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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.


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