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Dangerous temptations in genealogical research

What do you do with genealogical information you find on the Internet? Do you quickly download and add the information to your family file? If you've ever been tempted, read on....

The Internet is booming with user-contributed lineage-linked databases. These databases are often the first place researchers look, and for good reason. Before performing original research, we should find out if someone else has already published information on the family. But what should we do with the information we find?

The easiest thing to do is to simply add the newly-found information to our family file, either by downloading a GEDCOM file, copying/pasting, or manually retyping the information. We have all faced this dangerous temptation. This week as I searched for and found new information on Oliver STROUD and his wife Mary BROWN, I was faced with the decision - accept what was published, or research and verify the information.

I was looking for Oliver and Mary's marriage information. I found information in nine separate databases.

Six different researchers published their marriage information as November 21, 1870 in Mills County, Iowa.

Two different researchers published April 25, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

One researcher published April 28, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

How should you determine which is correct? Is the 1870 Iowa marriage "most correct" because it was published the most? No. This most often indicates that one person originally published it, and the others copied and republished.

Quality research requires more investigation - not relying on published, undocumented findings as fact.

Just yesterday I obtained a copy of the original marriage record and was astonished at what I found. First, I learned that a marriage license was issued in Mills County, Iowa on November 21, 1870. Although six different researchers published this date/place as the date/place of the actual marriage, they were 5 months and 7 days early and about 120 miles off. The marriage record showed that they were married on April 28, 1871 in Butler County, Nebraska.

The record also gave the birth place, age, current residence, and the names of each set of parents. Imagine what I would be missing if I relied on someone else's published information. My research rule is to obtain original documents whenever possible, and always locate as many other records as I can to corroborate my findings. A careful evaluation of my findings is now possible.

User-contributed databases are wonderful tools as they can help us get in touch with other family researchers who may have other pieces to our ancestral puzzle. However, maintaining a "sense of skepticism" in any genealogical research is crucial to to our genealogical success.


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You raise a great point. I also always verify before considering the online user contributed content as fact. The great thing is that in some cases the options are at least narrowed for you. It's nothing at all like starting from scratch.

The problem is, how do you contact the contributor of the incorrect information so that they may correct it?

So often there is no way to know who has contributed it, or any other way of having it corrected.

Jeannene - you're quite right. I'm very thankful for information I find online. Most often I treat them as good clues. Sometimes, however, incorrect information can also turn on our "blinders". For example, if I saw a bunch of people stating that John Jones was born in Pennsylvania, I might start looking for and trying to prove his Pennsylvanian residency, instead of keeping all options open. With all information, we need to remember to be cautious and follow the guidelines of the Genealogical Proof Standard as outlined in The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual.

You are so correct. What bothers me is there is no way to correct it. When I have contacted a person trying nicely to tell them that are incorrect, I seem to always get no answer. This is when I have a copy of the original document in front of me. This has happened more than once. I guess I am just and old timer who has been at this for the past 20 years, long before you could get on the computer and find anything you wanted.

There are some sites that do allow one to attach a comment or "post-it" note to alert others about the problem. Ancestry.com and Rootsweb (I think) permit this alert. I have done it in the past. The correction is never made by the owner of the tree but at least the correct information is available.

Use anything on the Internet with care.
I am deceased on a few of web sites.
One researcher typed D instead of M for married in 1957, Illinois and it is funny how many others just used his information without checking anything else.
Even as I have an ongoing newsletter and web page.

The problem of incorrect information online and the difficulty of getting it corrected even occurs within commercial databases. My grand nephew died several years ago. One obituary database has somehow misread a clearly written obituary and has listed my grand neice as the deceased. My many emails have failed to produce even a response, much less an actual change in the database.

This problem is unfortunately a recurring one and the effort made to correct the information is usually met with cynicism and or rebuke, sometimes mild and in some cases very unpleasently.

Just recently I had found reference to a family that had been posted on Ancestry and up until this time I had let sleeping dogs lie simply because even though I knew and had proof that the findings were incorrect, I decided that if they were not going to publish anything I would leave it alone.

