August 7, 2020
At a genealogy society meeting a while ago, I heard something that made me gasp. Someone in the audience recommended that a good way to grow your family tree was to accept hints from a site such as My Heritage or Ancestry. He suggested that this was simply done by clicking on the hint and adding it to your own tree – no verification required! Even more amazing, this person was not a newbie to genealogy; I know for a fact that he has been doing this for at least twenty years. I can’t even imagine what his tree must look like!
I understand that his method is easy, but it’s also a simple way to fill the branches of your tree with totally incorrect information. For example, recently I have received information from My Heritage telling me that they have what they call a “New Person Discovery” for me whereby I can add a new branch to my family tree with just a few clicks. The only problem is that the “new” person in question is not my ancestor as they suggest. He’s actually an older son of my ancestor who shares my ancestor’s name, from whom I do not descend. If I add him with those “few clicks,” I’ll be sending my tree careening off a cliff, following an ancestor who is not mine. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated experience; I don’t keep track, but it seems that I receive at least one or two notifications every day from My Heritage; at this point, I often don’t even bother to open the emails with these “new” discoveries. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who send notices of bogus hints; Ancestry and some of the other companies are guilty as well. While I find My Heritage useful in general, I do think that they are probably the most frequent offender when it comes to sending hints that really are false leads.
Some of these helpful hints may actually be useful for some genealogists, particularly those who are fairly new to researching their family. However, I can’t stress it enough – never add information to your tree that you haven’t verified. Some people do add information from trusted sources, but since the information that the online databases suggests is usually from someone’s tree, someone that you most likely have never heard of, I would be very skeptical about its trustworthiness.
Even though I am pretty skeptical about the hints that I’ve received since few of them seem to pan out, I do think that online trees can be a great help when you are researching. My personal favorite is the Family Search Family Tree. This collaborative tree allows everyone to participate which means that it is just as prone to errors as any other online tree, but for me its big bonus is that folks don’t just add names and places. They also add sources. These include copies of all sorts of documents from censuses to wills to marriage records and more. Even for folks I’ve already researched extensively, I often find sources that I hadn’t located myself. Just last week I found a child listed for an ancestral couple on the tree. I’d never seen this child mentioned anywhere, and I was doubtful that this was an accurate listing; however, when I checked the sources, I found a copy of a state birth certificate for the baby verifying its parents and date of birth. The baby died soon after birth, so his place in the family was small, but learning about his birth and death added context to this family, and I’m pleased to be able to add a new twig to my tree, complete with verification.
The other advantage to Family Search Family Tree is that it is a very active tree. Folks add new information frequently, so it’s worth checking back often to see what might be new. Some of it will be incorrect, of course, just like on every online tree, but at the very least the information will spur you to verify what you already have and may add some new twigs to your tree that you didn’t know existed. Since it’s free, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to looking at this Family Tree. Just be careful not to jump too quickly without verifying everything you find.
Researcher/Director at Large