You get an Ancestry.com account and start adding the names of your parents and grandparents. Within a few moments those twinkling leaves appear, just like you see in the TV commercials. You have hints!
Some of the hints show you family trees that other people have put together that seem to have your ancestors in them. You’re thinking “Those other people must know what they’re doing.” With a click of a button you can add dozens of ancestors going back many generations to your tree.
Wait, don’t do it!
The worst mistake you can make when building your family tree is to add people and details that don’t belong in your tree.
Well, let’s remember, we’re talking about history here. We’re not concocting a story that pulls together a bunch of people that might have been related, right? We’re looking for what really happened. And who was actually in your family.
Once you've added sketchy information to your family tree, things get confusing. It becomes difficult to know what is true. If you think one thing is a fact when it’s not, you're likely to draw some other conclusions that aren’t true.
Ancestry uses a matching algorithm to suggest family trees that other people have created that may have the same ancestor that you have in your tree. As you look over the other trees, be extremely skeptical. You're not looking for what's possible, or even probable, but what is reasonably certain.
Notice I didn’t say that you have to absolutely certain something is true. Most of the time the best we can hope for is to find enough documentation to be reasonably certain about a fact.
Here are some tips to reviewing Ancestry's “Member Tree Hints" so that you keep your family tree all about your family.
Tip 1: Who are we talking about here?
When you're comparing a person in another family tree to your ancestor, are there enough details to indicate that both trees are talking about the exact same person? There could be many people with similar details, especially with relatively common surnames.
Don’t assume that two people are the same. Instead, do the opposite. Assume they are different people and see if you can prove that they are same.
Look for precise matches on multiple pieces of information: name, location, age, place of birth, names of parents, name of spouse, names of children, occupation, for example. Especially if surnames and first names are common, you may need other details to identify a match.
This might seem overly cautious when we're talking about people you know pretty well. Things get a lot tougher as you move back in time and there is nothing about an ancestor that is familiar to you.
Tip 2: Where are they getting their information?
If you decide that there is a match — that a person in another tree is your ancestor — look at the specific records that are attached and the source citations.
If the information isn’t sourced, you have no way of knowing how valid it is.
Here’s a common situation. Let’s say you don’t know who your ancestor’s parents were. You think you’ve found her in someone else’s tree, and they have parents listed for her. It's not time to celebrate that you’ve gone back another generation yet! Does the other tree have any sources attached that show that your ancestor is the child of those parents? Are there documented details to prove that they have it right?
In general, I’m more interested in trees that have lots of sources. It tells me the other researcher is serious and is willing to take the time to back-up their information.
However even if the other tree has your ancestor in it and the information has a source, the information about your ancestor still may not be correct. For example, let’s say I find my great-grandfather in someone else’s tree and I’m confident we’re talking about the same person, based on all the detail of his life. But they’ve added a military registration to him, and the military registration has just the name and state on it — no other identifying details. I can’t really be sure that the military registration is for my ancestor.
Just because someone else added a piece of information and source to their tree, doesn’t make it true.
Tip 3: What are they bringing to the party?
At this point you might be wondering if there is any good information you can find in other people’s family trees! Absolutely!
They may have uncovered a record that you didn’t know about, whether that’s a census record, a military registration, an entry in a city directory, or something else. They may even have images of “home items” that they’ve attached, such as photos or a family bible entry.
If you see something that is relevant to your ancestor attached to the tree, be grateful that someone else pointed you to it. Then treat it like a new piece of information that you came across: analyze it and add each detail to your tree one-by-one, sourcing as you go.
There’s another benefit of reviewing other family trees. You just might find a distant cousin and a research partner!
So remember, hints aren’t the same thing as facts.
A lot of people on Ancestry seem to build their trees by “collecting" ancestors when just some of the details seem right. They end up with a hodge-podge of people — a make-believe family "history" that leads to confusion. And definitely isn't history.
OK if you fear you may have been a little too quick to accept Ancestry hints in the past and may have a few non-ancestors in your tree, don't worry! Truth is most of us have some questionable things in our trees. Just plan to do some cleanup — I'll be posting about that another day. And be careful moving forward.
