Error fatigue

You have undoubtedly seen online exchanges that go something like:

“That genealogical claim is wrong/unproved.”

Reply: “Prove that it is wrong/unproved!”

I first experienced this back in the early days of the Internet when I posted a caution that the royal ancestry attributed to Mayflower passenger Richard Warren was not proved. I was immediately challenged to prove my claim.

Well, the claim was never based on evidence in the first place, and the amount of time and energy one would have to put into disproving phantom claims is more than I had, or have, time for. My challenger had already copied the information from a book, wholly believed every word of it, and was not about to be told otherwise.

We can all sympathize, up to a point, with the challenger. If everything one finds while researching one’s genealogy is subject to a whole bunch of “ifs, buts, and maybes,” why not just pick the version you like best and stick with that? Why bother to sort out the facts?

Only those researchers who are intrigued and interested by the process of really identifying and proving a lineage will endure…

In today’s world of promised “push button” genealogy, newcomers most likely do not hang around for long. They get in quick, get a pedigree, and get out when things start to get confusing. Only those researchers who are intrigued and interested by the process of really identifying and proving a lineage will endure, but we wage constant battle with the repeated swirl of unproved, misconstrued, or just wrong published information. How do you satisfactorily explain to newbies that they cannot rely on all they see? It is somewhat like handing a shovel to people who think there already is a tunnel.

I have been around long enough to understand that no matter how many articles I write trying to correct errors in print, only a small handful of people will ever read them or even know they exist, or, for that matter, care, but I still worry about these “lost genealogical souls,” who, if nothing else, will miss that wonderful feeling of achievement when they unravel the truth about their families.

We all yearn for the time when, magically, everything in print and online will be accurate and a newcomer’s first exposure to genealogy will be correct from the start. We should all live so long. Until then do we just let these souls be content with their copied errors? Is there even any point in trying to protect them from themselves? What possibly could be done to help those who do not know they need help?

What do you think?

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

133 thoughts on “Error fatigue

  1. Alicia,
    I can relate (no pun intended) to everything you wrote here. My best challenge retort, “Everyone in our development can tell you we are Mayflower descendants. How dare you ask for proof?”
    As for an article setting the record straight, don’t try do to correct Wikipedia citing your own own research. I have tried several times to correct a long-standing and often repeated error concerning a family in Maine. It was taken down within 20 minutes each time under the category of “self promotion.”

    1. Michael, My famous quote from my Mayflower days was “The most dangerous place to stand is between someone and their Mayflower ancestor.” One can get keel hauled very quickly!

      1. Michael, I’m from Maine for many generations. Our ancestors were very good at “reframing” their activities or adding colorful details that never happened. If you shared your Maine info in a brief comment here, maybe search engine drones would catalogue it, making it available to other researchers.

  2. I have corrected numerous errors on my tree. I undoubtedly have many more to unravel, because as a newbie, I believed anything I found in a book and some of what I found on the internet. I write a blog partly so that I can be challenged, as to what is and is not correct. I like to hear that I might be wrong. That gives me a chance to delete the wrong lines (boo) and research new folks, if the correct family can be found. Keep trying. Some of us appreciate the “F” grade.

    1. Janice, good. The more conversation, the better. I was surprised recently to find an intelligent conversation on an on line “tree” site and got a very good clue out of it. So it can happen!

    2. I used to hate being challenged, oh how I hate how naive I was! Now the challenge gives me ideas or avenues I had not had or seen before. The F is no longer a bad thing to me.

  3. Maybe a webinar put together showing instances where the written word, and even some “old standbys” (Phelps Family In America immediately comes to mind), can have some unproven “facts” included. Your notes must surely contain enough of those to fill up 45-60 minutes! If not, Alicia, let me know and I will share some of mine…..

    1. Donna, as it happens I will be giving a Webinar on March 21 about evaluating published genealogies, which will address some of these issues.

      1. I am looking forward to this webinar since I have a family published genealogy which shows a father/son connection that I have been unable to find any more proof for! Thanks for this article… finding the “real story” is so much more satisfying!

      2. I will be attending this webinar, definitely. One of the biggest problems, I’ve found, are 19th-century genealogies that have unfortunately risen deceased infants and turned them into husbands with progeny! Your webinar topic would be an excellent book title or lengthy article, at the least. So useful.

      3. Darn, I’m seeing this too late. I would have loved to see your Webinar. Is it available for viewing still?

  4. Lately, I just keep my mouth shut unless someone has asked for an opinion. And even then, I tend to stay out of it. I flatter myself that I’m a good, though amateur, genealogist. I’d love to help people sort out their families, but I don’t want to get involved anymore. Too much negative emotion around all aspects of life these days. Maybe it’s my age…

    1. Yes, If I was intended to be a salmon God would have given me fins. Even when asked and I say what I know, I’m up against the same old same old “gramma said”.

    2. Margerie, Probably not a matter of age, just patience, which we all run out of sooner or later. Just makes helping those who want help mean more.

  5. The only success I’ve had convincing anyone that their tree contained a grievous error was when someone’s tree made the claim that a woman killed at 33 was pregnant with a first child before she married my great uncle [killed in the same accident], they gave the infant up for adoption, and immediately set about having three of their own. The supposed half sister of this adoptee, a Catholic nun of some 60 years who was 5 when her parents were killed, was heartbroken to hear her parents were being slandered this way. A DNA test later it still took over 6 months and several demands for this claim to be deleted from the offenders tree.
    My trees are always works-in-process. Until I have finished my source checklist for a person, and updated it periodically, the result is uncertain.This is why I keep my trees “private” and never take another tree as gospel truth.

    1. Just yesterday I was reviewing “hints” on Ancestry. I like it when a tree has lots of sources, thinking “this person does his/her research”. Well, I found one with lots of sources that had a Connecticut Puritan ancestor of ours being married in 1638 in Texas! I think the young couple must have flown there for a destination wedding!
      On occasion, I write kindly worded notes to the posting person, as when someone has a second wife being the mother of the first wife’s children, for which I have definite proof. I receive gracious notes of thanks for the catch. But this one I ignored. If the contributor doesn’t look at facts of history, he/she probably wouldn’t want a challenge.

