How reliable is my family tree?
December 15, 2023
The simplest answer would be to say no tree is 100% accurate if we are strictly following the paper trail. This would mean that even though we have mitigated against the worst defects by analysing documents, we will be defeated by missing records and lying ancestors.
That being said, some people’s trees based on their own research might be more reliable than others. This is why online trees are controversial and differ greatly in quality. There is though, a universal agreement that there are an overwhelming number of inaccurate trees on websites such as Ancestry.co.uk, My Heritage, FamilySearch etc.
When FamilySearch emerged many years ago as the Church of the Latter Day Saints, it was common knowledge that their user-submitted trees were of a debatable quality. The same can now be said of Ancestry.co.uk.
So what is going on?
In truth it is about the research skills and methods employed by the family historian to research their family tree. The development of such skills takes quite a while, on average five years, and to be really proficient, they should be demonstrable across a number of families and across an array of records.
Beginners of course do not have these skills, but will rush to get their research done and disseminated. Rushed research means we do not cover all possibilities. When we reach the void of the unknown ancestors, we are likely to favour particular candidates who share the same name, same year of birth, same place of birth as our ancestor, but who are not our ancestor!
Beginners are also more likely to cut corners and skip ahead with their research in order to get back to the earliest ancestor quickly. When I teach students of genealogy, I see this all the time. The best method to employ is the chronological timeline method, particularly for beginners. Those who are very experienced can afford to keep going backwards and forwards in time because they can quickly regain their focus and spot incongruous information.
The chronological timeline method means strictly sticking to looking at available records in chronological order and to make sure that all records are consulted in terms of census and births marriages and deaths. It’s very important to have as few gaps as possible as illustrated by this image:
So this means always, always look at original records even if it means they need to be purchased separately. It means being tenacious and meticulous about research. It means being persistent and consistent.
It means ignoring Ancestry.co.uk’s hints until one is proficient in knowing how to use them. Particularly for those unknown ancestors.
(Want to know HOW to research properly? Join us on our Getting Started With Your Family Tree genealogy experience).
Did you know that the hint system on Ancestry.co.uk is partly generated by an algorithm that searches other people’s family trees for matches? It will therefore offer hints based on other people’s research. This research MIGHT BE WRONG. This is how people make mistakes with their own research: they are copying the work of others and not seeking to verify it, or in fact, don’t know how to verify it.
Searching for and looking at original records doesn’t suit some researchers. Ignoring hints doesn’t suit some researchers.
This is why we, as Professional Genealogists, offer research packages, but we have also developed a new service which helps non-professional family historians to verify their family tree.
Verifying a tree is cheaper right? After all, the research has already been done.
No! Think about it. To verify a family tree, a professional genealogist has to work exactly the same as if they were researching a tree from the beginning. They must use all their own methods and not be swayed by the bias of the tree in front of them; they must search deeper and further than the original researcher, looking at candidates for their ancestor, the researcher may have missed.
So no it is by no means an easy process.
I want to buy your How Reliable is My Family Tree verifying service as a surprise gift. You should be able to access their tree on Ancestry, it will be easy right?
If their tree is on a private account, we can’t get access to it. If it isn’t on a private account, how will we know which tree is their tree out of the millions on there? If we did locate it we would not be able to download it either, we would have to copy across each bit of information in a piecemeal fashion which would be very time-consuming and time = your money.
And yes we would have to do it this way. Essentially we would need the version of the tree that needs to be checked on our local drive together with our version of the tree for comparison.
So in short, this does not make a good surprise gift. Far better to give a gift certificate and let us work directly with the gift recipient.
And we are happy to provide you with a gift certificate for presentation.
Go here for the How Reliable is my Family Tree service.
Written by Mish J Holman for Family History Gifts. (c) 2023, Mish J Holman. No reuse without permission.
Image (c) 2023, Mish J Holman. No reuse without permission.