Search This Blog

Using Online Family Trees

My Introduction to Online Family Trees

When I started my genealogy research I wrote letters hoping the person I was contacting would have the information I wanted. Then I would wait for weeks (or never) for a response that might or might not include an ancestor chart and the information I sought.

Online family trees seemed to be a gift. Now I wouldn't have to wait. I could look at a tree online and if there was a match, I could e-mail the person posting the tree and we could share our information and make new discoveries!

So I began looking. There were lots of trees with the names I was looking for. One name I was looking for was William A. Finney, born ca. 1806, married to Hannah Haskell. I found two trees that looked promising. One stated that William's father was John Finney and his mother was Sarah. His death certificate indicated that his father was John and his mother was Sarah. So I thought this is my family. All of the children were right.

By this time I had been researching for 20 years. I knew I needed sources. So I wanted to email this person and find out where they got their information. Being new to the email world, at the time, I gleefully sent out an email to "" That was my first lesson in email. Of course, now I know that this was a nonexistent address, but then I was naive. It bounced back. This person did not want to be identified or contacted.

The second tree I found also showed that William's father was John. No mother was listed, but that did not deter me. I looked at the tree and this contributor had the Finney all the way back to 896!

But wait! As I recall from my history classes, the oldest written record of names was the Doomsday Book (tax list, of course) in 1066. Only royal lines can be traced prior to that date. Did this mean that my family came from royalty?

I looked more closely and all the dates for William's ancestors were in this format: WFT Est. 896-1003. What did this mean? This is what I learned. WFT stands for "World Family Tree." Contributors submitted their family tree to Broderbund. The "Est." means that the staff at Broderbund estimated dates for individuals on family trees based on a 20-30 year range for each generation. Using this standard, some of these dates could be off by 10-50 years depending on how many generations were in the tree.

This all made me quite uncomfortable and curious. So I emailed "" 10 years later I am still waiting for a response to my email.

What I Did With The Information

I downloaded the gedcoms (GEnealogical Data COMmunication) into my genealogy software. I can open the file in my software, but it is separate from my family file based on my research. I labeled the gedcom with additional identifiers so I can know where I got it.

I used the skills I had already learned about verifying the information before adding it to my tree.

What Else I Found About Online Trees

The more I review trees online, the more I notice the flaws in them. I find many trees with identical information. This means that one person posted the information. Then several others downloaded that gedcom, merged it with their tree and then posted it as their own research.

I also notice that very few trees actually show the sources for the information contained in them.

By merging other files with your file without checking the data and using files that have no sources, errors are replicated across the internet.

Online gedcoms have no expiration date. Whatever you post stays there seemingly forever.

The errors posted in online trees at RootsWeb have been replicated on Ancestry, since Ancestry now owns RootsWeb and transferred all the trees there. Family Tree Maker bought the Broderbund World Family Tree files. Ancestry bought Family Tree Maker and now the World Family Tree files can be found on Ancestry. You can also subscribe at (also owned by Ancestry) and have unlimited access to all the World Family Tree information.

I am not blaming any of the website owners and developers. They have created an easy way for all of us to share our trees. It is each individual's responsibility to post information that they know is accurate or to be clear that this is speculative data with no foundation in fact.

It is my responsibility as a user of these trees to verify the data found before I post the information as correct. And I admit that early on I posted a couple of erroneous pieces of information. And I would gladly take them back if I could.

What I Learned

I learned to always, always verify the data I find in online trees.

I learned to use online trees as hints or clues that I can use to try to track down my family.

I learned that just because it is online doesn't make it a fact.

I learned that many people post information and then will not respond to my requests for additional information.

I learned to download other people's gedcoms into separate files. I never merge them with my own.

I learned to hand enter any data that I want to add to my family tree file and then only if I have sources for the information.

I learned that I am the person responsible for how I use online information.

I learned that I am the person responsible for posting accurate, verified information, complete with source citations.

I learned that the best information on the internet are the digital images of records that can be found.

Whether you are new to genealogy or experienced, check out these tutorials.


Sign up to follow me on this blog.

How a Research Notebook Can Keep You Organized

I Needed to Stay Organized

I like all my research materials at my fingertips. If I need to review a census record, I want to have it readily available. If the review of that document triggers an idea about a place to look or generates another question, I want to have my research plan and to do list within reach to add those ideas and questions for follow up later.

I bet you are the same way.

In the beginning, I would make those notes in my spiral (see Use Loose, Archival Paper for that discussion.) That did not work so well. Where were my questions and ideas when I needed to make the next steps? They were buried in my notes on some page in one of the spirals.