There are now eight trees with the incorrect information on Ancestry and at least five on Genesreunited, and my efforts to have the information corrected has fallen on deaf ears.

This warning definitely needs to be strongly reinforced. I know that there are two so-called family trees on Rootsweb which include some of my fairly close family connections and both have several mistakes, as I have the documentary evidence of the correct information. I have contacted both authors, who did actually bother to reply, but neither believed. what I told them and continue to perpetuate the rubbish on their Rootsweb trees. One, I suspeect, is just a name gatherer as he has about 10,000 people in his alleged tree. The other glaring mistake I have found is in an Ancestral File on Family search. This has my Great Great Grandfather married to entirely the wrong lady in entirely the wrong town in Scotland. This mistake is also in one of the Rootsweb trees.

You are absolutely correct - do not EVER believe anything that is in someone else's tree if it is of real importance to your own. Always get your own copies of the relevant documents.

I read with interest the comments on this page because it is one of major frustrations. Does anyone have ANY suggestions on how we should go about taking steps to end the chaos?

Before the LDS dumped all the junk family group sheets in with the true events info in the IGI, we could have used that. What we need is something like the original IGI that original documents can be added to, with a Post Its feature. ONLY originals would be added. I know that precludes the "original family bible", so perhaps a "Notes" field wherein we could type why we believe that bible to be accurate would be useful. NO LDS Ancestral File entry, nor any of the pedigree services would be accepted as a citation. This would elminate 80% of the repeated error. Only original documents, journals or diaries, or other original record.

We also need a place to report errors in published genealogies. One of the Rowell family books combines the families of John Sr and Jr, thus skipping a generation. And, the original Bliss genealogy was based on mis-information fed to the author, which the author sent to every known buyer of his book. Unfortunately, most of the letters were never bound into the book.

We need to start thinking of ideas to control misinformation, and then convince a large organization to take it on.

Grace Schmitt, Sunnyvale, cA

I agree that ALL information needs to be verified. The new.familysearch site which is currently being worked on allows information to be changed, disputed, or deleted (if you have added it, otherwise it will only allow a dispute). I have been spending hours combining multiple records and 'cleaning up' my family tree as it appears on that site (sometimes there may be as many as a dozen or more contributors, and if you are lucky there will be information on how to contact them).

If I find information which I do not have I go straight to the 'source' file. Much of the information has been added by LDS Extraction Programme, which means that someone has extracted the information from an original record, and this gives the source of that extraction, including the # of a microfilm or microfiche. I am currently pouring over a microfilm of actual parish records for some of this 'new' information which I found on the net. I am thus able to verify the entries which have been made. Visiting the actual sites or paying a professinal to do so for me is beyond my means (I am in Australia, most of my research is in England, Wales, Germany or Belgium), so when I can verify information from microfilms of the actual records (not transcripts), then I am satisfied.

What really bugs me is people who add information, often incorrect, to family lines that have nothing whatever to do with them, even when correct and full documentation is already present.

If I can't verify the information then, depending on what kind of information it is, I may add it, but make sure that I have completed the source information to reflect the fact that it is unverified, and is 'possible', 'likely' or 'I haven't made up my mind yet' (I love that feature of Legacy).

Denise Golding,Broken Hill, Australia

Well, maybe some of the information is incorrect, but I have found so much that is correct and that has helped me go back a few generations, that I just love finding other trees on the Internet that connect into my family. There are things I know about my direct lines that I post that I know others do not know. I feel it is the same way with others’ trees that I find on the Web. They know more about their direct lines than I do.

I am glad for the connections and the clues. And from those clues, I am able to search further and find more sources to confirm or deny the data. But at least with the addition of those trees, I have a place to start.

Now, I never just download a complete GEDCOM into my database. I always key in the new information. That way if I have some of the same ancestors already recorded, I am able to compare one-by-one the information in the online tree with my own.

And here is the beauty of Legacy and why I love it so much! It has so many features that allow me to add as much information as I can find and then compare and use that information to come up with the most accurate data available about my ancestors. Below are some examples:

1. With the Alternate Names feature, I can type in as many versions of an ancestor's name that I find and then choose the most accurate one to display on the Individual’s page.

