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Dangerous temptations in genealogical research

What do you do with genealogical information you find on the Internet? Do you quickly download and add the information to your family file? If you've ever been tempted, read on....

The Internet is booming with user-contributed lineage-linked databases. These databases are often the first place researchers look, and for good reason. Before performing original research, we should find out if someone else has already published information on the family. But what should we do with the information we find?

The easiest thing to do is to simply add the newly-found information to our family file, either by downloading a GEDCOM file, copying/pasting, or manually retyping the information. We have all faced this dangerous temptation. This week as I searched for and found new information on Oliver STROUD and his wife Mary BROWN, I was faced with the decision - accept what was published, or research and verify the information.

I was looking for Oliver and Mary's marriage information. I found information in nine separate databases.

Six different researchers published their marriage information as November 21, 1870 in Mills County, Iowa.

Two different researchers published April 25, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

One researcher published April 28, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

How should you determine which is correct? Is the 1870 Iowa marriage "most correct" because it was published the most? No. This most often indicates that one person originally published it, and the others copied and republished.

Quality research requires more investigation - not relying on published, undocumented findings as fact.

Just yesterday I obtained a copy of the original marriage record and was astonished at what I found. First, I learned that a marriage license was issued in Mills County, Iowa on November 21, 1870. Although six different researchers published this date/place as the date/place of the actual marriage, they were 5 months and 7 days early and about 120 miles off. The marriage record showed that they were married on April 28, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

The record also gave the birth place, age, current residence, and the names of each set of parents. Imagine what I would be missing if I relied on someone else's published information. My research rule is to obtain original documents whenever possible, and always locate as many other records as I can to corroborate my findings. A careful evaluation of my findings is now possible.

User-contributed databases are wonderful tools as they can help us get in touch with other family researchers who may have other pieces to our ancestral puzzle. However, maintaining a "sense of skepticism" in any genealogical research is crucial to to our genealogical success.


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I've found mistakes at Ancestry.com in the reading and transcribing of census records. For example one year husband's grandmother's family is listed as Callins instead of Collins and the name Albert was transcribed as Evert. Are there ways to ask for correction of these errors?

Even the census takers made errors as my father's mother and her siblings appear in 1900 bearing their step-father's last name and birth place, but revert to the correct surname and place in future census years. However, the country of parent's birth is different in one year.

One frustration with Family Search is that when the information is submited by a church member before a certain date, there is no source information. According to the census, my father's grandfather was born in Ireland while his wife (whose name varies by census year as Anna, Anne, Annie) immigrated form Scotland sometime in the 1880s (the census records vary on the actual year). She was remarried by the 1900 census. I have been seeking to confirm my father's inscription in the family bible that his gransfather's name was James Martin, an extremely common name. The only place I have found the name of one of their children with a listing of both James and Anne as parents is in one of these unsourced records. Frustrating.

When I first became interested in genealogy, I came across numerous family trees referencing my great-grandfather Lorne Ridley and great-grandmother Lavilla Mae [sic] Brown (actual spelling is May). The majority of these obtained their information (indeed, still identify) their source as the Broderbund World Family Trees. These trees identified their date and place of marriage as 01 June 1914 in Manville, Ontario. I tried valiantly to find this place on the map but was totally stymied. Later, when I received family records from a cousin, I discovered that their marriage did indeed take place on 01 June 1914 in Manville, but that Manville was located in Alberta! It was my very first lesson in the extremely variable quality of information in these family trees.

Thanks for this article - it never hurts to reinforce the necessity of analysing data and ensuring the source is reasonably reliable before incorporating it into one's Legacy file.

I have been researching my roots for over 25 years and have extensive "original" source information to support the data in my direct ancestral lines. Some of these data are from documents over 200 years old which were passed down through my family and have been correlated with early church baptismal records and other primary sources. It used to irk me to no end when I found individuals from my tree that have been data posted on IGI and in DAR trees with grossly incorrect information. I used to be on a mission to get these errors corrected but now realize that as far as the Internet is concerned, you have to take the good with the bad and face the fact that, once erroneous data has been posted on seemingly "official" sites like IGI and DAR, it will never go away and even if you could get the initial postings corrected, errors propagate so rapidly by those who copy and re-post that one is fighting a losing battle. You have to learn to accept the reality of this fact and go forward, verifying your data from original sources and knowing in your heart that you have your facts straight and as irritating as it may be, the false information will always be there! As far as the IGI and DAR data bases are concerned: "Let the user beware!"


