Online Family Trees: Blight or Blessing?

by Claudia Breland | Mar 8, 2012

The internet has changed many of the ways we find new information on our ancestors, and perhaps the most widespread effect has been the proliferation of thousands of online family trees. You can find these not only on Ancestry and FamilySearch, but other free or paid websites such as TribalPages, MyHeritage, WikiTree, Geni.com, and of course Archives.com. Making use of the information you find posted online can present pitfalls for the unwary. How can you be sure you're getting accurate information? And how can you safely post your own research online? The following are some tips and suggestions from my experience in using online information:


Before You Post Your Family Tree

As genealogists, we hunger for information on anybody and everybody who may be related to someone on our family tree. However, we need to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in our family may feel that way, and may tell us in no uncertain terms that they don't want their information on the internet. Before we post our family tree anywhere online, it's important to take a close look and do some cleanup if needed.

Any good genealogy program (such as Legacy, RootsWeb, or Family Tree Maker) will have a way for you to translate your work into a GedCom, preparatory to uploading to Ancestry or another website. However, before you create a GedCom, it will make your work look more polished if you run some reports first. Often the default option is to mark each new entry as "Living". Aunt Sally may be 101 years old (and indeed she's probably listed in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 census), but her information still needs to be private. Conversely, you may have no dates for the father of Joseph Schmidt who was born in 1605; if his status is Living it needs to be corrected. Creating a list of Living people in your database and going through them one by one will ensure that those who are still with us have their privacy respected, and those long ago ancestors for whom you don't have any information will be available for others to see.

Another report to consider running is a Problem report, which will give you a list of potential problems to correct, such as invalid dates (died in 2107? really?), a birth date after a death date, a child born before her parents were 13 years old, or a person dying after the age of 120. You may also be prompted if the list of children of any couple is not in chronological birth order.

The last step before creating your GedCom should be to make sure your compiler information is added, with perhaps a phrase such as I have added to mine: "All research copyright 2011 by Claudia C. Breland". Much like recipes and recipe books (recipes can't be copyrighted, but the books that publish them are) facts cannot be copyrighted, but your research should be protected.

Wherever you end up putting your family tree online, keep in mind the people who will view it. Keep track of the places you put it up, and update it when necessary - at least once or twice a year. We've all had the experience of adding new information, or deleting duplicate individuals or incorrect dates. Before you load a new GedCom to a site like Ancestry, delete your old ones, so that your errors don't multiply as other people copy them. Make sure you have a way to be contacted by others who may have more information to give you, or need information you have that they don't.


Finding And Using Others' Online Family Trees

First and foremost, never download and import anyone else's GedCom into yours, no matter how good it looks on the surface. There's just no way of knowing how accurate or thorough their information is. You can always download and save another GedCom as a separate file, for further analysis and research.

When you find a family tree online, what are some of the things you should look for? The first and foremost is sources of their information. It's not enough that they have a date of death for your great great grandfather; where did they get that date? At the very least, family trees should be sourced with census records that indicate an ancestor's place of residence. Don't view these sources as proof, but use them as clues. Look at the census records, the draft registration cards, or the death certificates that have been cited yourself, and do your own analysis. And it goes without saying that family trees that have as their only sources other family trees are not worth the time it takes to look at them!

As genealogists we should be practicing "whole-family" genealogy. Your ancestor did not grow up in a vacuum, and his or her siblings may have left more records, or better ones. When looking at a family tree online, try to determine if all the children of an ancestral couple are listed. If I know for a fact that my great-grandmother Caroline had 13 children by two marriages, I tend not to trust (or pay much attention to) a family tree that only shows her with one child.

Something that would be nice to know, but isn't always obvious, is the date the tree was created or uploaded. In the case of my family trees that I've uploaded to Ancestry, the date is part of the file name: "My Michigan Ancestors 16 Oct 2011". Another thing to look for is contact information, such as an email address or website.

There are lots of trees online with wildly incorrect information. I've seen an ancestor listed as born in Pennsylvania and died in Ohio, but married in Shanghai, China - a little improbable in the 1850's. I've seen a family tree on Ancestry with a female born in 1730, married to another female who was born in 1557. If there are such glaring errors as these, what other errors are not so obvious?

One of the less obvious errors is a family tree that lists two different census records for the same subject. This often happens with beginning researchers, who have found (correctly) their grandfather on the 1910 census of Nebraska with his wife Maria, and then also (incorrectly) cite the 1910 census of San Francisco, on which they've found a couple with the same name and similar ages. There are cases of people being listed on two census records - my grandfather's brother Orville Reed was enumerated on the 1920 census of Cadillac, Michigan, where he was a laborer in an auto factory, and then two weeks later listed with his parents in Benzonia, Michigan. Generally, however, it's been proved impossible to be in two places at the same time!


The Rewards Of Collaboration

Over the years, I've experienced the rewards of both giving and receiving information posted online. Just a year ago I received an antique leather-bound photo album from a woman whose father had bought it at a garage sale decades ago. In it were priceless photos that I had never seen before - of my grandfather at a family picnic when he was a young boy, of his maternal grandparents having tea in their kitchen, and of family members on a river cruise in central Florida in the 1890's. The album ultimately found its way to me because several photos were labeled, and those names were on family trees that I had posted.

I have had many emails from people inquiring about someone on my family tree, and sometimes there's no connection. On the other hand, I remember receiving an email from a young man demanding incredulously, "Who are you, and why is my father on your family tree?" I recognized the surname immediately and started a conversation by email. I added a great deal to what he knew about his father's ancestry, and I received from him a scanned copy of original Bible records reaching back to 1830's New York. And I have established a connection, through Facebook, with a distant cousin in Germany - after seeing my German great-great grandparents on his family tree online!

What we used to do in connecting with distant cousins by sending and receiving letters through the mail has expanded hugely with the widespread use of the internet. In short, be careful of what you upload, and be careful of what you download. Which is good rule of thumb to follow for any genealogical endeavor!


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