Think of yourself as the person in charge of membership for the world’s most exclusive club and there is only one way to get in. To be your ancestor. So be careful and be selective, and keep your family tree about only your family.
It's possible you have an ancestor who served in World War I, or the Civil War, or the American Revolution — and their story was never passed down. You can find them.
Two of my recent clients had no idea that their ancestors had served in a war.
Jules knew very little about her grandfather, just the name of the town where he had lived and a vague description of his job. When I uncovered that her grandfather had served in World War I, and had even been on a special assignment to tour the battlefields of Europe after the war, Jules was floored. “Wow wow wow. I’m flabbergasted. To think he would have been forgotten.” You can check out the story of “Finding Jack Miller” here.
Alison’s family had lived “forever” in a tiny town in Indiana, and she assumed that meant their background was “kind of boring". She and her sisters still visit the town once a year with their dad as tour guide, connecting with distant cousins and exploring the streets that haven’t changed much in a hundred years. When a family lives in one small town, decade after decade, there’s a good chance that they will turn up in the town newspaper, and that was case with Alison’s family.
We discovered that Alison's great-great-grandfather, Charles P. Dutchess, had served at the age of 13 as a drummer boy in the Civil War! Beyond keeping the beat as troops marched from one place to another, drummer boys served a critical role in battle. When it was difficult to hear the officers’ shouted orders, the drummers used a system of drumroll signals to communicate with the soldiers. The photo above of an unidentified Union Drummer Boy, gives us a sense of what Alison's 2nd great-grandfather might have looked like in uniform.
In my own family history, I only learned about my great-great-grandfather’s service with the Union Army in the Civil War when I connected on the internet with a distant cousin who shared the story. Through research I learned that my ancestor's father also served, fighting on horseback in the Cavalry. In a different branch of my family, I uncovered another father and son pair of soldiers, fighting in the American Revolution from what was to become Vermont. None of these stories were passed down.
And by the way, military records can be fabulous sources of family history. There may be draft records of your ancestors, or applications for a military headstone. Pension records can be incredibly revealing. My ancestors wrote letters decade after decade, trying to get a pension payment from the government for my 3rd great-grandfather's service in the Civil War. Those letters include details about where and when my ancestor was married, names and birthdates of all his children, and even include the handwritten signature of my 2nd great-grandfather. That file is an incredible family history treasure.
Here's the point: You too may have ancestors who served our country in some way, perhaps in one of the major wars. This would be a good weekend to start the search for your military heroes. So that they, and their service, are not forgotten.
Almost everyone I talk with has a similar problem. While my primary focus is on old photos and videos and helping people get those into a digital form and into their lives, in almost every conversation with my clients I'm asked for guidance on managing their digital photos. "My iPhone keeps running out of storage!", "Are my photos automatically syncing with my computer?", "How do I deal with my spouse's photos?", "How should I back up my photos?" — sound familiar?
People are scared about their digital photo collections. And this problem is getting bigger every day. Collectively we took an estimated 1 trillion photos in 2015! There are a number of options out there for organizing your digital photos. Over the last six months I've looked at quite a few of them. My criteria for choosing one started with this wishlist:
• Allow me to view collections of photos without navigating through folders. I want to see a visual thumbnail, not just the date of a photo and I don't want to rely on the title of a photo. Going in and out of folders to find something doesn't work well for me.
• Pull from multiple devices and locations where my photos are stored. Ideally, avoid putting all the photos on my desktop computer as that will take up so much space. If possible, leave the majority of the photos on an external hard drive.
• Allow me to edit and organize photos from my laptop, even though the originals are elsewhere.
• Allow my husband to access the photo collection from his Windows laptop.
• Give me access to at least some of my photos and albums from my iPhone.
• Manage videos too! We take just as many short videos as we do photos these days.
• Include at least basic editing tools.
• Provide tools for tagging people and locations, and for making albums.
• Deal with duplicate photos.
