Beginners to genealogy are often very excited to find family trees extending back several more generations from grandparents or great grandparents. Wow – there are names, approximate birth years, and more details. It immediately fills in your family line on one side of your family. Great – now you can brush your hands off and go look for more information for one of your other family lines.
But, wait a minute here before you copy or merge that new-found family tree with yours. How can you be certain that those ancestors are truly yours? That any of the details are even correct?
You may find – as I did – that an online family tree had the wrong great-grandmother for one family line of mine. That error meant that many other people had copied the incorrect information into their own family trees, adding several generations of the wrong ancestors. Whoops! How did I know it was an error? Because we had a family story of my great grandfather’s wife’s family having a “Grover” as a maiden name several generations back… plus there were totally different family first names in my family line. More searching online, with details of marriages, and it became clear where my great grandmother’s family line came from: Buell, not Doolittle. By going up and then down the family line, I was able to confirm detail after detail with documents and registrations, plus obituaries, in order to be certain of the accuracy of my results. As you can imagine, I learned a great deal with this research project!
One of the things that will strike you as you look at online trees, is that many people simply copy one person’s family tree. So there may be 15 family trees all saying exactly the same thing about names/dates/places… But that may be the result of 14 copies of one original. The fact that there are many copies does not make the original, true!
How can you tell if this wealth of detail you found is correct for your family tree? There is only one way: verify each of the details with original source material if at all possible. An excellent source could be birth registrations (government or church) which list both parents including maiden names of mothers. Other sources may include the following: gravestones, church registers, pension records, census records over several decades, or marriage registrations which also may list both parties’ parents names and birthplaces or residences. Once you are back to the early 1800s or before that time, it may be quite challenging to find sources, but keep digging and you may find treasure.
At times, there may be published histories or genealogies of particular towns or villages which detail some of your ancestors. As the histories were often written about 80-100 years or more after the fact, taken from sources you may not be able to find or read, you will need to consider them secondary sources which will still need more verification. In the late 1800s in the United States, for example, family genealogies became very popular and many families had “professionals” write out their family tree in detail. Some of these are very well researched, and the sources used are detailed in the published material. Others are based on hearsay and conjecture, and contain many errors. The further back in time, the more likely there are to be errors of various kinds.
For example, in one family line of mine, there are many Grover Buell men, generation after generation, through siblings and side-lines. So many of them, born close together in time and place, that some histories have condensed several of them into one, thinking that “someone” made a mistake with the dates etc. I have had to list each one and research each one to be sure I have “my” Grover Buell! Luckily, others have been doing some of the research as well, and share their results online. We have shared finding gravestones with the correct person and his wife, and documents of tax rolls and more. “Cousins” online are so helpful!
That said about pitfalls, there are often very accurate family trees online, that have been researched well, and have source material attached to individuals in the trees. For instance, a published history details when an ancestor first came to a newly carved out village in Connecticut, names his sons and their ages at the time, describes his occupation over time, and his daughters’ married names. Wow – what a find! And there are additional details found in the village’s church registers of each person, marriages, their children, plus deaths and burials. Even a few gravestone photographs. Confirmation of details is so exciting!
One of my family lines joined up with a well-known surname family line which had been researched extensively. As the surname organization had original sources and details verified, I was able to merge safely and accurately with that ancestor’s descendants. For the challenge, I still researched through the direct line to be sure that in fact the family tree worked in both directions, up and down, and there were primary sources to support the details. Yes it did, and I was thrilled to find so much interesting information on that family line.
If you find a family tree line which merges with one of your line, take the time to write the person who has input the details, asking for their research or sources of the information. Several times I’ve received a response of “I can’t remember where I found this information but it was online somewhere.” Oh dear. Now you will need to be very creative looking for those records. Of course, this will remind you that you must make certain that if YOU find a source for details, you will definitely copy the source and webpage address into the individual’s record for future reference.
As you can see, there are wonderful possibilities when searching online for family tree information. And of course, there are challenging pitfalls as well. Never use online trees as “sources” for your family tree details: they should be considered as tentative guidelines for your further researches, instead. Once you can verify details with other documents and sources, you will be able to cite those sources for others researching the same line as your family ancestors. Plus you will be certain of the accuracy of your family tree. Happy searching.