      1. I call it “the Texas error” and have tried to get Ancestry to come up with some solution, but they have ignored me with platitudes. Turns out when inserting a place, if you spell it differently than Ancestry, their system plugs in what you typed with several other names, states, etc appended. It’s meant to alert you to an error. Clearly people don’t always read what is posted by Ancestry. Of course, they don’t remember their history either.

  6. I think that genetic testing, if it continues to grow at its current pace, may in fact straighten out many of these types of errors within our lifetimes (I’m in my 60’s). This is just a hunch at this point, but for an example, I’ve just joined a large, Y-line DNA project for my family name and within a few days discovered that haplogroups of team members claiming lineages to either my paternal line’s well-documented immigrant ancestor in 1632 or to his “brother” (as reported in all the family trees and history books I’ve seen) prove that the two lineages could not both be true. Persuading family history newcomers of the wisdom of hedging claims based on unproven lineages may get easier as these types of discoveries become more common.

    1. Ned, not sure it will be in our lifetime. Certainly some DNA tests such as Y-line can identify who is not related, but I am pretty sure we are still a long way away from using DNA to build a positive tree, mostly disprove a negative. Besides, wouldn’t it be dull if all we had to do was spit to get our entire pedigree!

      1. I agree with your general point. Our Y line project so far has 35 independent lines; in addition to identifying who is not related, Y DNA will also consolidate lots of these independent lines where researchers have hit dead ends and help them collaborate.

      2. “Certainly some DNA tests such as Y-line can identify who is not related . . .”

        That’s one of the things that has finally gotten the descendants of an unrelated Scots-Irish immigrant to stop claiming he was an otherwise unrecorded eldest son in one of my ancestral families. As if it wasn’t enough that primary sources identify MY ancestor as the eldest son, and the other guy came to America at a different time than his purported parents and siblings did (and to a different colony)! But the y-DNA tests were the final nail in the coffin of the false parentage: well, until someone unfamiliar with the latest findings on this question once again stumbles upon the old book that has been spreading the error, causing the zombie to bust the coffin nails and terrorise the living . . . .

  7. To me the fun of genealogy is solving the mystery by searching for information in wills , deeds and other records and reexaminating printed sources. The search and the accuracy of the results is most important. I have discovered that some people do not want to know of thei mistakes but some are willing to accept errors. The maddening thing is to seen how the incorrect information takes root.

  8. Well stated. I deal with Ancestry trees, and if I find what I consider a significant error, AND if the person appears to be actively involved in research (not one who hasn’t signed in for over a year), then I will offer a suggestion of alternative information, and the sources for that information. Or in other cases where they have information that I don’t have, and haven’t documented/sourced it, I will let them know I’ve been looking for that info for a long time, and ask them where they found it. Frequently, it just comes from someone else’s undocumented tree. One person replied that it was from an Ancestry hint, and therefore had to be correct. More and more people then see the erroneous information, and think it must be true because that’s what everyone else thinks. The reiteration effect – the tendency to believe information is correct because it is repeated, not because it is true. I think it would be much harder to prove something (or someone) didn’t occur. I can prove an event with a corresponding record. But it could be argued that lack of a record doesn’t prove the event didn’t happen.

    1. Sooze, what we really need is a web crawler that will mark all of those links that have been copied from other undocumented trees, though I suppose that might blow some Internet fuses!

      1. Brilliant, Alicia! Methinks some internet fuses need to be blown! Someone substituted some of a well-researched line (another researcher and I had developed that line with careful research and collaboration) with her own “discoveries”, people who were in no way related, and could not have been the parents of the children (he was decades older than she, and she was a 9 year old at the time of the first birth), plus a geographical impossibility. Other of her substitutions were not as egregious, but just as weird. When I pointed out the discrepancies, she was upset that I’d unlinked the couple not only from the children but from each other. Her response was “but it might have been that…” All I could do was let her know in as nice a way as possible that in genealogy there are no “might bes”. Either someone is the parent or they are not. My co-researcher and I were able to reconstitute our findings on the tree, but that was the last tree I ever bothered with.

  9. Some people only seem to care WHO they are and not so much of the Why they are here or the How they got here. I don’t care much for long lists, and notable names are amusing but really I find people taking the time to challenge other people proofs to be the sort of people that correct grammar. Inevitably the only proofs that are factual are your DNA Chromosomes and even that is in its infancy. There have been many shocked parents on Maury Povich “Who’s your Daddy” shows over the years and I am sure many of my OFFICIAL ancestors would have some explaining to do as well.

    1. Glen, Yes, but DNA by itself is not a proof positive. It can eliminate connections, and it can suggest relationships, but it has to be used with a good, old fashioned paper trail, at least until they design a test that can specifically identify one’s 9th great-grandmother.

    2. “…but really I find people taking the time to challenge other people proofs to be the sort of people that correct grammar…”

      Glen, I rather agree with you here. I suppose we must pick our battles.

      1. The case of Ellen vs Helen was a Bible Record from the mid-1800s, not a matter of correcting grammar and I didn’t try to correct my cousin about the pages I shared, only cautioned her to be on the look-out about that different spelling. However in thinking this matter over I guess my main thought was she asked for help to get into DAR and then didn’t have the courtesy to even Thank me ever. Then she passed along my research as she wished, some of it word for word.

    3. Glen – I seldom challenge someone else’s proof, but do so only when my own research indicates that their research was not sufficiently thorough. I do, however, challenge people who romantically cling to unproven, unprovable, or unlikely assertions. There are a lot of people with badly flawed understandings of what constitutes genealogical research.

  10. Asking someone to prove a negative is silly and stupid. Like Alicia, I have been practicing genealogy since the good old days when we would use the code SASE in letters. I doubt the newbies even know what that stands for. No one can be successful at genealogy without collaboration. I visited the genealogy section of Library of Congress about 25 years ago and found 9 books published by people with whom I had corresponded, of course, enclosing a self-addressed stamped envelope which was just good manners. I have said this ad nauseum “If you can afford a very pricey Ancestry membership, then you can certainly afford to join NEHGS” and get access to the work of so many researchers who have almost gone blind reading ancient handwritten probate and church records. There is a way to do this right and there is a point where the smart person consuts the experts.

