Chopping off Branches of My Family Tree

I’ve spent this week doing research on my own family – spending hours in history societies and genealogical libraries, and dusty courthouse vaults looking for traces of ancestors. I love doing this work, so I can’t say I’ve had a bad time, but I have had as many disappointments as discoveries.

Some of the disappointments have been bad enough that I need to delete parts of my work-in-progress family tree, ancestors I’ve come to know over the years and really wanted them in my story. Saying goodbye to family members this way isn’t easy. To cope with my mourning, I thought I’d remind us all:

Don’t Blindly Trust Online Trees

It could end up in heartbreak, or at least a lot of extra work, if you assume that ancestors and family relationships people post online are correct, just because someone has the same or similar name. In both cases where I now need to delete family from my tree, this information is in trees on well-known genealogy websites.

In the first case I experienced this week, someone must have wanted an ancestor to belong to a more affluent family with the same last name, but combing through wills and probate files showed he didn’t even live in the same county as the rich man with the big house and exciting history. The documents I have for this ancestor indicate he was probably illiterate, as he signed his name with an X. Wouldn’t it have been unusual for him to be from the affluent family, since their original documents like deeds and wills contained written signatures? I think so.

In the second situation this week, someone might have become frustrated not finding any records for our ancestor, so assigned him to a family with the same name and better documentation, who lived roughly in the same area of the state. There is some indirect evidence to suggest he was part of the family, like a common profession, but he doesn’t show up in any of the tax, deed, wills or vital records for the county where that family lived! The last straw was his father’s will, which listed another man as his only son. Case closed.

As much as I hoped I’d find connections between my ancestors and these families, it was a good reminder to me to remain skeptical of family histories posted on websites, that it’s important to back up each relationship with multiple pieces of evidence, preferably from primary (there was an eye witness), original sources, like birth or marriage certificates. Using techniques like these, described in the Genealogical Proof Standard, is the best way to clear our trees of debris, and save us from the grief of starting over.

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