You are so correct about transcription errors in census records.

In 1860, my GGGgrandmother's last name was transcribed as Luginbill, and on the census itself, it looks like the transcription was accurate; in 1870, her last name was transcribed as Lugenfehl, although on the census itself, it looks much more likely to have been Lugenbehl. At this time, I don't have access to documents to determine her last name - born in Switzerland in or about 1796, died in DeKalb County, Indiana in the 1870s.

In 1860, her daughter (my GGgrandmother) is listed with a first name of Susannah; in 1870, her first name is listed as 'Anaana'!

I must say that I NEVER use any information from anywhere on the web unless I have seen the source with my own eyes. This means that I freely use all the census information where I can see the original image, and that's all! As far as I am concerned, the IGI is purely a place to find hints. I have compared IGI information with original registers for my family and found frequent transcription errors, largely caused because the submitters of the information are usually not local to the register area and therefore transcribe things that they think they see, rather than the actual entry which would be completely familiar to someone who knows the local person and locality names.

The other problem, as many people have said, is those people who populate massive family trees with data with little or no regard to the accuracy. I have a problem with someone local to me who is not close to my main line of research (which is a very uncommon name), who has signed up to the Guild of One Name Studies and registered themselves as the one name researcher for my main ancestor. Unfortunately, much of their information is incorrect, and I have no opportunity to correct it.

Only data which I have seen in the original document is in my definitive family tree, anything else is only used as the starting point for more research.

I have read most of the comments on this subject with great interest.
I agree that we should all try and research anyone we wish to add to our trees with care and accuracy, after all they are other peoples ancestors as well. I rarely add anyone born after 1900 unless they finish a family started around 1890. I think adding people born in the 20th century, unless direct lines, is too imtrusive on peoples privacy. I always ask people to respect mine in the same way. The 1900's are not really of any interest to me anyway.
I do have a tree on Genesreunited of 7000 plus people, not all direct lines of course, but I ran out of those along while ago and started going sideways, very interesting, but always trying to be as accurate as I can and with respect for others. NEVER copying from other people and ALWAYS researching the information in other trees before adding anything to my tree. I also ask others to do the same if they use any info from my tree and if they find a mistake to let me know about it.
If there is a problem I always contact Genes about it and they are very helpful and do their best to put things right.
I also have a public tree on Ancestry which I keep just for direct lines but I was horrified to find that people are able to add siblings and their families to my tree, people that I didn't want there. Someone even added a death for a person in the USA when I know that he didn't ever leave his home town in the UK. Needless to say I did query it with one of the people on who's tree I found it but I didn't get a reply - very rude.
I asked Ancestry about this and they denied that other people could add anyone to my tree but it happened.
I do use Familysearch alot and find it very helpful but I find that it is best to weigh up the information and think very hard about it before adding it - don't take too much of it as gosple especially the Ancestoral Files and Pedigree Files or if an item says it was added by amember of the church they are often very inaccurate. I even "found" one ancestor who was supposed to have three wives - one in the UK and two in the USA. Even if Concorde had been about in the 1600's he would have been very busy considering the amount of children that were born to his wives!! Pity, he was a direct line as well.
So, my conclusion is, enjoy your research and do it with consideration for others. Be as accurate as you can and don't be afraid to appologise for your mistakes. Thank those who correct you and also those who give you so much of their very valuble personal research, whether online or through the post or by phone. Lastly, don't take it all too seriously, a great hobby like this should be great fun - keep it that way.

Being a visual kind of guy, I'd like to see Legacy display all information sourced as 'unverified' in RED on the screen.

Oh, well, doubt that will happen since I've been trying for three years to get all of the TAGs displayed on a persons record.