  11. Some people know what they “know,” and they aren’t about to let facts get in the way. I have a similar problem with the parents of Benjamin Noel of Mercer County, Kentucky. The incorrect parents were published in 1976. The knowledge of name order in wills, the ages of Ben’s children, and the Noel DNA project all indicate that Benjamin is, in fact, not the child of Thomas and Drucilla.

    1. And yet, Thomas and Drucilla will live forever as Benjamin’s parents in outer space. Imagine how confused genealogists 30 generations from now will be!

  12. I think it is a real service to raise questions about printed material. People seeking genealogical information are supposed to know that all information can be in error, but newbies just don’t. When I was entering information into databases, I wanted to have a comment section but it didn’t happen. There was a database based on a published cemetery transcription. With FindaGrave pictures of the stones, I found several errors in the transcription and thought it was a crime to perpetuate the error without comment. When something is posted on a reputable website, it has more credibility, particularly for new researchers.

  13. Being a “Newbie” I welcome ANY suggestions and/or possible corrections. I have read enough and researched enough to KNOW that I have a lot to learn. I do, however, draw the line when a “researcher” told me the information I had entered on my brother was incorrect. I think living with somebody for 60+ years qualifies me to say I KNOW for a fact, what I entered is true. But, again, I appreciate any suggestions or corrections to my information just be kind and respectful when doing so. Kindness and politeness is free and much appreciated.

    1. Linda, this discussion is clearly showing there are two groups — those who don’t know, yet, and those who don’t want to know ever.

  14. Thank you for what you are doing. “Doncha dare” change your goals or methods, and please don’t feel pressured by the instant gratification newbies. I hope you are as thankful as I am about the spread of DNA and it’s “end of argument” finality. Hopefully those that use DNA information will also learn what it really says and its limitations. Your work is very valuable. Keep the faith. Bill

    1. Don’t worry Bill, I’m not changing. However DNA is still not at the point where it can end arguments, just add another piece to the puzzle.

  15. I gave up trying to correct inaccuracies after dealing with someone who had copied one of my family photos on Ancestry and misidentified one of the people in the photo. The photograph was of my father Ted and his mother Mary Lou. The Ancestry user downloaded my photo and reuploaded it as if it were her own (thus severing my connection to the photo), and she identified the woman in the photo as Virginia—Ted’s WIFE and my mother. I wrote to the Ancestry user to offer the accurate information. She argued with me that I was wrong and she was correct, even though my father was a very, very distant cousin of hers. No amount of evidence that I supplied would convince her to correct her mistake.

    There is a saying that “you can’t fix stupid,” and I think in this particular case, the saying fits!

    1. I had a similar incident on Ancestry, though going it one huge step farther. I had added a photo of my 2nd great grandfather, Robert Wilson. When I got a notice that someone had added it to their tree, I looked to see how we were connected. I was shocked to see the photo had been connected to someone who only shared the name and nothing else–different years, different states, different parents, wife, and children. I tried to be very diplomatic in sending a message to the perpetrator. He never responded to my message and immediately changed his tree to a private one, so I do not know if he removed the photo. I have considered switching my own tree to private, but I have had some very useful contacts made due to the public tree, so I just hope for the best.

  16. Genealogy is a hobby, passion and certainly not a job for those who want a royal pedigree in 50 clicks. The crown goes to those who trust but verify, dig and corroborate, tramp the cemeteries in rain storms and sooth the rattled nerves of overworked local volunteer historians. Many times we take the stories of aging parents and grandparents and breath life into the old bones of our ancestors by traipsing to court houses for vital and court records, scroll through censuses on microfilm, hunt for deeds and probate records and every now and then we are lucky enough to find the distant cousin who has in their possession the coveted family bible. It’s not 50 clicks, it’s diligence, hard work, exhausting, frustrating and frankly amazing when you bust the brick wall. There is nothing like taking a story your father told you and connecting all those dots and finding out it’s true. And, it’s also taking the story your mother told you and proving your g-g-grandfather was not murdered but rather died an accidental drowning. Guess what?!?, my uncle doesn’t like me anymore because I uncovered the truth and disputed a 100 year old legend He loved what I was finding for the family history until I put the facts in front of him and disputed his “truth” which were the result of repetitive errors and manufactured family drama.

    Even if our efforts only reach a small audience, there is satisfaction in knowing what is the truth and what we’ve found is not popular at the moment or with a particular audience. Keep it up Alicia, your audience of one in Michigan thanks you and your diligence, you disproved my Mayflower heritage through your research on the Atwood families of Plymouth and the Mary Morey or Lucas riddle.

    1. Oops. Sorry about the Mayflower line, but you understand. When Mayflower ceased to accept “grandfathered” lineage paper from its own files — papers were accepted without the applicant having to provide documentation for themselves, their parents and grandparents — which gets compounded as each new generation joins, without documentation, resulting in old lineage papers with nothing for six or seven generations, the push back from many applicants descended from these lines was that we were Impugning the integrity of their grandmothers who made out the old applications. A good number of those descendants ultimately understood the problem, particularly that their line was not being called incorrect, simply undocumented, but there were many others who have yet to forgive.

      1. No worries! I loved the fact that there was some solid research done. I’ve been correcting genealogies for a long time by submitting the published work/error and then explaining my own research along with proofs. Trust but verify.

  17. I don’t know if there is much you can say to a person who has created an Ancestry tree that includes: Husband/Father died 1841; Wife/Mother died 1846 … they then proceeded, apparently, to have 6 more children in the next 15 years. Tricky.
    Or the tree that has a woman having her 17 child when she was age 82.
    I just want to say “Read! Look at what you have!” … but they just happily link away.

