To Err Is Human…

To Err Is Human…To Forgive Divine – Alexander Pope.

This week I got to thinking after a post over on thegenealogygirl’s blog asking what you wished you had known when you started researching your family tree. To me I didn’t necessarily wish I had known all the secrets of this great hobby/profession, because I enjoyed the process of learning all about it. From simple beginnings to gradually learning more and more and eventually making something of a career from it. However, in the early days I made mistakes, there were small errors and at times whole chunks of trees that had to be deleted and then started from scratch again, and I gave myself such a hard time about it. I felt so stupid, especially if I had found out something really interesting and had yabbered on to all and sundry about it, and then to find out that actually there was no connection at all. One major mistake I made was in my haste to try to figure out more about my great grandfather Henry Griffiths, I couldn’t do with waiting for the 1911 census to be available to see what it said for his place of birth – oh no! When the 1911 census did come along I discovered my hunch was wrong and I deleted a big section of my tree, but do you know what? All along I kept having a niggling feeling that it wasn’t quite right, it bothered me, it kept me awake at night. So to find out the right information made me really happy and excited.

So what I wished I had known was that it’s OK to make mistakes. Our best teacher is our last mistake. We all make them for a range of reasons, from perhaps choosing the wrong option when presented with more than one possibility for an ancestor in the records, from inexperience and lack of understanding of certain sources and of course the minefield that is copying information from another family tree.


In this internet age the potential of finding other people with the same ancestry as you has risen dramatically, with tree sharing websites popping up all over the place, genealogy forums and message boards. It is great that we can make contact with people all around the globe, sharing information and making new friends and connecting with long-lost family members. Ancestry has one of the main tree sharing capabilities on it’s site, allowing other users to share their trees publicly and for others to be able to take a look and make contact and share research. It is great to be able to view these trees and the information attached to them, although it doesn’t allow people to view what notes you have on your tree unless you set someone up with the role of Editor – which does irk me slightly as I will often put a lot of information in the notes section, often explaining reasoning behind my research, records I have considered but discounted, that kind of thing. One of the pitfalls of this tree sharing and hint providing is that Ancestry allows you to merge information from another tree into yours… uh oh…this is where it starts to get a bit tricky.

The flip-side to the internet age is the gradual decline in manners and an increase in laziness or the desire for things to happen immediately with little effort. Ever since I started to use sites like Ancestry or Genes Reunited with the expectation of being able to contact other researchers and help each other out for a common goal I was surprised at the amount of people who just didn’t get it. On Genes Reunited I would get messages that didn’t even start with a ‘Hello’ or a ‘Dear Alex’. Just things like “John Brown married Mary Smith in Birmingham.” No, “Hello, I see you have a John Brown in your tree, did he by any chance marry a Mary Smith in Birmingham in 1869? I look forward to hearing from you. Regards….” I would always reply politely with a hello and a thank you. With Ancestry people can see my tree, so they don’t necessarily have to send me a message in order to garner further details, they can copy away to their hearts content. I do still get the occasional message where a nice genuine person wants to make contact and talk about their findings and mine and I will often send them all sorts of things – like reports that show all the notes I have on particular ancestors so they have a fuller understanding of my research if they want to check any of it.

One thing I like about Ancestry is the ‘Recent Member Connect Activity‘ section on the Homepage. It allows me to see who has been saving media items from my tree to theirs. I would say that 7 out of 10 times I have no issue with this. I wouldn’t set my tree to public if I wasn’t happy to share the information I have spent years collating, but those 3 times out of 10 I am not too happy about.


It ranges from people who have no strong connection to the individuals on my tree – just say a distant link like a second spouse’s first husband’s brother’s best friend’s cat used to come into the kitchen of my ancestor’s and their tree has thousands of names on and is clearly more interested in quantity over quality, to people who have accepted hints from Ancestry to anything vaguely like their ancestor without even questioning whether it is right or not.

I appreciate that some people may want to do things like accept all hints and then go through them at some point to check and then get rid of the ones that aren’t right, but it’s not the best way to go about it. Merging information may well remove some of the original information you had and just leave the incorrect details.

For example if you had a John Smith in your tree, he was born in 1854 in Leeds, Yorkshire, son of another John Smith who was by trade a Master Cabinet Maker and Ancestry brought up a hint in another tree for a John Smith born 1854 in Bolton, Lancashire whose father was another John Smith – a Labourer – would you think to yourself – oh yes, this is the same man…? Or would you take a look at those details and discount him because of certain factors such as: 1. Place of birth – these two men were born in completely different counties and not even places that are terribly close to one another to be confused. 2. Father’s occupation – a Master Cabinet Maker has had to train for years as an apprentice before building up his craft to become a master where he too has apprentices under him, or a Labourer who may not have had a specific skill set. 3. What information you already know – your John Smith born in Leeds you know married a Jane Jones and had three children, John, Jane and Margaret, all in Leeds. The John born in Bolton married a Tryphena Wilkins and had 9 children, all born in Bolton. You have all the census entries for your John in Leeds, you know where he was in 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 up until his death in 1905 in Leeds. The John Smith from Bolton appears on that tree with census details from 1861 through to 1911 and he died in 1916 in Bolton. They really can’t be the same person can they?

