I previously wrote about putting family trees online as a way of enhancing the search for information as well as to share the data with other researchers. I haven’t made a lot of progress yet in that regard but it is still on the list of things to do.
I have looked at family trees posted on a few websites such as Ancestry in order to see what other family historians have found, especially concerning some of the lines I have not researched in detail. In many cases I have found distantly-related cousins who were chasing other family branches. Some have been valuable in providing additional data. Some have not! There are new trees being added regularly so doing a new search every few weeks can be worthwhile.
What is very annoying and disconcerting is the fact that so many people just copy names willy-nilly from other trees without checking facts. I have contacted a few tree owners, both public and private, to ask about their data. Few – very few – have any documents to back up their names, dates and places. Another problem is that people come and go on both subscription and public sites. If they have let their subscriptions lapse, or changed their contact information then it is impossible to ask them about their trees.
As an example, I normally search for a great-grandfather, Asa McDaniel, about whom I have quite a bit of data – his birth date, birth place, death date, death place, parents’ names, children’s names, census records, etc. Most of the information came to me from my aunt who researched the hard way – by post and personal visits to court houses and record offices – in the 1960s and 1970s. She collected and passed along copies of many of the important documents, including birth, marriage, death, land and census records.
Information on Ancestry’s search page for Asa McDaniel (1827-1901)
On Ancestry and other websites I start with putting the basic information about Asa into the search form. The latest search yielded 116,035 trees on Ancestry with the man listed!
Part of page one of Ancestry’s Family Trees which have Asa McDaniel (1827-1901) listed
The task then is to sort through them to see if there is anything new. (I’ll never get through all 116,035 of the current ones.) Often the trees are focused on another family entirely and any overlap with mine is incidental. Early on in my review of Ancestry trees, I came across one tree that looked interesting. I contacted the person who had assembled the tree, who turned out to be a 2nd cousin, once removed. She was a descendant of one of the brothers of my maternal grandmother. She appeared to have some interesting information, including photos, from her line so I thought this might be a worthwhile contact. What I found was that there was a lot of unsupported data on her tree and some outright factual errors.
Selected family tree showing Asa McDaniel with his spouse, children and parents
The most glaring error on this tree is the information about Asa’s father, William McDaniel. Asa’s father never left Virginia. He died there after 1860 and we are pretty sure of that because he is on the 1860 census, still living on the his farm with one of his daughters and a granddaughter who was the child of another daughter. It also shows he was born in Maryland in 1778. The Ancestry tree, along with many others on the website, shows him moving to Ohio and dying there in 1857. The tree actually shows the death year of 1857 and the information from the census that he was alive and well in Virginia in 1860 which logic is really hard to follow.
There were at least two men named William McDaniel, both born about the same time and who both lived in Virginia for a time. The one in use on many trees – born in Virginia – is not the man I recognize as my 2nd great-grandfather. The Virginia-born individual is likely the one who died in Ohio.
Hundreds of individuals have been added to many of the trees as ancestors of William McDaniel. By picking the wrong person to start with, though, the errors on the tree are compounded. At this point in time, we only suspect that William was born in Maryland around 1778. That information is from the 1860 census. The 1850 census indicates he was born in Virginia in 1782. Our inclination is to use the 1860 data as it is more recent and because the copy we have of his marriage record shows he was married in Maryland.
1860 United States census – page shows family of William McDaniel, age 82, farmer, born in Maryland, with daughter Elizabeth McDaniel and granddaughter Elizabeth Painter. (Source citation: Year - 1860; Census Place - Western district, Washington, Virginia; Roll - M653_1383; Page - 569; Image - 211; Family History Library film - 805383)
The cousin I referred to continues to add names to her tree regularly, along with coats of arms, photos and other material. She claims to have traced the McDaniel family back over 1,000 years: to McDonnel ancestors, who were basically nobility in Ireland; across the breadth of Scotland with the MacDonald clan; to Rognvald Ranald Somarledasson, King of the Isles, Lord of Argyll; and back to Ireland, to Guthorm Ivarsson, King of Dublin, born in 877. It just gets silly after a while! And all of that from the wrong William McDaniel to start with!
I have tried to tell people that their data is wrong or inconsistent. Some listen; most do not!
Many family trees on Ancestry have a photo of Asa McDaniel shown with two of his granddaughters. This is actually a picture I sent to a couple of cousins, including the one who has the tree back 1,000 years. That photo has since been reproduced on dozens of other trees by other tree-owners, without attribution! I am confident that the photo is of Asa, because the photo came from my aunt and she knew him. We are not sure who the little girls in the picture are, though. I also know the photos came from me as all of the copies have the same dirt marks, scratches and imperfections that are on my original. But all the people who are using it have no idea as to whether it is the man because they have never asked and certainly do not know where the photo originated. Many trees also have notes that were written by my aunt back in the 1970s, again reproduced without any reference as to who wrote them or whether they are correct. I know who wrote the stories because I have a couple of her hand-typed copies.
Photo of Asa McDaniel, taken in Oklahoma with, apparently, two of his granddaughters as yet unidentified ca 1895
All in all, one has to be very careful of the information contained on family trees posted online. Rarely is supporting information given and too often sources are not listed. I am still undecided whether I will post my tree on Ancestry.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated. Census records are the property of the United States National Archives and Records Administration. The census image was downloaded from Ancestry.