Online family trees can be works of fiction

Online family trees can provide you instantly with information others may have taken years to research. They can also provide you with a load of rubbish!

History at the click of a mouse

These days, if you gave me a few basics, I could very possibly rough out your family tree back to early 1800s in a matter of a few hours.

How accurate it would be is anyone’s guess. And sadly, therein lies a big problem.

Millions of family history enthusiasts are adding names and/or dates to their online family trees that are completely wrong. And while that’s harmless, what’s the point in creating something that’s inaccurate, or claiming as your own people who were no relation to you at all?

Research the slow way

Before the internet, anyone wanting to research their family history had to rely on original sources. This meant trips to county archives or libraries or government sites that held national records. To find a census entry meant scrolling through yards of microfilm, peering at every entry on it, in the hope your ancestor was actually in that town that year. The BMDs were in parish registers, accessible only by travelling to the archives or paying someone there to search for you, if you didn’t live near enough. And you’d find a birth reference, order a certificate, go home, and wait a week for it to arrive, before you could confirm you had the right person, and got the info on their parents to take it back a generation.

It took ages, a lot of effort, and expense, to add even a few names to your family tree. With a lot of ‘dead ends,’ when people weren’t where you expected them to be, with no clue as to where they actually were at that time.

Research the fast way

The internet is a gift to family historians, in that for the price of an annual subscription to a website, you can now find people in a flash, just by typing their name in, no matter where they were, or where you are.

Those sites let you create online family trees and some provide ‘hints’ that suggest records that MAY relate to your relations. (And the fact those hints are only MAYBES cannot be emphasised too much)

It’s also a great way to hook up with others researching the same people, and even connect with distant relations you’d otherwise not know you had.

But it’s in this hook-up the problem lies.

Because it only takes one person to make a mistake and add it to their online family tree for it to spread like Dutch elm disease to a lot of others.

Errors that are almost funny

I’ve seen trees with ‘children’ of British agricultural labourers who never, on the census, travelled more than a few miles, apparently having been born in the USA.

Trees where a child has apparently been born two years after the mother’s death.

Trees which feature one of my ancestors with the wrong parents, or the wrong children.

And other people, looking at those online family trees, have copied the mistakes to theirs.

Errors like these may jump out at you, but others may be not be obvious at all. Entries that on the surface look ok may not be.

Check and check again

The way to avoid it is to never add anyone to your tree unless you can back them up with at least two, preferably three hard sources. A birth can be supported by a GRO entry, a parish baptism, census entries, a marriage certificate, and the age at death.

That, and some common sense. Because it’s no use if the other person HAS added links to a census and the BMDs if, on inspection, they’ve added someone who is the right name and age, but not your relation.

If John Robertson has gone, in ten years, from being a blacksmith to a greengrocer, be suspicious.

You can’t beat the real thing

And if it is physically possible, do go to the actual archives and look for yourself.

Because while clicking ‘search’ on your laptop in your bedroom can lead to exciting discoveries, it is nothing like the thrill of handling original documents, or finding things no one else has looked at in hundreds of years.

A final ‘peril’: posterity.

Chances are I can see your hard work, but unless they pay a chunky annual subscription to the same genealogy site, not all your family can. 

A back-up on your home laptop can only be seen by you. Even if the laptop isn’t protected by a password only you know, anything computer-related soon becomes obsolete.

Floppy discs, anyone?!

Your offspring may not be that interested in half a dozen folders of printed trees and notes. But at least they’ll be able to see them and decide what to do with them when you’re gone.

Further reading

You can find more advice on tracing your family history in this post on wills.

Here’s the musical version of this post!