a new beef

If you have come anywhere close to this blog before, you have heard me grouse about online family trees at Ancestry, Family History Search, and other websites. I have preached ad nauseam that “information” on such sites does not prove anything.[1] It is not even evidence, much less  proof.  Actual family history evidence — which leads to proof — comes from original sources such as county probate records, deeds, tax lists, state birth and death records, and so forth. Online trees are, at best, clues. For the most part, they aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. 

I obviously haven’t whined and moaned enough. It’s time to kick it up a notch.

A friend with considerable DNA expertise advised Gary and me to take the autosomal DNA test at Ancestry, although we had already tested at FTDNA. He said Ancestry has a larger database and that (at the time) their autosomal results featured something useful called “circles” of people to whom you are genetically related. The “circles” are now gone. What is left is something called “thru lines.”

I haven’t looked at “thru lines.” What I found out right off the bat (according to Ancestry) is that one’s autosomal results aren’t worth a spit unless you have a family tree at Ancestry.

Accordingly, I began to create one. Ancestry purportedly makes it easy by providing “hints.” For example, when I entered the name of a grandparent, a census record in which the grandparent appeared popped up. For the first few generations of a new tree, Ancestry’s suggestions are probably mostly accurate and harmless. There is good information in plenty of readily accessible information in twentieth-century census, marriage, birth and death records. More importantly, most of us know from personal experience the names of our parents, grandparents, and perhaps some great-grandparents. When that is the case, Ancestry’s suggestions, even if erroneous, don’t really matter. No harm, no foul for, say, the twentieth century.

The wicket gets a bit sticky as you make your way into the 19th century. It gets worse the further back in time you go. Let’s assume you have already done a good job researching your family history via conventional paper research in county and other primary records. You will be well-equipped to know whether Ancestry is providing accurate information when it suggests the names of an ancestor’s parents … or whether it is just providing names obtained from other family trees.

I eventually gave up on my autosomal results because of the arrant nonsense Ancestry was suggesting as possible parents for my relatives. Here are examples:

  • Ancestry suggested that the mother of my ancestor “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn Estes (wife of Lyddal Bacon Estes of Tishomingo Co., MS) was Lettice “Letty” Stone. This misinformation gets the “SAY, WHAT?” award. Other than the fact that Letty may also have been from Lunenburg and may have married a Winn — Lunenburg was awash in Winns and Stones in the nineteenth century — that is pure fiction, not fact. There are a million Lunenburg County records proving that “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn’s parents were Benjamin Winn and that his wife’s name was Lucretia (Andrews). Please forgive my hyperbole.
  • Ancestry suggested that Nancy Winn Estes’s husband Lyddal Bacon Estes (“LBE”) married Sally Alston Hunter. We need an emoji here for a big Bronx cheer. Sally Hunter did marry a Dr. Lyddal Bacon Estes (“Dr. LBE”). Dr. LBE and LBE were different men. This is a classic case of I wrote about “same name confusion.”  The Lunenburg couple — LBE and Nancy Winn — married there in March 1814. Dr. LBE died November 1814 in Maury Co., TN, and his widow was named “Sally” in at least two county records. LBE continued to appear in Lunenburg tax lists after Dr. LBE died. A comment by Shirley McLane’s character Ouizer Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias comes to mind: “these are not difficult questions!”
  • Chesley Estes, son of Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes of Lunenburg, was not the father of the LBE who married Nancy Winn. Chesley died in Maury Co., TN, having never married and having lived with his parents most of his life. This one at least gets a “close, but no cigar” award: Chesley’s sister Mary Estes was LBE’s mother. Her identity is, I confess, a more difficult question, although Chesley’s lack of children  is not.
  • Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes were the parents of Dr. LBE who married Sally Alston Hunter and died in Maury Co., TN in 1814. They were not the parents of LBE who married Nancy Winn in Lunenburg in 1814 and eventually settled in Tishomingo Co., MS. LBE died there between December 1844 and March 1845, and Nancy was his administratrix.  Here is an article  about LBE and Nancy Winn Estes’s family.
  • When Ancestry tells you it may have identified a parent for one of your ancestors, you can click on a link for the source of the information. You get only one guess for the source 99% of the time … And the winner is: someone else’s family tree. I made the mistake of messaging one of the tree owners about an error, but I should have known better. Correcting someone else’s family tree is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time, and it just irritates the pig. 

Here is a link to Roberta Estes’s post about “thru lines.” She explains it better than I could.  

And here is the bottom line. It has always been obvious that many, if not most, family trees on Ancestry and other genealogy sites are constructed by copying other people’s family trees. This is a fast way to spread both bad and good information. Ancestry has now exacerbated and accelerated that process by helping people rapidly construct family trees with information obtained almost primarily? exclusively? from other peoples’ family trees. Ancestry, bless its heart, is killing credible family history research. That may not be a good long-term business model.

