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Saturday, May 30, 2020

How does the FamilySearch Family Tree Handle Identifying Places?

One overriding activity of research genealogists is locating pertinent historical records about their ancestors and relatives. The location of specific records is sometimes a mystery due to the movement of populations, changes in the jurisdiction of the entities maintaining the records and the movement of the records themselves due to storage or preservation concerns. One way to markedly assist researchers in locating applicable records is to accurately record the locations associated with the origination of the records.


From the standpoint of a genealogical researcher, the issue of recording locations revolves around the traditional rule that places be identified and recorded as they existed at the time an event occurred. Although the rule has become a “standard” there are a significant number of genealogists who believe that the event should be recorded as it is today. The main problem with this point of view is that, over time, the designation of a place may continue to change. Additionally, recording, as near as possible, the exact place of an event in the past gives a starting point for searching for the current location of a record of the event. Recording the current designation of the place where the event occurred obscures the historic reality also ignores the need to provide a path to finding the location of historical records. We cannot assume that historical records for an event in the past will still be located in the modern-day jurisdiction of the event.


In order to provide a framework for standardization for the recordation of the location of historical events, it is necessary to determine a comprehensive methodology for recording such information in citations and database programs. In the past, genealogists relied on paper forms, these forms, in a real sense, dictated the specificity of events’ location information. Most of the spaces provided on pre-printed forms were entirely inadequate for the amount of information actually needed to adequately record the events and places where they occurred. To some extent, the paper form mentality has persisted into the present day. Here are some examples of what is currently still present in the Family Tree.


The basic problem with locations as it exists in the Family Tree can be illustrated by the following list of places taken from the birthplaces of twelve children in the same family born between 1780 and 1804 and listed as born in Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana. You might note that Kentucky did not become a state until June 1, 1792. I should also mention that Nicholas County, Kentucky was not created until June 1, 1800. Here is the list.


·      Birth abt 1780 Lincoln, Kentucky, United States

·      Birth 1787 Of,,,Ky

·      Birth abt 1787 of Nicholas Co., Ky.

·      Birth about 1789 Kentucky District, Nicholas, Virginia, United States

·      Birth 1791 Carlisle, Nicholas, Kentucky, United States

·      Birth 1793 Ky

·      Birth 1795 Of,,,Ky

·      Birth 1797 Of,,,Ky

·      Birth 1799 Of,,,Ky

·      Birth abt 1801 of Nicholas Co., Ky.

·      Birth 1802 Nicholas, Kentucky

·      Birth abt 1804 of Nicholas, Ky.


I should also mention that there are no sources listed showing any birth records for any one of these children.


The website has one general blank space for entering location information about each specific event. FamilySearch has apparently decided not to try to segment location information into separate distinct categories by providing more than one blank space for data entry. Here is a screenshot of a typical individual data entry form from the FamilySearch Family Tree:

Unlike a paper form, the size of the space for entering a place does not limit the length of the entry. If you begin typing a location in the space provided, you will get a dropdown list of standardized locations associated with specific time periods. However, the user’s choice of which location to select depends entirely on the user’s understanding of the location’s history and how the location was characterized during each phase of that history. There are no prompts or instructions guiding the novice user in making a decision as to which designation applies. There is also a measure of confusion when, as happens from time to time, the “standard” locations offered by the program do not correctly match the actual historical location. Additionally, FamilySearch has provided a way by which the user can add his or her own “standard” location. Some of these suggested standard locations are then adopted, over time, into the standard database. This is most frequently done with cemetery locations. 

In addition, some of the standard locations are artificially contrived. For example, pre-Revolutionary War locations in what is now the United States are often classified by the standardization system as “British Colonial America.” Here is an example of that designation from the FamilySearch Family Tree:

This characterization of “British Colonial America” is not a place or a level of jurisdiction. It can also be confusing if applied to the area of the North American continent outside of British jurisdiction such as Florida before 1821 which was under the control of Spain, France, or Great Britain depending on the particular time period involved. I have yet to see designations such as French Colonial America and Spanish Colonial America although they may exist. These additional designations, if applied, would also be misleading and inappropriate.


Here is an example from the Family Tree of a standardization suggestion for a location in Utah or Arizona showing some of the different choices. In each case, you can see that FamilySearch has also added a time period assumedly corresponding to the time the particular designation was in effect. The dropdown menu scrolls to let the user see more options.

The following screenshot from the Family Tree was chosen to address the issue of locations that are often identified as located in the “United States” before 1776. Such as this one:


In this particular case, FamilySearch suggests the following as “standardized” entries.

