Online Family Trees or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Bad Genealogy”

This blog post was inspired by a conversation on Facebook with my cousin Leisa Wilkie (another awesome family & local historian!) and some of her friends. Leisa is the authority on ghosts and scary tales in Canton, Georgia. Be sure to like her Facebook page Canton Ghosts or take the Canton Ghost Tour.

When I got started working on my family’s genealogy at age 14, I had no idea what I was doing. I essentially asked relatives to give me their information. The extent of my primary source research was looking at censuses on microfilm at the local library or receiving manila envelopes stuffed with copies from distant relatives I found through Rootsweb and Cyndi’s List. It took me until college (where I was a history major thus inculcated with the importance of primary sources) that I realized that I needed to go back and do my own research.

Honestly, a LOT of people are 14-years-old in genealogy years… and this isn’t going to kill you!

Genealogy Mistakes Rarely Kill Anyone

First of all, like academic cheating, messing up on your genealogy only hurts you and the other people who choose to follow your lead. This isn’t like that fallacious paper on vaccinations that led to children dying because D-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy publicized the idea. (I have zero patience for anti-science b.s.) Genealogy is a relatively harmless hobby – for the most part. Nobody dies if you think grandma’s maiden name was Smith while it was actually Jones. (There are always exceptions, like racial and caste-based discrimination based on lineage, but I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.)

Genealogical laziness or ignorance generally just leads to brick walls and confusion. Oh well. Too bad.

No One is Born Knowing How to Cite a Primary Source

Secondly, everyone has to start somewhere. There are people out there who’s interest in genealogy is sparked by an old family story, or by viewing a family census record, or by some other tiny event that creates a curious flame. While some people are scholars who insist on doing everything the “right” way, others jump in feet first. (Like 14-year-old me.) It might take them awhile to learn the proper way to cite sources or that there will be no death certificate for Great-Grandpa who died in 1890. During that time, they might create some erroneous family trees on Ancestry or put some bad information out there into the world. So what’s it to you? If YOU’RE doing your job as a genealogist, then you’re going to demand verification.

I literally do this ALL the time on Ancestry. If I see someone who has some information I haven’t been able to verify, I pop them an email and ask them what their source was. Sadly, they usually say something like they “found it on the internet.” Still, there may be a kernel of truth in the story – or something to disprove. It’s a hint, nonetheless. Plus, asking them for verification just might get them to thinking about verifying and citing sources in the future.

Ask Yourself: What are you Trying to Protect?

Third and finally, I think jumping on people for failing to do genealogy the “proper” way is exclusionist and frankly, pretty silly.

I’m a professional writer and social media consultant. When I got my start in professional writing, I had no idea what I was doing. But guess what? Just like with genealogy, I jumped in with both feet, took my knocks, learned from a bunch of writers more experienced than I, and am now very successful and happy in my career. I can imagine that – at my lowest (i.e. POOREST) point – if people in my industry were writing numerous blog posts telling me how I was doing everything wrong, I might have been down on myself enough to listen to them and give up on my passion.

Plus, I keep seeing this thread in the genealogical community of “we need to get younger people interested in genealogy.” I see the same thing with some of the organizations I volunteer with – they want a younger generation to step up. Well, you’re not going to get younger people interested in genealogy or community organizations if you insist that only the Old Guard has all the answers. Younger people need to be able to make their mistakes – not constantly have holes poked in their passions. 

The TL;DR version of this post is:

1.) Genealogical mistakes are highly unlikely to kill anyone, so chill.

2.) Everybody has to start somewhere. Nobody is born knowing how to cite primary sources. Cut new or untrained genealogists some slack and focusing on guiding and educating, not jumping down their throats for a simple mistake.

3.) Don’t be a dick. You don’t own genealogy. Stay understanding and innovative, and embrace new people – even when they’re making their rookie mistakes. Remember what happens when the Old Guard becomes too oppressive!

France, 1789. Eek!
France, 1789. Eek!

And on that note – Happy Detecting!


36 thoughts on “Online Family Trees or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live with Bad Genealogy””

  1. I started my genealogy research at age 14, too. This is not a new problem. When I started it was well before the internet, and fraudulent genealogies were available in books, too. Just remember the tricks Gustav Anjou pulled in the Victorian times. All newbies learn to verify and check their own sources, usually learning the hard way is the best lesson. I think what is worse is the bad manners by other genealogists, just as you described. They forget that they were newbies once, too.

