Saturday, January 30, 2010

Turning Over A New Leaf On

This particular entry may seem to be, but that is far from the truth. I have been a loyal Ancestry user for nearly a decade and stand by their product. Ancestry is a business that has found a real niche in the world and they have saved individuals hundreds of dollars in travel costs and hundred hours in time. Yes, it can be pricey; but I can honestly say, it is worth a membership if you are serious about genealogical or historical research.

Not only have I used my Ancestry membership to unearth more information on my own family, but I also used it to do historical research for my doctoral dissertation and two forthcoming historical volumes. The numbers and types of records have grown exponentially in the last few years and I have used the site to prove some family traditions and to disprove others. It has helped me find lost relatives that could not be traced conventionally. While Ancestry is not the only service I have used, it remains my number one genealogical tool.

It’s variety of records rival the greatest genealogical library in the world – the LDS Family History Center. While it doesn’t have everything that is available through LDS branches, it is getting there and has added records that I wouldn’t have thought would have been available online. In fact, when I made the pilgrimage to Salt Lake City last year to receive an award, I stopped by the LDS Library – the Mecca for genealogists.

After staying a couple of hours, I discovered that the records I desired weren’t present, and records I considered accessing, I didn’t, as they were readily available via Ancestry. I actually had better luck at the Salt Lake City Public Library with their regional newspaper microfilm collection. There are still some gems you can only get via the LDS library; however, I am hoping that eventually many of these items will become Ancestry staples.

In the past 32 years, my research has taken me to over 40 different regional, local, and university libraries; two National Archives’ locations; the Library of Congress; various state archives; numerous county courthouses; the main LDS Library and a couple of branch libraries; a few churches; and an unfathomable number of cemeteries.

I’ve viewed records that hadn’t been seen by anyone since they were filed away in the late 19th century, and I’ve handled Civil War muster rolls that have had contact with so many individuals, that they were so badly damaged they were difficult to read from years of misuse.

Since Ancestry is a business, they have understood the market and have catered to it. Not only are seasoned genealogists comfortable with what is available, the armchair family historian can find his or her way around the site with little difficulty. The hook for many future Ancestry customers is a limited time free membership; once hooked, the appetite has only been whetted and membership is inevitable.


This brings me to Ancestry’s current design and corresponding marketing campaign – the leaf. From a marketer’s standpoint, this is a brilliant feature as it does the searching for you and helps you find long-lost ancestors and connect with distant cousins. Who wouldn’t be interested in clicking on a link and finding out more?

The leaves represent hints – I like that terminology, as it allows the family historian the ability to consider the hint, reject the hint, or to adopt the hint. The hints will only appear if you have family tree posted on Ancestry.

To Ancestry’s credit, they also give members the opportunity to choose from two different types of hints: “Historical” and “Ancestry Family Trees.” Now there are leaves and then there are leaves. The question is, “Can you trust the leaf?”

As in the image above, there are two types of leaves – leaves that are trustworthy and leaves that are not. Which set of leaves would you trust? On the left, there is the box elder. You can trust the leaves from this species of maple tree; however, on the right, you have the untrustworthy poison ivy – stay away. No, rather run away. There are a number of problems with just accepting or rejecting any leaf.



With’s hints, you can generally trust the historical hints; however, this is not failsafe. The hints are computer generated based on the criteria in your posted family tree. What you may find is that the hinted record is for someone else with the same name or someone in the same location that has a similar name.

If you know enough about your subject, you can adopt the source and pin it to the individual in question. If you have doubts, tread lightly. My name is unusual enough, but I know of another person with my first and last name who is also married to a woman that has the same first name as my wife. In addition, they have a daughter with the same name as our daughter.

To top it off, we both share the same birth month although he is five years older than me. If our data were in’s historical records, there would be a strong chance that we would be hints for each other and adopting the hint would be in error and send your research in the wrong direction.

