The accuracy, or not, of online family trees

When researching ancestors I often look to see if anyone else has already done some work on that line, and therefore provided some useful clues I can follow up. But I also admit to not accepting what I see on someone else’s tree without checking it out for myself. For me, to just copy someone else’s research would take all the fun out of it, but it would also require assuming their research was accurate. Unfortunately there are far too many online trees that are littered with errors.

I can understand mistakes being made when there are several people of the same names at the same time in the same places – it’s often be extremely difficult, or even impossible, to know who are the right ones. I follow the academic research principle of triangulation – if you approach something in at least two different ways, or can cite two or more pieces of data which support your conclusion, you improve your chances of being right. In genealogy, the further you go back in time the harder this is, but having at least two pieces of evidence that point to the same “suspect” is a good principle to follow, otherwise you’ve simply made an assumption without any proof.

However, I’ve also come across trees with my ancestors on them which contain absolute howlers. There’s one with the same couple having over 20 children during a 40 year period, some of whom were born less than 9 months apart. I think not. And there’s another which has a coal miner born in the mid 1700s living to 106. I’ve looked, just in case there’s something in it, but can’t find any evidence to support such a claim. I’d love to know where on earth the person who wrote that into their tree got the idea from.

I don’t contact people to point out their errors as I have a feeling most wouldn’t take kindly to such intervention and, no matter how nicely I worded it, would see it as criticism. In any case I doubt very much that my own tree is 100% error free, although it’s an awful lot less error free than it was in the early days of my research. Since then I’ve not just learnt a lot about my ancestors – I’ve learnt how to research.

What does irritate me, though, is that some people copy other people’s trees without suspecting they could be copying errors, so there can be ten or more trees on a site, all with the same mistake. To a newcomer, seeing the same “fact” on lots of trees no doubt makes them think it must be correct, so they promptly copy it. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers going horribly wrong.

With more and more records becoming available online, it’s become so much easier to do family research at home on a computer, and it will only get easier and easier. But data is only useful if you can use it wisely, and in genealogy that means knowing the difference between a certainty, a strong possibility, a working hypothesis and a mistaken assumption.

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6 responses to “The accuracy, or not, of online family trees

  1. I think we’ve all made this mistake at some point. My current project it to take a step back and cite the sources for all the records that I have on paper that are not cited in my tree. It started when I contacted someone about their ancestor and how they knew what they did in hopes it could uncover something for my ancestor, but the person had no idea where she got the info from. 😦

    • I’m sure we all have – and probably still make mistakes but haven’t yet realised they’re mistakes! I now put NOT PROVEN at the top of notes about someone I can’t say with certainty is the person I’m after.

      Yes, it does help to always note down sources. I learnt that lesson early on, when I had to go back and look lots of them up again. I’ve been putting more sources on my Ancestry tree but it does take a lot of time. The sources are all on the trees on my own computer, though.

      But just citing sources isn’t foolproof: it’s easy to cite a source that, after further investigation, turns out to be about a different person of the same name than the one you’re descended from.

  2. It’s a problem as well when a father and son (and maybe grandson) all have the same name. Some careless researchers get them confused or think they are all the same person.
    However I do love finding matches on others’ trees – found a second cousin this way, who had a lovely photo of her grandfather and mine (brothers) dressed in fancy dress for a New Year ball. And another photo of them in a football team managed by their uncle.

    • Try having ancestors who follow the Scottish naming pattern. Eg: John and Agnes Strachan have six sons who promptly all name their eldest son John and their second daughter Agnes. Makes research interesting, to say the least!

      I’ve found four reasonably close relatives via online genealogy sites, and it’s lovely being in touch, and sharing memories and photos.

  3. This is one of my biggest pet peeves! And I hear you about the Scottish names… my Scottish ancestors are almost all called William Henderson, from my paternal grandfather, as far back as I can see. It makes my brain hurt. 🙂

  4. Welcome to my blog, Matthew.

    Yes, it’s annoying. Because you spend time and effort ensuring your tree is accurate, you do tend to become defensive when someone comes along and incorrectly “adopts” your ancestors. I’m afraid there’s not much that can be done, though, and so a lot of people are building error-riddled trees.

    One of my brick walls is a Henderson – my gg grandmother Mary Henderson born possibly 1803, possibly in Kilmarnock, and possibly married to John McCrae. Who knows, one day I may just stumble on something that provides me with a breakthrough.

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