I have just spent a whole day sorting out a family mess. It’s not that what little information I had added to my tree was wrong – it is that the information that everybody else had copied, then incorrectly added to, then put on their tree, was wrong – compounded by everybody copying everyone else without checking the facts.
In a roundabout kind of way, Ancestry have promoted a system that actually encourages the spread of inaccurate family information. By promoting themselves, and making tracing your family tree sound simple and exotic “just enter a name and all will be revealed”, they have inadvertently unleashed a monster. People are inherently lazy, and for the majority of these new “genealogists”, if there is an easy way out, such as just taking your information from someone elses tree, that’s the road they’ll take. It’s not that collating information from other trees is wrong – it’s just that you need to double check it. In other words, there is no shortcut! You still need to research. This is how todays fiasco played out.
I have a family member on my paternal grandmothers tree named Thomas Saville. Someone related to the Saville family had contacted me regarding him, and asked meto contact her father, who was researching the same family. The initial information I had on this individual had been entered years ago, and was just sitting there waiting for me to get around to researching his family. I thought, to make matters easier, that before making the phone call, I would do some more research on him to see what I could find. My first port of call was the public family trees in Ancestry. The Saville family is large, and I found many trees with Thomas in them. The one thing they all had in common was that Ann Milligan was his wife. Okay, thinks I – I’ll check for a marriage record on one of the trees. Should be easy! Of the 20 trees I checked, NOT ONE had a document proving the marriage between Thomas and Ann Milligan. Further more, there was a discrepency with the number of children, and one tree included a second marriage. We know from records that he and his wife – and two children – arrived in Australia in 1842, and they both died here. However, a number of trees had children spanning from the early 1830s, then a huge gap of 20 years…and suddenly another batch of children appear in the 1850s!
Now, I don’t know about you, but that would have raised alarm bells with me – in fact did! I mean – children attributed to them in England at a time when they were living here? Clang! Clang! Clang goes the bell! What is wrong here? With so many trees having dodgy information, the obvious reason that it was all so over-the-shop, with inaccurate entries, and with all missing required documentation was that – they were copying each other! 20 trees with inaccurate information is frightening – because others are going to copy them as well, so we literally have a “pyramid scheme” of inaccurate information spreading like anoxious weed through peoples family histories.
So, off to research marriages for Thomas Saville and Ann. The marriage record was there – right at the top of the search results. A marriage for Ann Milligan and…Thomas SAVEL! Okay, inaccurate spelling of surname, but clerical errors are common, especially in a time where clerks often didn’t want to display their ignorance, and instead of asking for the spelling of a name, they used phonetic spellings. So, the document for the marriage was there, and a search of census records revealed that the only census they had appeared in was the 1841. However, the marriage records also revealed a union between a Thomas Saville and an Ann Ingham. There was no connection between the two marriages, and if people had checked the census records for Thomas & Ann Saville AFTER 1941, they should have noted a Joseph Ingham Saville listed amongst the children. Considering that children were often given their mothers family names as middle names, it should have raised a flag, and sent them researching further. However, they weren’t researching, so all the children were added to Thomas Saville and Ann Milligans line, and in some cases giving Thomas a second marriage to Ann Ingham. Some future researchers are going to be very confused about their lineage!
The question one has to ask is – is Ancestry giving everyone a bum ride, by making family research sound a lot easier than it is? How many people are just looking at hints, and if the name is on their tree, they are just blithely adding the record! I did make the requested phone call, and we both verified our information. Scott’s wife is a Saville, and he is researching her line. He informed me that he even encountered people researching this branch of the family in America, thanks to some Ancestry hints that had misdirected them! I still maintain – and have seen it for myself – that if people sren’t happy with their family the way it is, but want to spice it up with some convicts, or peers of the realm, or royalty…they will go out of their way to find the usually inaccurate records to prove it! I don’t get it…but there you go. Considering that to get records without paying a fortune for them you need to subscribe to Ancestry, it’s obvious who the people making money out of this – to the detriment of accurate family trees – is Ancestry! Even watching shows on genealogy like “Who Do You Think You Are?” gives a false impression on how easy it is to gather information on ones family. People watching don’t stop to consider that there is a host of professional genealogists working behind the scenes, who have probably spent months gathering information, before the show was recorded. However, having said that, it can also be excitingly revealing. In the episode with Jacqui Weaver, she was talking about her grandfathers family, whose surname was Onions. It is a very unusual name, and I knew I had some in my tree. I recorded the show, then traced the information they had against what was in my tree. Sure enough – I am distantly related, through marriage, to Jacqui Weaver. My flatmate loves to joke now, that whenever he sees her in a show he yells out “There’s your aunt!”…a bit of an exaggeration, but funny anyway.
But the message from this is – if you take your family history seriously, and not as a trend as many do, then do your leg work. There is no short-cuts, no easy way out. With the amount of inaccurate information out there on family trees (and with many losing interest after finding it is not so easy, and deserting trees), it is very easy to gather incorrect information, and take your family to places they have never been. If you are going to retrieve information from public trees, check the accuracy, and look for documentation. If in doubt, comment or contact tree owners for more information. I had someone contact me this week regarding my relationship to their family, as I had their photos on my tree (which had appeared through Ancestry hints). As it was, it is again my paternal grandmothers tree, and the person in question was my 1st cousin x 2 removed. I noted that there was no follow-on.
We owe it to our families to ensure that information is accurate, or at least as accurate as we can get it. It is better to leave a line dangling than to enter dubious information. If you are unsure of a records accuracy, hit the “Maybe” button, and research it at a later date. The one thing that I do know is that I like my family, both close and far distant. They have created me, here and now, and I owe them the respect they deserve by accurately recording their story, warts and all!
Tim Alderman (C) 2016