The issue of referring to the location as located in the anachronistic United States is not resolved and the designation “British Colonial America” is not universally applied.


So how do you identify a location such as the one illustrated above in Virginia? Omitting the reference to the United States would make the entry more accurate but how do you identify the fact that the Virginia Colony was part of the Kingdom of Great Britain beginning in 1707 and lasting until the traditional cut-off date of 1776.


Generally speaking, each location in any time period is associated with a layer of jurisdictions. A genealogical researcher cannot assume that records created in the Virginia Colony prior to 1776 did not make their way to England. If the goal is to provide an accurate place where to begin a record search, as I explained above, then accurately recording the way the place was designated at the time of the event provides the most assistance.


All the jurisdictional entities for historical locations have a distinct date of origin unless they date back to when records are not available at all. It is important to carefully examine each level of designation, even if there is a list of “suggested” standard place names and the associated dates. A good example of why this is necessary is illustrated by the second standard option listed above which refers to “Augusta, Hampshire, Virginia, United States.” The problem here is that both Augusta and Hampshire are counties. Augusta County was created in 1738. Hampshire County was created from Augusta and Frederick counties in 1754. So, if the event occurred in1755 in the area of Hampshire County, then it did not occur in Augusta County. However, the location information is more complicated than you would think especially if you only look at the suggested standard locations. Quoting from Wikipedia: Trinity Episcopal Church (Staunton, Virginia) concerning Augusta County:

Founded first as Augusta Parish Church in 1746. In 1747, the Reverend John Hindman became the first rector. This church, Augusta Parish Church, served as the only government of Augusta County until 1780 when the Parish Vestry was dissolved by legislative act. It is the oldest church in Staunton. In May 1781, the Virginia General Assembly fled Monticello ahead of advancing British troops, and landed in Staunton, where they set up the assembly in Augusta Parish Church, from June 7 to June 23 of that same year.

Currently, parts of the original Augusta County, following a number of changes as other counties were established, are located in West Virginia since their separation from Virginia on June 20, 1863. So where would the records be today from 1755? Answering that question may involve learning a lot of the local history. There is obviously really no way to standardize this place in Virginia from the list provided by FamilySearch. But assuming that the event took place in Augusta county, my correct interpretation of this location might be:


Augusta Parish, Virginia Colony, Kingdom of Great Britain


However, Augusta County came into existence as a fully organized county in 1745. It might be helpful to add the word “county” especially in situations where there is a town or city with the same name as the county.


Augusta Parish, Augusta County, Virginia Colony, Kingdom of Great Britain


FamilySearch consistently omits the word “county” from their location names.


Establishing standards and defining the location should reflect the correct jurisdictional locations but the discrete categories are essentially the same. In this case, three or four categories corresponding to most localities, the next level of jurisdiction, and subsequent levels can be adequately expressed in three or perhaps four levels. However, there is one more level of accuracy that should have been expressed by the research: the actual place the event occurred. Augusta County was originally a very large area and lost ground to Frederick County and Hampshire County (now in West Virginia) in 1754. Augusta County continued to lose land area to other counties and jurisdictions to as recently as 1994. See the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries from the Newberry Library.


As you can see from the example, attaching labels to the levels of jurisdiction is problematic. If you had the following very common set of labels (i.e. blank spaces in which to add a place) how would you choose to enter the information?


City, County, State, Country


By the way, it is very likely that the person who originally entered the information was completely ignorant of the historical changes and since, in this case, the person in the FamilySearch Family Tree has no source citations but there is a note that the date and place originated from an application for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. Could this applicant have actually found a birth date and place?


If I do a search in the FamilySearch Catalog for “United States, Virginia, Augusta,” I will see the following:

These are the categories of records available for Augusta County, Virginia in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. If you look at this page, you will see a further link to “Places within United States, Virginia, Augusta.” Clicking on that link will give you a list of cities or towns in the county. Here is a screenshot of the list.

Since the researcher in the example above designated only the county, unless a subsequent researcher finds a more specific location, the subsequent researcher will have to search every one of the records for each of these cities or towns. Although the researcher above had a “birth date” since there was no reference to a source, the subsequent researcher would be forced to determine if a birth record actually existed.


A quick look at the list of available vital records for Augusta County shows that the earliest birth records date from around 1853, nearly a hundred years after the date shown above for the birth. What about Church records? There are baptismal records from 1740 and some church records from as early as 1741 but assuming that the subsequent researcher could not find the records immediately by searching on FamilySearch, a full research effort could take a very long time when all the other possible locations for the record are considered. This is a very common example of why a specific location for an event is not only helpful, but necessary.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Where are all the hidden duplicates on the FamilySearch Family Tree?

