Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Genealogy Has Become a Name Collection Game

 

Like many others, I will take time to click on the green leaf that’s attached to an ancestor or family member in my family tree on Ancestry.com. I am often led to others’ family trees who have claimed my ancestor/family member as their own. Sometimes the claim is accurate. Unfortunately, many times my ancestor/family member is not theirs at all – two different people with the same first and last names. They failed to verify the connection, their family trees are then consumed with errors, and those errors are duplicated via those green leaves. Sadly, this is a growing phenomenon with online family trees, especially on Ancestry.com. Genealogy research seems to be becoming a name collection game – people getting a thrill at seeing their family tree expand, copying others' family trees – errors and all – and not verifying the information. Next thing you know, you have numerous incorrect family trees out there.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the green leaves. I am just cautious with them.

Unfortunately, inaccurate family trees may mean that many people are “digesting” and passing on false information about a family’s history. I say this because I have personally heard others, who consider themselves as the family historian, say something like, “I have been researching my family’s history for several years and have traced back to the 1700s.” Then, after further conversation with that person, I realize that the researcher has never turned off the computer from viewing online family trees, along with cursory and non-analytical views of census records, and has never visited any local, state or federal Archives, genealogy libraries, family history centers, cemeteries, courthouses, or other places for records or clues of verification that are not online. The researcher has also not actively explored the many other digitized records on FamilySearch.org, fold3.com, and other sites that can add to their reasonably exhaustive search. Additionally, the researcher has not even taken the time to read books, blogs, articles, etc., or has not viewed any webinars, videos, or other online resources on conducting effective genealogy research. Unfortunately, “researching” seems to have become a name-matching sport for many.

My blog posts are usually about how I solved a genealogical mystery or made a cool discovery via genealogy research and/or DNA, to serve as a case study for researchers to learn from. However, I was compelled to write this post because of a recent dialogue that I found troubling.  Last week, I had an online “debate” with a young lady who claimed my great-grandmother's brother, Robert “Bob” Ealy Jr., as her ancestor. Her family was from Craven County, North Carolina and eventually migrated to New York. No records were attached to her family tree. My Ealy family is clearly in Leake County, Mississippi and had been there since c. 1835, when my great-great-grandfather Robert “Big Bob” Ealy’s enslaver, William W. Eley, brought him to Mississippi from Nash County, North Carolina. But because the two men had the same name, she attached my great-granduncle Bob Jr., his parents, and grandparents as her ancestors too and defended her reasoning.

One of her reasons was because she has DNA matches with people either with the Ealy surname or have an Ealy in their tree, as well as my surname, too. My surname (Collier) came from my Dad's adoptive father, George Collier. My family tree, that’s attached to my and my Dad’s DNA profiles, shows my Dad’s biological father, Hulen Kennedy (grandson of Big Bob Ealy). In essence, she concluded that Uncle Bob Ealy Jr. maintained two families at the same time – one in Leake County, Mississippi and one over 800 miles away in Craven County, North Carolina – and died in New York City, while I have documented Uncle Bob Jr., from his birth around 1855, in Leake County, Mississippi, until his death on Oct. 28, 1939, in Leake County, Mississippi. I had found Uncle Bob’s death certificate at the Miss. Dept. of Archives and History over 15 years ago. She seemed to have presumed that my information was inaccurate. Sadly, as of this blog post, she has not corrected her family tree. My concern is that many, who are in her Ealy family, may believe that they also descend from Grandpa Big Bob, and that’s certainly not the case at all. Many have my great-great-grandparents as their ancestors, and they aren’t.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to include some tips with this blog post. Genealogy research is a broad subject, so feel free to offer other tips in the Comments section:

TIP #1: Don’t assume that someone with the same name as your ancestor is probably yours, too. If the locations don’t match, seek verification, i.e, direct evidence and/or a collection of circumstantial evidence that proves that he or she is actually your ancestor. Even if there's a location match, still seek verification. Verify, verify, verify!

TIP #2: A woman, who is reported as the wife to the head of household, was often not the mother to all of the children in the household or to the older, grown children in their own households. Try to locate a record that documents the parents’ names in order to verify. Analyze the censuses, marriage records, cohabitation records, or other sources to determine if she became the wife prior to a child’s (or children’s) birth.

