Over the weekend I signed up for a free two-week trial of Ancestry.com. I guess I fell prey to their recent marketing campaign, which shows users discovering new things about their families as “leaves” appear on their family tree. I had already amassed quite a bit of data on our family, so I was curious to see if I could add to my list.
It has been several years since I’ve done any serious research on our family’s history. Even then I’ve been more of a collector than actual researcher, depending upon the prior research of several cousins and some nice folks that I’ve met online, such as Dan Ellenburg in Pittsburg, with his excellent website on the Ellenberg family. By using several sources I’ve found some conflicting data, and have had to do some verification before merging various data sets. I figured that would also be the case with Ancestry.com, and I was certainly right.
I began by entering some basic information – my name, parents, and then grandparents. Immediately leaves began to appear, indicating more data. Pretty soon I was able to replicate a large portion of our family simply by clicking on links for information others had already completed.
There are two types of charts that can be called “family trees.” The first is a Pedigree Chart, which charts the ancestors of a specific individual. The second is a Decendants Chart, which, as the name implies, charts as many descendents as possible from a single individual. It might best to imagine these as inverted triangles of each other.
With each of these charts there is an increasing level of uncertainty on the fringes as one moves away from one’s immediate family. For example, look at the pedigree chart…
As one progresses back in time there is less and less certainty about details. That stands to reason. Details get lost in time, and accurate documentation is harder to find the further one goes back.
Conversely, the unknown fringe spreads outward on the descendants chart as one moves away from their immediate family. You may know your close cousins with reasonable certainty, but those seventh and eighth cousins may be more unknown.
The data on the fringes can cause conflicts in family trees. One tree may have “Unknown Taylor” listed where I know for certain the name that should be there. I prefer to leave the chart blank where I’m not certain about a name.
A good genealogist relies on documentation in the form of family Bibles, census records, military records, and other hard records to fill in these fringes. The hobbyist (and I include myself in this group) tends to be more accepting of information without documentation. This is where I really started to run into trouble with Ancestry.com.
When a hint is available for someone on your tree a leaf appears next to that individual. Sometimes this is a link to census data. However, most often it’s a link to someone else’s tree where they might have more information about that individual. This is how I was able to fill out my tree online very quickly. However, it can lead to problems.
Take for example the case of William Taylor. We know that he came over from Antrim, Ireland on the Earl of Donegal in 1767 and settled in Laurens in 1768. We know he had a 350 acre land grant, and that he donated 7 of those acres for Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church. These facts are documented in the ship’s passenger list, copies of the land grant, and church records. We don’t know anything about the family in Ireland, such as William’s parents, etc.
So, imagine my surprise when a leaf appeared on William Taylor’s name. I figured it would be the Earl of Donegal list or some other known documentation. It turned out it was a link to possible parents, in particular, one Isaac Taylor as father. If true, this was exciting new information. However, there were some problems. Isaac was 18 years old when William was born, which isn’t out of the questions. The record indicates that Isaac was born in Antrim, Ireland, but that he immigrated to Virginia in th 1740’s. I suppose it’s possible that father and son would come to America at different times and settle in different states, but given the closeness of most family units at that time, it seems unusual. More importantly, I haven’t seen any census data or other corroborating information.
Despite this lack of documentation, many Taylor Ancestry.com users have added Isaac as the father of William Taylor. This tends to perpetuate the supposition, and as more people add this connection, it strengthens that bond. Since so many people say it’s so, then it must be.
And THAT is the real problem with the leaves in Ancestry.com. They tend to perpetuate and strengthen dubious connections as users who are too lazy to really research the facts simply add names to their family trees. Granted, there is much good information, such as census lists and military records, but the data that gets prominence is relationships found in other users’ family trees.
As I mentioned earlier, I only signed up for a two-week free trial of the service. I doubt I will continue beyond that. At $12.95 per month, it’s far to expensive. One of the first roadblocks I encountered was that I would have to “upgrade” to the International version (double the price at $24.95 per month) if I wanted to see any of the census data for Ireland or Germany. Knowing more about my ancestors would be interesting, but I’m not ready to shell out that much.
Ancestry.com provides lots of tools and resources, sort of a “one-stop shopping” for those interested in family history. However, there are some other great free resources. The Church of Latter Day Saints maintains an extensive free database at www.familysearch.org. At that site you can also download their free family tree software Personal Ancestral File, as well as download GEDCOM files for family histories that can be imported in the PAF software or any other standard family tree software. As with any user-contributed database, there are some errors and facts that need verifying.
Sciway.net has a section dedicated to genealogy resources in South Carolina, and Genealogy.com has a great free discussion forum (as well as paid services similar to Ancestry.com.) The South Carolina Department of Archives also has a fantastic online database including land grants, census data, military records, insurance photographs, and more. With as much freely available, it’s hard to justify using Ancestry.com.