If you are spending any time researching families on the Family Tree, you are probably becoming fairly well acquainted with duplicate entries. Here is one example of about fifty of these I have resolved in the last week. 

When I started looking at this individual and his family, the Family Tree did not show any possible duplicates. I can only surmise, but the reason for this is that the information for this individual was incomplete and partially inaccurate which means that considering what was in the Family Tree there would be no match to someone with different information even if one or the other of the information was correct and accurate. As soon as I did some research and began adding in more information, the duplicates started to appear. 

This particular family had a lot more problems than just a bunch of duplicates. Given the fact that the family was living in the 18th Century, it is surprising that I was able to find so many original source records. Later on, when I had done more research and found the correct wife for Thomas Heath, I ended up with the following duplicates.

I ended up with two duplicates for the wife. Considering that I have already resolved quite a number of duplicates (sorry I didn't keep a count) I was not a bit surprised that I had more. Once I get to this stage of the research, these extra duplicates start magically showing up. 

Bear in mind, that if I had not been doing extensive research in both FamilySearch and about this family, none of these duplicates would have been found. In fact, I added Elizabeth Peen as a new person because the program could not find any duplicates so had I not pursued the research, the duplicates would never have shown up. 

Speculating again, these duplicates in England probably come from either submissions with insufficient information or from the extraction program that added records to the International Genealogical Index. 

After resolving the duplicates entries for Elizabeth Peen and adding in the Record Hints, there were more duplicates. 

Moving on the resolving the duplicate child, however, there is another issue that arises because some of the Record Matches are to extracted records or indexes rather than the original parish register. Fortunately, there are multiple sources for the birth records and the issue can be resolved. Here is where the issue arises.

If it seems like I am writing this as I do the research and look at the entries, that would be correct. The only way to show this type of issue is to work through the problems as they arise. Once I have resolved the duplicates and added the sources, there is no real way to go back and show what happened. 

In the image above, the answer is August, not July. I look at several other records some of which are from the original images. 

I had resolved all of the potential duplicates for Elizabeth Peen and I started adding in another Record Match. This is what I saw.

The fact that this particular record shows that it was attached to another Elizabeth indicates another potential duplicate. I am sure by this point, you like I have lost count of the number of duplicates. I am waiting for FamilySearch to start awarding a prize to the person who resolves the most duplicates every month ( I assume I will have to wait a long time).

I can find out the identity of the person who has previously eluded the FamilySearch duplicate search program by clicking on the Detach link and copying the ID number. I do not want to detach the record at this point because there may be another issue involving the record being attached to the wrong person and not a duplicate.

In fact, the record was attached to the wrong person. This is an issue that arose early on with this family when the children were shown as born in two different counties. Both the families looked similar with the husbands and wives with the same names but this Elizabeth was Christened in London and not in Kent County. Considering these events all occurred in the mid-1700s, it was highly unlikely that some of the children were shown as being born in Kent and some in London. The research I did found the mother who was born only six miles from the husband. 

I still have a lot of work to do on this family because I now need to make sure all of the children do not have duplicates or are wrongly attached. I also have records that show Elizabeth Peen's parents that may add more duplicates. There is really no end to the research since I will then see which of the children had families and so forth. 

You can see by this long example that the duplicate problem in the FamilySearch Family Tree is far from resolved. This particular family turned out to be a prime example of the issues but these issues occur in every country with almost all the older incompletely researched entries. Take heed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

How to handle unsubstantiated family lines in the FamilySearch Family Tree

How can you know if the lines you are working on are correct or not? Are you actually related to these people that go back generations on your part of the Family Tree? Can you really trace some of those lines back to Adam? See this video for a discussion of the "Back to Adam" issue: You might (or might not) be surprised to learn that the same issues that are a concern with claiming a pedigree back to Adam frequently arise in the context of all genealogical pedigrees and that nearly all of the existing pedigree lines on the Family Tree ultimately end usually well before the names and dates run out. 

Here is an example of one line that really ends long before the names run out. 

Focus on the line going back from my Great-great Grandmother, Julia Ann Shepherd. This small segment of the Family Tree shows her parents as Samuel Shepherd and Roxalana Ray. There are 49 sources for Samuel Shepherd including records of his marriage to Roxalana Ray. There is a church record showing the names of his children including Julia Ann Shepherd. Now, who was Samuel Shepherd's father? The same church record showing his family members also indicates that his parents were David Shepherd and Diadoma Hopkins. There are 15 sources listed for David Shepherd including his probate file that shows him married to Diadema Hopkins. (Note variations in spelling). Was this David Shepherd the father of Samuel Shepherd? 