I watched other researchers. They carried briefcases and file boxes full of folders and papers. (Remember, this is in the pre-laptop age.) And I noticed that they still were digging through piles of papers, trying to find what they were looking for.

I've always liked 3 ring binders. My first real school notebook was a zippered 3 ring binder with pockets. I still like them the best, but they are too expensive to own more than one. But regular 3-ring binders are relatively inexpensive, so I can have several--in colors too.

I think you see where I am going. I married my love of 3-ring binders with my need to have my genealogy materials all in one place.

Why Use a Research Notebook?

I make what I call a "Research Project." This project focuses on one person or nuclear family. I use the notebook to organize my materials and to help maintain my focus on my research goal.

The notebook helps me maintain control over my research project. It is a place to house all my information that I need for researching one ancestor. I have dividers to "file" different items in my notebook and it allows me to add new materials as I find them

I collect maps, information about state archives and lists of resources about the area I am researching. These items and my research and correspondence logs each have sections in my notebook.

I keep the "project" together until I have accomplished my goal. When I am done I take everything out and file it in my permanent archive. Then I use the notebook for a new project.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the lack of progress on a project. With this system I can take a break and work on something else. Since all my materials are together, it is easy for me to go back, read through what I have accomplished so far and look at everything with new eyes, without having to re-gather all the related materials.

By using the notebook system, I can have two or three research projects going at the same time. The notebooks help me keep everything straight and separated.

What I Keep in My Notebook

I tried a regular 2 inch binder but it became to heavy to carry around and labeling the outside was unsatisfactory. Now I use a 1 1/2" 3-ring, view binder. I make a cover page labeled with my project name and slip it in the front pocket. I also make a spine label that I slip into the spine pocket. I can easily change the cover page and spine label, allowing me to recycle my binders for different projects.

This chart shows how I organize my notebook. You could organize it any way that you like. What is important is to have all of these items listed in the contents section in your notebook.

Research Plan
·  Research Goals and Objectives
·  Research plan
·  To Do List
Family Group
·  Family Group Charts
·  Pedigree Charts
 Tracking Charts
·  Census history
·  Individual data list
·  Individual Chronology
·  Documents list
·  Keep documents acquired in sheet protectors
State(s) Research Guide
[one section for each state; you may have 3 or 4 for a single project]
·  Maps
·  Catalog of films, books, etc to search
·  Local histories
·  Repository information
·  Research log
·  Correspondence log
·  Use as needed. For instance:
o   A third state to search
o   Blank forms
o   Surname Analysis (spelling variations, meaning; country of origin, etc.)
o   Analysis of each research session
o   Research Journal

I use a census history, an individual chronology, transcriptions and abstracts to have my data on hand. This allows me to leave my original and/or best copies filed safely. Using these techniques, I am able to organize my facts in a logical way, which in turn makes them easier to retrieve.

What I Learned

I learned to never take the original or best copy of my documents with me when I am researching. Too much handling and exposure to light cause them to deteriorate over time. I also do not have to worry about losing them.

I learned that I am more effective and efficient when I have all my materials organized and together.

I learned that when I keep good notes, complete research and correspondence logs, a to do list and a well-written research plan that it is easy to keep track of where I am in my research on a particular ancestor.

I learned that having a section for maps and repository information helps me generate new ideas and find new sources for information.

I learned that a 2" ring binder becomes too heavy to carry around.

I learned that when I have filled a 1 1/2" binder it is time to restructure my project.

I learned that I can carry a census history, individual chronology and transcription or abstract of documents and save a lot of extra paper and weight in my notebook.

Click here to learn more about Research Techniques and see a sample notebook.

Add a comment and join me as a follower.


Land Records You May Have Missed

Public Domain States

Early on in my genealogical quest, I started using property records. They helped me determine when my ancestors settled in a place. They frequently gave me the name of a wife and sometimes the names and relationship of other members of the family.

First Land Patent
4 March 1788

A few years ago, my sister-in-law told me about BLM records. The Bureau of Land Management had begun posting the land patent records for what the BLM calls "Public Domain States." Some authors call these "federal land states" or "public land states."

I learned right away that there are some new terms to learn when working with these records. Fortunately, the BLM website has a glossary that is easy to use and understand.

Public Domain or federal land states are those states in which the United States government sold or granted property to individuals. All of the states except the original 13 colonies and the states created from them, Texas and Hawaii are federal land states.

What is a Land Patent?

A land patent is the granting of a piece of real estate (land) by a government to a private individual or business. The land patents were either sold at public auctions or granted to individuals for service to the government, sometimes in lieu of payment for that service. Many soldiers in the American Revolution were paid in this way.