  18. This article is so timely. I spent 4 hours last night providing a detailed genealogical proof to a very persistent Find A Grave contributor for why the corrections he repeatedly sends me are declined as inaccurate. There are 2 gentlemen in this area born about 1 year apart with the same name. Both married women named Sarah. Mine had a father with a very uncommon name – Xenophon; his has a first name of Enos. Both had sons, who are juniors, who were born about 1 year apart. Thankfully only one other son shares a name and near birth date. They led totally separate lives as far as occupation, towns in which they were born, married and died, dates of marriage & death, names & number of other children. Their sons, who share names, led totally separate lives as far as occupation, towns in which they were born, married and died, and children. My sons stayed in the area; the other’s sons worked for the railroad and moved West with it. Initially sorting them out is confusing but a careful examination and recording of all available records nicely accomplishes the task – details like Sarah couldn’t have a daughter and 3 months later have a son.
    The response this morning – a 1907 SAR application with no dates or places and no proofs says otherwise. The marriage to Sarah has to be the same person. There are two glaring errors in the application. His ancestor married twice but on the application, the marriages are treated as a son and a father not the same man. He descends from Sarah, the first wife. Enos and his wife do not appear anywhere on the application. The Revolutionary War soldier is the correct grandfather of his ancestor but the generations are wrong. My proof went 2 generations forward and back for both gentlemen as additional documentation of the difference.
    I give up.

    1. P.S. The only treatment for stupid is experience and the only cure is death. There is no way to combat the poison ivy leaves on Ancestry.

    2. Jane, as they say, there are those who will not hear. Better to save our breath for those who will listen.

      1. The problem is you don’t know if they will listen until you try and discover they are as deaf as posts. In this case, I will just continue to decline the changes & follow the memorials to make sure he doesn’t get creative by complaining to Find A Grave that I am being uncooperative.

  19. Since I have worked on genealogy for 45+ years, I am often asked by friends and acquaintances for tips on how to start. I always talk about the difference between primary and secondary sources and strongly stress the danger of automatically believing information that comes from another person’s online tree without carefully considering the sources. If there are no reliable sources listed, then it is just a possiblity to be researched further. I was challenged once by a 2nd cousin who had questionable information on the other side of his family. He had an extensive tree with no documentstion at all, but he was convinced it was 100% correct since it came from his close cousin. He was very unhappy with my concern and felt it would be insulting to that cousin if he requested sources for the information. In his opinion that person would never lead him wrong. Sometimes you just have to smile and let it go.

  20. I have a “cousin” who believes she is descended from my 10x great grandfather. She bases her connection on circumstantial evidence. While what she has uncovered seems possible, I’m still in the “maybe” camp because there is no direct evidence.

    She has done very deep and detailed research in historical societies and libraries and believes what she has uncovered even when it’s circumstantial. Difficult for me who believes in direct evidence and have documented several ancestors with lineage associations.

    However, for someone who is mixed race (1/3 European, 1/3 Native American, 1/3 African-American), direct evidence is more often than not unavailable. But the circumstantial evidence is being confirmed. DNA connections are proving that her ancestors truly belong to her family tree. In our case, we have not found any DNA connection.

    This may not be directly to your point, but I remind myself that she knows my opinion on family connections that are not backed by direct evidence and/or DNA. And that’s the bottom line. Let people know what is needed to prove lineage and that the internet is full of errors — some often perpetuated by the family. After that, it’s up to them. Our only consolation is that they will always have some doubt in their minds when they believe they are descended from Jesus.

    1. Elizabeth, there are some times when we have to do our best with the circumstantial cases in the face of meager sources, although we certainly do not have to accept one that is not convincing. In accepting or rejecting Mayflower lineages, for example, a decision has to be made because the person’s membership depends on it. One does not want to mislead the candidate and his/her succeeding relatives who want to join, but one also does not want to exclude any with a “more likely than not” argument.
      This is where DNA will prove most useful — confirming or rejecting a paper trail based on circumstantial evidence.

  21. I used to feel it necessary and “the right thing to do” to correct errors, even really obvious ones, because it would save someone else from wasting his/her time. Eventually, I realized that it was actually my time being wasted. Lesson learned: my responsibility is to take great care that my work is as error free as as possible (being human, after all), not to “save” other’s from their own carelessness or gullibility. Even still, I do make or send corrections if it’s not too time consuming.

  22. A few years a book discussion group, I heard a literature professor say, “All history is fiction.” Well!! Obviously, with my MA in history, I left that group – but that attitude is pervasive today- even among those who think they are recording history. I have made corrections on WikiTree, with factual data, only to find it disputed because of the printed material I had proved wrong. Tedious…I don’t try anymore, but am working on an article – that may be the only way. Get your own stuff in print. We can’t stop all the errors, but we can correct some of them.

    1. Elizabeth, yes, definitely we need to work more on helping people who have walked the walk get their genealogies in print, and, even more importantly, find a way to have a “clearing house” for disputed claims that is easily accessible to everyone. Let me know when the article is ready.

  23. Enjoyed the article and have been in similar situations. Sometimes corresponding with another person actually results in both of you learning something new. Had a wonderful experience with a gal on Ancestry who was receptive and shared information. Together were were able to prove that there were two men with same name who married two different women, where others could not and believed one man married twice. Other times I received the smack back retorts. Its a toss up as to what you will get but I do still try. In my lineage society work its much more difficult to deal with the task of telling someone they are working with incorrect data. Its doubly difficult to have to tell them that they actually “may” be descended but without proof documents, it can’t be approved by the society.

  24. I started out with the notion that if it was published in a book, it must be true. But have found that not to be true, the Putnam genealogy book led to confusion that has been straightened out by primary documents from the Firelands. Now as a Registrar for my DAR chapter, I am even more demanding of proof for my own genealogy. Like Ancestry’s little leaves, all else is just a hint to be verified.

  25. “Is there even any point in trying to protect them from themselves?” Not really. “What possibly could be done to help those who do not know they need help?” Not much. You can lead a horse to water…

    1. Andrew, the corollary to the old saying is you can’t keep a horse from drinking the water when he’s thirsty. I guess we are looking for the thirsty genealogists?

  26. By publishing a correction, especially citing the source(s), you go on record for future newbies to discover. To help newbies don’t offer advice. Instead tell them of a class for beginners to get them on the right path or an appropriate webinar. Pushing the need for correction only causes a person to dig in his/her heels. I know I did and then had to apologize for pigheadedness year later!

