Public online trees: friend or foe?

Years ago, when I was just starting out, an experienced genealogist helped me to see that my great grandfather had been adopted.  The ‘father’ named on his marriage certificate was, in fact, his uncle by marriage.  The wife of that man was the older sister of his birth father, my natural 2xG grandfather.  Armed with this new information I found my great grandfather’s birth certificate and the record of the doomed marriage of his birth parents.  There were, however, some anomalies on the marriage certificate.  The age given by the bride, Annie Elizabeth, didn’t correspond with the ages given on future censuses; she didn’t sign, even though I knew from later documents that she could; the groom used his father’s middle name and an occupation that didn’t match other records; and the marriage was witnessed by one family member only, this being the groom’s older sister (the one who would eventually bring up the baby as her own son).  The whole thing smacked of an underage elopement.  Everything I knew about Annie Elizabeth was potentially a lie.  I could see from later censuses that she was born in Leeds, probably 1850-51.  Based on this, I found the most likely baptism.  The father’s name and occupation didn’t match that on the marriage certificate, but this was entirely in line with all the other anomalies, all in the cause of throwing the authorities off scent.

This baptism was my best guess, my working hypothesis.  I made no attempt to research this line, other than to identify Annie Elizabeth’s siblings, and her parents’ birthplaces.  After this, busy with other things, I set aside my genealogical research for a while.  When I came back to it all a couple of years later it was with renewed enthusiasm.  I learned how to use a variety of records from previous centuries, and made a lot of exciting new discoveries.  One of my triumphs was to take Annie Elizabeth’s paternal line back to the 1640s, and to find that they originated in the same village in South Yorkshire where that adopted 2xG grandfather would be born two hundred years later.  This was such an interesting line, with gentlemen farmers – and even a clandestine marriage in Mayfair.

Then, one day, I noticed there were new Ancestry hints for Annie Elizabeth, and these included a public online tree.  Same name, baptism, parents, siblings…..  But this woman had emigrated to the United States.  Surely they had the wrong person!  My tree was so thoroughly researched, with evidence every step of the way.  And then I remembered – while all that was true from the point of Annie Elizabeth’s father, the fact of him being my Annie Elizabeth’s father was only ever a hypothesis.  I looked closely at the documentation on this other tree, and found the proof: the address this other Annie Elizabeth gave as her place of residence on her marriage certificate matched the address I already had for the family at the time of the 1871 census.  There was no doubt about it, while all my research back to 1640 was absolutely correct, it was correct for that other Annie Elizabeth, not for mine.

The experienced genealogist that I had become had built a lot of work on a rookie mistake: I had omitted to mark Annie Elizabeth’s assumed family as a hypothesis, and during my break from genealogy I had come to think of it as fact.

We all make mistakes
There are so many reasons why the information on someone’s tree might be incorrect.  They might be working on a hypothesis.  They might have missed a vital piece of information, or be working with what’s available until more accurate information comes to light.  They might be beginners, not yet really sure how to do family research.

Just because it’s on someone’s tree doesn’t make it true
My approach to other members’ online trees is exactly the same as the approach to hints outlined in my previous post.  Some will be correct; others won’t.  It’s up to us to work out which.  Treat them as suggestions.  Draw upon their research and use it as a checklist.  Then research some more.  Someone else’s tree may say your 4xG grandparents had seven children: John, James, Mary, Ann, Jacob, Sarah and Matthew.  So try to find baptisms for them all, and when you find them, look closely to be sure it’s all consistent.  People moved around, but if your ancestor seems to have moved to a different town, taken a different wife and started a new occupation just for the middle child, then chances are this child isn’t your family.  In other words, it’s still up to us to do the thinking, the cross-referencing, and to decide whether or not they do in fact relate to our ancestor.

Just because it’s on everyone else’s tree doesn’t necessarily mean yours is wrong
It might mean that of course.  But hold strong!  Review your research before you buckle under the strain of it all. 😊

Some examples found during my research:

  • John married Sarah in 1674, after which seven children were born.  All seems quite reasonable, except that Sarah is recorded on that tree as having died in 1672.  This information appears on six trees.
  • Nathaniel married Sarah in 1738.  According to several trees, Nathaniel had three wives, all named Sarah – but there are no deaths and no further marriage records.  I can see the origin of one of these mistakes: A baptism record refers to ‘Nathaniel and Sarah Woodhouse’ – but clerics of yore were not given to punctuation, and Woodhouse is where they lived, not Sarah’s surname.  The real (and original) Sarah died aged 85, in 1801, fully consistent with her birth year of 1716.

What happens is that one person makes a mistake, and several more people copy it without trying to prove or disprove it.

‘Potential Parents’
This bad practice is now all the more serious because Ancestry has introduced Potential Parents.  At the further reaches of your tree, where for the time being you’ve come to a full stop, Ancestry may flag up the likely next generation.  You can review information and choose to accept or ignore the parents.  The problem is that these suggestions are based on what the majority of other researchers have done, and as we’ve just seen, one mistake plus many copies of that mistake can make a majority.

Although I appreciate that Ancestry are offering the records for your perusal, I still maintain that this is not enough.  You need to look widely and consider ALL possible records before making your decision.  Another example from my research:

  • William and Sarah married in 1790.  I’m therefore looking for a baptism for William probably between 1760 and 1770.  The most obvious one is a 1674 baptism within the parish, with parents Benjamin and Grace.  This is what every other public tree shows, and therefore what pops up as ‘potential parents’ for William.  At first I come to that conclusion myself.  However, while reviewing the baptism records for William and Sarah’s children, I see that two of them refer to William (the child’s father) as the ‘son of Joseph’.  Benjamin and Grace are NOT my William’s parents.  In fact the only possible baptism takes place in an adjacent parish within a Nonconformist chapel.  This also ties in with a number of Nonconformist records for William and Sarah’s descendants.  I remove Benjamin and Grace from my tree, changing the baptism details and amending the father to Joseph.  However, by this time ‘potential parents’ have also popped up for Benjamin, and even though I now have Joseph as William’s father, the algorithms persist in offering Benjamin’s parents for Joseph!

Upside down and back to front!
For me, these options have turned the genealogy process on its head.  Yes, we all want to find ancestors, take our trees back another generation, find out more about their lives…  But surely we want them to be the correct ancestors?

My suggestion is that rather than look for ancestors, look for the records that prove who your ancestors are.  A slight difference in focus, but it makes all the difference.

If you like, you can turn all types of hints off.  I’ve turned off potential parents but as I hope I’ve explained in these two posts, I do think record hints and public trees can help if used wisely, and I do make careful use of them.

Do you have experience of this yet?  What have you found?