Beware of On-line Genealogy Search websites like Ancestry and FamilySearch!
No, I am not crazy when I say this, I am absolutely serious. You have probably heard a genealogy lecturer say that you have to do your own research of the “evidence” but it goes beyond the level you might be thinking. Before you link to that leaf that the commercials are telling you to, let me give you some examples of what I am referring to.
First, let me explain what these websites are and what they are not. The documents you find on Ancestry.com are scanned versions of the original and are very trustworthy as original sources. Photos, stories, and family trees are things individual users have uploaded and attest to, but do not have any real scrutiny behind them. Same thing on FamilySearch.org. Check on where the document came from. But you must do more than that, you need to do diligent validation of the information.
Simple misstatements of the facts.
The above is from Ancestry.com and the individual is my patriarch who moved his wife and 2 children to Georgia in 1752 and as you can see, they are citing 2 sources. The trouble is, the dates represent 2 Gilshots, father and son. If you were to take this at face value, you would be very mistaken. When we start researching all of the evidence, we sometimes find dates that are totally inconsistent. Let’s start with the fact that Gilshot applied for land in Georgia in 1752, being married with 2 children.
Now look back at that date of birth. I doubt a 12 year old was married, had 2 children and was applying for land in Georgia. The more we research, the more we find no documented evidence on when Gilshot Sr. was born. Furthermore, the above says he died in the town of Screven, Wayne County, Georgia and that he died in 1809. This first part is a simple error based on people unfamiliar with Georgia. There is the town of Screven in Wayne County and there is the County of Screven which was cut out of Burke County in 1792. All the Georgia documents relating to Gilshot refer to Burke County or Screven County. But again, without the research you would miss this. The 1809 date comes from Gilshot’s Will and a newspaper notice by the estate administrator which reflects 1809. Trouble is, there is a Power of Attorney (POA) signed by Gilshot Jr in 1792 attesting that his father, Gilshot Thomas, is dead. That means the only logical conclusion is that the Will and newspaper announcement refers to Gilshot Jr. Plus, we have a Deed of Sale for the family land in Delaware signed by Gilshot Jr. in 1805.
That is one example from Ancestry, here is a search in FamilySearch
Here again, the person adding this information has not fully researched what they are posting. They do have father and son but the dates are way off and the 3rd entry is not even close.
Gross misuse of sources
So you get the idea that you have to look at the sources. But what does that mean? That means really getting into the source and weighing it against common sense. Let me give another example, one that I had forgotten, until recently, which family member it pertained to. My 3rd great grandfather, Lewis Thomas, and Elizabeth Mixon had 9 children, one being my 2nd gg-father, Banner (1833-1885) and another his sister, Martha Thomas (1823-Unknown). Martha married David Cason and they lived in Pierce County, GA. I know when everyone died and is buried except Martha. A quick search on Ancestry and a whole lot of people are showing she died August, 1870, in Harris, Texas and they have the evidence to prove it. The Texas Mortality Schedule.
Let’s examine this closely. Age is 48, which puts date of birth as 1821 which is off by 2 years. Next, Female, that is correct, next block, B – Black. Stop right there, this woman, is listed as a black woman and the Martha Thomas Cason we are researching is White. Born in Georgia, OK. Married, we knew that. Died August 1869, not 1870 as everyone put. Worked at keeping house and died of some chronic ailment. Besides the obvious, let’s look at this from a logical review. The name Martha Thomas is not unique and we already showed that a very unique name like Gilshot Thomas had a Senior and Junior so this could be coincidental. Plus we know David died in 1862 and they had little kids then. All the children grew up, married and died in Georgia, so this record does not make sense and is not corroborated so we would have to either hold it as suspect or dismiss it all together. So even though literally hundreds of Ancestry users are tagging that source and calling it accurate, research shows it and they are wrong.
I remember my sister getting really bugged because several of our cousins had posted our mother’s death date incorrectly. I researched the error and found they got the incorrect information from the same family website and not from any public research site. The owner of that website, me, had mistyped the date. The root of the error was me. Therefore, always check and double check any information before you submit it to the public.
Faulty Index Records
My final two examples come from research for a client. I found an error the Indexer for Ancestry made on at least one whole page from a Massachusetts Marriage Register. Virtually all on-line genealogy search websites have indexes of the hand-written information found on original documents. These are abstracts and in some cases transcripts but are subject to human error.
This might be hard to read but let me help you. I copied a portion of the page from the 1899 register and corresponding portion of the index. You can see that the index does not report any of the fathers correctly. All fathers have their wife’s last name. Howard Atherton Cutler’s mother is shown as Melvina A. Rogers and his father is listed as Edward R. Rogers instead of Cutler. His wife, Edith McKeen’s parents are listed as having the last name of her mother, Crawford. Look near the bottom, if John Edward Foster is a junior as indicated than his father has the exact name, but here, the indexer put John E. Carpenter. Also notice that the indexer has everyone being married in Waltham, MA but look back at the Cutler\McKeen marriage and at the Foster\Tyler marriage. The Cutlers were married in Terra Haute, IN and the Fosters in Somerville.
The last example comes from the same research in which I located their ancestor in the 1940 Census and found the page. I searched everyone on the census page in the Ancestry Census database for 1940 and not a single one showed up in the index. You might have to use other work arounds to find the actual census such as if you know where they lived exactly (in my case, Precinct 1, Dallas, Texas) you can locate the census for that area and go page by page.
Am I saying do not use websites? Absolutely NOT! I am saying you have to do your own homework and read the hand-written records and weigh what they say against what you believe to be true. Most indexes are very good. Ancestry does allow you to notify them of errors and they will make attempts to correct them. I have done this several times and they have all been corrected. I am waiting to hear on the Massachusetts Marriage Records corrections. Anything entered by a user should automatically be suspect.