Similar names are not that unusual of an occurrence; I am amazed at the number of people who share the names of my relatives, yet are unrelated. Be sure that you have the right person before accepting the hint.



Occasionally, you’ll find a person that appears to be your relative; however, there is a discrepancy with the information that is provided in the historical record and what you know from other sources is incorrect. These can run the gamut, but may be that the age, birth month and year, place of birth, middle initial, flipped middle and first names, or the spelling is different than what you have for the person.

On the surface, you may want to disregard this leaf; however, one must consider that a historical record can be wrong. There are a couple of reasons why this may be so. The person in the household providing the information may not know the correct information, the name that the person is called (a nickname or middle name) may be listed as the first name, census taker errors, and errors in transcription by Ancestry’s staff and hundreds of volunteers. I will deal with census errors in a future installment for this blog.

Ancestry is working on correcting the errors, as the volunteers who do a good job are not experts on the vicinity, the surname, or even the writing style of the census taker. Ancestry provides the public an opportunity to add a correction to their records – and these show as an alternate spelling or name from the transcribed records. There has to be a good reason why you know that the transcription or the original document is in error. Once the staff reviews your suggestion and compares it to the records, then they will add your suggested correction as an alternate. This allows a larger community of Ancestry users to search and find these records.



This is Ancestry’s greatest sales pitch – “. . . and another member’s tree that had my great grandparents and their parents and everything . . . and it all started with my first leaf.” From a marketing standpoint – it’s brilliant. In providing an easily accessible service, it fills a void.

Unfortunately, this is also the greatest problem for's users. For the most part, the public doesn’t care as long as the budding family historian can find his or her forebears without much difficulty. Accepting another person’s word on your family carte blanche, however, is dangerous.

Ancestry’s family trees are like everything else on the Internet that is supplied by the average, casual user – questionable and often unreliable. As an educator, I dissuade my students from using Wikipedia, which is written and supplied by any user. Although the Wikipedia editorial board tries to make sure that sources substantiate claims on their pages, inaccuracies are rampant. Since anyone can edit, a person providing information to Wikipedia doesn’t need to be an expert in field, doesn’t need to have a minimum educational level, and may not be easily traceable – making any contribution suspect. Does that make Wikipedia unusable, no - but it does devalue its reputation as a reliable source for research.

As I teach my students the skills of how to research on the Internet, if there is no reason to trust an author, don’t. In the past, a person who published a work was subject to strict scrutiny by a team of editors and research assistants. You had a reasonable expectation to view a source as reliable and trustworthy; however, in the world of self publication, there are no editors, no research assistants, and no reasonable expectation to believe what you read. Along with the tacit permission to publish anything online, the information age has also allowed the rest of us to lose our sense of judgment. This leads to the attitude, “It’s on the Internet, so it must be true.”

This same attitude has extended to Ancestry users’ self published genealogies. “If it’s on Ancestry, it must be correct.” While there is a reasonable expectation to believe the documents Ancestry has digitized, the same expectation should not be extended to self-published family trees. Why? There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of this information – whether it is ultimately correct or fallacious.

Imported Mistakes from GEDCOM files

Even the seasoned genealogist will occasionally make a mistake. These can be insignificant or they can be egregious. Some of the worst errors were propagated via Ancestry when bad data was imported from a family tree program’s GEDCOM file. If you are constructing a family tree on Ancestry, you have probably experienced and issue when you’ve mistyped a date and Ancestry won’t process it because of the incongruent date.

This is a great feature as sometimes I get a little sloppy with my typing. It prevents me from typing certain errors in my Ancestry tree. Although this feature is available when typing new info into Ancestry, it is not available for imported GEDCOM files. If the file contains an error that has a person dying before he or she was born, that error is carried over into his or her tree on Ancestry. If you click a leaf and accept this info, the error is passed onto you and to anyone else that pulls hints from your tree or the original tree.