    • Thank you, Heather. I think the whole “bad manners by other genealogists” was actually the kernel of truth I was trying to get at here. And I had never heard of Gustav Anjou! So thanks for this. What a scoundrel! On the other hand, I bet he was giving those Old Guard families exactly what they wanted to hear, and that will never lose money in a capitalist society, will it? 😉

  2. Genealogy that does not have sources is a great book of Fiction. You may be happy without sources, but future generations will not be. The Genealogical Proof Standard happened in the late 90’s and is continuing to grow. As good genealogist we all need to follow it. Software is making it so much better to add citations. As I tell my students beware the shaking leaf!! Just because 100 people say it is correct all it really means is the first person posted something and the other 99 were to lazy to do their own research. Internet makes it very easy to take shortcuts. Don’t fall into the trap. The myth of advertising is that you can be related to King John in a few easy clicks. Reality is it will take years if not decades. Majority of good genealogy is still off line.

    • Hi Derek,

      And I totally agree, of course, but I’m only concerned that I follow the Genealogical Proof Standard. My post is about not concerning oneself with the fact that others do not. What do you think about that?

      • I think as all good genealogist no matter the situation need to be concerned about accuracy. It totally defeats the point of why you are doing it. Fabricated undocumented research is unacceptable period! Hopefully as time moves forward all genealogist will be more aware of sourcing. Genealogies that are not can only be used as a guide. Sure the information might be right but I would not merge it into my own genealogy until I do the work. When everyone sources their facts individuals that come across it on the internet can be more confident that the information is correct.

        Very good question you are asking.

  3. Why thank you! 🙂 The one thing that gives me hope on this front is that when people really get into genealogy there are so many great resources – blogs, webinars, seminars at libraries, etc. that will educate them on these issues. Genealogy as a hobby has a HUGE body of education built around it.

    I think there will always be people who kind of dabble and put up some false information, and sometimes those people will then move on to something else and leave that false family tree (or book or website…) out there for other people to find. On the other hand, some people will be like me and realize the error of their ways and improve on their genealogy. Still others might realize the error of their ways, decide it’s too hard to fix everything, and NOT improve, but I don’t think we can really do anything about those people except to keep making genealogy education exciting and fun – and by being nice and welcoming and inclusive, rather than telling them over and over again “No! You’re wrong! You suck!”

    • I don’t know I would get that graphic. LOL In my own family line there is a line plastered all over one of the popular websites. Has all kinds of people saying it is right. I have tried for several years to show them the proof that it is not right. No one wants to listen.

      Short story.

      There is a family with the last name Lee that celebrates their family with a reunion. For years they had a ceremony celebrating their lineage through Robert E Lee. No one living and currently attending the reunion had done the genealogy. One person decided to do it. Everyone was excited. Over the next year this person did their research. Guess what they found? They were not related to Robert E Lee. They went back to the reunion to report their findings. Guess what happened to this person? They were not allowed to come back to the reunion any more.

      Source your information. You don’t want to be left out from the reunion!!!

      • LMAO We have the same thing with Thomas Jefferson! Fortunately, my family isn’t so mean!! When I found it the person was named AFTER Thomas Jefferson and not actually Thomas Jefferson, people just shrugged. Whew!

        This is kind of like all of the people who claim to have “Indian blood.” I generally just nod and smile, but if I’m not happy with the person I’ll ask them how they’ve traced that ancestor. Most of the time their answer is “Well, my grandma always said…” LOL People are VERY wedded to their myths. That’s probably why Gustav Anjou (like Heather mentioned above) was so easily able to sell fraudulent genealogies to people!

        • Yes, the Indian Princess myth is a big one. We are related to Royalty. Three brother crashed on the coast. Our ancestor was a stow away. Etc etc. Sounds nice but it soon proves to be wrong.

          Had these myths when I first started. Made great stories, but they did not pan out in the end. Discovered so many more interesting stories. That’s what makes genealogy wonderful.

          • Right? I very much enjoy finding out that my great-grandpa died of pneumonia after joining a search party for children who were lost in a tornado or that another set of greats were actually 3 generations of wagon makers who followed the railroad. Fortunately, I think a lot of people – when they begin to REALLY look into their family history – realize this, too!

  4. I was a newbie at age 12. I collected names from family members, slapped them on a tree, added some census records, and then started name collecting from trees online. Cousins sent me stuff. I just accepted it. And then one day I realized that I was barking up someone else’s tree. And that’s when I got interested in sources and evaluating documents.

    And you know what, I don’t deny my name collector past because the fact is, it is a part of my genealogy journey. I made mistakes, just like anyone does when they are learning something new. And with time and a little encouragement from places like the Ancestry how-to columns and Cyndi’s List, I started to change how I did things.

    And I’m STILL learning. And I hope I always am. This hobby will be so boring when I know it all. There will always be a new region to explore, a new record group to learn about, a new method to really dig into.

    It’s part of the journey – and we all know the journey is the fun part. That’s why we pick a hobby like genealogy where the journey is never over.

    And when I run into another researcher that is still learning, I don’t tell them how horrible they are. I might politely and subtly point out if I’ve found a different conclusion and why. And maybe that’ll be enough for them to start seeking out other resources. And maybe it won’t be. And that’s cool too.