2. With the choice of Alt. Birth, Alt. Marriage, Alt. Death, and Alt. Burial in the Events/Facts feature (and the capability of creating additional Alt. events), I can list as many different event dates and places for an ancestor that I find.

3. With the choice of Disproven Birth, Disproven Marriage, Disproven Death, and Disproven Burial in the Events/Facts feature (and the capability of creating additional Disproven events), I can show which Alt. events have been disproven and why.

4. With the Source feature, I can show from which family tree on the Internet I got the information and include the URL. I can also show that the source is Unverified and give it a Surety Level.

5. With the New Unlinked Individual feature, I can add ancestors who may be related to me, but I haven’t made the connection yet.

6. With the Notes feature, I can add as much information there as I want, and it will always be connected to a particular individual so that I can pursue further research on those particular clues at a later date.

7. With the To Do feature, I can make a to do list for each individual of all the research needed to verify the new information I’ve acquired.

Being wary and suspicious is natural and wise. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not. If you come across a tree with information that is incorrect, you can request the author to remove/correct it. If they won’t or don’t, then you can add it to your tree and show reasons why it is disproven. Then others will find your tree and weigh your evidence with their own and be able to make a more educated conclusion for themselves.

Excellent subject with many good responses and good advice.

My Rules of Thumb for looking to uncontrolled, used-submitted databases for possible clues:
> First look for those that include source documentation (fairly rare),
> Ignore postings not having parent and/or child names, dates and locations,
> If used (also rare), set the Surety to zero and Tag until proven otherwise,
> Ignore those with incorrect dates or locations of the subject individual, and in general

> Ignore any 'researcher' who brags about how large their database is (over ~2,500), as they have probably not done their homework.

I for one love it when someone contacts me and lets me know that there is incorrect information on my Ancestry file so that I can correct it. I have imported many files and the one thing that does bug me is the "fools" who thought it was funny to put actual junk in the file. Example having the ancester married to the dependents over and over or, creating birth locations that weren't even discovered yet in that time period. British Columbia seems to be the favorite place of birth for those born before 1100.

I show over 17000 names in my family file (direct and non-direct) and I have not had the opportunity to prove them all out yet. So yes, I gladdly will go in and correct any wrong information. I for one don't want the next person to have to go thru what I am going thru.

I'm a fairly new addict to family tree.

In the first stage, I didn't record sources nor did my mother (who caused my addiction).
The I asked an authority on one of our lines where she got the maiden name for my 3rd great grandmother.
most of her tree was so documented but the name she had differed from my source.

She came back that she didn't know where. That she had gotten that a long time ago.

Point, it is important to start documenting the sources we gather ASAP.
If you do take it from a undocumented tree on ANCESTRY.COM (et al), document that.
Then search for items to confirm it. Some of the leads work out.

When the new FamilySearch was first making records available, I found dozens of original death certificates, of my more immediate family members, that had been incorrectly transcribed. Because they were handwritten it's not difficult to get it wrong. When I tried to correct them, they said they didn't have a feature for doing that. Has it been added since then? No wonder there's so much misinformation being repeated.

Thanks for highloghting an important issue. Despite the nnegative reaction you may get, I think it's important to report to the original poster the incorrect information, anyway.

I find that the information available on many sites is very tempting to accept, but often proven wrong. Many researchers try very hard to be diligent about their research, but when contact information is old, it makes it difficult to contact the person submitting that information.

Many people submit pedigrees, then neglect to keep it updated when corrections need to be made. I admit that I am guilty of that myself, and I am working on updating the pedigrees I have posted online. Sometime we just need to keep a list of what we've submitted & where, so that we can keep it updated as we work on our histories.

Several researchers have my grandmother married to her brother-in-law instead of her real husband. Many people have my grandfather with the wrong parents (he was raised by his aunt and uncle when his mother died in childbirth). One person has the wrong info and then 200 others copy it off of the internet as gospel.

