Ancestry Hints – how to use them

If you’re a user of Ancestry, and you have a tree attached to your account or DNA results, then you’re familiar with this little leaf which appears to give you hints. These suggestions come in 2 forms. This blog discusses how to know when to accept or ignore them.

  1. Record suggestions – Ancestry has millions of records. Their algorithms will scan these records and find matches for the name, place, relevant dates and suggest that they might be your person. You can then review them and decide. Your own knowledge of a person might tell you that your Patrick O’Brien was already dead by 1911 so that can’t be him in the census or it might give you a new direction. I once found, to my surprise, that my great uncle lived in America for a while, when I saw his name in the 1930 Federal census – living with his aunt and her family. His father died in Dublin in 1934 – maybe this was the catalyst which brought him home?
  2. The second type of hint is a suggestion that matches your person to someone in a tree who might be the same. This content requires more caution.

It can be very exciting when you see what looks like a match, and the idea that someone else is researching the same family, but you need to be careful before accepting or even agreeing that this is the same person. I was reminded of this earlier in the week, when I was investigating a number of trees to see if an ancestor of mine fitted in or not.

A DNA match to 2 of my first cousins once removed had posited a very sound theory as to our relationship.

My ancestor, George Walters, married in Dublin in 1874, and died young in 1891, aged 40. He was a member of the Church of Ireland, and I had not been able to find a baptism for him. As readers may know, a lot of CoI records were destroyed in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office, and I presumed that evidence of his birth had perished there.

Marriage of George Walters & Mary-Anne Ure in 1874

The match suggested he was the son of a Liverpudlian couple, last seen on the 1871 census in the UK, where he was an apprentice brass finisher, and the son of an already deceased whitesmith.

Ancestry’s new messaging system is a little buggy and while I was waiting for her to reply, I began to do my own research based on the details she’d given me. Her tree was private, so I couldn’t look at it yet. As a hypothetical, I added in the suggested parents to my ancestor to see what hints presented themselves.

Lots of trees showed up. Many of them matched the information I’d just been given, but a great many of them showed the son of this Liverpool family had apparently gone to America, where he became a coal miner, married and had a large family, now with many many descendants. This was a worry. On the face of it, why would a brass finisher, a skilled trade for which he would have served an apprenticeship, become a coal miner in America? So I started to look a little more closely at these trees. Most of them were compiled only from records online. None of them, incluidng his marriage detailed his parents’ names or a place of origin. This man in America’s children didn’t share any names with Liverpool’s George’s family, apart from the extremely common Mary and Elizabeth. Furthermore, a George Walters on a passenger list into New York showed that he left Liverpool in 1885.

So this George Walters should appear on the 1881 Census in the UK. Liverpool was his port of departure but not necessarily his home town. All the American censuses show him to be English with English parents. His age varies a little over time, but that is not unusual. Some trees gave him a middle name of William and others Earl.

On the other hand, when I compared him to my family: we had the father’s name and occupation, and George’s own occupation in common. Added to this was the name matches. Thomas, Robert, Mary, Elizabeth and George appear in both families. In fact, Liverpool George’s brother and Dublin George’s son were both Thomas James Walters. We add to this the DNA matches, which when I looked into the shared matches between me, the 2 cousins and this new match, found 3 more people descended from the Liverpool family. What’s more, I’ve also found DNA matches to people descending for Liverpool George’s mother’s family.

So it’s beginning to look a lot like (Christmas) I have English ancestors. It’s hugely exciting: in Ireland, we typically don’t find a lot of ancestors before the beginning of the 19th century. Some more work is required, and I’ve ordered a number of records from the UK GRO to help with verification but if I hadn’t learned to appraise Ancestry hints carefully, I’d be still back with a brick wall ancestor instead of a hole peeping through to the other side.

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