  27. This article hit home for me. There has been a long standing belief among family members that our lineage goes back to the House of Savoy (which in turn can trace back to Charlemagne). The flimsy source of this was a book by a certain family member that essentially fabricated a connection where none previously existed (claiming that a certain prince from the House of Savoy made his way to Nova Scotia and married a Micmac wife). This is not only implausible but completely unverifiable. It has also been affirmed by the Savoy family Royal genealogist that no such offspring ever existed). Once you stay in the game and keep digging it is not hard to find that there is absolutely zero substantiation for the connection. Yet, so often, new comers read the book (or now articles referencing the book) and believe the false claim. Very frustrating.
    My sincere hope is that genuine researchers will win-the-day when it comes to making corrections and cleaning up the data. Like you, I do my best to clean up as much as I can, although the task seems sometimes rather overwhelming.

  28. After a couple of bad experiences, I no longer try to correct peoples trees. If I am asked for help, I am more than happy to give them any assistance that I can. Otherwise I stick to correcting transcription errors with names and dates. Sometimes I will supply the correct name for a census if the enumerator has really messed it up (probably due to the persons accent).

  29. Alicia,
    First off I enjoy your articles immensely. They are always spot on! What I first felt in reading this offering was your frustration. As a 40+ year researcher, I have met the challenge with energy, enthusiasm, and often this same frustration. I have done presentations, taught classes, written articles, and researched for other for many years. I love a mystery and love to share the search process. Cite your sources is my mantra, and backtrack to the original source, or as close as you can get is the follow up. I no longer correct people who have errors online, but I mine their trees for original sources. I laugh when they cite sources like “Ancestry trees.” That pretty much tells me the veracity of their research. I find that my energy is best spent in working one on one, and sharing that love of a mystery. It doesn’t always work, but then what does. My granddaughter tells mem “Grandma, TMI, ‘too much information.’“ That may be a large part of the problem. A person doesn’t have to search, just amass what is offered.
    Sandy Bisset
    The Dalles, Oregon

  30. Alicia, spot on, as always!! Unfortunately, there is a reason this old saying is still true: “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”. Some people just don’t want to do the work.

  31. Does anyone host a list of the accepted error filled works? I would love to be able to cross check in case I have relied on any of them. Kind of like a Snopes for genealogy?

    1. Ah, Colleen, that is the $64,000 question. No, there is no list of either “good” or “bad” genealogies because none are 100% good and none are 100% bad. Each potentially offers useful information, it is just a matter of figuring out how to pick out the good parts. If you can, join the free Webinar on March 21st about evaluating published genealogies:

      1. Alicia is, of course, correct. Even the Silver Books, which are about the most reliable genealogical works in print, are continuously being revised as errors are discovered and as new information is revealed. Although I have not attended any webinars or seminars on the subject I should attend that one on March 21 to take notes and improve the way that I give advice to others on evaluating reliability, a concern of mine for nearly thirty years.

  32. To me genealogy is a lot like antiquing; the fun is in the hunt but one has to learn to hunt well. Imagine the disappointment of bringing home a “find” in the form of a Chippendale chair only to discover down the line that it is not all original or it is a copy. Those who take the easy way of finding their ancestors will, I’m sure, eventually feel the same disappointment. I think someone who is sincerely interested in a factual family tree will learn to question things like a woman who marries a man twenty years her junior and produces her last child when she is sixty-five years old. And in the questioning learn how to research and chase clues until the true facts come to light. There are those however who choose to believe the easy result, no questions asked, and thereby end up with the equivalent of the fake Chippendale chair. No matter how much you try to impress upon them the need for more research and attention to detail, they will turn a deaf ear. With that said I feel that ads implying that the appearance of a symbol indicates a matching fact for ones ancestor or programs that entertain by showcasing results while oversimplifying the research or ignoring it all together do a disservice to beginning genealogists. BTW please keep publishing discovered error corrections for those of us who try very hard to get it right but realize we are by no means infallible and can be misled. Trust me, we will eventually find them!

    1. Ann, it is a Catch-22 when websites can provide access to enormously useful information never-before available, yet at the same time make wild promises solely to advance profits. We need to get the advertising people out of the loop.

  33. Alicia, always a good reminder for us all as this is indeed an ongoing problem of folks “believing anything in print” without considering the correct backup primary sources. True confession: when I first started doing my own extension of the wonderful genealogy work you had done, as a hired genealogist for my dear mother and father, I joined I’m still angry at how naive I was and how duped by their “shaking leaves” hints. Because I was paying for membership at, I assumed the shaking leaves were legitimate hints. They do a terrible job cautioning newbies such as I was years ago about family trees and “hints.” I have spent so many hours going back and deleting references and bogus sources due to the naive enthusiasm. The sad thing is that they do indeed, have some excellent online primary sources,as well as much current top-notch publications, such as Bob Anderson’s Great Migration research…perhaps some of yours, too?

    1. Hi Judy, those “poison ivy” leaves, as someone above called them, are probably the worst idea ever.

      1. The poison ivy leaves are not the worst idea ever. In theory, they are a great idea if for no other reason than you can rule out that person and the info goes into the “Ignored” file in case you do need to refer to it for building a case for 1 person over another or as a rebuttal. BUT the execution is execrable.
        You click on the leaf which brings you to a transcription of the information and the “View” statement over the thumbnail. People take the transcription as gospel and don’t view the actual document. If they did, they would discover that the transcription is not correct, in some cases not even close. i don’t know what the transcription contracts said but I can guarantee they did not meet the standards of organizations like NEHGS or the egregious errors would not ever have been published.
        The link should go directly to the image when one exists with the possible transcription listed as a reading aid hint. It is more work to upload than a lazy/sloppy transcription loosely attached to the page instead of the actual data but it is doable.

        1. Jane for you and me, the hints are extremely useful, it is just that the user has to know what they are and what they are not. Particularly since to many it looks as though the “hint” is a reality. The leaves are cute, but possibly misleading. I would have preferred something without the cute part.

