In my opinion that would be as big a mistake as importing them wholesale into your own tree since there really are a lot of well-researched, well-sourced trees out there. Even the sketchy trees can sometimes give hints that can be helpful as in the ancestor’s sibling above. Although the tree was off base when it came to the death date of the brother, the two census entries did apply to him. I had found neither census previously since they were not in the area I was expecting to find him, but both are definitely the man I’m researching. I now have a new lead to pursue in a new area that will hopefully lead to a correct death date.


In my opinion, trees are a great resource, but they do need to be used with care. They can provide great clues for further research, but all facts listed should be verified with independent research. Otherwise, you too, may have a tree with a woman giving birth at six-month intervals – just like the one I found today!


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large