If you take the time to examine every source cited, you will see that there was a Samuel Shepherd listed as posting a bond in David Shepherd's probate. However, the only children listed are David Shepherd b. 1802 and George Washington Shepherd b. 1810, both of whom were minor children at the time of David's death. There are two compiled family histories that list a Samuel Shepherd as the sone of David Shepherd but there are no conclusive documents that specifically identify the Samuel Shepherd b. 1790 as the son of David Shepherd. However, most of the descendants of Samuel Shepherd would claim David as his father for the simple reason that David Shepherd fought in the Revolutionary War. 

If we move back just one more generation and look for the parents of David Shepherd we will see the following on the Family Tree:

You can see that the line goes back from David Shepherd b. 1755 several generations. However, the father, Samuel Shepherd b. 1732 in Connecticut has only four sources attached and none of these cited sources show any of the children of this 1732 Samuel Shepherd who is born in Connecticut and dies in New York while his supposed son is born and dies in Castleton, Rutland, Vermont. There is nothing showing the Connecticut Samuel Shepherd ever lived or even visited Vermont. 

For all practical purposes, this pedigree line ends with David Shepherd b. 1755, even if we make the unsupported conclusion that my ancestor, Samuel Shepherd b. 1790 was his son. 

However, from David Shepherd b. 1755, this pedigree line goes back 11 more generations to a John Sheppard I, who was born in 1437. Some of the men in this line have dozens of sources attached. Eventually, the last person in the line has no sources attached. Because of this apparently substantial pedigree, no one in the family really wants to question the validity of the line particularly because of the Revolutionary War connection and the descendants who claim this ancestry to support applications to the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution and other lineage societies. 

What can we do about this situation? Unless someone (me in particular) can find a historical record showing that Samuel Shepherd b. 1732 actually was the father of David Shepherd b. 1755 even though they lived and died in different states, there is no substantiation for the 11 generation extension of the line. 
My speculation is that someone decided that a well-placed Samuel Shepherd in Connecticut was the father simply because his line could be traced and supported by documents. 

We have several choices at this point.

1. The easiest and least complicated would be to detach Samuel Shepherd b. 1790 from David Shepherd in the Family Tree thus highlighting the lack of documentation from one more generation. An alternative would be to keep the speculative connection to David Shepherd and cut off the line where it most certainly ends.

2. We can just leave it as it is because who wants to question over a hundred years of tradition and spoil all those inaccurate family group records out there in genealogy land?

3. I could do some intensive research on the subject and see if I can substantiate the Samuel/David connection. Hmm, the problem is that I have been doing that research now for almost 40 years and although I quite recently found the probate record for David Shepherd b. 1755, I have made little progress. 

Cutting off a traditional extension of a pedigree on the Family Tree that has no documentary support takes a bit of courage. If I detached David Shepherd b. 1755 from his traditional father there would be a flurry of people who would add his father back in, not because they had any additional source information, but simply because that is what shows up on their parents' family group sheets and pedigrees. Why do I know this is the case? Because I have done this several times already and we are still defending the end of the line from people who insist on making the changes without doing any additional research and without citing any new sources. 

What would you do? It really boils down to whether or not you value accuracy over tradition. In this case and in hundreds (thousands?) of other instances, the actually supported family line ends well before the names give out. In these cases, I have to evaluate whether or not I have enough interest and time to enter the battle of the Family Tree that inevitably follows my decision to draw the line.

Final note, unless we are willing to accept the fact that many family lines are mere fabrications, we will really never have a family tree that is even marginally believable. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Basic Steps in Cleaning Up the FamilySearch Family Tree

Whether you are currently deeply involved in researching and adding new names to the Family Tree or just now beginning to learn about how to sign on, we all have the same basic challenges. I know I have written about this topic a number of times over the years but it is always a good idea to get back to the basics. 

First, a relatively brief review of where we are today with the Family Tree. The FamilySearch Family Tree was introduced by the product manager Ron Tanner in 2013 at the annual RootsTech Conference. The introduction of this "new" website program signaled the abandonment of the older program which was introduced in 2009. However, shortly after the FamilyTree was introduced, it became abundantly clear that the data in the program with all its defects had been used to seed the new Family Tree. This data included records from the old Ancestral File, International Genealogical Index, Pedigree Resource File, membership records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some of the Church's Temple records. Each of these huge databases had its own peculiarities and problems for genealogists. In addition, during the time that was being used, many additional records were added including a significant number of duplicate records. The program (website) did not have any restrictions on adding duplicate records. All of these records including the errors, duplicates, wrong conclusions, and imaginary pedigrees ended up in the Family Tree. 