I am fairly new to all this genealogical research, as I only started in February of this year, however, I have a background in legal and tax research, so I do understand the basic rules of proof, etc. My problem is that I am gathering as much information online as I possibly can, then doing my "proof" as time allows. I would love to post a caveat, disclaimer, or warning on my Ancestry.com account that my work is definitely "in progress", and not to be relied on unless I post a specific message to the contrary. Any ideas or suggestions on how to do that?

Very good story and important. I have found one aspect of Legacy that is very helpfull in this situation. I download the gencom from the public tree that contains the information of interes. Then create a new family file from the gencom. Then I make a back up of my orginal family file. Finally before the merge, I create a master source for that family tree and put that source on all the data to be imported. That way if there is bad information in that tree, I know where it came from and just delete the piece of information during the merge or at any time I find a more reliable source of data. It does create many more source records but at a later date it is easy to remove the source.
Yes there are a number of misatkes on the public trees but it is sure better than a blank sheet to start from.

Ditto, ditto and ditto. The problem is we are preaching to the choir. If you can somehow get this information out to those "30 day free subscription" people who jumped on the bandwagon duplicated tons of mistakes then printed a "tree" for their crib crawlers and jumped off the bandwagon then we would get somewhere. When I find a "useful" tree I always check how long the person has been a member and when they last logged on. Then I proceed with extreme caution and skepticism.

While recognizing the importance of correct information and dates, especially as an aid to further research, I'm also aware that, no matter how precise and fanatical we can be about confirming data, it can still be incorrect.

My own marriage date is recorded incorrectly in the state records, as is a friend's date, discovered when we retired and had to produce marriage certificates for proof of beneficiaries for death benefits. We were at the wedding and know what is correct, but we cannot fix the incorrect date in the state's records---not allowed. All we can do, for future generations , is record the true date and note that the state record is wrong.

Also, my husband's grandmother was never born, but apparently died twice, as the names on her birth certificate and that of her sister's death certificate were switched. Her sister had died the same week as her birth and the local doctor accidently switched the names on the two certificates, a mistake undiscovered until a security check was done on my husband's grandmother when she applied for a government job as an adult.

Mistakes happen in the "official" records, even in these fairly recent events, so how can we ever be 100% sure that all of our information is correct, especially 100 or more years ago? We can't. All we can do is be as careful as possible in analyzing our sources.

I'm just pointing out that sometimes even the "official" records are the ones in error, something to consider when analyzing sources. Let's make sure that we use the best available sources, but we'll probably never have everything 100% correct, no matter how careful we are.

I agree, information found on-line no matter how reputable the website should always be verified. My great-grandmother was listed on one site as having been adopted by her step-father which was not true. When I nicely contacted the author of the posting he refused to show me documentation of this 'fact' and would not change his posting. Another researcher posted living people (using their names) from our family on-line to Ancestry which is not supposed to happen. They should have been posted as 'living' surname. When asked to correct this error he refused.
Whatever happened to the rules that were supposed to be in place when all this information was uploaded to sites like Ancestry and Rootsweb? Seems to be no enforcement from Ancestry or Rootsweb.
Beware the postings on any website and verify the information before you do anything with it, especially publishing. I liken the whole experience to 'buyer beware.'

I add info from other trees to my Ancestry tree. I may add several new family members, and then I try to get original source material. As I only have access to Canadian records (I don't think I have enough documentation to spread out), I accept info as presented in other trees. I then concentrate on obtaining source info, i.e. birth, marriage, death, possibly census info to confirm (or deny) what I have in my tree.
I routinely "prune" my tree, because I have found sons married to mothers, or several decades out (due to similar names). If I can't prove which is which,I will leave in, hoping that someone with the correct info will contact me, so that I can correct it.

I also noticed the strange place locations. I believe it may be because some people will try to correct info (part of Ancestry), and if you don't pay attention, the suggested place location can be totally different from what you started out with. Blindly accepting all of Ancestrys "suggestions", is a problem. It takes a long time to "correct" your info.

