Researching your ancestors has never been easier. We have tremendous amounts of information available to us. Database after database of indexes, transcriptions, and original records have facilitated our access to information. More and more individuals are sharing their research through online family trees. Websites now even provide suggestions to users to add people to their online family trees. All of this technology helps us in many ways to move the research process along more quickly. But it also increases our burden, because errors are more easily missed and absorbed into our personal pedigrees, wreaking havoc with our true ancestry.
Let me start this conversation by saying that I in no way blame the technologies companies that are providing the information. Computers are very stupid things. They do what humans tell them to do. They will provide us with search results and suggestions very quickly. But it is up to us to determine whether or not these results and suggestions are accurate. All too often, this is a step in the process that we skip. And that missing step is what causes problems in our pedigrees.
I was doing some research once for an article I was writing on my grandfather’s family. I was trying to locate the death information for several of his many siblings. During the course of my search I discovered an online family tree created by a second cousin. Although identities are hidden on living individuals for privacy, I easily determined who created the tree. Her grandmother was my grandfather’s sister. In looking at it, I quickly saw that she had traced our great-grandfather’s line back for 13 generations. The problem is that every bit of it, starting with our great-grandfather’s birth information and identification of his parents, was wrong. it was clear that research had been limited to online resources. Since his parents also immigrated to the same village in Connecticut, any search in records there would have quickly revealed the disconnect. They are even buried in the same plot as our great-grandparents!
As a rule, French-Canadian names can be quite common, with many different individuals carrying the same, or highly similar, names. Our great-grandfather is an exception to that rule. There are only a handful of individuals who had the same name. And my cousin connected to the wrong individual. Examining my great-grandfathers’ marriage record, death record, or burial record would have corrected the problem in a moment.
Online family trees only exacerbate this problem. They can make it easier to more quickly add many branches to your family tree. But they also allow errors to creep in more quickly. Nowhere are the errors more egregious than when trying to link to famous families.
This example comes from an online family tree with an error I have often come across. Individuals trying to be related to Benjamin Franklin name James Franklin of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, as a son of Thomas and Jane (White) Franklin.
Looking at the tree, one can see several documents attached as evidence. But carefully looking at the documents shows that none of them provides any information about the parents of James. That’s because his origins are unknown. But since Thomas Franklin had no son named James, and since Thomas was an only son, there is no way to tie someone of his generation to the more famous Franklin family.
This did not stop someone at some point from linking James. And others picked up that information in their trees, and now it is all over online trees in many different places. Many of these people have no intention of including misinformation. They just didn’t take the time to look at the records, which easily show that there is no connection to the Dartmouth family. It is not the responsibility of the companies hosting the trees to verify the accuracy. That would be prohibitively expensive, as there is no way to automate the process. It is up to us to connect our sources and information to the proper people.
As technology continues to improve, it is only more incumbent upon us to review the records and information we have on our ancestors to ensure the accuracy of the linkages we have made.