Note: if you need a review about the content of each of those databases you can click in the links for a more extensive explanation. If you have any questions about see the following: Why Was Turned Off: Frequently Asked Questions. Quoting one statement from that article:
Q: Why can’t new.FamilySearch remain as a read only database rather than getting rid of it?

A: Over time, much of the data in this database became badly flawed and incorrect. Using new.FamilySearch, even as a viewable source, could easily confuse people and lead to even worse conclusions in Family Tree. (emphasis added)
All five of these seed databases were essentially user-submitted entries no consistent review about the accuracy or completeness of the entries. None of the entries in the initial FamilySearch Family Tree and almost all of the subsequently added entries lacking supporting source citations can be considered to be accurate from a genealogical perspective. Think about this when you jump back generations in the Family Tree and start doing research on remote family lines dating into and before the 1700s. Unless you have verified and believe all of the connections from you to your ancestors are correct and supported by sources cited from historical records, you are simply starting your research in fantasy land. 

The effect of using the data from the old program insured that the Family Tree started with a huge number of duplicate entries and other persistent problems inherited from the older submissions. It is important to understand that prior to the programed features that have been added to the Family Tree program (website) to detect and resolve duplicate entries, there were no effective limitations on the number of duplicate entries that had been submitted to the five earlier databases. There were millions of duplicates and there still is an indiscernible number in the Family Tree today.

Initially, some of the individuals in the Family Tree could have had hundreds of duplicate entries. The programming done by FamilySearch eventually eliminated millions of those duplicates but many, many more are still lurking in the recesses of the Family Tree waiting to be merged,

Subsequently, there is a hierarchy of tasks that need to be done to "clean up" the entries. Ignoring this need to clean up the Family Tree simply means that anything you do or add will likely be either wrong or at the least for people who are not related to you at all. By the way, just so you realize that there are people cleaning up the Family Tree, I clean up entries regardless of whether or not I am actually related to the people whose entries I am cleaning up. This is particularly true about entries for "descendants" when I suspect that the lines showing how I am related are suspect. 

Now, what do we need to do to fix this situation? Presently, there is an overwhelming general impression that the immediate and ultimate goal of the Family Tree is to add new names. If this is a valid goal, then there is an urgent need to clean up the existing entries. My own experience is that cleaning up the entries in the Family Tree automatically produces hundreds (thousands) of new people added because of the sloppiness of the previous research. 

Here are the steps that we need to go through to clean up the Family Tree:

1. Carefully review every entry currently in the Family Tree for completeness and accuracy. Review every source attached and read and/or review every attached memory. This is not an optional exercise. If you haven't read and reviewed every source and memory for each individual you work with, you have no business changing or adding information to individuals in the Family Tree. Don't cause more errors and confusion by ignoring this requirement. If you ignore the sources and memories, you are just making more work for those of us who did the original research.  

2. Standardize all dates and verify and standardize all locations (i.e. places). Make sure that the place listed for each event in every entry is consistent with the reality of the time period involved. Always look up any places you are not familiar with a look at where they are on a map such as Google Maps. Especially look for consistency in where children listed in the families were born. Remember the First Rule of Genealogy: When the baby was born, the mother was there. 

3. Start researching every entry (every single person) by adding any appropriate Record Hints. Do not add record hints that are inapplicable or incorrect. Think about what you are doing. Does it make sense? If you don't have research skills, start by learning before you simply increase the errors and duplicates already in the Family Tree. 

4. Continue doing more research until each entry is supported by multiple historical records including source citations to those records. Any entry with no sources should be considered inaccurate or wrong until supported by a historical source. If an individual in the Family Tre has only one source, remember that only the information in that one source is verified. For example, a birth or christening record does not validate a marriage. 

5. Be sure to copy all information from the historical records into the entries for each person. 

6. Resolve any potential duplicates including using the feature to look for similar names. 

7. Standardize the dates and places over and over as new sources are added. 

If you do not know enough to perform all of these steps, take the time to learn about how to do any of these steps before doing anything. In my opinion, learning how to do genealogy right is counted as more important than simply doing something especially if what is done is wrong. 