I also use the information I find on the internet as a clue only. If someone has a marriage date that I don't have and they have the county, then I can go to that county and attempt to locate the record. Many times the info is correct (or at least partially correct) and that helps me find the source.

Online family trees that have been stuck together without critical evaluation remind me of the mangled and mis-matched dolls that Sid created in the movie "Toy Story" by taking parts of different dolls and putting them together. I saw it so often that I finally put together a web page in July 2009 to address the issue by giving three examples and then some recommendations for what to do: http://www.wwjohnston.net/famhist/beware-ancestry-member-trees.htm

As with Geoff's experience when notifying people of their flawed trees, I have had some who were grateful and some who never answered and who never changed their tree, so that they continued to cling to their pseudo-ancestors, so that they will never discover their their real ancestors.

I hate initially finding other trees connected to mine on the net. At least 8 times out of 10 of those that I have found contain glaring errors, and some very obvious ones like a child born to a 10year old, or one born after both "parents" were dead.

I have, in the past, very gently tried to tell tree owners of their errors, giving them the correct information once I have ascertained that it is indeed an error on their part, and not mine. Quite often, just asking the question, "Where did that information come from" is enough to elicit an angry response, if any response at all is forthcoming. Telling someone they have made a mistake usually gets no response or a tirade of insults. I still do it because if I didn't I would feel partly responsible for some of the erroneous info around about my family.
I am eternally grateful to anyone who finds that I have made a mistake. There is no point in researching a family tree if it is not as accurate as it can be.
Unfortunately, this blind copying of information from one person to another without checking anything with original documents is a real problem because in the future that which is wrong is going to be taken as fact. A bit like the film "Titanic" will be in fifty to a hundred years time! Fact mixed with fiction. As someone else said, "pseudo-trees".
Mistranscriptions are bad enough, but the former comment also applies to some of the submitted, Pedigree Resource, and Ancestral Files on familysearch. My Sellwood family is a mangled mess. And there is no way of correcting them.
I don't know, however, how it can be prevented. I just use other people's published trees and info as a guide, not believing anything until I can prove things to my satisfaction.

As an computer person I can say confidently that it will always be difficult if not impossible to be sure the data you get from soneone else is going to be good because all genealogy standards are voluntary. I only recently started putting data into tools like Ancestry.ca and Geni.com and it has been interesting to see how many possible linkages have appeared. I keep my original data in Legacy and do not download any GEDS into it. I exported my Legacy data into a GED and saved it into a new GED and purged down the details and especially removed some of the living people data, and then sent that into Ancestry.ca and Geni.

I can let those programs give any suggestions and see where they go and some of them have been incredible new contacts for expanding the family tree. But none of that data goes into Legacy until I find the original source materials to be able to confirm the person or event.

So I use these web tools as a possible new direction to aim my research and at some point I will have confirmed some of these records are valid and some aren't and then I will blow away the web records and re-export out of Legacy again and see what else can be found.

So take advanatge of these tools by only having a minimal tree in them and they might be able to help you find a missing family member or even a new line. That happened to me, but none of it affects my Legacy data until I manually add it in.

Maybe the sites like Ancestry, etc., could require sources to be posted with the information submitters put on the site. I don't know if that's possible, but sure would be a big help and people might slow down instead of just throwing anything and everything up there.

One site had my great great grandmother's name and place of birth completely wrong on a census entry. When I treid to tell them they said I couldn't correct it unless I subscribed. I've since seen the same mistakes repeated on another site.

A few years ago I got very serious about documenting the family tree on my Dad's side. We had some records handed down from the 1850's onward so I had a very lucky start. However, even on FamilySearch I found some huge errors that ranged from the outright nonsense to the confusions of my gggrandfather's first and second wives, a dreadful confusion of a brother of my ggrandfather with his uncle of the same name (people, could a son have been born when his father was 4 years old as you posted, did you even think about the dates you were typing?) I found a whole blog where one forebear was attached to the family of a famous Puritan apparently just because they arrived in New England the same year and had the same last name. There is no relationship, believe me. If you bothered to read any histories of the period you would be able to determine that pretty closely even without visiting birth and death records - and I have never come across that assertion before so I can only conclude that the blog author just made that leap all by themselves and liked the sound of it so they presented it as "fact". After the number of errors I have found on familysearch, ancestry.com, etc. that I know, for sure, are errors because I am looking at original material or copies of original material, I use online trees as only a source of hints but I take nothing until I have proved it from source.

