Online family trees: are you dead or alive?

I started a message on Ancestry a few nights ago to a man I don’t know. I was making a tongue-in-cheek offer to send him a crisp, new $50 bill if he could produce any legitimate evidence whatsoever that a person named Margaret Masena Kendall Marshall Rankin ever existed. While defining “legitimate evidence,” I realized the message sounded unkind and might make him angry. I also remembered yet again that I (like every other genealogist) don’t always find all the available evidence. Moreover, I sometimes misinterpret evidence that is right under my nose.

I cancelled the message. He may have missed out on an easy $50.

I turned my frustration with the elusive Mrs. Rankin into a project. I sent an email to the five best family history researchers I know: John Alexander, Roberta Estes, William D. (“Bill”) Lindsey, Jody McKenney Thomson, and Gary Noble Willis. I asked them to share examples of humorous or common mistakes they have seen in family trees.

Our stories identified seven categories of common and/or funny errors:

  • biologically impossible
  • are you dead or alive?
  • invent your own facts
  • proving the wrong thing
  • geographic hopscotch
  • same name confusion
  • GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out (“GIGO”)

Here they are, illustrated by my friends’ stories.

Biologically impossible

John started our conversation like so:

“It’s hardly even worth writing about the cases of a child who was born when his or her parents were eight years old (or less) and of the parents who came back as ghosts to have children.”

John provided a link to a WikiTree site that analyzes a “shared” family tree for members who participate in an error assessment program called “Data Doctor.” A recent posting said that “Data Doctor analysis has found 21,635 men on our shared tree who became fathers before age 10 … 1,223 women who had children after age 100 … 2,134 who married before they were born and 2,904 who married after death.”

Talk about common errors! If you haven’t made one, you are apparently a rare breed.

Jody has a somewhat related story, although the error in question has an Oedipal twist:

“… years ago, I found an Ancestry tree that had my father, James Wilson McKenney (1908 – 1976), married to his mother, Edna Mae Durfey (1885 – 1969).  Grandpa was completely left out of the story! I wrote to the owner of the tree telling him that I knew both Wilson and Edna intimately and that it just was not so. I asked nicely if he would please change the error and gave him the correct relationships. A year later he had not made the change so I implored him, pointing out how ludicrous this was. It took him FIVE years to make the correction.”

Jody subsequently found a great alternative. Rather than contacting the owner of a tree containing an error, she attaches a “note” to the tree  and provides accurate information. Mission accomplished: correct information is available to anyone viewing the tree. No imploring required. I will use that approach henceforth.

Are you dead or alive?

Roberta’s story is surely one of a kind. In her own words:

“My favorite one is that I’m dead. I wrote to the person assuring them I’m not, and they accused me of being a crook, to put it nicely. (They were anything but nice.) They told me they knew me and I’m dead. It was the most bizarre discussion I’ve ever had. I told them I’ve never heard of them and they said “of course not, you’re dead.”

I finally had to contact the company and ask them to remove my death information from that person’s tree because the fact that I was “dead” allowed my private information to be shown to others.

Multiple times. They kept killing me off again. Seriously.”

John asked if the person was just trying to be funny. Roberta’s response:

“Nope, they were dead serious, pardon the pun. They were angry with ME for wanting them to remove my death date in their tree. I suggested that perhaps it was another Roberta Estes and they very condescendingly said, ‘No, that’s not possible, I know you and you’re dead.’”

I was compelled to ask Roberta if she was already dead when she and I met about twenty years ago in Halifax, Virginia for research in the county courthouse. I would love to be able to say that I met an actual ghost in the flesh, so to speak.

Invent your own facts

Bill’s story would be funny if it didn’t involve unalloyed meanness. To wit: he had a long exchange with the administrator of a certain DNA project about an ancestor issue. He provided reams of documentation to the administrator. (For the record, it was NOT the Lindsey/Lindsay DNA project administrator.) The administrator had written an article about one of Bill’s collateral relatives named Thomas “Doe” of South Carolina.

Bill describes the administrator’s article as “entirely divorced from reality.” Attempting to connect Thomas Doe of South Carolina to a John Smith in Mississippi (where Thomas Doe never set foot), the administrator claimed Thomas changed his name in Mississippi from Thomas Doe to John Smith. I probably don’t need to add that there was no evidence of any name change. The administrator also claimed Bill had provided no support for his argument, thoroughly insulted him, and threw him out of the DNA project with a false claim that he was sharing DNA results.

Bill’s story probably wins some kind of prize for the administrator’s mendacity and petty cruelty. The apparent lesson: if the facts don’t support your argument, invent some facts. Get out your Sharpie and alter the weather map.

Proving the wrong thing

Gary’s story wins the trifecta category for awards because it qualifies as “proving the wrong thing” as well as two other categories described below, “geographic hopscotch” and “same name confusion.”

Here it is. Having exhausted available records in the library and the Family Search website, Gary looked on Ancestry for any evidence of the children of a Hugh Rimer/Rymer and Mary Willis of Dorchester County, Maryland. Voilà! Gary found a tree including Hugh Rymer and wife Mary of Maryland. The only problem was the supporting record proved Hugh and Mary Rymer had eight children who were all born in England. The English couple could not possibly have been the same Rymers as the Maryland couple. Oops!