    Great Post!

    • Thank you for a wonderful and thoughtful comment, Elaine! I love that insight about:

      “This hobby will be so boring when I know it all. There will always be a new region to explore, a new record group to learn about, a new method to really dig into.”

      You hit the nail on the head! We have parameters for ourselves because we’re researching (for the most part) our own families and their stories but there is also endless potential for discovering new things. The other day, I found myself doing research on roads through the Appalachian mountains. That’s such a fascinating subject, but I probably never would have thought to research it if I weren’t also looking for an ancestor’s path out west.


      It’s part of the journey – and we all know the journey is the fun part. That’s why we pick a hobby like genealogy where the journey is never over.

      That is so true! There’s no use denying someone the fun of this hobby because they’re a little eager at the beginning of their journey. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Welcome. You have the best hobby ever now! 🙂 And you’re darn right. I totally make mistakes. I know there are mistakes in my online trees, too. I just hope if someone finds them before I correct them that they’re gentle with me. (And I solemnly promise to be gentle when I find mistakes, too!)

  5. Jennifer, I now just followed you, thanks to seeing it on facebook. What a refreshing blog, and although the topic isn’t new, you had a nice viewpoint on the subject. I’ve always been very serious about my research, but not so with my genealogy (if that makes sense), as it’s been a hobby for 23 years. I’m looking forward to more posts.

    • Why thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to comment and that you enjoyed the perspective. I’ve added Life from the Roots to my Feedly RSS reader so I can keep up with you, too. Thanks for connecting! 🙂

  6. I always wonder what genealogists who spend a lot of their time railing against incorrect online trees are trying to prove. I know some researchers who want Ancestry, for example, to remove old incorrect trees that they believe were abandoned by their maker because the maker never answers their messages about the errors. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time! If I spent my time writing to the owner of every incorrect tree I find online and every incorrect compiled genealogy I find offline, I literally wouldn’t have any time to do my own research. If someone who’s active in the online community but fairly inexperienced in researching seems like they might be open to suggestions, I’ll often leave a comment with an idea or two, but if they respond defensively or don’t respond at all, I just let it go at that.

    • Wow, people want Ancestry to remove trees? I think I’m coming from a place of “accept the things you can’t change” because what’s the fricking point?! There is always going to be bad info on the internet.

      Actually, I’m more okay with that than I am with being snobbish with new genealogists. Like I mentioned in my post, get them hooked and the wheat will rise from the chaff when times get hard. Some people will learn better processes and some won’t (and they might leave a digital trail as they go.) It’s better to be welcoming, keep them interested and let them learn from their mistakes rather than poo-pooing a novice. I’ll get off my soap box now! Thanks for stopping by, Liz! 🙂

      • Yes, I’ve met a surprising number of people who want Ancestry in particular to remove trees. I have also met a *lot* of people though who think that error-riddled genealogies only started with the internet. Hence so many people who have copied stuff out of 1800’s genealogies into their trees without checking into original sources on their own – if it’s in print, it must be true.

        I don’t really get being snobbish towards any genealogist, be they new or not. There are certainly a number of genealogists producing scholarly-level works who disagree with each other on some points. No matter whether you have been researching for 50 days or 50 years, you’re not going to agree with everyone on everything. And when someone has a “My way or the highway” attitude, I just head for the highway. : )

        • Any kind of serious study will produce disagreements. I decided against continuing an M.A. in Anthropology because just that single department was so full of turf wars and disagreements that I felt like we were spending more time being asked to choose sides than actually LEARNING anything. (Well, that and the professor I wanted to study with LEFT. Boo!) As long as you can back it up, feel free to disagree, I say! But let’s not let personalities or a rut/routine/”things should be THIS way because-I-said-so” get in the way!

      • I have been messaged on Ancestry many times about wrong information. I am very thankful for the information, BUT I research their information before I change mine. I have also sent messages to others with no response back. So in the area of comments, I add the correct information on the person’s page.
        I also put in my own information that I am unsure of or that it is not verified and use at your own risk. As well as several “???”s after the name if I am unsure if they belong. Then again add unverified and add at own risk. I like to keep my research with the person, so it does help, if you do that , to make it plain that is is not verified in larger letters. It took me 3 years to prove Elvis was indeed a distant 5thX3 cousin. I heard the rumors in the family and just laughed. I always joked we want to find our Elvis, so we will sometimes add anything to make it happen. Yeah, it’s cool to be related to Elvis, but not if I had to make it up. So I was pleased to find the ultimate proof. That is true genealogy excitement. I too have the alleged GGGrandmother who was from Cherokees. Haven’t found her or him. Nothing in DNA either. So the stories that are passed down are good outlines, but never use them as proof. My tree has a lot of bad information from when I first started 30 years ago (from stories passed down), but it would take me forever to go correct it all. So when and if I come across it, I do correct it. I think most beginners get so excited, they put anything they find. I did this even before I started using Ancestry. Then the information on my charts went into Ancestry. So in my opinion, if you find it on someone’s tree or on the internet, make sure you find documentation before you add them as a verified person. The internet is wrong too. LOL, Wills, census, muster rolls, etc. are the most valuable sources. Many states and countries didn’t require birth, marriage, death, etc. certificates until the 1900s, plus fires and floods have destroyed many documents of proof. Family bibles are the best, in my opinion.