And yet I have people who seem to forgo all this simple checking and verification and carry on regardless. Then someone else copies their tree, and someone copies that tree and so on and so on until your tree is the only correct one and the rest are incorrect, but people think that because yours is the only one that is different that it must therefore be wrong.


Information that is just as convincing and true as the Skywalker family tree… oh your great grandfather was The Force too! Amazing! (From

So what do you do to try and correct this sort of thing? I sometimes might leave a friendly polite comment on the tree, and follow it up with a private message, or skip the comment part and just send a private message to the tree owner. I do sometimes prefer to leave a comment against the media file in question or on the person that the incorrect association is linked to in the hope that if other people see it they might think twice about just copying it blindly. I am never rude in my messages, I understand that mistakes happen, I also understand that many people are beginners and just aren’t familiar with the concept of verifying the information they find. I will often have looked a bit into the person on their tree in order to identify the correct records or parents or census entries to get them on the right track. I am not a ‘Take those photos off your tree this instant!’ type person. I can’t force them to remove information, but I can politely point out that I have noticed they have saved information from my tree to theirs and ask them about that person with a few queries including the information I have located about their person in order to show my reasons behind why I don’t think there is a connection and offer a bit of help to get them on the right track.

The success rate? Not so great. Some people are really grateful for the help, some people have got themselves into a right pickle with it all, accepting hints, merging information, not knowing how to sort it out. Some people never respond at all, yet I know they have active memberships having only saved something from my tree the day before (and often continue to do so.) Some people get VERY upset about being told they are wrong. One person I tried to help with their tree last year – he had one woman who according to his tree was married to 8 different men all around the same time, having children with them all. He had saved information from two siblings on my tree to this one woman, from one sibling he took her husband and children and from the other sibling who never married he took a photograph of her gravestone. He copied the information about these sister’s parents onto his tree too. I tried to fathom where his connection to this woman stemmed from to try and figure out what had happened and why he had merged all this conflicting information on his tree. I tried to inject a little humour into my message to keep it light hearted, I used two exclamation marks in my message to him to convey a little humorous surprise about a woman having 8 husbands and about 30 odd children over the space of ten years. The response I got was quite cold. “Sarah has been removed. I will double check my entries. I would prefer if I should ever get any mail from you that you do not include any exclamation marks at the end of your sentence.” Oh dear.



This week I have seen that someone has saved some photographs of a family headstone from my tree to theirs and I thought mmm – that name seems familiar and sure enough it was someone I had come across previously. Last year they had saved the same photos to their tree and I checked it out – eager to have potentially made a new connection to that branch of the family and was sad to see that they had gone down a bit of a wrong avenue which, at the time I pointed out and gave them some information about their ancestor to help them get on the right track and they thanked me and removed the wrong info and the headstone photographs. Sadly it seems they have just doubled back and gone down the wrong path again. I’ve sent them another message, perhaps I’ll spend some more time looking up information for her – probably down to me feeling bad for nagging them about saving my stuff!

In principle I don’t have a major issue with people copying information from other people’s trees, but I would rather people understand that it should be used as a guide for their own research, to not take it as gospel just because three trees on Ancestry all have the same information on. Check, check and check again. Be thorough and try to keep a record of your sources, of avenues searched whether or not they gleaned any answers. Don’t fall down the trap that others have, don’t find yourself descended from a child who died in infancy, or from someone who married their own father who was apparently born 100 years before them yet died when they were only 2 years old. (I’ve seen plenty of examples like that – not quite sure how people manage it!)


There is no other feeling like finding the answers yourself, when the hard graft results in breaking down a brick wall, or when that key bit of information unlocks a whole new piece of the puzzle and when that piece helps to solve a mystery that has been bugging you for months or years.

Genealogy is not a fast paced adrenaline boosted thrill ride that can be started and finished in a matter of weeks. You can’t expect to have a tree going back to the dawn of time in a fortnight and shock horror – not everything is online!!!!!! (Sorry for the overuse of exclamation marks…) I get frustrated when sites like Ancestry and Genes Reunited and the like advertise their product as something people can use to find the answers almost instantly. With wording like “….and when I was lost my Ancestry tree showed me the way.” or “Within minutes I had made contact with my birth mother!” Yes some people do get lucky and find information out really quickly, but it is often through the hard work that other people have put in.

There are times I consider making my tree private to prevent the world and his wife (and second wife and step children and their cousins) from copying my information because of the few that spoil it for me, but I don’t know. I like to share with people, and I like to help people, so maybe I should just take the bad along with the good.