Poor Genealogy Skills

Back in the 1990s, I connected with a distant relative from my mother’s family. He too was conducting research on his line – one of my great great grandfather’s brothers. I was able to supply him with some of my data. I sent him printed family group sheets. We had some contact over the years and one day, I found some of my family’s information on Ancestry. I didn’t know the tree owner, but I was a little upset that my personal information and those of other living relatives was being freely distributed via Ancestry.

I contacted Ancestry about it and they told me to contact the tree owner concerning this and some other information within my lineage that were absolutely incorrect. One of these errors had my grandfather having a full brother with the same name as his second cousin. Although my grandfather had an illegitimate half-brother with another surname and an adopted sister who was actually his first cousin, he had no full brother. Another error had my sister-in-law married to my great-grandfather; this was an obvious impossibility, since my great grandfather died even before my sister-in-law’s mother was born.

After contacting the tree manager, who was very pleasant and easy to work with, he made the corrections and hid the information concerning those still living. He explained that the source of the information came from the same fourth cousin with whom I provided the family group sheets some five years previous. I understand that this same cousin has published family history that contains these exact errors.

A while back on Ancestry, I saw another tree that identified my father as having a full brother that was two years his senior. While my grandmother had a son that died as toddler 16 years before my father’s birth, she only had one other son – my father. Just last week, I noticed a tree that had the same woman listed as one of my male ancestor’s wife and as well as being his mother. Be careful of bad information from any source.

Who Do You Believe?

Often when consulting a hint, there is information compiled from several trees that have conflicting information. All three trees have John Doe born on July 4, 1901 in Columbus, Ohio married to Mary Rowe, who was born on December 15, 1904 in Delaware, Ohio.

Tree A has John Doe’s parents as Richard Doe and Sophronia Smeltz. Tree B has John’s parents as Lindsey Doe and Grace Arthur who were both born in Dayton, Ohio. While the third tree agrees that John Doe’s father was Richard Doe, Tree C lists Alvina Meadows as John’s mother.

Which tree do you believe? Not counting for the possibility of John being adopted or having a stepmother, who are the correct parents of John Doe? This can not be determined by accessing these three trees.

Many Trees Are Unsourced

As you search for info on Ancestry, you will find a plethora of trees that do not cite their sources. While many times genealogical projects are a work in progress, the tree owner may have not added sources as of yet. When I imported my GEDCOM file to Ancestry last year, the majority of my sources were not accurately added to my Ancestry tree – so I am working to add my missing references and editing the few that were uploaded.

While sources will be added in good faith, other trees cite no source material and could not provide any justification for a relationship if asked. Be wary of family trees that are lacking documentation.

The Experience Level of The Tree Owner is Minimal at Best

Genealogy has been America’s number one hobby. A number of folks have done a little research on their family history; however, only a small percentage of genealogists could be considered experts.

Professional Qualifications: The pinnacle of genealogical success is to be a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. Acceptance as a fellow is limited, and is only available when a vacancy in one of the 50 seats occurs. A person accorded this honor must be published and be able to “demonstrate an ability to use primary source material; to evaluate and analyze data; to properly document evidence; and to reach sound, logical conclusions presented in a clear and proper manner.”

Some genealogists are certified or accredited. This means that the individual has provided a copy of a multigenerational family history that is properly sourced and descendants are numbered according to one of the standards for the field of genealogy. The genealogist must also be able to decipher period handwriting, have an expert knowledge of source material for a certain area, and be able analyze primary and secondary source material.

Finally, certification and/or accreditation may require the candidate to provide a solution or possible solutions to a genealogical anomaly. An example might be what I and another family historian sorted through about twenty years ago – two men with the same first and last names, living in the same community, and naming their respective children with the same names.

In addition, the mothers' names were omitted from the parish register. The problem here would be to determine which person was the father of each child. This is an example of the type of problem that the candidate might need to address.