  34. I was the first person to research and make public a tree on my great great grandfather, who died at Andersonville during the Civil War. No documents exist to prove who his parents were; in 10 years of research online and in person at county offices, libraries, historical societies, cemeteries,courthouses–nothing surfaced. Despite that, many, many people copied my tree, my old family photos, and my EXACT words describing an ancestor, and made it their own. They added totally unrelated people to the tree, including the soldier’s parents, grandparents, and ggparents, plus siblings–all without ANY proof. Aaugh! I made the tree private, but it was already out there and the “clickers” could alter it as they wished. When I contacted several to correct info that they added that was wrong, courteously, I was met with anger, hostility and ill words. Since I KNOW who my grandparents and great grandparents were, I know my tree is correct and every fact has a documented source. But trying to get a “clicker” to change incorrect info that they clicked on to add, without doing any fact checking, is like trying to plug Niagara Falls. I gave up and will never, ever make a tree public again or waste my time correcting someone who went down the wrong ancestor path.

    1. If one uses the stock market as an analogy, at least a person has to risk their own money in whatever gamble they take, legally at least. In genealogy, the clickers are free to risk everyone’s cash by virtually tossing it all up in the air into a muddle. That was how Lucy Arnez figured out which bills to pay, she threw them all up in the air and the ones that landed face up got paid that week!

      1. Alicia, love and appreciate your work, blog and courses!

        Because my original research almost immediately went out of the USA (Canada), I have paid the highest fees for Ancestry over the years. I’ve fought the corrections battle many times, frequently been rewarded with appreciation and new information, and equally been shunned.

        I simply make the correction to an Ancestry hint/document and leave it at that. With an individual record, I politely point out the error with my reasons/sources and that’s that. I don’t argue. I try to comment in MY TREE that something isn’t sourced or needs more work as it is also a good reminder to me. If there is an egregious error, I will show it on my tree with the proof and sources why it is not true. If at all possible, I have at least one viable source for each record. I usually ignore or use for hints to prove or disprove all Ancestry Trees.

        I love it when I am commenting on someone’s post as there is a good possibility others will also read my post. At least others are exposed. It’s always up to them to take the next step.

        BUT the crowning glory to me is American AncesTREES. It will take some getting used to, but I am already a NEHGS member so I have ad free access. I am reducing my Ancestry membership to a basic level for access purposes only. I might even make it private.

        Thanks again!

  35. If an error really bothers me, I send a private message stating my most friendly desire to help ensure that no one continues down an erroneous path, and with (1) the correction very briefly but adequately stated; (2) my sources cited; (3) my relationship to the person about whom the error is shown, hopefully indicating that I am in a personal position to have correct information.

    I have received gracious réponses, made new friends, and found new cousins. I hope this helps.

  36. My Maternal Grandfather’s Mother is in the Family Bible of the family she married into as Ellen, her name was actually Helen and as one cousin who was named after her said, she thought the family hadn’t been quite yet acquainted with her so that was the source of the error. I tend to believe it, her husband was one of 12 brothers and one sister, so it stands to reason in the Bible pages, imagine how many people had to get acquainted with her. But I never share those pages anymore, because one person I knew descended from one of the younger brothers wanted the pages to use partly because she wanted to join DAR. She never Thanked me when I sent her copies and what’s more now she insists she can share them and says it must be they are correct. When I sent them to her i cautioned an obituary has her as Helen, her Marriage Certificate is Helen, there were at that time one other cousin also named for her and knew her as an Aunt. And my Grandfather had her name engraved on her gravestone as Helen. What can a person do, “Fatigue,” is a good word, I am tired with this cousin and wonder if she ever did join DAR but I think how she did it is wrong on several counts if she did.

    1. Ellen and Helen are often interchangeable spellings of the same name, so a girl might formally be Helen, while informally within the family be referred to as Ellen, although it is just as likely that whomever wrote her into the Bible was a little off in his hearing.
      There should probably be a “sender beware” caution to everyone about sending information — once it goes out, it is fair game for everyone.

    2. We also have a Helen/Ellen. And vital records & census’ for her are about equally divided on her name. Evidently she went by both & was well loved because there are, amongst the grandchildren a Helen, Ellen, and an Eleanor each supposedly named after her. !

  37. Alicia, I have recently been involved in an online genealogical venue where the subject of genealogical proof has become a hot topic. Thank you for that post, which was pointed to by an experienced member of that venue. All that we can do is to persevere. I have long tried to help anyone who is willing to learn how experts pursue genealogical research, and have just begun writing a column for a genealogical quarterly in which you have been published, the aim of which is to point researchers towards reliable (and free) online resources with which they may not be familiar.

      1. Alicia, you will undoubtedly not be surprised to learn that it was on Facebook. I am one of the assistant admins for the “Plymouth Colony Massachusetts Genealogy 1620-1775” group, and I was asked to be an assistant admin because of my experience with Old Colony genealogy. I am forever battling those who believe the debunked myths that Austin Bearse and Gabriel Wheldon had Wampanoag wives, even though both were debunked in print by Donald Lines Jacobus in 1938. The standard response for those who allege 17th century marriage between settlers’ families and Wampanoag is “of course there is no proof – it was destroyed centuries ago.” They persist in holding onto their romantic notions despite the fact that they are not practicing genealogy. The powers of an assistant admin are limited or I would have booted such people out of the group. I am trying to push the Plymouth Colony group in the direction of the best Mayflower FB group, “Mayflower Ancestors & Descendants-Pilgrim & Other Ships-Genealogy & History” which has strict rules and whose admin does not allow mythical assertions. There are other FB Mayflower groups where myths are allowed to run wild, but not in the one of which I speak, whose members include Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs and Paul Bumpus. I would love to see the Plymouth Colony group get to a level where recognized genealogists would not shun it because of rampant unprovable assertions.

        1. Dale, I will join the page. My experience with Mayflower-related Facebook pages is that they are like standing in a monsoon with a bucket that leaks, one has to repeat the same things over and over for every new, very enthusiastic poster, who has attracted and believed all of the Internet mud. I don’t envy you your job.

          1. Alicia – I have been (briefly) a member of some Facebook Mayflower pages that exhibited no administrative oversight of what was posted. The only Mayflower page that I have belonged to in some time is the one that I named. Having Jeremy and Paul there is a big advantage, and having you there would be as well. The administrator has long been acquainted with the work of Jeremy and Paul as well as with your work.

  38. It’s discouraging when facts are presented and disregarded. Even more so when in many trees on Ancestry the incorrect information is spread throughout using scant proof or incorrect sources. I’ve given up trying to counsel.

  39. Over the past 40 years of research, I must have contacted 25 different people to say that I believed one fact was wrong, because … and I cited the source that disproved their claim. Only once have I had a response thanking me for pointing out her error, and that she would correct it immediately. (She had a sister listed as the man’s mother, completely overlooking the fact the girl would have had a child at age two.) The rest have apparently ignored me. it gets discouraging, but at least I take satisfaction in knowing that my own statements are backed up by facts and documentation. I’ve known the pain of having to discard some “ancestors” that later research proved were not mine — but I’d rather do that than adopt a false line.

  40. My hot button is blind acceptance and belief of anything a person finds either on the internet or in print without analysis. Those trees that explode across the internet with incorrect information are one issue. Even the most well constructed arguments will not necessarily change that. As Marian and you have said–once it written it’s out there and people will use it. Published printed books are a slightly different issue. The original author may not have intentionally misled people, but was working with what was available to them at the time. New information may emerge after the book is printed (I have an example of that in my mother’s and my own work). So I look for sources to be cited, and able to verified and updated if necessary. Even my own work is “in progress” and some one else’s eyes may see something I have missed.

  41. Sometimes I will inform a peer of their error, but I’ve made the mistake of trying to argue the point with facts, which I will never do again. If they want facts, they have to ask. I’m grateful for the 19th century printed genealogies without sources for what they are, not for what they could be. And I enjoy reading articles attempting to sort out the facts to correct or enhance a printed pedigree. Before bought, post-its were added to correct pedigrees and they were helpful. Before saw its Waterloo, it was a very useful tool for printing the results in manuscript style. Try to find something there now, Good LUCK. A ton of information and accessibility is difficult. For a while I was adding comments to other people’s pedigrees on but now I find that to be a waste of time and I simply post the correct pedigree in my database, UNLESS the researcher is one that I have found to be mostly credible, and then I’ll take some time and offer my information. Recently though, I found that the person was deceased, so it made little sense to write them. I appreciated when their friend answered my email with the sad news. By the way, I used to consider articles in the New England Historic Genealogical Register to be beyond reproach until I found an article written 30 years later which gave a different pedigree in the Ipswich Smith family. Which one do I believe as the latter article did not mention why they gave the line differently from the first? This is why I like correction articles which give the reasoning. One might conclude that the latter article would be correct, but that may not be the case since neither gave sources or reasoning.

      1. Whenever I receive gratitude for my work, I always include the permission to notify me if I have made an error. Regarding Ipswich Smiths, I still have not resolved on that confusion as it would make for a pretty good article, if and when I do, but there is also another issue. I’ve included most of the early Ipswich Smith vital records in my database with the exception of one birth vital record which appears to have an incorrect mother listed. I have been unable to find any other explanation for that record. But before I expound on that issue, I would need to see the original record, which I have yet to do.

        1. Jim – I assume that you are referring to the published vital records of Ipswich. Have you compared that entry with the images of the Ipswich Town Books at FamilySearch? There may be a transcription error in the published records.

  42. I had the opposite problem. I have an ancestor named Isaac Williams. I found him in a book co-authored by DL Jacobus as being the son of Atwood Williams. Then a cousin insisted that the descendants in NE Ohio, where Isaac died, had to be right about a different origin. The papers I received included a poem “written” by Isaac2’s father – except that the same poem was in two other books about CT as anonymous. I stuck with Atwood till one night I did a different search and found that Atwood moved to New Hampshire and his Isaac died there. I then researched the Ohio contentions deeply including wills, deeds, etc., and found that they were right. I am almost ready to send it to WesternMass1790. Ironically, both lineages have a Mayflower ancestor. The Jacobus mistake was not his doing. a family member did superficial research and made the connection, then submitted it to the book.

  43. Here is the disclaimer I’ve had posted at my own website for the last few years:

    A welcome and a note to visitors: Please keep in mind that this website is a work in progress. I strive for accuracy and seek to incorporate solid genealogical scholarship, but errors inevitably creep into family history. In addition, keep in mind that some of the genealogies presented here are in a rough or even raw, early draft — if you come back later, the genealogy may be updated or corrected or perhaps even overhauled. . . .

    ** I am always happy to receive additions and corrections to our family records. **


    I hope people who visit my site take the disclaimer to heart, because I mean it. I’ve already benefited from kind and helpful genealogists who’ve fixed some of my mistakes.

    I still remember how the late author of the awful “Royalty For Commoners” book inviting corrections — so I sent him some for his Scandinavian royal lines, with copies of supporting sources. He sent me back the nastiest, most insulting letter I’ve ever received, rejecting my corrections and evidence. Perhaps he didn’t expect people to take his words welcoming corrections seriously,

    1. Jared, the disclaimer is good. How many read it, probably another matter, but at least you tried.

  44. I can’t believe I am going to defend all those trees, all those perpetrators of copy and paste and other useless folderal, even all those 19th century published works with their skewed lines of pedigrees for folks who couldn’t have possibly ever lived or died, or wore a crown, or ever wanted to call Stephen Hopkins “grandfather….”

    Yes, I’ll take them all – because “they” all give me a place to start – A garden to weed. And weeding is therapeutic for both the gardener and the genealogist. Without weeds there is no garden.

    Rather, I think the AncestryDNA profile, of those who leave or submit no tree, who are greedy only for their “pie” chart…. they indeed the true culpits of – “no proof.”

    Awesome post – so looking forward to your webinar!

    1. Yes, Jeff, because you have the proper horticultural training. Weeds grow back, poison ivy lurks in the bushes, for the unaware.

  45. I guess I’ve been lucky with my communications. I have suggested corrections to several trees on Ancestry, including one that “stole” my parents as parents for an in-house law bearing the same name, age, and city of birth as my brother. I’ve never received an unpleasant response, and several have thanked me profusely for providing a correction . Of course it helps that in one case my suggested correction came with an offer of three more generations of his ancestors to replace the father being removed (actually, a step-father, cousin to the first husband). But if a tree is too messed up, I don’t even bother trying.