Of course when I am researching trees for clients I do not like to make mistakes! If I ever find information from other trees in the course of my research I try my best to check and verify this, but if that isn’t possible in the time I have available to me, or indeed with the resources at my disposal I will state that there is information found on an online tree, detail that information and state that it needs to be checked and verified before I will include it properly. I will often detail findings from other trees and explain why I believe them to be incorrect, so should my client then decide to take it further themselves they can understand why I have discounted certain information other people may have put on their trees.

How about you? Do you have your tree on a sharing site like Ancestry? Is yours public or private? Have you ever had issues with people copying information from your tree? What did you do about it?


19 thoughts on “To Err Is Human…

  1. I keep my tree on ancestry private. It’s not that I am unwilling to share – I share all of the time. I just prefer to have more control of what and how I share. There have been two times that my tree has been shared by a family member. Both times it has really bothered me. Now I run into those trees online and know that it was my work in progress tree that is now public and I see my tentative conclusions spread and morphed like a terrible game of telephone gone wrong. I have considered creating other smaller trees for various branches of my tree that are public only included the individuals for whom I have ‘completed’ research.

    I agree that online trees are a blessing and a curse. When used properly they can encourage good collaboration among family members and help us work together to bring more pieces of information to one place to compare and draw conclusions. The problem is that too many people are save happy and do the very things you mention in your post. A big mess!

    Good for you for trying to help people improve the quality of their information. I usually just look at mistakes, shake my head and move on.

    • I certainly do consider going private for the reasons you mention. I do get quite fed up of trying to help people that obviously don’t want to be helped, or perhaps believe they are right no matter what. I know it’s not always a nice feeling to have someone question your research, but when the majority of people I try to put on the right track have just copied information and not really put in any work themselves, or been too lazy to really check what they are copying, then really there isn’t much point in them getting angry or upset about being shown the right avenue to go down.

      I suppose to some people having an accurate tree is important, while for others, they’re not so bothered just as long as it has lots of names and dates and maybe goes back to royalty, whether it’s right or not!

      I take more interest where the copied information is on direct members of my ancestry, I might not pay so much attention on more distant branches.

      I don’t even trust published pedigrees from heraldic families as they were often embellished and patchy!

      Trust nothing, check everything!

  2. Great post, and I agree with your points. We all make mistakes. I’ve had a few embarrassing ones, including convincing some people I was their cousin, only to later learn I was wrong. I was so embarrassed. And early on I assumed if something was on an ancestry tree, it was accurate. Now I know better, and I’ve also had some rude reactions when trying to help someone who has an error on their tree (though I have also had a number of very positive experiences with people who appreciated the help and then helped me).

    I recently switched my tree to private because I found it creepy when pictures of my ancestors popped up in searches. I am more than happy to share information with anyone who asks, but even though those ancestors are dead, I felt that it was just wrong for their pictures to be so publicly displayed.

    • Thanks Amy. I definitely understand how you felt with convincing someone you were their cousin!

      I am certainly considering changing my tree to Private, I think if people are genuinely interested in making contact to find out more then they can contact me rather than me spending so much time trying to prevent erroneous copying. Will definitely be giving it some more thought!

  3. Great post with really good points. Especially enjoyed the part “do not include any exclamation points at the end of your sentence.” Oh my gosh, got me to laughing so hard I almost rolled off my chair!!!!!!! [take that, you exclamation point hater, whoever you are]

    To answer your question, my tree(s) are private, precisely because of what you mentioned. I made some errors in my beginner days, which were copied to other trees, and unfortunately in spite of many attempts to get those ‘relatives’ to fix them, they are still out there. I finally left comments on the profile page in question or under photos saying their information was not quite correct, in a nice way, of course. I agree with thegenealogygirl. I am more than happy to share, but in a more controlled way than every one in the universe copying my information or photos.

    • Ha – yeah I sat on that for a couple of days musing about whether to respond or not to him, knowing he would probably not like to hear from me ever again, but I decided to reply and was incredibly polite and apologetic for having offended him so much by my use of exclamation marks.

      I agree with feeling the need to be a bit more controlled about how the information is shared, definitely making me think a little more about going private.

  4. Mm-hmm. Clearly I have never made any mistakes at all ever in the 15+ years of me doing this. Not once. Nope. Ahem. I certainly never attached a family of a German immigrant to a distant ancestress and spend a week excitedly researching them only to discover that the difference between Faulkner and Falkner was somewhat important in this instance …

    And that is primarily the reason that I stopped using GenesReunited – the inexcusable rudeness.

    • No, never. Perfection as always and pfff who cares about a U in a name?

      Yes I now no longer subscribe to Genes Reunited, I have found that in recent years people just aren’t responding to messages, probably because they had an account years ago and then never bothered again, so the connections I wanted to make just were going into the ether and I wasn’t making any proper connections any more as the only contact I was getting was from people who were fishing for information but were no connection at all.

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