Evaluating Online Trees

Online family trees can be very helpful for clues to your research. Over time, they have gotten better with the ability to attach documents, to help support the data in the tree. Unfortunately, for the most part, there is no place for creators of trees to explain their methodology in creating the tree. It is incumbent upon us to dig a little deeper for information that might be there, but does not make itself readily apparent.

On Ancestry, for example, a preview pops up on the search results. In this example, we can see that this tree has information for Frederic S. French, with exact dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.The preview shows that there are 5 records attached to this tree. Unfortunately, Frederic’s parents are not known. Looking further, however, reveals a different story.

 Clicking through to the tree itself shows us that the parents’ names are “Unknown.” Among the five attached records, however, are the marriage record for Frederic and his wife Mabel E. White, and Frederic’s death record.

Frederic married a Mabel, twenty-one years his junior, 28 July 1913. The record clearly states that Frederic’s parents were Benjamin H. French and Esther M. “Crummitt”, both born  at Somerville, Maine, and living in the village of Windsorville [a village in Somerville]. It is curious that the information on Frederic’s parents, clearly available on the form, is not included in the family tree. 


Their daughter Muriel was born seven months later. Tragically, Benjamin died of heart failure just over a year after her birth, on 29 April 1915. The death record clearly states that Frederic’s parents were “Benj.” French and Esther “Crummett,” both born at Somerville.

It is difficult to understand how this situation can occur. We might be tempted to cast disparaging assumptions upon the creator of the tree. After all, how could the creator have possibly missed this information in the records that were attached to the tree? Since the dates and places of birth, death, and marriage are included in the tree, the creator clearly examined them. Looking a little more closely, however, the answer seems to present itself.

The title of the tree shows that this particular tree is called the “Pridham/Vannah Tree.” Mabel’s mother was Jennie Vannah. The tree likely follows the full information only for direct descendants of the Vannah family. Examining the records of Mabel’s parents, Elmer E. White and Jennie Vannah shows an identical situation to that of the French Family.

Their tree shows no parents for Elmer. He and Jennie married at Boston in 1885. The marriage record is attached to the tree. The index and the actual record show that Elmer’s parents were George White and his wife Sophronia. But it, too, was not included in the online tree. This would seem to validate the theory that only the information pertinent to Vannah descendants was included in the online tree.



These same decisions are made for articles and published books all the time. But for some reason, when it comes to online trees, we sometimes make rash judgements. We may think that the tree was created by a newbie or a name collector who is omitting valuable information. In truth, it may be someone who is working on a specific project, and including only the information applicable to the project. Like any resource, you should take the time to do some extra looking at the bigger picture before evaluating the entire tree.


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One Reply to “Evaluating Online Trees”

  1. LM Hinds

    Thank you for this post as I have in my online trees included individuals that ‘may be’ related but as yet I am still looking for verification through additional records. By placing them in my tree I am allowing the search engines to give me other clues that I may not have explored. When I deduce that the person(s) are NOT connected, they are removed. I typically will post a notation that they are not connected but don’t know how many people actually really review the entire record for an individual. I also have utilized “cluster” genealogy – which at a cursory glance can seem to be a real tangle of unconnected individuals. By doing ‘cluster’ research I have found several families lost by a misspelled surname. It also reveals missing females now married and accompanying other family members as they move about. When evaluating another’s posted online tree, I take the time to really examine it to see if they have other pieces of my family’s puzzle. Perhaps not on the first individual that brought me to their file, but on occasion a record for another individual will turn out to be in my line. I enjoy searching for the hidden treasures !

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