Genealogy absolutely fascinates me. I first started getting into discovering my own ancestry years ago, but quickly lost interest. It wasn’t until last year when I decided to get the DNA test offered through Ancestry.com that this passing interest became a full-blown hobby. Now that I have some research experience under my belt, I wanted to kick off what will undoubtedly be several posts about genealogy by sharing one particular challenge for novice genealogists that concerns me.
Several years ago, I started building my family tree on Ancestry.com. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at the time and being a rather impatient person in some ways led to my first mistake: I tried to find a “quick” way to achieve my goal and built a huge family tree simply by using the function that allows you to review and save entries from other people’s family trees. I thought, “Hey – it’s on this many other people’s family trees, so it must be right!” This eventually led to a ridiculously sized family tree with ancestors dating back well into the BC’s.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Ancestry.com is a fabulous, user-friendly service that contains a wealth of information. I also do see the value in being able to look at other people’s family trees. In fact, this function recently allowed me to track down a distant cousin of mine – a connection that has yielded some really wonderful results. But, people should only be using this function to find POTENTIAL leads. This function should, by no means, be used to actually build your family tree.
Why do I say this? Let’s consider what we are able to do on Ancestry.com: We can build a family tree – that is obvious. How do we generally start this? By manually entering the name and details of ourselves or a relative. When you add a person to your tree, Ancestry.com doesn’t check to make sure that entry is correct or accurate. You could, quite literally, make up a completely false person and enter it as your ancestor’s father.
This is the fatal flaw and where the danger lies for other novice genealogists. If your family tree’s settings are listed as public (which most are initially set to), other people who may be researching your ancestor will come across your fake entry for their father. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they can then use this function to add this entry to their own family tree. Over time, more and more people will do this and spread this false record as gospel.
This is exactly the situation I ran into my first time building a family tree. I finally got to a point where I was waaaaaaaaaaay back in time and the birth dates listed for parents were hundreds of years different from those of their alleged children before I cottoned onto the fact that this wasn’t going to be acccurate. Frustrated that I couldn’t pinpoint where things went wrong, I left it for several years. When I picked it up again last year, I went back and deleted the most recent ancestor in each branch that I couldn’t confirm with other sources and started again. (Unfortunately, this is flawed as well because it only deletes that link – not the ancestors listed before it as you would think. So those false entries still exist out there until you go in and manually delete every single one. Ugh!)
The moral of this story: When commencing any genealogical project, don’t take a lead at face value. If you want to use the function that searches other people’s family trees, go for it! As I mentioned before, it can be a useful tool. Just don’t use it to actually add anyone to your own family tree. Have a look at that person in other people’s family trees and see what sources THEY have used before adding that person to their own family tree. If you don’t see any sources listed or can only see that they’ve used other people’s trees as the source, move on and start manually doing your own research. Here’s an example of what you DON’T want to see – an entry where the only source to account for its credibility is other Ancestry.com members’ family trees.
What are credible sources? I’m still learning myself, but here’s what I do know: For your closest ancestors, there should be some sort of official records available such as census forms and birth, marriage and death records. As you go farther back (particularly in Europe), many church records are quite accurate. Going back further still, you will undoubtedly run into the Millennium File and GenealogieOnline which track the lineage of European nobility and royalty. There’s a fair bit of debate as to the accuracy of the Millennium File due to who it was built for (the Church of Latter Day Saints) and why, but according to Dutch genealogist Yvette Hoitink GenealogieOnline may be a better starting resource if you make sure to check the references they provide on the site before taking it at face value. Also if you’re dealing with European nobility and royalty, chances are there are plenty of historical records that provide information on that person’s lineage and how accurate (or improbable) it may be. As a rule of thumb, I generally stop tracking any lineage at royalty because there are countless historical records available developed by much more skilled historians than I.