As I write this, I have just spent a considerable amount of time correcting entries with no sources listed, no complete names, dates that were somehow imagined to be correct, and no connections to anyone else in the Family Tree. I hope my frustration came through in this post. 

If you don't know how to do anything I have mentioned in this post, start here

Monday, May 25, 2020

An Illustration of a Genealogical Train Wreck in the FamilySearch Family Tree

This screenshot from the Family Tree illustrates what I call a "genealogical train wreck." This is the condition of this particular family entry after hours of work. The more work I did on the family, the more confusing and complicated the entries became. Additionally, almost none of the entries have attached sources but there is a long list of Record Hints waiting to be added. 

By the time I add all of the sources, I will be faced with even more duplicate entries. The number of such entries just keeps increasing until additional sources are exhausted. 

The main cause of such confusion is that each of the family members was separately identified and added to the Family Tree causing a long list of duplicates. I started the process of finding all these duplicates by adding a new copy of the Woodust Mitchel b. 1812 and immediately encountered the first duplicate. However, when I originally added the name and date, the program did not find the duplicate thereby allowing me to create yet another one. Not surprisingly, each of the children listed in this entry will also have duplicates. Here is an example of a duplicate found for one of the children. 

Unfortunately, unless you get involved with verifying each and every person and entry and carefully examine the suggested sources, you would not even be aware of the huge number of duplicate entries in this one family. Here is an example of one of the suggested duplicates. Look at what is available from these two entries. The one on the left has complete information about the family with exact dates. By the way, it is extremely unlikely, though not impossible, that the Christening took place on the same day as the birth. Another interesting observation is that the entry on the left with all the detail has no sources listed while the entry on the right with a birth date has a source. 

Here is what happened when I added this one entry suggested as a Record Hint after combining the suggested duplicate. 

Note that this Woodust Mitchel is the son of the Woodust Mitchel I started with above. There are now 17 more potential entries for this one record that includes at least three more duplicates. Given the number of children listed for this family, I am guessing that there are over fifty duplicate entries (possibly many more than fifty) and dozens of Record Hints to add. At this point, I cannot even begin to predict what this family will look like if and when I make it through all the Record Hints and duplicates. 

The only real motivation for doing all this cleanup work is the small possibility that some of the entries may be incomplete and I will be able to reserve and share their temple ordinances. 

How do I get through all of this? I simply keep adding appropriate Record Hints and resolving the duplicate entries until both of these are exhausted. How long will that take? I have spent entire days of over eight hours on one family just adding Record Hints and resolving duplicates. I will likely spend more than that time on this one family. This family may be a new record for the time involved in cleaning up one very short part of a family line. 

Am I related to these people? You do well to ask that question frequently. But in this case, even if one of the added family members seems to be unrelated, I end up being related to the newly added spouses. Cousins marrying cousins. 

I wish there was a simple way to quickly resolve this type of mess but then that would take all the fun out of doing genealogy. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

How Accurate are Online Family Trees?

There are really no differences between the accuracy of online family trees and paper-based genealogies of the past. Ironically, experienced genealogists tend to discredit and avoid online family trees and embrace inherited paper genealogical records when it is obvious that genealogists who were working before computers and the internet, even professional genealogists, had far less access to genealogical records than anyone has today. 

When I first began doing genealogical research almost 40 years ago, I completely relied on paper family group records from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. As I reviewed the work that had been done previously, I almost immediately discovered that the existing submitted (user-created) paper records were riddled with errors. The records created by experienced and, you might say, professional or professional level genealogists were just as inaccurate and subject to unsupported conclusions as those submitted (and copied) by the obvious novices. Even with the limited resources I had at that time, I was able to begin doing research into historical records and started trying to correct the errors. Interestingly, I am still doing exactly the same thing today but with more records. 

For the past two years or so, I have been able to work with a core representation of my family tree copied from the Family Tree into my own personal family tree on Using the MyHeritage Consistency Checker, I have been able to more accurately judge the accuracy of the information entered into the Family Tree. I must conclude that the accuracy is rather dismal. This test tree on MyHeritage has only about 4,072 people. The MyHeritage Consistency Checker finds 1,226 inconsistencies including some of the standard: child older than parent and child born after a parent dies. To say the least, this is disconcerting. 

Granted, the automated error finding programs are not perfect but they do give us an idea of the depth of the problems that are endemic in all family trees. Could I create a completely error-free family tree? The answer depends on the number of individuals in my family tree, the time spent in doing research, the focus of the individuals selected, and the availability of historical, genealogically significant records. For example, if I were to confine my research to my direct line surname family, the Tanners, I could be almost certain that information I have already accumulated is almost completely accurate. But, if I add collateral lines and descendants, I will quickly get to the point in time when the number of people involved and the possible lack of records will begin to diminish my accuracy. 