But the Internet has one awesome resource: archive.org. There is an amazing amount of scanned old material there.

And I am really happy to say that the few times I have reached out to the owner of a tree where I took issues, the resulting correspondence has been very positive with a healthy exchange of skepticism and source material that contributed to both our efforts because we ended up going down trails neither one of us had really followed yet. And no, I did not bother to contact the blogger who was so happy to be descended from a famous Puritan family (not) since I figured that would be a waste of time.

I too am very upset with people who copy information and summit it under there name and have absolutely no connection to that family. As far as I am concerned One World Tree is a Joke, most of the information has no source and the information is incorrect,I make it a rule not to use anything unless I can verify it.
Having spent years tracking down my ancestors,and being sure that they really belong in my tree, I just get very upset with people that can not take the time to check before they post. I found members of my family tied into wrong families thru the census records
when if you take the time to check several census records you can see that the children do not match, or the dates are really off. But like everyone else i know their is nothing that can be done about it. So I will just continue to check and veify and make mine as accurate as possible.

The above also apply to death certificates. I have information on one of my relatives that she died on one date. I received a copy of the death certificate and found she died two years earlier. The trouble is the death certificate listed the wrong parents. So I went with part from both. The reason I did that was I personnaly knew the individual.

This has been such a relieving thread to read, because of the severe frustration I have been having by trying to help correct details I find wrong on others trees, especially on Ancestry.com

It didn't occur to me that Familysearch may, themselves, have errors in the same magnitude..which is really upsetting since, I guess, many people consider them to be a pretty accurate source (within reason allowing for transcript errors)I have used their Ancestral files quite a bit... :0

When I first started, some 25 years ago, all my documents came from origional sources and IGI, but I didn't note where those sources were. I think I had better start backtracking and re-finding those sources, just to re-check and confirm!!

Very interesting subject. My approach to any information I enter is to sight the source of the information, and further sight the source provided with the information. Unless the source is primary it is not acceptable as other than a pathway, and the primary source must be obtained wherever possible.

Correcting misinformation can present problems, but wherever possible an attempt to do so should be made

I absolutely agree with the above - there is at least a dozen trees on web sites relating to one of my families and all repeat the same error - all stem from one tree published years ago by a person now deceased. As all the errors are the same I know it is a case of "this looks good I'll copy it into my tree" i have contacted quite a number of people but only one replied positively - I even offered to send marriages certs so that people could see the correct info for themselves.

All the trees are still there and all because someone years ago did not realise that two brothers and a cousin had sons within two years and gave them the same name George AGHHHHH. Online these three George's have same parents - instead of three different sets - two of the Georges are said to have died and the youngest survived - no-one noticed the gaps in their ages make this extremely unlikely - first one born - then 7 months later number two and 8 months later number three - so mum was very busy !!! - not one of the copiers even queried this.

As they were born 1835/36 no birth certs possible - but I have seen the baptisms - if I could then so could others - again no-one noticed there were three Georges with the same surname married in 1857, 1861, and 1865 and the surname is a very very unusual one, so not hard to pick up - I have offered to provide marriage certs for all three - no-one wants to know . The name is constantly mispelt on censuses - between them the three Georges had 13 children - online these "genealogisrs" say the 13 are sons of one George -but I know eight of these kids are assigned to wrong parents.

Back in the 90's when I got my first computer, I set up a family web site at Myfamily.com. This was a password protected site and only members I invited had access. They had a section for a Family tree, so myself and other family members worked together to build a tree. None of us knew much about genealogy let alone sources. Well to make a long story short. Ancestry took over Myfamily and published our tree that I now know is full of errors, with no way to fix them. Needless to say now I am a little wiser and I find my incorrect information in many other files.