I considered a number of solutions including Apple's Photos and DropBox's Carousel. Apple's solution is Mac-centric, and I have found the whole Photos to iCloud/PhotoStream connection to be very confusing. DropBox's Carousel app had potential, but they discontinued it last year. My search was by no means exhaustive, though I was getting exhausted researching the pros and cons of each system! What I really wanted was a trusted smart friend to tell me what to do.
Then it occurred to me: it's the business of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers to figure out this kind of thing. They, if anyone, would have a system to recommend, right? And they did: Mylio.
I was shocked and delighted to discover that Mylio meets all but one of my wishlist items! It provides a single visual interface to photos and videos that live on many different devices, both Mac and Windows, handheld and desktop. It has an import tool that pulls both photos and albums out of iPhoto. You can point it to an external hard drive with photos in folders — it will "watch" those without moving them onto your computer. Or, you can choose to have Mylio copy or move your photos into Mylio and onto your main computer. It's automatically importing my iPhone photos. It will pull images from my husband's laptop. As long as all the devices are on the same Wifi network, syncing will happen. I'll be able to see, through one interface, all of my 220,000 photos and videos — and tag them with faces, locations and more.
Mylio allows you to to choose the size of the photo it pulls on to each device. For my iPhone, I chose thumbnail size, for my Laptop a medium size, and my desktop computer will have the full size photos. No more "out of storage" issues on my iPhone and I'll still be able to see all the photos. I can edit and tag and move photos around from any of these devices, and those changes will be reflected and sync'd across all of them.
The only item on my wishlist that Mylio does not handle is dealing with duplicates, at least not after importing. It seems you can have it spot duplicates on some imports. I emailed their customer support folks, and was pleased to get a response within 16 hours — and that was on the weekend. They pointed me to a third-party tool called PhotoSweeper from OverMacs. PhotoSweeper appears to be Mac-only; I don't know if there is Windows solution. Once my collection of photos is fully imported, I'll give PhotoSweeper a try.
Mylio isn't cheap. They have a basic plan for $50/year, but I'd blow past the 50,000 photo limit on my first imports. With my insanely large collection, I can't go with the Standard plan either for $100/year — it allows up to 5 devices and up to 100,000 photos. I had no choice but to choose the Advanced plan for $250/year, with its 500,000 photo allowance and up to 12 devices. Not cheap, but for me worth it for the peace of mind and the tools to finally get my collection in order. And after eliminating duplicates, it's possible my collection will be back down under 100,000 photos and I'll be able to downgrade my account.
I'm in the honeymoon phase with Mylio. Is the promise of Mylio too good to be true? Everything is importing as I type this, so I have yet to really put Mylio to the test. Over the next few days I'll be doing just that and will report back. I'm hopeful that I'll have good news to share!
Links mentioned in this post:
The Association of Personal Photo Organizers
Anyone else grappling with their massive confusing unorganized digital photo collections? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.
The key to getting your arms around this material: digitizing. Here are five reasons why digitizing your photos and footage should be a high priority.
Reason 1 — Access
Why do we organize our genealogy? We need to find what we want, when we want it — and we also want to know what materials we have and what research we've done. The same is true for photos and footage related to our family history. You may have some photos framed and on display, and others in boxes tucked away in a garage or closet. Maybe some photos are with other family members. It can be very difficult to know what photos you have in your possession or might have access to from others.
Video and film footage are even more challenging. That footage is trapped in an old format that most of us can’t even view anymore. What gems are hiding in there?
When you’ve digitized your vintage media, you'll have it in one place. When you are looking for a particular image or video clip, you’ll know just where to look. No more digging through boxes, taking photos out of frames and photo albums, or dragging out the VCR or film projector — if you even still have that equipment! Digitizing this material puts it at your fingertips.
Reason 2 — Preservation
As genealogists, we understand the power of the fragments and bits of our ancestors’ pasts. We often lament that our ancestors did little to take care of them. In my family, a flooded basement in the 1940s destroyed a trunk that contained photos and documents brought from the old country of Ireland. While that was decades before my birth, it feels like lost treasure. Too often the family bible and family photos are tragically thrown away by someone who thought “who would want these old things”.
So we gather what we can and pledge we’ll do better for the generations to come. When it comes to photos and footage, that “doing better” is digital preservation. Once you have a digital image, you have a back-up of that precious material that can be saved and shared.