The route to certification is through the Board for Certification of Genealogists® that offers two certification levels: Certified Genealogist (CG) and Certified Genealogy Lecturer (CGL). The board had previously offered a number of other certifications that have been discontinued.

Another route is accreditation. The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists accredits genealogists. The process for becoming an Accredited Genealogist (AG) is similar to the certification process and requires the candidate to identify a regional specialty. The candidate is also required to taken an eight hour written exam that is followed by an oral exam.

College/University Degrees: Some would consider having a higher educational degree necessary to be an expert. This experience would greatly aid a genealogist, as those with a college or university degree should have some research experience. A higher degree correlates to a greater potential to conduct research. While this assumption may be generally made, I will have to admit I know people with an eighth grade education that are far more brilliant than others who hold a PhD. Don't assume that just because a person holds a degree that they are better at genealogy than someone else.

Historians: Others may believe that only historians make the best genealogists. A person does not need to be a historian to be a genealogist; however, it probably would be an asset for a person studying his or her family if he or she had a general understanding of history. While a historian brings skills to the table, a mathematician who has lived, breathed, and slept family history for thirty years will probably be better prepared as a genealogist than a historian with a minimal amount genealogical research under his or her belt – no matter the breadth and depth of his or her historical skills.

Years of Experience: Since we all start as armchair genealogists, the number of years and varied experience are probably more valuable than any of the above. This needs to be qualified as well, as someone may have only accessed secondary material for forty years and may not be as adept as someone with two-years' experience in finding information and analyzing data.

Drive & Passion: Often it is not what certifications or degrees one holds or even his or her years of experience that defines the skill set. It is the individual's drive and passion. A case in point: I have a fourth cousin who has been tracing her families for about two years and I would stack her work along side of the finest in the field. She has a hunger for knowledge, can analyze resources, and has been successful in finding things that others couldn't. She has opened doors that most didn't know had existed. Her fresh eyes often are more successful than those blinded by a predisposition to certain practices. My cousin is a real detective in her own right and I have much to learn from her. Unfortunately, this greatest skill cannot be measured by years, degrees, and certifications; it is personal. It is a character trait that cannot be learned - it is a natural talent.

Analyzing a Tree Owner's Skill Level: Unfortunately, few of Ancestry’s users do not indicate their level of expertise and many, I am assuming, are neophytes. Because of this, those of us who would seek information concerning a person’s skill level remain in the dark. Personal contact with an individual will indicate whether you should trust someone's work or not.


Is there a solution? Yes, and here are six tips on how to handle another person’s information. 
  1. Don’t accept another’s information without checking it for accuracy and source citations.
  2. Be wary of conflicting information and accept nothing until you can verify which information is correct.
  3. Check out the submitter for his or her level of experience and make contact with the individual to see how much he or she knows about the family in question. If he or she cannot verify the source of the information, avoid adding the information to your tree. Often these are just people who have blindly accepted some other person's data.
  4. Use the information as a potential lead. Once you verify the relationship – then add the person in question to your tree.
  5. Create two identical trees. Use one as your real tree and the second as your “sandbox” tree – or play database. Hide the "sandbox" tree from the public, and use it to add others’ information to it. When you are satisfied that the added information is correct, then and only then, copy these individuals to your actual tree.
  6. Don't be blinded by your own level of experience, as we can learn from others who may have less experience than we do - yet they have the solution to a genealogical puzzle. They might just teach you something.
While provides a wealth of information, it affords all of us the opportunity to post and share our family information with others. Good luck in your family history research.


  1. Jim,
    Great article. I keep a private tree on Ancestry that is where I graft people on to my tree---until I can investigate further. My REAL tree is on a completely different program that forces me to EVALUATE all the information before entering it.

    And there are some very well established trees (Legends) that are fanciful at best---some folks would rather fill up those spaces than know the truth.

  2. Kelly:

    Most people are interested in filling the spaces without knowing the truth or doing the work.