I do check other online family trees. What I have found is "very little or inaccurate information". I had submitted family information on IGI and Rootsweb. What I later learned is that they keep all the files submitted even though my later submittals were updated and with supporting and accurate documentation.

I understand that with IGI with the new family search corrections and deletions will be possible after release to the public.

Rootsweb with all its passwords and other junk makes it almost impossible to correct a submitted file. I tried recently but am so discouraged I am again going to totally remove my submitted tree.

As for my Ancestry tree, I have, in the introduction, explained that many times I will insert new information and later may have to delete it because of lack of confirmation/documentation. But, I do find other trees just pick up the information without any verification. I try to include copies of birth/death/marriage records. Hopefully those reviewing my tree will look at those.

Thanks for listening.

I have databases that include information I have collected over the years on my http://HellenicGenealogyGeek.com website. I have made this information available to help people that are researching their Greek family history (alternative information is scarce). I do, however, encourage people to look at the original sources and hope that they will follow this advise.


I began researching my family lines some 10 years ago and tried to verify all data I included. I have found through much research that a high percentage of the data I saw on the internet relating to my lines was incorrect. I say use the data as "clues" and continue to "verify" all data and facts. My question to anyone is "why would you want to include inaccurate information in your research data?" "What purpose does it serve?".
It took me almost 10 years to determine the surnames of my great grandmother and who her parents were and also the same for another 2nd great grandmother, but I know for sure who they are NOW!!

An excellent commentary and piece of advice. I always try to check BD&M dates given in other people's databases but I find that only the original registration can be trusted and especially NOT dates given in the IGI that derive from user-supplied information. I also found that original marriage certificates can be wrong, too. My Gt Grandmother was born in Redruth, Cornwall and emigrated to South Australia with her parents as a child. She was orphaned by age 15 yrs and taken in my a work-mate of her father. Her surname was Bawden, her marriage certificate has "Bowden-Tatchell" as her adoptive father put his name on the certificate. So all information needs to be taken advisedly.

Occasionally there is some humor to be found in research errors. My favorite example is this:

While looking through a well known genealogical site maintained by a certain religious organization I came across one of my Norwegian ancestors from long ago. My heart lept with joy when I saw that whoever posted the information went back several more generations. My joy turned to laughter when I did further research and discovered that my many times great grandfather Sigurd Sigmundsson was none other than the mythological character "Siegfrid" from Wagner's famous opera, and his wife was Brynhilda, a Valkyrie. Going back still more generations I found that I was indeed related to none other than Odin himself complete with birth date and place. Along side of Odin is, of course, Mrs. Odin. Strangely, no date of death is listed for either, hmmmm. God I love genealogy!

Perhaps I have gone about stuff wrong as well. My Paternal family has been on line for some time. I have tried to have the information corrected and was ignored. I sent the authors copies of records to proove they were wrong and still nothing. I added a post it on Roots web... it was soon removed. Some of the trees took out this family all together. Finally I removed my tree from Genes Reunited. I have not published it on other sites as I hate the copy and paste mentality which has allowed errors to grow until the fiction becomes the "facts" and proofs of the errors are something else.

When recording, or checking entries in family bibles, they often are incorrect. I have found several entries that made me dig further. So don't take the BIBLE as a true source. Often the one recording it is doing so at a later date, or has reason to change a date! As the other entries say always try and find several sources. Sometimes one finds old family letters that back up the info. What a treasure that is.

I also have found errors in my family and even in the records regarding myself. I looked at Family Search very closely, and determined that the person who did the data entry has my mother married to my dad's dad and that I am the son of my grandfather.

Another error has to do with the parents of my 3rd GGF. One listing shows our line connected to the family of Mathias Hatfield of England/Holland. On doing a DNA test, it has been determined that my 3rd GGF cannot be of this line, as we are of Jewish/Middle Eastern Descent, rather than British. I refused to add the Mathias Hatfield line until I could see a solid, paper driven connection, which I never did.

As to getting this, or any database corrected.....good luck. I do try to contact those whom I know have downloaded incorrect info, when I can, so that this can be taken care of.

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