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.
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.