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Things You Should Know Before Using Someone Else’s Research

Things You Should Know Before Using Someone Else's Research

If you have been doing genealogy for a while, you will no doubt have come across the work of other genealogists. There are user-submitted online family trees on many different well-known genealogy websites. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are the sites where you will find the most user-submitted trees, but they are everywhere in smaller numbers. Places like GenWeb, Fold3, American Ancestors and most of the DNA testing websites have user-submitted trees, too. You may be tempted to take the information on these trees and use it as your own if these trees are talking about your ancestors. However, take a moment before you copy that information. Here are some things you should consider before using someone else’s research.

Are There Sources?

This is one of the biggest issues with using other people’s family trees online. Most of them do not have sources. Therefore, you cannot trust that the information is correct. Even if you see the same information across many family trees of that same family online, it all means nothing without sources being cited. Otherwise, you can just assume that most of these trees are people copying information from each other. You don’t want to put unverified information on your family tree. Just because it is online, sometimes on a lot of different trees, doesn’t mean it’s correct.

There have been well-known genealogical instances where trees that were thought to be established for centuries were later proven to be incorrect. The trees were based on family lore or an incorrect interpretation of the available records and even published in genealogical magazines. Then, later, when someone actually took the time to research the information, or look at the old information in a new way, that tree was proven to be wrong. It’s happened more than once, even to professional genealogists. Don’t let it happen to you. Make sure there are sources and verify them. Look at them yourself, if possible. Your tree will be much more likely to be accurate this way.

Do the Dates Make Sense?

You have to look quite carefully at online trees because a lot of people don’t pay attention to the information they are copying. If you look closely, you will see a lot of odd things on some of these trees. One of the more common things is dates that do not make sense. You will often see dates of birth that are after the death date of the mother, or before the mother could realistically be old enough to give birth to children. You will sometimes see children who are listed as older than one or both of their parents. When people copy information from other online trees, they either make mistakes in copying them that other people will then copy, or they don’t pay attention to what they are copying and don’t see the discrepancies. If you are using information from someone else’s online tree, make sure the dates make sense or don’t use the research. Investigate that family line further, on your own, to establish the correct names, dates, and relationships.

Are Children Listed With Their Correct Mothers?

In families where there have been more than one marriage for a person, and that person has children with each spouse, it is important to make sure the children are listed with their correct mothers on the trees you’re viewing. If you look closely at the dates of birth of the children on these trees, you will see there is no way a child could belong to the mother they are listed under. Either the mother will be too old or too young to have had that child. Other times, the dates may add up, but the children are listed as the children of a step-mother anyway. You will only know it is a step-mother if you pay attention to the date of marriage to that spouse. Look up documentation on all of the children through birth, death, marriage, and newspaper records to determine the correct mother. Sometimes, the children are listed with their correct mothers, but you have to be sure before you put it on your own family tree. This can sometimes happen with fathers, too, so pay attention to children of mothers with more than one husband. However, this is a more common problem with a husband with more than one wife.

Are the Dates and Places of Birth Historically Possible?

With immigrant ancestors, there is a tendency for online trees to play fast and loose with history. If you are looking for your immigrant ancestor, and they go back to the time of European colonization, you will find trees that are just plain wrong. The English were the first European nation to establish a permanent settlement in North America, with the exception of Spain in St. Augustine, FL a few decades before the English. Before this, Spanish missionaries came to the American West but established missions instead of colonies. When new people stopped coming to staff the missions, there was no European settlement left after it. The French came to North America long before the English, but they did not establish permanent settlements. They came to do fur trapping on a seasonal basis and went back to France in between seasons. Some of them married into local Native American tribes, but again, no permanent settlements were made. The Dutch established New York as a permanent settlement, but not before the English established colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts.

If you see an ancestor on an online tree with a birthdate before 1607 in Virginia (the date of the Jamestown settlement) or before 1620 in Massachusetts (the date of the Plymouth settlement), you know that person could not have been born in North America. They were likely born in England, like their parents. They may have come over later in one of the great immigrations, but they were not born in North America. Look further into their history with documentation to determine their real date and place of birth. Doing these things before using other people’s research online will ensure your own tree is as accurate as it can possibly be.


Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

  • Ellyn Weber-Bynum

    cmcnaul: I don’t think that’s what the article is saying at all. I’m like you…I DO seek out and look at other family trees, to try and find the missing pieces of my own. BUT…like the article states…I look for SOURCES, to verify the relationships they posted. If the sources are there, fantastic…saved me the extra time and effort it would take to find them. If there are none, I don’t necessarily dismiss it out of hand, but I hold onto it while I seek to verify it myself.

  • Winifred S. McNabb

    Lazy family historians drive me nuts. To say that someone’s tree is a source is the height of lunancy. The people who blindly copy just want bragging rights as to number of names they have accumulated and don’t care about accuracy. Even so-called records like censuses, birth and marriage and death records have to be evaluated. However, I can never change this behavior on the part of someone else, just try to be as accurate as possible in my own work. Knowing all the time that my work has to be interpreted based on many factors.

  • Very practical article. When I first started researching my family history, I was so pleased when I found another tree I could attach to. And yeah, almost no one provided sources. Now, with a little more experience, I’m going back through and cleaning out my tree. I call it unraveling the spaghetti. I have found a lot of errors in trees that were supposed to be proven. Early American Families are the worst. People weren’t all that original in naming their kids. Lots of contemporaries with the same given and surname were born in the same region. Just because I find a Daniel Tidmore with a daughter named Amanda doesn’t mean I’ve found my Amanda’s father. There could be three more within a few miles. Checking to make sure the right mother or father is attached, and the dates make sense are great ideas. Thanks for your article.

  • Melissa

    I think this advice is great and hope people just starting their family trees pay attention. My tree on Ancestry is going to take me awhile to go back through and correct and source. Wish I would have known then what I know now.

  • cmcnaul

    Don’t tell me, don’t use those other genealogy websites with the fearmongering that they might be all wrong. But use your genealogy website for a much more trustworthy access to those same records that are “Public Record” to begin with anyway! Right?
    I will use someone family trees to build my family group record, then chase after the records those websites you mentioned for my proof. I didn’t trust all other people’s work, but it saved me from having to do all that extra typing. I just learned to be very selective on whose family trees I used to import with my own. Learned after creating messes that made more work than it was worth.
    If I don’t like the inaccuracies of someone’s tree, I don’t use it and I pursue my ancestry on my own. But the “records” aka: census, birth, death, marriage, tax, property, bounty, military warrants, etc. Those are all pubic record that all you genealogy websites have amassed and are selling it, you’re just being a spook! Those are the records that does prove our ancestry, we just don’t have to go to the court house across the nation and around the world to find…like the old school genealogist did. And even they screwed up their genealogies. I can prove that in my own trees!

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