As you search for your heritage, you may notice that sites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and others might contain numerous family trees with information about your ancestors. In addition to this, your grandma, great-aunt, and other various family members may also have their own versions of your family tree. You could also find a book published by a distant cousin, county or town histories, or a variety of other sources which give information about your family tree.
In looking at all these sources, you will probably notice that some of them contain much of the same information, but others contain differing information. Some of the discrepancies may just be in the spelling of a name or in a birth date, while others will be more noticeable and concerning, such as a different spouse for your great-grandfather, or a different set of parents for your great-great-grandmother. The question then becomes, how do you know which one is right?
Do you just look at multiple trees and pick the one that’s most common?
The “Danger” of Published Trees
Just because several different family trees contain similar information does not mean that the information is accurate. With internet access so readily available, it is very easy for someone to find someone else’s published tree and copy the information to their own tree. Then someone else comes along and copies that tree, and someone else copies that tree. Before you know it, there are many trees that all contain the exact same information, and because there are so many trees with the same information, it can be tempting to assume they must be accurate. But, quantity does not equal quality! These trees can be a great foundation for starting your research and you should check to see what is out there when you’re researching your own family history, but just because they all contain the same information doesn’t mean they’re correct. They could all be copying and sharing the same incorrect information. It’s important to never accept any information as accurate without further research.
Documentation and Sources
When you’ve found a helpful family tree, the first thing you’ll want to look for is whether or not the family tree includes sources for its information, and what those sources are. If no sources are listed, check a few other trees to see if any of them list a source for the information. If none of them do, you’ll want to seek out these sources before accepting the family tree’s information as fact. An accurate family tree should always contain the best available source for each piece of information. You’ll need to begin collecting birth, marriage, death, land, census, church, probate, and other records that will prove that each generation and date or place of birth, marriage and death is accurate. In cases where there is no record with parental information, you’ll need to collect all the circumstantial evidence you can to prove a link.
Many countries have kept census records for hundreds of years, and these will be a great place to begin. Birth, marriage and death records (often referred to as vital records), along with their church counterpart (baptism, marriage, and burial records) are also great resources. As you search for your ancestor, you’ll want to ensure that you’ve found the correct person, and not someone else by the same name. For example, if your ancestor is Charles Smith, born in 1892, and you think he was living in Chicago, Cook, Illinois in 1900, one can’t assume that a tree that shows an 8-year-old Charles Smith living in Chicago on a census record is the right one. It’s recommended that you look for all Charles/Charlie/Chuck/Chas./C. Smiths born between at least 1890-1894 who are living in Chicago or other nearby towns, and then investigate those persons to determine which is your ancestor, or seek additional records as proof of his parents. Otherwise, all generations after that one might be incorrect.
When looking at county histories, family histories, or other family information that is published in book form, it is important to look for what sources they list, and also when the book was published and who the author was. For example, if your ancestor lived in Washington County, Iowa from 1850-1920, and there is a county history that was published in 1894 by his next-door neighbor that includes a biographical sketch about him, it would be pretty safe to assume the information probably came first-hand from your actual ancestor. In that case, it is a lot more likely to be accurate than the same type of book published in 1948 by the great-grandchild of someone who once lived in that area.
Look for Red Flags
There are some quick indicators that a published family tree has not been carefully compiled. Checking for these will help you as you seek to document the information.
Ages – On average, people had children between the ages of 20 and about 45. Sometimes published family trees end up skipping a generation or linking ancestors that probably don’t belong together. If someone was born in 1765 and their child is listed as born in 1825 – that should throw up a red flag. While it is possible that someone had a child at age 60, it is not very probable. If someone was born in 1765 and their child was born in 1777, that’s another red flag, as it is extremely unlikely that a child was born when the parent was age 12. In these cases, there is likely a mistake in the identity of the parents, which would then mean that all generations before that could be incorrect, and/or there is a mistake in the date for one or both ancestors. In some cases, such as the first example, it may just mean that there is a generation missing. The person born in 1765 might actually be the grandparent (rather than the parent) of the person born in 1825. In that case, you’d want to identify and add that missing generation to your tree.
Dates – Look for discrepancies. If someone is listed as dying in 1856, but their child is listed as born in 1860, you’ve got a problem. Children can be born about 9 months after their father’s death, but definitely not more than that, and they certainly cannot be born after their mother’s death! This could mean the wrong parents have been identified, or it could just mean that one or both dates is incorrect. In either case, more research is needed to make sure the tree is accurate.
Places – If your ancestor is listed as born in the United States, and his parents are born in a foreign country, then you may have found the immigrant generation. However, if that ancestor then has children listed as born in a foreign country, you may have a problem. Once people immigrated to the United States, they rarely went back to their home country. This could be a case of incorrect places listed, or the wrong parents altogether. Another example is varying states. If a published tree shows one ancestor as born in New York, and his parents are listed as born in New York also, but then you start looking at census and other records to document the connection and he consistently says his parents were born in Massachusetts, the published tree might have the wrong parents, or at the very least the wrong place of birth for them.
Making a Tree Your Own
Overall, published family trees (either online, in book form, or obtained from a family member) can be a great place to start with your research, especially if you don’t have a lot of prior information or knowledge about your family tree. Before accepting the information as accurate, it will be very important to analyze the information and sources to see where they came from and whether it all makes sense, then begin collecting your own documentation to prove everything is accurate. You’ll want to begin with the most recent generation that you are unsure of and work backwards, making sure each one is correct as you go along. Otherwise if you find a mistake just a few generations back, you might have wasted a lot of time researching people who were not really your ancestors!
As you create your own family tree, be sure to list sources for each piece of information so that people who look at it in the future can feel confident that your information is correct. It may seem tedious at first, but it will save them a lot of work (not to mention yourself, since a few years from now you likely won’t remember where exactly you found all your information). If you get stuck or need additional guidance, we are happy to help.