Gary, who likes to predict comments I will receive on my posts, says I’m going to get one saying, “No, Ancestry is just killing antiquated effete intellectual ‘researchers’ who think solving genealogical puzzles by digging through actual records is ‘fun.’”

One final note. If you aren’t familiar with Southern idiom, “bless her/his/its heart” means “what a total idiot.”

See you on down the road.


[1]Some online trees do provide sources such as census and probate records. Such information is obviously worthwhile provided it is associated with the right person. There are many probate records attached to Mr. X on Ancestry, when the will in question was actually written by Mr. Y, who lived a generation later and lived 6 counties west. Both Mr. X and Mr. Y were named John Smith, but that doesn’t mean they were the same man.

6 thoughts on “ a new beef”

  1. Robin,
    You get a huge “Amen Sister” for this one!
    I finally quit looking at hints on Ancestry after posting my aunts, uncles and grandparents. I find MyHeritage to be even worse than Ancestry. I have only a DNA account with them. Not the family tree account. I still keep receiving notices from MyHeritage that they have found additional kinfolk and with a simple click, I can download 50 new people to my family tree! Wow! 50 unconfirmed new family members! You bet! They flat out encourage you to accept these people sight unseen. Such practices cannot end in a good place.

  2. Keep fighting the good fight with ACCURACY because history or family history has the essential need to be true, proven and accurate. I love the fact that you believe in the need for our history to be TRUE for God’s sake. I also personally adore the fact that you work hard for your truths, and that Gary travels with you to the towns and cities that hold your truths. I want to know in 2019 that TRUTH is still important, and with your work I know I will see it, read it and believe it. Onward truth seeker.

  3. Yes, I understand. My aunt and uncle back in the 1960’s expanded on the research that an earlier family member had done. I have tried to expand on that because they did it the “old fashioned” way. Ancestry does have it’s value, if you question each leaf. My family were French Huguenot’s by the name of Puryear – not a French name. In going through the scant records of early family members, I found one or two who used the name Perriere. Bingo, I found another legal record and also a publication that Goochland Co. put out of early Goochland court and baptismal records (The Douglas Register) though Ancestry. This had the names of two of my great, etc. uncles who migrated from then Warwick Co. to Henrico/Goochland. I just laugh at obvious fabrications of ancestry. Now I know what our family name was, and can try to do more research with that. Also, there are Winn’s on both sides of my family – Fluvanna Co. and Henrico/Hanover Counties.

  4. Thank YOU for providing the “Truth”based on FACTS not fiction!! I agree with everything you state related to Ancestry INC. and I would dare add, a for profit COMPANY.However if the Fools who trust the info. provided by( Ancestry the company), they pay the price to invent facts from fiction; just proof of there is a $$$ sign in front of the family name.
    Enough from me.

  5. So So true, Now with folks clicking and accepting possible hints, they are mixing up even more folks with similar names without stopping to check and see if they lived in the same area. I just found one case where the father had been dead for about 20 years and yet he is listed as being married to someone else because his name Minor Bowles Winn was similar to Miner Winn. UGGHH..
    Thanks for all your great in depth research and saying what we all want to say.

  6. How accurate you are when you said, “Ancestry, bless its heart, is killing credible family history research. That may not be a good long-term business model.” As far as Ancestry’s “leafy-things,” I never could understand why the company actually advertises their product with what we might very loosely call their “leaf technology.” Their “leafs” are “hints” or “clues,” which as you point out, are frequently wrong, the further back in time you go. Their entire system is a huge data dump of millions of records (censuses, tax records, wills, death records, etc., and not complete for every state). They then use “crowd-sourcing” to tie these records to specific individuals. In other words, their paying customers do the work of linking the records to individuals. The user created links between records and individuals generate the “leafs.” As with any “crowd-sourced” data bank (e.g. the Wikipedia website, for instance), it comes with its own set of problems. Just like the people who write articles on Wikipedia, the users who link the records on aren’t, for the most part, “experts.” And this is why there are so many bad “leafs” or false “clues” in their system. I’ve actually visited one tree in Ancestry where the tree owner acknowledged that he just attached random records to individuals in an attempt to “throw everything against the wall and to see what sticks.” Those actions unfortunately create bad “leafs” for every other tree owner. Every time someone attaches a record to an individual in their tree, everyone else with the same individual gets a “leaf” directing them to the same record, whether it’s right or wrong. I think this is just one reason Ancestry should stop trying to sell its product by advertising its “leaf” system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *