We all would love to log on to one of the big commercial sites and find that someone else had already been working on our family tree. The work would be done and we could just enjoy what was found.
BUT…the discerning family historian should be certain that the information on this other tree is correct. How can you do this? Ask yourself these questions.
- How well fleshed-out is the tree? Don’t be afraid to contact the person and ask where they got their info. Most people are delighted to talk about their ancestry.
- Does the tree have obvious mistakes? Is David Fletcher born in 1827 the son of Mary Worth born in 1822? Are people marked as living who were born more than 100 years ago?
- Most important: what are the sources for this tree? This is so important, I’m going to sub-divide:
- With the growth of the (at first) Ancestry shakey-leaf hints, people started to accept information offered in them without doing back up research. Now don’t get me wrong, these hints can be great. I wrote about a successful shakey-leaf here. However, you’ve got to do the homework, which might be offline and cost money.
- Is the tree sourced? Does it show copies of birth, death or marriage certificates or the equivalent church records? Does it link to the 1901/1911 census which you can check yourself.
- Is the tree sourced correctly?! This is particularly important for Irish research. Before the 2016 launch of the General Register Office’s records (subject to data protection cut offs) on www.irishgenealogy.ie, it was perfectly normal to see people making assumptions based on index references. However, the wise researcher goes back and checks all of these when time and money allows. I spent weeks going through everything in my tree when that site launched and checking all my sources. A person I know who had made one of these reasonable assumptions and went off on a tangent because of it. Later I had cause to check one thing in it and the relevant register page showed it was not the right person. My email to the other person politely pointing this out was not responded to!
- Genuine error. A family example here: I connected with a person and it looked like her husband and I might be related through a pair of sisters born in the late 19th century. I had been doing my own research on this family and came across an Ancestry tree with the same people. It seemed her husband was the grandson of my ancestor’s sister. When we started to discuss, she said there was an error on his marriage certificate giving the wrong father’s name. Now, of course, mistakes like this did happen, but it didn’t sit right with me. None the less, she was otherwise a thorough researcher and seemed to have more direct family knowledge, so I accepted it. However, time went by and she emailed to say that other people in the family had thrown a spanner in the works. A daughter of the man in question had said her father was an only child, rather than the one of seven I had researched with the same name. Ultimately, the husband did a DNA test and we were not a match. I had independently matched DNA with 2 other descendants of that particular woman. I removed all of that data from my tree immediately, as did the other person. However, the damage was done because many other people had now copied this info from our public trees and I’ve found this error on Ancestry and My Heritage. Several times now, I’ve emailed tree owners to explain the error but most do not bother to remove it.
Finally, be wary of enormous trees. I often find that they are less likely to be meticulously researched and the owner adds in people who are not connected. Here’s an example from a My Heritage tree which had my father and his direct ancestors to a certain point. When I politely inquired as to how we might be connected, this was the response (with names changed to protect anonymity).
Your ancestor Mary Kennedy Murphy -> her sister Betty Kennedy married John Cafferty -> his sister Margaret Cafferty married Thomas Cannon -> his brother Patrick was the father of Timothy Cannon who married Susan Kelly, her mother was Mary Kelly née Casey, the daughter of Robert Casey, whose sister also Mary Casey was my great grandmother.
Or, in other words, we’re not remotely related!