Genealogy has become a big business. There are thousands of small mom and pop enterprises but the genealogy landscape is becoming dominated by BIG BUSINESS in a big way. Is the pre-packaged commercial view of genealogy consistent with the reality of doing family history? Can I really go to a website and find my ancestry?
These questions prompted me to do an evaluation of the exactly what kinds of records are offered by online commercial genealogy companies and whether or not I could actually compile a "family tree" from online sources. For the purpose of this analysis, I decided to exclude "free" online source and focus on the main subscription services. I also decided to use my first four generations as a test case. I did this for two reasons, one, I have reasonably documented all of the information in those first four generations and, second, I would not be looking for people who were unknown or who had little or no documentation on their lives. As much as is possible, I determined to approach this issue as if I had almost no information. It is relatively common for me to be approached by someone who knows little more than their parents' names. In effect, I am trying to put myself in the position of a complete novice.
I decided I would put my name in a new file and the names of my parents without any information on birth dates or places. Both of my parents are deceased so there is no issue with obtaining information on living people.
Another issue is the fact that I know I can get a copy of a birth certificate from my State Department of Health and Vital Records some of which are online, but rather than use the information I know is readily available, I wanted to see what kind of picture I could get just from the commercial sites. For this exercise, and in order to expedite the process, I decided to use my Macintosh version of Family Tree Maker to start the inquiry. I will focus on the following commercial websites:
•19th Century U.S. Newspapers
•Alexander Street Press - The American Civil War
•Godfrey Memorial Library
•Heritage Quest Online
•Making of the Modern World
•Supreme Court Records and Briefs
•World Vital Records
These are some of the subscription resources available at the Mesa Regional Family History Center so I can readily consult all of them for this exercise. One thing I had to think about carefully was whether or not to use online compiled user submitted family trees. If I did that, I know that I could just download my entire four generations from Ancestry.com's Family Trees. I also have the information readily available from FamilySearch in several different formats. I know it is ridiculous to ignore these other online resources in a real situation, but what I wanted to determine is whether or not a reasonable pedigree could be compiled from only commercial websites? What do they really have for the average person?
One more factor, my family, at least in the first four generations, is completely from the U.S. My first immigrant ancestors are in the fifth and sixth generations. So, as they say, your results might vary if you were to try this same experiment. For that reason, I am not consulting some of the more common British and European sources.
Why am I doing this? Advertisements for genealogical databases have a tendency to minimize both the time and resources needed to produce a credible genealogy of anyone. Genealogy is basically very difficult to do. It takes time, effort and persistence, especially if you are starting from scratch and not tagging onto the coattails of a grandmother or aunt. I am curious as to how this study will turn out. What will I be able to find? Maybe the claims are all correct and I will find my ancestors in the records maintained by the commercial enterprises. I will wait to see what happens before drawing any conclusions.