I have over 14,000 people in my tree, I can spend several hours per night, adding info, correcting info etc. Blindly adding multiple trees without looking at the info provided will "grow" your tree. I have several times gotten caught up in adding new people, only to find that some of the people don't appear to be related.

I try to present as accurate a picture as I can, and I wwelcome any corrections.

I agree that we must be skeptical of what we find on line. I Put the Research in Genealogy Research in play and treat all information as Research until it can be verified. However we must also beware of offical records as they can contain errors also...as my Mother's orginal birth certificate had her listed as a boy by the name of James...She had to prove her birth in order to attain a passport by using the 1930 Census record. I appreciate all that I can obtain online, most of which is very good information...at least a place to start. Where truth and fact lies isn't always easy to determine...sometimes i think our pesky ancestors planned it that way. good Luck to all researchers and bless them.

I'd like to add a note of caution about trusting ANY source that doesn't cite their sources, no matter how big or reputable they are; Official or Trusted Sources are often neither.

eg BYU Idaho's "Japanese Immigrants to the US 1887-1924", has the same information readily found elsewhere, but they integrated the data into families. This potential to save time was exciting. But after making numerous changes, I found that most (if not all) of my family information is incorrect. When you find that 90% of the information is verifiabley false, the value & validity of the other 10% is suspect at best - I erased everything.

I then scrounged around the site to find their requirements for data inclusion. I was astounded to find that they accept & publish submissions from "historians" & "family members", with NO verification. This apparently is true of other LDS & related University sites. So the problem isn't that one site; it's systemic. A dozen LDS sites show the same erroneous information, because they integrate the databases. Bad information on one site quickly spreads across all their sites like a virus.

Its heartbreaking (& irresponsible) that these sources/sites that we rely on, don't exercise the most basic rules of research: cite your source & verify! There is obvious value to individual submissions from family folklore, bibles, heresay etc - but its just that - heresay. Researchers should be advised of the type of source, if not its veracity, so it can be weighted properly, but we're not.

So my note of caution is: always determine what sources your sources use. Unfortunately, you can't assume that trusted sources will exercise due diligence when promoting information as fact - they don't.

What crimps my style is when I find different birth/death dates (etc.) on "official" documents. In the case of death, the information comes from a friend, spouse, relative, etc. who may/may not have the real information.

And so we slog along...

Here is a strange thing that happened to me recently, and caused me to completely rethink how I put my information online.

I was wandering through Rootsweb, as I do frequently just for no reason. I came across information that I immediately recognized as information from my family website. Now I NEVER post my sources online. I might share genealogy, but I'm not going to do all of the work for everyone else. My sources are proprietary to me.

I began delving deeper into what was posted and it had every bit of what was on my website (I thought it was fixed so it could not be copied...silly me!) all the way back to 1590! I contacted the person who posted the information and asked how she was related to our family.

Guess what? She had no idea!!!!! She admitted to me that she could not even begin to tell me how she was related or why it was in her family tree. Bells began going off in my head! Even worse, her genealogy is listed in Rootsweb as "One Damn Big Family" or some such. Evidently she is trying to connect the world back to Adam and Eve or something. Her online genealogy contains over 100,000 people.

I immediately pulled all of my genealogy offline and rethought how I was posting it. After several weeks of reworking it, I have now started a new site which requires a log-in, approved by me. In the information new registrants post to get a log-in they are required to list how they are related to the family.

This taught me a great lesson. Always know who you share with (and who shares with you) (when I am sharing directly I will provide sources, if they do likewise) and that there are some real nuts out there, who are thankfully not related to my family tree!

Some people have posted on Rootsweb and some of the other sites that my grandmother had a little girl by the name of Martha Ellen, but she didn't. I posted on their site that they were wrong, but my posts were sent back to my e-mail address. They think they were right, and her kids don't know how many kids she had. I called Ancestry.com 1-801-705-7000 since they own Rootsweb now and they gave me an e-mail address to send my complaint to.
That was yesterday I haven't heard anything back from them yet. I was told that they would get back to me in a couple of hour after getting my e-mail.

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