Especially apply this tip with former-enslaved people who are found in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, and who likely “jumped the broom” into holy matrimony during slavery. For example, Grandpa Robert “Big Bob” Ealy had a daughter, Mary York (wife of Jordan York), around 1840, prior to “jumping the broom” with my great-great-grandmother, Jane Parrott, around 1845. According to my family’s oral history, Mary was known as “Aunt Sis” York, who was Big Bob’s daughter only. The identity of Aunt Sis’s mother is unknown. But since Grandma Jane is Grandpa Big Bob’s documented wife in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, many family trees incorrectly show Grandma Jane as Aunt Sis’s mother, even though Grandma Jane was around 10 years older than Aunt Sis.

TIP #3: If someone’s online family tree on Ancestry.com doesn’t have censuses and other records attached to an individual to document his/her existence and connection, don’t add that individual to your family tree as your ancestor, too.  Verify, verify, verify!

TIP #4: Don’t immediately assume that because you are a DNA match to a person or individuals who have a particular surname in their online family trees, that it confirms your ancestral connection to someone with that same surname. It doesn’t. First, people can be related via other lines. Secondly, not everyone with a particular surname are actually related. Thirdly, that person’s family tree might be wrong as two left shoes. Do the research!

TIP #5: A computer program can’t determine who your ancestors are. Therefore, all of the green leaf hints should be analyzed. Verify, verify, verify!

TIP #6: Try contacting the creator of a particular family tree to verify if their ancestor/family member is indeed your ancestor, especially if it’s not obvious. At times, you might even discover that their displayed ancestor is not their ancestor at all.

In other words – verify, verify, verify! It deserved repeating….

17 comments:

  1. I find this happening so often.I'm looking now at a record on Ancestry that has my ancestor being married at age 5. So people don't even apply basic logic to the information they post and replicate. I have a famous relative--Secretary of State William Henry Seward--and many people who are not related to our family want to find some way to be related to him. In one case someone insisted that his ancestor was a sister of Wm. Henry Seward who was disowned when she married outside their religion. There is absolutely no evidence of this sister every having been born to our Seward family. But they will carry their misinformation "because Grandma said so." Frustrating. Thanks for your good advice about verification.

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  3. A woman who teaches history at an ivy league university included several of my ancestors in a tree included in the introduction to her book (published by a reputable university press), and when a cousin and I called her on it, her only explanation was that she had relied on her cousin's research. And they say that genealogy is handmaiden of history! SMH.

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  4. Amen, Mel! Corollary: Just because one doesn't have the same surname, don't assume they aren't related!

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  5. Tip #2 is what I wish a lot of people would think about before adding all those children to their tree. I am battling that now with many trees attaching my great grandmother to a mother I don’t believe gave birth to her. She may have been a step mom but not bio mom. Waiting to verify thru DNA.

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  6. My favorite recent discovery in someone else's online tree was the ancestor who emigrated to Australia, married and had his whole family here, but managed to return to the U.K. for 4 census across the same period of time and to die back in the UK.

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  7. Spot on Melvin! I have felt for a long time that real genealogy needs to distance itself from the "name-collection game" that people are spoon-fed by the big commercial sites. That may be too late in reality, but I still blog about it. Another potential tip is to not assume that a tree with "sources" is any better than one without. As you say, it's about explaining rather than simply showing where you got the name from; and some sites make it difficult (or possibly a waste of time -- potential issue with ancestry trees) to cite any material that isn't one of their own online images or transcribed extracts. So where do we put our explanation? I use my blog because it's a much richer medium, and only put summary lineage details in an online tree. Will anything happen as a result of our blogging? I no longer think so ... the marketing juggernaut carries on regardless.

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    1. P.S. "Reasonably exhaustive research" is the phrase I'm most aware of, rather than "... search", but you may have had a particular reason to use that form.

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  8. I've started ignoring tree links precisely because when I used to believe them they royally screwed up my tree. There's still a false link in other people's version my tree that has been shared so much that it has gained a veneer of truth when it is so completely wrong. No doubt the side branches of my tree still contain many errors but at least now I am confident in my direct lines.

