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

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Danger of Copying Pedigrees

One of the people I was helping recently with a genealogy file had an interesting experience. She had copied the file from an online pedigree and had been researching the people in the file for some time. In the course of her research, she acquired a DNA study of the family she was researching and discovered that she was not related to the family. Perhaps careful research would have led her to the same conclusion, but in this case she realized that much of the research she had done was on the wrong family.

Now, I am not in a position to determine whether she was right or wrong about her relationship with that particular ancestor or to pass judgment on the merits of the DNA study, but when you copy a pedigree from an online family tree with the assumption that it is at all accurate, you are asking for trouble. Even if the file has some sources and you check some or all of the sources, you still run the risk that somewhere in the file, the wrong person was chosen.

Of course, you may make the same mistake yourself. In fact, any of us might have put a defective file online. That is a fact of the genealogist's life. There is always a possibility of error in all pedigrees. I recently had the same experience myself. I had added a line to one of my Mayflower ancestors, but because I had not kept up with the current state of the research on that particular person, I did not know that more recent evidence had shown the previous information to be inaccurate and had found a more believable spouse for the Mayflower passenger. In genealogy, all conclusions are tentative pending further research.

Just today, someone talked to me about downloading a pedigree from They explained the efforts they would go through to assure that the information was correct. But I still question the advisability of incorporating other's lines wholesale, without some careful analysis of every relationship. It is always advisable to cultivate a healthy skepticism when it comes to research. I find it all too common that researchers accept other's conclusions, sometimes without question, as in, grandmother was a lifelong genealogist, she had to be right.

The work of others can be sourced and valuable. For example, going back to my Mayflower ancestor, I am not in a position to argue with the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and over a hundred years of careful and documented research. But few of our ancestors have gone through such scrutiny. In most cases, if the information in an inherited or downloaded pedigree is accurate, you should have little trouble verifying the information even if there are no cited sources. This is why we have a survey step in the research process, to provide a basis through looking at the work of others, for our own research. But incorporating an entire file without examination is not part of the research process. I have had people come to me who have never done one hour of research with files contain over 20,000 people. How are they ever going to know if what they have is accurate or not.

The quandary is whether to accept the previous information until proven false or reject everything until proven true? I think it is wise to take a little of both sides on the issues. For example, in my lines, the identities of the people back six or seven generations are not really in dispute, but once you get back that far, problems start to arise. 

Fortunately, in one sense, I did not inherit a file. I had to fill out my pedigree person by person since I was the very first to computerize my particular lines. The good news is that I examined every relationship. The bad news is that I was not always accurate or correct. I have spent many years going back through my files, adding sources and correcting the entries. Meanwhile, the incomplete and inaccurate files I put online years ago come back to haunt me in the form of multiple copies by other people on the Web. Let's all live and learn.


  1. I totally agree. It has been my experience that when you really comb through an apparent "relative" it turns out that one of the grand-parent's names is close but not the same. Conversely, I tend to shoe-box in one form or another anything remotely possible. My favorite example is a marriage registration certificate for my paternal G Father: the first name of the spouse was as expected but not the surname - I felt I had wasted $$$$ BUT eventually it turned out that this was his FIRST wife (guess he liked Sarahs). Point is reviewing, researching, double checking and hanging on to leads is a good thing.

  2. Thank you for the post. As a "veteran novice" family historian, it is sometimes discouraging when it appears, from reading other on-line posts, that so many "genealogists" have traced their ancestry to 425 AD, and are direct descendants of Mayflower immigrants and have 80,000 in their family trees! However, I continue to plod along as I struggle to learn how to properly source and document my research, and I do find it personally rewarding. I believe that online pedigrees can be useful (I, myself have had the benefit of another earlier researcher who has well-documented her research), but only if used carefully.

  3. Great article. And it's not just genealogy files that can lead us astray. I've run into errors that have been perpetuated by published genealogical books as well. Using the work of others as a guide can be useful but we really each need to seek primary sources when we can.

  4. I spent some time as one of Ancestry's Experts for Hire. I have hundreds of trees from that experience, some that are very complex, some that contain only a dozen names but answer a question raised. All are private as they belong to the individuals that requested them. I have a longstanding habit. I create two trees. The first is labeled "Possibilities for the Smith Tree" and the second is labeled the Smith Family Tree. Nothing moves to the second tree without careful research - and still, as you noted, there are those ancestors that simply cannot be added with any certainty.

    Excellent article. I would love to think that anyone who requests a genealogy tree understands the difficulties addressed in this article. In my husband's tree, which is public, I have ancestors that do not "mesh" with many other online trees. The reason is that I did not use a computer, but compiled the tree from 18th century source documents in the early 1990's. The groups of settlers that came to East Tennessee together in the early 1800's intermarried. Without the source documents, it is impossible to tell which sons and daughters married other sons and daughters in other families. One family of eight married in such a way that they "wove in" at several different points. With only 50,000 in the entire state, there just were not that many people to choose from. It is a tangle that I still try to work with, despite the fact that I retired some time back. We do the best we can and hope that some day, more information is discovered.

  5. Is there a procedure for when somebody has faked and claimed a family tree as their own when they are lying and have no bloodline connection, they have now died but their name is still on dozens and dozens of family trees which they have no right to, they had fabricated a wife and children when in real life they never married and also have given a false date of birth not only for themselves but for an older brother who died many years ago so was not party to this fraud. I contacted a few people who I knew had got he false details on their trees and they have changed them so that they are correct but there are just so many others out there with this person in the trees and all false connections with them and I am the only true person along with my family in the blood line which people will not recognize as being true, I can produce the true documents with me being named.

    Theresa Hood

    1. There are many relationships besides bloodlines for families. I get the impression that we may not have the entire story. But if this is a really made up family connection then there really doesn't seem to be a way to take down bogus family trees.