The issuance of a land patent is the first step in the selling of a tract of land from one individual to another. Once the patent was issued, the patentee (the one who got the property from the government) was able to sell it to another individual.

Bureau of Land Management Records

The BLM has a website that allows you to search for land patents that have been granted to individuals.
On the BLM site you can look at and save images of the land patent documents. You can also in many cases find images of the original survey maps.

You can read about the history of the BLM in their extensive reference section, which includes the glossary mentioned above.

I Began My Search

I began searching for various ancestors on this site. Since most of my ancestors migrated to Texas in the late 1800s, I learned early on about federal land states and "state land states" (states whose lands were never part of the Public Domain.)

But when I began to look for my pre-Texas ancestors I found a number of records. Most of these are from Alabama and Missouri, but there are 30 states that were federal land states, so I had others to look through--Arkansas, Mississippi, Arizona, New Mexico and so on.

The ancestors I have found were the first purchasers of this property. I have discovered that some of them claimed their property before the federal government had actually opened up the land sales. Generally these certificates are called Pre-emption Certificates, meaning that they claimed the land by right of possession.

These were ancestors who in some cases had moved in amongst the Indians when the state was still a territory. Some of them purchased tracts of land that had not been sold at the initial auctions, sometimes many years after the sale.

The records I have found help me know just how early some of my ancestors moved into those areas. From this information I can search census and court records to help find their families and determine when they left an area or if they died there, which then can lead to probate records, where members of the family are identified.

I download the maps, when available, to help me pinpoint where my ancestor lived and who his neighbors were. Knowing the neighbors may help me identify other family connections.

What I Learned

I learned that not everyone purchased or received a land patent or grant.

I learned that some of the earliest land sale records in a county's deed books are the sale of these land patents almost immediately after purchase, before the land patent certificates were issued.

I learned that land speculators tried to purchase as much of the land as possible in the public auctions, even hiring "agents" to purchase for them.

I learned that the federal government tried to make sure that more people could become land owners by making the price cheap and by limiting how much land a single individual could purchase at one auction.

I learned that not all states are found on the BLM site. Only states known as "federal land" states have records posted there.

I learned that "state land" states issued their own grants or their grant process occurred before the American Revolution. These include the original 13 colonies and the five states created from them; Texas and Hawaii.

I learned that not all original survey maps can be found on this site.

I learned that I should keep checking back to see what records the BLM has imaged and posted to this site.

Whether you are new to genealogy or experienced, check out these tutorials.


Share your experiences with BLM Land Patents. Post a comment.

Grandpa Would've Known....

Wish I Had Asked More Questions

William Robert Couch

My grandfather died when I was 16. He was fairly young, only 64 when he died, just three months after his father died. He was born the year that Spindletop made Texas "oil country", the oldest of his siblings, he attended college before he graduated high school, he worked the oil fields at Ranger, Texas during their short-lived oil boom and became a civil engineer, working for the Santa Fe railroad and later the United States Weather Bureau.

But this story isn't really about him. It is about my mother and I. We did lots of research together. We shared information and had many discussions, some heated, about what this information or that information meant and where it could lead us.

The one thing that we shared was that I would say "Grandpa would have known the answer." Or she would say, "Daddy would have known about that." We both agreed that we both should have asked more questions.

But I was young and had my head buried in a book. Family history was only interesting to me when I heard the stories. Wish I could remember them all.

Mother did not start researching until ten years after her father died, so she never asked what he knew about his family.

What's the Point Here?

While I had only one grandparent still living when I started my research, I still had several great aunts and uncles and many older cousins.

I visited several of these great aunts and uncles and some of my grandparents cousins, but I was only interested in photographing their pictures. I half-listened to their stories. I did try to pick up on what the pictures were about.

I should have asked more questions.

Why Listening and Asking Are Worth the Time

Several of my mother's cousins are still alive. One of them visits my home once or twice a year. I now listen to his stories. (Remember I have learned from my lost opportunities.)

The most revealing story was at a Thanksgiving celebration in my home. He and his children had come for dinner and he was telling his stories. I knew he had been married several times, so I asked him how many times he had been married and he said, "Five." Both his daughter and I were shocked. We knew he had been married 4 times. So I asked who his first wife was. Turns out, his first marriage lasted less than 24 hours. The girl's father found out and had it annulled the very next day. None of us knew.

What I Learned

I learned that I should have asked more questions.

I learned that when I listen to the older members of my family, I find out interesting things.

It's never too late to start asking questions and listening to the stories.

Click here (What Do I Do Next) to learn how to interview your family to get great family stories and clues.


P.S. Comment on my experience or add your own experiences in successful interviews and missed opportunities .