To maintain that your family tree is completely accurate, you would have to assume that all of the underlying source records were also completely accurate. Even if you are an extremely meticulous researcher, you ultimately must rely on the accuracy of your records. 

Does DNA testing improve the accuracy of a family tree? Yes and no. If a home DNA test is done correctly and not contaminated then the resultant test will be accurate. Is a home DNA test as accurate as one done for a court case, i.e. a criminal prosecution? Not at all. The main difference is the custody chain. All physical evidence in a criminal trial in the United States is subject to testimony about the chain of custody. The attorney presenting the evidence has to be able to show every person or entity that had possession and control of the physical evidence since it was obtained. That "chain of custody" cannot possibly be shown to occur in almost all home administered DNA tests because the test results are mailed in to the testing facility and upon arrival, the person opening the test is not disclosed. However, for genealogy purposes, the accuracy of the test is adequate if supported by careful fully documented research. 

It is often assumed that genealogical information obtained directly from an informant about people known to the informant is reliable. Bible records are one common example of this type of record. However, we can always speculate about the true father of a child or the accuracy of the dates recorded. People not only make mistakes but they also intentionally falsify records. 

If we automatically discount online family trees any time they disagree with our own records, we may ultimately be assuming infallibility. Since being infallible is highly unlikely, we must always accept corrections to our data with equanimity. With careful research using all the available tools and aids such as DNA testing, we should be able to have a reasonably accurate family tree but that does not give us a license to dismiss all other online family trees as inaccurate despite their failure to have sources and jump through all the hoops we think are required for accurate historical research. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Ancestry: Free Access to Everything on for Memorial Day

The link above says it all. is free for the weekend of Memorial Day 2020. If you have been wondering if any of your ancestors have records on this website, you can now take some time and find out. 

DPLA, Free Ebooks Online for Everyone

If you are not aware of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), you should be. Even if your interests are limited to genealogy, you will find that their ever-increasing collections of free digital images are a valuable resource. However, one of their major developments is directed at increasing the availability of ebooks throughout the United States. This initiative is called "SimplyE." You can download the app for SimplyE for either iOS or Android from their respective websites. Here is a description of SimplyE from a recent email announcement.
SimplyE is an open-source ebook platform developed by the New York Public Library. Over the past year, we’ve seen a wave of interest in SimplyE from libraries who want to provide more diverse content for more people while maintaining control over the patron experience and protecting patron privacy. There are currently more than 150 library systems across the country that have launched SimplyE, and it’s being tested and deployed in Washington, Connecticut, Texas, Georgia, and Montana. In addition, Rhode Island, Hawaii, the Maryland digital consortia, and American Samoa have begun the process of rolling out the platform. We have been working closely with these libraries to put together statewide ebook collections that include a wide variety of materials from different providers, including ebooks with flexible licensing terms and public domain works available through the DPLA Exchange. 
You might have the mistaken impression that "public domain" books and online library books are limited in scope to the "classics" such as copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or whatever. If this is your impression, you have no idea of what is happening online with digital books. Many of us now read all our books online. Most of this access has come through public libraries' contracts with This option is very expensive for the local libraries, hence the initiative by the DPLA to expand the availability of books at a more reasonable cost to the local library systems. If all you read is current bestsellers, you probably have a subscription to Kindle books or Barnes and Noble but if your reading habits are more expansive, you can find a treasure trove of books for free online. 

The SimplyE app lets you subscribe for free to your local library if they are part of the system but there are already some huge libraries online such as the Internet Archive's Open Library.

Combined with the online free resources of the Internet Archive, this is probably the most extensive collection of books currently available. Yes, the Internet Archive is available on SimplyE. 

Maybe during this time of sequestration, it would be a good opportunity to broaden your reading interests and find the vast online collections of books that are free for the reading. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

MyHeritage adds new Greek Record Collections

New Greek Record Collections

MyHeritage announced that they have "just published three important Greek record collections: Greece, Electoral Rolls (1863–1924), Corfu Vital Records (1841–1932), and Sparta Marriages (1835–1935), comprising 1.8 million historical records. All three collections have been indexed by MyHeritage and for the first time are now searchable in English, as well as in Greek. These are invaluable genealogy resources for anyone with Greek roots."