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  9. I am suspicious of name collectors. Can a person truly have verified all of the 42,000 people on their tree? I do know a person who claims that many,) I am grateful when I follow a green leaf and find new information on someone's tree that includes sources - then I check the sources myself. I recently had contact, via DNA match, with a cousin who was able to smash a brick wall for me but that led to another wall - maybe just a fence- trying to understand whether people on my tree with the same surname are connected to my "new" relatives 1,000 miles away. In truth, it is far more interesting to hunt for the facts instead of simply making an assumption and adding to my name count. Both my parents came from large families. I don't need extra names.

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  10. Great article Mel! An all too common occurrence. After reading your post, I don’t feel so bad about those humongous ( probably Frankenstein) trees being in lockdown( private) . It’s probably a good thing!

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  11. One day I was discussing family research with a clerk in a store and an elderly gentleman, a few years older than me I think, asked if I had been on Ancestry.com. I replied yes and he said "Isn't it great". I went on there and there was my whole laid out for me back many generations that added to my tree!" I shuddered when I failed to convince him that even though there were all these hints and shaky leafs that did not mean they were all related to him and that I had not been able to get past the early 1800's on most of my lines and had been researching for many years, long before internet research came along. He was not convinced by me that he might not be correct, lol.

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    1. That's almost sad, Sappy. At least he wasn't one of those historians known to have used unsourced online lineage information to support some academic work.

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  12. Timely post for me. I just asked someone on Ancestry to remove my ancestors from their tree. I keep my trees private but had shared with a cousin who has a public tree. The third party then received the green leaves and added my folks without reviewing anything. Fortunately I was able to convince her that my people were not her people. She had also shared some incorrect information with my cousin who now has to clean up her tree. I do make an effort to add notes in the description section for clarification of Facts on Ancestry, especially when I find conflicting names and dates, i.e., a stepson/daughter is recorded with the stepfather's surname, or, as in the case of my 2nd-great-grandmother - every record I've found for her has a different birth year, sometimes 10-15 years apart. I absolutely agree that you have to take the extra steps to verify your research.

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  13. I so agree with you! The worst part is that others blindly copy the incorrect information one person starts and it perpetuates. This happened with one of my great-great-uncles, who I have researched exhaustively and who my mum met with IN PERSON in 1960. Most people on Ancestry have him dying in 1905 (he died in 1963) - they are mixing him up with another man of the same name who was born in the same year. Only two of the many people I contacted (after doing my thorough research) were interested in what I had found and changed their trees accordingly. Everyone else ignored me and the misinformation continues. I keep my tree private because I don't want to spread incorrect info - I will add people I'm not certain of, but include explanatory notes and a certainty level, but I know if I made it public, people would take the info and likely ignore the rest and just assume I was correct.

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  14. This phenomenon isn't restricted to online trees and goes back as long as people have been "doing" genealogical research. I began researching my family in 1980 - long before the internet - and immediately began finding erroneous and unsourced statements given as fact and perpetuated in genealogical society publications, unsourced published family histories, county histories and heritage books, newspaper genealogical columns, family surname association newsletters, etc.

    When I began researching my husband's family history in 1994, I found mention of a letter written by an amateur genealogist in which he stated he "believed" one of my husband's ancestors was a previously unknown son of William Hill (1773-1857), former Secretary of State of NC. Despite the fact that several researchers, myself included, exhaustively researched this William Hill and his children, tracing the family through court, deed and probate records in several counties in 4 states, and we all independently conclusively proved that my husband's ancestor IS NOT and COULD NOT be a son of this William Hill, that one line from a letter is used as the sole piece of "proof." Completely disregarded by those quoting the 1960 letter is a later letter in which the same researcher states he no longer believes his previous statement to be true and that he has been unable to find proof of the ancestor's actual parentage! Both letters are in the same file in the same archives so they are both available to anyone using that file.

    After 38 years of offering to share documentation I have gathered from actually visiting courthouses, archives, churches, etc. and copying or transcribing the originals, much of which is still not available on the internet, I no longer offer although I gladly share when asked. The name collecting and name dropping games are as old as genealogical research and are 2 reasons many people still consider genealogy "a whole lot of hoakum" instead of a serious field of study and inquiry.

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