Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Genealogy Inc. v. Genealogists -- Part Two, What is in a name?

In my last post I began a test to see what someone with little or no information about their family could reasonably expect to find out from the commercial genealogy websites. As I indicated, I started by putting my own name and birth information into Family Tree Maker (FTM). I used FTM because it will automatically link into's huge database. I figured I would pretend I watched the TV program and bought the program at Costco and came home, put in my name and was off to the races.

As I frequently say, Hmmm. I sure didn't get much. No one bothered to tell me (I am playing the part of the novice now) that my name wouldn't be in the program. I did find one reference to me in a directory right at first but couldn't find it again. A search on my name and birth info (I am not dead yet) returned 334,611 records and as they say, "Sorted by Relevance." Well, relevant or not, none of them are me. There are also 463 possible living people that match my name in MyLife. When I click on that link, I come up will all sorts of people. This might not be as easy as the ads would make it seem.

I try clicking on a few categories and still have no success. Further clicking gets me further from the goal. I come up with all sorts of death and burial records. At this point in the test I am pretending to make a phone call to my genealogist friend who informs me that genealogy is for dead people, which I have begun to suspect in more ways than one. So I decide to try looking for my parents.

The search for my father begins with again. I am still using Family Tree Maker as the front end for the program. Just to be a little fair, I put in his death date along with his name. Although I am already starting to erode my resolve to be a novice. I frequently deal with people who do not know any dates from their parents. But here we go with a search on his name and one date.

The jackpot, a listing in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), give him a birth date and a social security number. Reading a whole lot of information about the SSDI, I find that I can order the original of his social security application form from the Social Security Administration which form is called SS-5. (Side note, it does give me a link to the Social Security Administration website but doesn't seem to mention that I have to use Form SSA-711 to request the information). The program also crashes when I click on the link and try to look for the right form to fill out. Oh well, I will push on.

I merge the information from the SSDI into my local program and try another search with the new information. I find a number of references to City Directories. Then I find the 1930 U.S. Census record. Suddenly, I have grandparents. Now I am getting interested. (Still pretending folks). I also find his WWII Enlistment Record. Within a few minutes, I also find my Grandfather, Grandmother and an Uncle.

Now I want to see if I can extend the line one more generation. Very quickly I find my Grandfather in the 1900 U.S. Census and now have a whole list of family members. I also find suggestions for my Grandfather of more Census records and a WWI Draft Record. Adding my Great-grandfather into my file gives me the option of looking for more information. At this point, I have way too much to digest. I have more records than I can look at right now. I chose the 1900 U.S. Census and suddenly have a whole family of relatives.

I could have gone on and on with my original goal of looking for family members in all of the big online commercial databases, but I think my test is over.

What did I find? Although it is not as easy as portrayed in the ads, finding information about U.S. citizens in the last 100 years or so is very doable on In theory and in practice, you could end up with a whole lot of information obtained from fairly reliable online original sources. You also end up with copies of all of the documents, such as the Census Records, Draft Registration Records and so forth.  Personally, I have already been through all of these records and was not surprised, but I was surprised at how quickly the evidence began to mount.

To be entirely fair, I have been using FTM off and on for the past couple of weeks to look for a friend's family. I am searching for a man born in the about 1782 in possibly Ohio. Believe me, the records do not just fall into my lap. I have found a few things online so far, but it takes real work and more than a little bit of experience to ferret out the records.

My conclusion, don't be too hard on the commercial sites. They by and large do a very good job of making huge amounts of data available that would be much harder to find. Are they worth the cost? If you don't think so, you probably haven't got research in the areas they cover. Could I do what I just did in constructing three generations of my family any other way out of original source documents? Not likely. I could get the information out of online family trees but there would be no sources and the information would be very unreliable.  Good luck looking at commercial sites.


  1. An interesting test. Thank you for trying it.

    In my Beginning Computer Genealogy class, the students almost always put too much information into the fields. They usually have their parents names and birth/death data, and many have grandparents names. It's not unusual for them to put in the full name (including middle name) thinking that the more information they provide, the better the results will be. They don't realize that death information will skew their results in the census, WW1 draft registrations, etc.

  2. Interesting test, a great idea to see what can be done. On my most difficult line, Ancestry now rolls out accurate census listing for 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930. The reason? I struggled and struggled, and when I finally read page after page by hand as I would a microfilm, I found them, and submitted corrections to the indexed spellings of their surname. But there is nothing online or off line right now [that I have found] which helps me trace them back farther.

    Perhaps those newly interested in genealogy will find quick success for several generations, and then either "be finished", or get hooked and learn to become better researchers, using more sources and strategies.

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