Time, humidity, light — these are the enemies of photos, film and video. If you’ve had your materials in archival storage and a temperature-controlled environment — excellent! You are very unusual. Most of us don’t realize that this media is at risk of decay.
The photograph you have of an ancestor may very well be the only image on the planet of that person. What a responsibility! By digitizing that image, you are ensuring that fellow family historians and future generations can see and appreciate that photo too.
Are you lucky enough to have old films and videos of your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents? That footage isn’t doing any good trapped in an old format that most of us don’t have the equipment to view. Tragically, film and video is at a high risk of decay, and keeping it tucked away in a box somewhere is not keeping it safe. While it might be fine today, you can be sure of one thing — the quality will not get better as time passes. You would be wise to digitally preserve whatever footage you have.
Reason 3 — Clear Up Clutter
Boxes of vintage media take up physical space. You can free up that space by getting that material into a digital form. Shelves of scrapbooks and photo albums? Imagine a collection of ebooks instead. Boxes of old photos? Imagine high-resolution images organized in folders on your computer. Reels of film and stacks of video cassettes? Imagine a set of DVDs and an online account for viewing and sharing the footage on your computer or smart phone. All that is possible today.
Reason 4 — Story Telling
You may have a family tree on Ancestry or FamilyShare or other application, or you may write biographical sketches of each ancestor. When our images and footage of our ancestors are digital, they can be easily attached to our stories and trees, moving them beyond mere dates and places to something much richer.
Reason 5 — Further Your Research
Sometimes an old photo or piece of footage holds clues that help us break through our research brick walls. A tiny photo that I found belonging to a distant cousin included the name of a church. With that one photo, my ancestors were no longer from “somewhere in Germany" — I now had the exact parish to which they belonged. That one fact, from that one photo, pointed me to the records of generations and generations of my family.
Offering to share photos and footage can entice others to work with you. When I see a researcher on Ancestry who seems to be a descendant of one of my ancestors, I message them and let them know that I would be happy to share the family photos that I have. I find others are more willing to share the info and images they have when I’ve offered mine. That’s how I learned that my great-grandfather was an oyster fisherman on Long Island Sound in the early 1900s. My newly discovered distant cousin shared photos of him with his boat. My offer to share digital photos was the olive branch that opened the door to connection and learning.
Another way to use digital images and footage is with a descendant group on Facebook. If you aren't a member of such a group, consider starting one. I’ve started two private groups and participate in another. Because my photos and footage are digital, I can easily post to those groups. I ask questions — things like “Does anyone know where this photo was taken?” or “Who is who in this photo?”. I’ll post an image to commemorate a birthday or anniversary of an ancestor, and write a short post about them. I had an old film of my dad’s transferred to digital and found footage of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the 1950s, which the extended family was thrilled to see. Posting images and footage to these descendant groups spurs conversation and fosters connection — and often leads to others posting stories and photos from their collections.
If you’ve already transferred your photos and footage to digital, how do you find it helps you with your genealogy?
• Pulled the church records on microfilm and, ta da, there was my great-grandmother's birth record! Discovered I was born on the same day. Learned so much about her family, going back many generations.
• Found others researching the same family on Ancestry.com. Connected with them via email, sharing photos and information.
• Travelled to the little town in Germany in 2002, with my mom, aunt and brother. We met distant cousins, the mayor and a newspaper reporter who documented our visit.
• Corresponded over the years with our German cousins, who shared more photos and a history of the town with references to our shared ancestors.
And the story continues. This past weekend, one of my American first-cousins spent a day in the little town and met the current generation of distant cousins.
All of this because I scanned a photo.
Maybe you don't have time to research what's in the photo now. Or to connect with others who might know who is who. OK, that's fine. Tuck it away electronically, or email it off to someone who would be interested. Just don't throw it away!
Laura Clark Murray
I help people capture and expand the knowledge of their family history, and guide them on using online research to find the stories of their ancestors.
Get my free guide "How to Create Your Family Tree Like an Expert" to find the stories of your ancestors.