Geographic hopscotch

Gary’s story would have a Maryland couple repeatedly crossing the Atlantic to have children. One example I found concerns a man whose Revolutionary War pension application (and his widow’s) say that he was born and died in Pennsylvania. Census and other records establish that most of their eight children were born in Tennessee. You’ve either got to smile – or be amazed. That was one busy woman, going back and forth from Pennsylvania to Tennessee eight times. I wonder if she took all the kids with her on those trips.

When you see a lot of intra-generational geographic moves, be alert … you’re often on the trail of some bad genealogy. Those eight children were probably just attached to the wrong parents.

Same name confusion

This a common error which we have all undoubtedly made. I’ve written articles about it a number of times on this blog, including articles about Lyddal Bacon Estes,  Edward Buxton Lindsey, Robert Rankin  — two different Robert Rankins, including Robert Rankin of Gibson Co., TN  and Robert Rankin (died 1795),  Jeremiah Rankin, and David Rankin of Franklin Co., PA. One of those “same name” stories taught me that people do not like hearing they are wrong, even in the context of family history – where we all make errors!

Here’s what happened. I “met” a close match through FTDNA autosomal tests. Both of us have Rankin ancestors. We compared notes and learned we share Rankin great-great-grandparents. We had a pleasant exchange of emails sharing personal info and family histories. I looked closely at his tree, and found that it showed one of our shared ancestors – Lyddal Bacon Estes – married to two different women at the same time. This is a common error for Lyddal. It is really  understandable in light of his unusual name(s).

I sent my distant cousin information about our ancestor’s one-and-only wife. I included citations to county records. The email was not rude or unkind, and didn’t suggest he change his tree … it was just an “FYI, here is another view” message. Not only did I never hear from him again, he barred me from viewing his tree. That’s pretty angry.

GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out (“GIGO”)

Bill recalls a woman he met decades ago at an LDS family history center. Her research consisted of printing GEDCOM after GEDCOM on a dot matrix printer. She then painstakingly inserted the information from the printout into her own family tree. That takes almost as much effort as doing the original research, although it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Bill calls her approach “GEDCOM in, GEDCOM out,” or GIGO for short – meaning “garbage in, garbage out.” If you ever worked with computers, you are familiar with that acronym.

It is now absurdly easy to import GEDCOMs having thousands of names and to merge them with your own tree. One cannot possibly confirm all that information. This is a great way to construct a tree that shows you as a descendant of, say, a Mayflower pilgrim, Sitting Bull, Charlemagne, and the Buddha. More power to you if that’s what you want from this hobby. As we like to say in the south, bless your heart.

Instead of starting a rant, here is my view and Roberta’s of  evidence and proof with respect to online family trees. Both articles (mine contains a link to Roberta’s) assert that they are not genealogical evidence. If you want to argue with that assertion, please send me a crisp $50 bill. Then we can talk.

It is unquestionably true that many online trees are conscientious attempts to construct an ancestry through research into actual evidence. It is also true that many online trees are simply GIGO, like the tree constructed by the woman who printed GEDCOMs.

GIGO trees contain a plethora of errors. We will all run into them. As for me, I have sworn off contacting anyone about bad information on a tree. If you are thinking about doing that, please send me a message first. I will do my best to dissuade you.

See you on down the road.

Robin

5 thoughts on “Online family trees: are you dead or alive?”

  1. These stories would be funny if they didn’t create so much tree contamination that spreads like viruses. My first (I am an amateur) run through Ancestry.com family trees took me all the way back to the early 1,000’s. Then I ran across Robin’s blog and started over. Now I can’t get past the three William Lindseys of Brunswick County, Virginia. Just goes to show!

    1. Bruce, thanks for the laugh! “Tree contamination” is a great phrase, I’m going to steal it. It’s like Dutch Elm disease or something.

      I can’t remember whether you’re involved in the Lindsey DNA Project. They have done a good job of subgrouping.

      Best,
      Robin

  2. Dear Robin,
    Thank you, THANK YOU, as always your the Best at helping the name match game get educated to reality.
    You provide motivation to search for Facts not Fiction.However maybe fiction is fact,to those on the fast track?
    I find that on “find a grave” …note no caps…..there is no way to correct dreadful errors and not share info. that will be used to invent a family member, and then provide a source of false info. to others,so very tragic.Whenever I see, if you pay $$$ for family history, well I call that the name match game and do not care to help the company,whatever name they use or provide.No help from me to FG.
    Searching for family history is learning history never provided in our education,little facts that make you want to really search for more info. related to events and how your family worked,lived and in many case died very young.
    Thanks to your(tested) evidence I now I have more history and real evidence for of Rev. Robert Rankin, TN. and Thankfull Rankin McCain wife of Hance McCain. is
    Did you know that Hance McCain’s sister Lydia McCain Burney is buried in Center Point TX.(the cemetery with more Texas Rangers buried there then any other cemetery?) and the trail back to Bethel Springs, Mc Nairy County, TN and other Rankin’s from NC travel to TX and CA.?
    I can not find the graves of Thankfull or Hance,however the trail and footprints are there I just need a good helper like a Border Collie.
    Again thank you.

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