Here is a description of the records from an email announcement:
The Greece Electoral Rolls (1863–1924) consist of 1,006,594 records and provide nationwide coverage of males ages 21 and up who were eligible to vote. The Corfu Vital Records (1841–1932) consist of 646,807 birth, marriage, and death records that were collected by the civil authorities in Corfu and document the life events of all residents of the island, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. The Sparta Marriages collection (1835–1935) consists of 179,411 records which include images of the couple’s marriage license and their listing in the marriage register. 

In one of our pro bono initiatives, MyHeritage Founder and CEO Gilad Japhet personally traced the descendants of a Jewish family that was hidden during World War II on the small island of Erikoussa, north of Corfu. Gilad further utilized his hands-on experience in Greek research to develop the enhanced method by which MyHeritage now handles Greek surnames in the new collections.

In Greece, a woman's last name is the genitive form of her father's surname, or when she marries, of her husband's surname. The new Greek collections on MyHeritage have been made gender-agnostic to facilitate enhanced searching and matching. For example, a search for the Jewish surname “Velleli” in the new collections on MyHeritage will also locate people named “Vellelis”. It is also possible to find these surnames by searching for “Belleli”, because the Greek letter beta is pronounced like the English letter V, but in some countries this distinction has been lost and Greek surnames are sometimes pronounced with the letter B, the way they are written in modern English. 

MyHeritage’s Global Name Translation Technology further ensures that when searching on MyHeritage in other languages, such as Hebrew and Russian, the results will also include names in the new Greek collections. No other major genealogy company has these Greek record collections, nor such sophisticated algorithms customized for Greek genealogy research.
As time goes on, MyHeritage will certainly add a lot of valuable records that have not been previously generally available.  

Thursday, May 14, 2020

External Hard Drive Prices Drop

The retail prices of multi-Terabyte (TB) external and internal hard drives have declined significantly over the past few months. I can't think of any correlation between hand drive prices and the COVID-19 virus but the price decrease may have something to do with declining sales. In addition, 10 TB, 12 TB, and even 16 TB hard drives are now becoming competitive with smaller capacity drives. has 8 TB external hard drives for about $140. In the recent past, this capacity hard drive has been the "best deal" measured by cost per unit of storage. 8 TBs are enough storage to last even a computer file hoarder a long time to fill. We often measure the size of a hard drive by about how many movies (full-length feature films) could be stored. An 8 TB drive will hold 1,600 movies. So a 15 TB drive would hold 3,200 movies or about 266+ days of solid 24 hours a day video. 

Here are some representative prices rounded up to the nearest dollar:
  • 10 TB Seagate $185
  • 12 TB WD $242
  • 14 TB WD $300
  • 16 TB Seagate (internal) $398
The 8 TB drive costs about $17.50 per TB. The 10 TB drive is (of course) $18.50 per TB. The 12 TB drive is $20.16 per TB. The 14 TB drive is $21.42 per TB. Since the 16 TB drive does not yet have an external model, the price is not competitive. 

Do genealogist need all this storage capacity. Well, I am still able to back up all my files with 8 TB drives but I keep scanning documents and adding digital photos and they may still come a time when I need a higher capacity drive. 

I guess the point I would make, as I have many times in the past, is that there is no valid reason given the time and effort that goes into genealogical research to fail to have an adequate backup of your entire computer and all the files you have created. You can buy an 8 TB drive on Amazon but I would suggest buying two external drives one to back up your Mac or PC with the system backup program and one for your files to use every day. 

Exploring Genealogical Websites and Applications

The four largest online genealogical databases and record repository websites get more than the lion's share of the attention and publicity in the greater genealogical community. But the overall number of programs out there on the internet is much larger. GenSoftReviews is the most available source for a list of these other genealogy websites and software programs. presently list 1033 programs both stand-alone and online. This number includes programs of all types and all platforms. 

One of the things you need to watch out for is that some of the highly rated and frequently reviewed programs are actually out of business and either no longer available or only available in "free" online unsupported copies not from the original developer. For example, Personal Ancestral File has current positive reviews but the program stopped being supported by FamilySearch, the developer in 2013, now seven years ago. The final version that is still available online was released in 2005. If this doesn't mean anything to you, then you will probably be one of those people who are surprised the day they cannot access their Personal Ancestral File information on their computer.

Another thing you might want to be aware of is that some excellent programs have almost no reviews and the website or programs are very much alive and well. A good example of this is the History Lines program with only 1 review from back in 2016. 

Notwithstanding those limitations, browsing through the list of programs gives you an understanding of the types of programs that are or may be available. All the programs are linked from their reviews and you can then find out more from the linked websites. Take some time to learn something new.