        • I hear you! I was the same way when I was 14. I didn’t source ANYTHING I found, and my “research” was trips to the local library (I couldn’t drive and personal internet access was a couple years off!). I really can say that “losing” all that stuff was a good thing in that – as I re-do my family history – I make sure that I source everything. Our mythical ancestor was Thomas Jefferson. One day I found that one of my 3x great-grandfather was “Thomas Jefferson Hester.” So I guess we did have a Thomas Jefferson after all! 😉 Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  7. I always wonder how to best let someone know that their information might not be correct. Recently, a friend/neighbor was very excited to show me an compiled genealogy printed many years ago, that she had re-printed for current family members. Of course, none of the information was sourced. I didn’t want to burst her bubble, and was biting my tongue not to ask how does she know this is correct? I simply suggested that if she ever wants to investigate this line further, I would be happy to help her look for documentation.

    • Oh man. Now that’s a blog post in itself, isn’t it? Most of the time when I hear about Indian Princesses or famous forebears I let it slide. After all, it probably makes this person happy and full of pride to believe this, and it isn’t really hurting anybody. But if it’s someone in my own family or someone who I think will be receptive to correction, I – like you – offer to do it with them. One of the best experiences, to me, is seeing someone’s face light up when they see an old family record, or a picture they didn’t know existed, or the cabin where their grandfather was born or whatnot. I think there’s something about that tangible thing (even if it’s on a computer screen) that really rock’s people’s worlds. Suddenly it’s a real thing, rather than a story. So, while I’ve written to folks on Ancestry gently asking about their primary sources, I’ve never actually corrected anyone in the situation you described. I suppose I might say something like “Oh man, this means that your Grandpa would be in the 1880 census. Let’s see if we can find him on Family Search sometime!” And then, maybe give them a little source-citing nudge from there.

      …I have no idea if that would work (or you’d even find the time) but hey, let me know if you ever try it! And thanks for your comment!

  8. Getting information from distant cousins is hard enough, getting them to source their information, well that’s next to impossible. 🙂 My big breakthrough was getting one cousin active in researching a segment of my family to switch from an online tree to a desktop application (since he was using the online tree as a research base and it changed constantly). I’m working on getting citations.

    About 7 months ago I e-mailed someone about a mistake in a tree on Ancestry. They responded they didn’t think it was a mistake, but we went back and forth as I explained why the woman’s maiden name was wrong. The person who posted the tree was not related to me, but we shared some cousins. She said she’d send what I sent her to those cousins, and they would either get in touch or they wouldn’t. I never heard anything until last week. Two siblings e-mailed me about getting together to meet. They were 3rd cousins-once removed. Turns out I have three fourth cousins about 5 minutes from me, and another six 4th cousins about 40 minutes from me. The kicker was that one of the 4th cousins is someone I know.

    • I love that you found cousins nearby. Since my family has been from the same area for so long I’m related to practically everybody. People I know will joke “Oh, that’s probably one of Jennifer’s cousins.” (And it often is.)

      I like that this person was willing to hear you out on the mistake, too. that’s really the best possible scenario. I have to remind myself that a lot of people just dabble at genealogy and aren’t living and dying by their research. They may see a mistake and not bother to correct it, or keep meaning to do it and just not get around to it.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Philip!

  9. Then, there are those Genealogists who act like they “own” their ancestors. They would not dream of sharing any source with anyone else they don’t want to claim as a cousin. My philosphy? Share everything you have, and chances are, someone can prove, improve, or disprove some detail. As long as someone is gentle about it, and can offer their “proof” (whatever that means), then I am receptive.

    • Oh man, that’s a rant for another day, isn’t it? I hate it when I see people getting selfish, especially with family. These people are your family!! I’m all for giving credit where credit is due for people who have taken the time to pull together research or write up analysis. Yes, you own the analysis you wrote. But you don’t own their lives, their details or old pictures taken of them! (I mean, you may actually have the physical copy in your possession, sure, but you don’t own their image. Geesh!) You hit a button with me. I’m happy to share all my research and will gladly continue to do so. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  10. everyone has to be a “beginner”. Some kind soul pointed out to me when I was a beginner that my husband’s ggf was only 3 when his first child was born – according to my tree info. We had a good laugh and fixed it. So maybe laughing about mistakes is much better than picking a fight!!!


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