One of my early posts considered the merits of consulting other people’s online trees. After outlining various dangers and pitfalls, I explained that I do often look at them, but importantly, everything that goes on my tree has been fully researched and verified by me. If there are no records to support someone’s information, it will never find its way onto my own tree, other than perhaps marked as a plausible hypothesis requiring more research.
But more recently I’ve been using trees in another way – not to search for names, dates and events, but to try to work forwards from a person I’m interested in to the ‘Home’ person (the person whose tree this is). If it seems like the tree owner is a direct descendant of my person of interest I sometimes write to ask if they can help me with some family stories or information or even if they have photographs. Of course I’m always prepared to share what I have too, and although usually all I can offer is my research, maybe I have some interesting stories they don’t seem to have.
Sometimes they don’t reply. Sometimes they do, but it turns out their connection is not as close as I thought. I think we both had a good laugh when someone replied to say that yes, my person was on her tree, but he was described by Ancestry’s relationship calculator as ‘the father-in-law of the father-in-law of the great-aunt of her husband’! I have to say too that on occasion people have been keen to take what I had to offer and then never given me whatever they had in return.
But sometimes I strike it lucky. Here’s a couple of examples:
My great grandfather, George, died in 1940, but it seemed no photograph of him had survived. After many years of asking any second cousins I came across, I finally found the tree of a descendant of my great uncle, the son with whom George lived in his later years. If anyone had a photograph of him, surely she would.
I was right. But along with a photo of George, she had inherited his entire family album, with photos of our grandfathers and their other brothers together, plus some correspondence with my granddad from his travels with the Army. Some of the photos helped me to piece together a couple of mysteries.
My new second cousin doesn’t share my interest in past centuries and social history, but she loved all the stories I’ve been able to pull together about the more recent generations; and so in return for these lovely photos we spent a few weeks getting to know each other and sharing what we knew. We’re still in touch.
A few months back I wrote (here and here) about my unlucky-in-love biological 2x great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth. The point of the two blogposts was to use her story to illustrate several aspects of marriage law (elopement, bigamy, adultery, desertion, divorce, domestic violence and separation) that had been touched on in my reviews of two books (here and here) by Rebecca Probert.
Alongside those blogposts I wrote a fuller version of the story for my own family. In that version I questioned, for example, whether there might have been problems at home following Annie Elizabeth’s mother’s remarriage, and if that might have been the reason for the fifteen year-old eloping with someone she barely knew. I could see that her mother and step-father were living apart by 1871. I also wondered if Annie Elizabeth’s first child, my great grandfather (another George) who was brought up by his paternal aunt, might have known who his true parents were. I really thought these were things I would never know.
A few months ago I broke down a brick wall surrounding Annie Elizabeth’s parents, and this new information also included finding a sister, Martha. Following through on a family tree linked to Martha, I found a descendant. Bearing in mind that my knowledge of Annie Elizabeth is based entirely on records and documents found through research, to the extent that I didn’t even know if my great grandfather knew she was his mother, surely a direct descendant of her sister would know more. Perhaps there would even be a photo of this lady whose life I have found so interesting…
The gentleman I wrote to turned out to be my 3rd cousin once removed and the great grandson of Annie Elizabeth’s sister. He sent me a short family history written by his late aunt Amy – my second cousin twice removed – together with some notes of his own research based on what she wrote.
Now Amy’s family history is not going to get any prizes for accuracy. It’s full of mistakes and half-truths. There are people and places that fit with my research, but names are not quite right, and there is a strong suggestion of riches in our lineage that the available facts don’t bear out. All this is forgiven: she didn’t have access to the records we’re able to take for granted, and her account has value in itself as a testament to the stories that must have been passed down to her.
Having said that, there were some absolute gems of information. Reading her account, it felt like Amy was reaching out across the decades to verify for me the truth of several of my hunches. I found that not only did my great grandfather George know that Annie Elizabeth was his mother, but he remained part of the family. Annie Elizabeth’s mother was known to him as his grandmother. Regarding my hunch that my Annie Elizabeth may have married in haste to flee an unpleasant home life, Amy describes the stepfather as ‘a rotter’ who, in one of his bad moods, set fire to a wooden chest full of family papers and other treasures, and made his wife and two daughters (Annie Elizabeth and Martha) watch it burn. As for Annie Elizabeth’s second husband, who would later assault her, and whose demeanour in court did not impress the judge or the news reporters, there is a whole side story about him, his drinking, his ‘swelled-headed’ arrogance and his mean nature, all of which complements the picture I had built in my mind about him, based purely on the records.
There’s still a lot of information to be mined from Amy’s account, and some other things to check out, but I feel so lucky to have been given this little window onto the life of my great grandfather and his birth mother.
I hope these stories will encourage you to think about using online trees in this way.