The frustrations and risks of genealogy

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A few years ago, I received a phone call from a cousin I had not heard from in some time. Some years earlier, this distant relative and I had been in regular contact while I was working with them on their branch of the family tree. They gave me the data on the descendants and photographs, so the tree would be up to date. I gave them ancestry going farther back than they ever dreamed. Then they called me years later to tell me that they found the same ancestry data on the internet and I should check it out. After I found what they saw, it turned out that someone else had taken the data I gave them and posted it on-line as though they did the work.

This is just one of the frustrations of posting your family tree on-line. Although there are problems with on-line family trees, including but not limited to retaining the ownership, they can serve as an excellent guide toward the original sources.

Many people have found their family tree on-line because the person who did the work (or someone who stole it) posted the tree on a number of possible locations. The most likely ones are:,, personal web sites.

If you have accounts set up on Ancestry or Familysearch, they make it quite easy to add your family tree to their sites. You download a gedcom file from your genealogy software (Roots magic, Family Tree Maker, PAF, etc.) and upload it to their site. Most people who have posted their family tree on a personal web site usually just take reports and charts from their family tree software and toss them on a web page. There are some sophisticated personal web sites that take a lot of work to maintain also. The point is that family trees can be posted and found all over the place with a google search or by searching within Ancestry or Familysearch in their searches specifically designed to search their family tree data (not their record collections).

As the person who posts the family tree, please understand that there is a responsibility involved. Each site with a family tree has a means to contact the submitter. So anytime someone looks at your tree and has a question, they will use that web site, or e-mail, to contact you, because you must know where you found the information.

Unfortunately, this is the beginning of the frustration for the lucky people who find the tree on-line. Many genealogists complain that they try to contact the person who posted the family tree and never get a response. Usually, this is because they see just enough information about a particular individual in the tree and they want to ask if there is any additional information about them. Everyone is different in how they manage their e-mail, but I hear far more people complain about lack of response than I hear about quick responses and happy success stories. I can’t speak for those who don’t reply to their questions but I think some of them feel “Hey, I posted my entire tree on-line. That’s enough! I have to answer questions too?” It seems to me that the purpose of posting one’s lifetime of research on-line should be to find others who can help, and be helped, by that post. Why bother putting the tree on-line at all if you don’t intend to work with other genealogists?

I need to digress for a moment and talk about living people in the family tree. It is NEVER a good idea to post data on living individuals on family tree sites. We have enough trouble with identity theft without giving people’s personal information on genealogy sites to make it easy. Check your genealogy program for what method they use to “privatize” the data on living individuals. Family Tree Maker, for example, has a feature that marks all data on living people “Private” temporarily. Then you download the gedcom and the individuals in the tree who are living are identified as “Private” and there is no birthdate or birthplace for those people. The deceased people in the file are fully identified. Then you turn off the “Privatize” feature and your file goes back to normal so you can add more data to it. Please make sure you do not post living peoples’ information on-line, mostly because they might find that information on the internet and when you contact them again for more information, they might be upset and reluctant to help you with more.

The next problem with on-line trees is that few of them are properly documented. They mention your great-great-grandfather’s name, his birth date of 1852, his birth place “Bari Italy,” his death date of 1921, his death place of “Chicago” and not much else. This is usually the point where you try to contact the person who submitted the tree and they don’t answer you. The problem is that you have no birth or death data on great-great-grandpa and this is all you know. So you now enter this data in your family tree file based on finding it in the web site. So are you now going to find records for Bari and see if you can find his birth record in 1852 Bari births? Naturally, this is all you have, so you order microfilm for the city of Bari, and it costs $15 to get two films that contain 1852 births. After waiting four weeks for the films, he’s not in there. You wasted $15 and your time. If the on-line family tree had a source for the 1852 birth “Grandma told me.” then you could take this piece of information with a grain of salt. I would not waste time researching a primary source for data whose source is “Grandma told me.” Not unless Grandma was known to be quite accurate with such dates and places. Part of the problem is that when people don’t remember the small town name (the comune), they usually say the name of the larger place name. “Our family comes from Bari.” “Mom’s side comes from Krakow.” “I live in Chicago.” To people who may not be familiar with the geography, this is enough to tell them basically where the family roots are from. But as genealogists, we need the name of the exact town where the records are. Great-great-grandpa was born in Carbonara, in the province of Bari. Busia (Polish for “grandma”) was born in Ocieka, near Rseszow, some 60 km from Krakow. We live in Elk Grove Village, which is near Chicago. Once you have the proper place name, you can consider searching for primary sources that can confirm what is already on-line.

The best part of finding an on-line family tree is when you find something you didn’t know, and the person who posted the tree also posts the source. “1851 Carbonara, Bari, Puglia Birth records, #141”. In some cases, they may even post a copy of the source itself! Then you can be more certain of the date and place they posted. However, I always caution people to find the source and check it for themselves. Even if the source is listed, get a copy of that document and read it yourself. You order the microfilm and get a copy of the 1851 Carbonara births and look at record #141 and find that the name is correct but the parents are all wrong. Or it references a marriage to someone who isn’t your great-great-grandma, which is possible but now deserves a second look! Or this person died in 1852 and he had a kid brother born in 1854 who was also given the same name and HE is the right great-great-grandpa. You need to find the original source and confirm its legitimacy. Bad data is like a bad cold. You post a bad piece of data that looks good on the surface, but it’s not accurate and then you post it, and then other people pick up that bad data and post it. By the end of the day, a bunch of people all have the sniffles! It is always good news to find a detailed, sourced piece of data you did not know, and maybe you could have never guessed at. But I urge you to always check that data now that you know where to look for it.

If the web site gives you a place to post a comment about some piece of data, please take the time to post your question or objection to that data. If there’s an on-line tree with “1852 Bari” you should post a comment “I found this in Carbonara Bari Puglia 1854 births #97 April 19, 1854”. Even if the original person who posted the tree never bothers to update it with your findings, maybe someone else will see your note and it will give them a clue to check the correct source and save themselves time and money.

There is no way to control all the people and data posted. The best way to help is to be the good genealogist who cites their sources, never posts data on living people, answers questions from other researchers and tries to correct bad data when possible. Then people will sing your praises on social media when they tell their friends that you know what you’re doing!

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!


About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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