  46. Sometime ago I signed up for an ancestry account and began doing research. I initially assigned info loosely knowing that I would come back and look at it more carefully. In the meantime I noticed that people were taking info that I was still researching and assigning it to their trees. I immediately made my account private. I knew that all my info was not yet correct, but I wasn’t so certain that others didn’t realize that. We are responsible to dig deeper. There are lots of easy ways out, but those ways are not necessarily the right ways. Thanks for the reminder.

  47. Crista Cowan, Ancestry’s ‘Barefoot Genealogist’ presents a pretty good way of dealing with this:

    Dealing With Errors in Online Family Trees

    Yes, it’s really frustrating how many Ancestry tree owners’ only source is other people’s family trees and how far bad info spreads. I’ve had some luck getting people to stop and think through their facts, and that’s the main challenge.

    According to all the trees in one early New England family, every person in the line lived to be exactly 100 years old, dying in the same place they were born. Zero evidence. I contacted several active researchers of that branch and started a group email conversation about a particular puzzle I wanted to solve. It got us problem-solving together and these other researchers corrected those errors. It also gave me more info about the family that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.

    1. Linnie, Collaboration and information exchange is the greatest thing. Wish we could find more of it.

  48. I am really enjoying all the comments that this one article has generated and the exchange of ideas. One of those responses said that they learned the value of somebody telling them there was a mistake in their research because it helps them to find new and sometimes better paths to the information they were looking for. I’m afraid I’m a good example of somebody who was told I had made a major mistake and profited it greatly by finding that out When I first started looking for information on my family all I had were a few dates and names from my father’s baby book and some vague recollections of things he said My last name is PARRISH. I had heard that we lived for a short time in Pennsylvania so I automatically assumed we were descendants of the Quaker family who is well known in Pennsylvania. They look like my family and they use the same names and they have many of the same talents. I followed their history and read about them for a year but couldn’t find the connection to anyone I knew Then I ran into one of their family genealogists who is related to Maxfield Parrish the artist. He let me know that I was following the wrong family but got me on the right track and sent me a whole lot of information including a link to a beautifully written genealogy book and my family What an incredible gift being told I was on the wrong track was! That was six years ago and I have been on a great adventure ever since and I have that person to thank. I long-ago learned that “no” is not necessarily a bad word it is simply sometimes the answer and it helps you get started on the right track. By the way I found out that we were descendants of the Puritans of the Winthrop Fleet. Ironically my ancestors and those of the family in Philadelphia once traveled together on a mission. Their journals of their time together are in libraries. Now in a way the two families are on a joint journey again. When I run into information that is useful to him and send it back by email. And he continues to share information with me I am grateful that someone took the time to say “no” to me and help me get back on course

  49. I started my genealogy in the days of microfilm and microfiche long before the internet. When I started online I made the assumption that everyone document their finds so I accepted a lot of info to my tree. I also stupidly got rid of much of my paper research which made making corrections almost impossible. I am now starting new online trees from scratch because the errors were to hard to find. It is fun redoing the research but I wonder if there will be enough years to get back to where I was before the internet.

  50. I never use any public tree suggestions from Ancestry (the service I use regularly). My estimate is that 95% or more of them are filled with errors that the owners have no plans to correct even if they learn about them. I treat the public trees there mostly as a joke.

  51. Only this week I contacted the LDS about errors on Family Tree, specifically quoting a particular erroneous genealogy where the birth, marriage and death details were not supported by the parish register. I have previously removed that info and left a discussion about it and also added copies of the relevant pages of the parish register in the “Memories” tab showing that the claimed events were fiction. The trouble is people keep copying this erroneous genealogy from other websites and re-inserting it, the latest person putting in 2 different wives for the one husband both wives with the exact same BDM details. Where am I going with this.
    Well I contacted support at the LDS putting the problem to them where people keep entering this info and I keep removing it etc, etc. How long can that go on? ad finitum! I asked if there was a way to stop these erroneous genealogies being constantly entered in Family Tree. Sadly I got a stock answer clearly showing that the respondent hadn’t checked the particular ancestors ID I had given to see what I was talking about, and clearly showed that they were not interested in erroneous genealogies being entered on their Family Tree.
    I like Wiki Trees where sources and evidence is required and moderators can step in in such cases as I mention above. The LDS, Ancestry, My Heritage etc., need this but are just not interested.
    My suggestion is for people to use Wiki Trees so that can be built up and become the definitive place for accurate pedigrees for serious family historians.

    1. No way will I ever work on crowd-sourced trees again! Tried this last year, uploading my tree to FamilySearch. My first cousin kept swapping out well established facts for her ‘alternative facts’. For instance, one family myth is that we’re related to a famous military general who has a different (but slightly similar) name. She’d replace the documented name in my tree with this general’s surname. Every time I’d correct it, she’d switch it back and I’d keep getting these notifications and have to go back and correct it again. After a month or so of dealing with this hassle, I stripped out all the information out of my tree and unsubscribed. When I go to all the work of proving my facts, I want them to stay put so I can move on (unless of course somebody shows me evidence for a correction).

      Crowd-sourced trees will never be accurate because of these kinds of challenges. Too many people feel the need to ‘be somebody’ by showing that they’re related to a famous person—and you can’t talk ’em out of it. It’s not LDS’s job to be a referee.

      1. Linnie, Indeed it is a serious situation that needs to be worked out somehow, but like everything else, the more fingers in a pie, the messier it gets.

  52. Simon, yes, it can be a perpetual wheel of ins and outs. I am in the process of checking in with more Wikis to see what is being done.

  53. I share everyone’s frustrations with trees. However, I had an Irish great-grandmother named Maggie Campion. That has been a brick wall for me for many years, because Grandma, humiliated at the overwhelming shame of having an Irish mother-in-law, did not keep any of those papers. Through those pesky shaking leaves, I found a couple of Riordan trees. One of them had done Ancestry.DNA and was “related” to me. He had also done more recent research than mine. I found that his Maggie Campion is probably the aunt of mine. I have found new leads, and am following them up. I don’t know if the connection is real or not, but it seems promising. Maggie’s parents had no wills or deeds, being rather poor. I have to say that reading the handwriting in the Archdiocese’s records is a new challenge for me. I have sought help from a certified genealogist who specializes in that error to get me over the hump.

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