Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on April 6, 2010 in Who Do You Think You Are?

I’ve never had quite the success that Brooke Shields did when she traced a family line back multiple centuries on Who Do You Think You Are? I’ve considered myself lucky just to get to the 19th century with most of my family.

But one of the biggest finds I ever stumbled upon was very similar to what helped Brooke take her family back 500 years – a family tree someone else had worked on. Except in my case, the tree only went back 150 years and contained no royal connections.

The tree itself had been online for about 10 years when I discovered it while trying to learn more about my great-grandfather James. Its details were fantastic, showing me who James was and who his parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins were. The tree led me to family lines in Massachusetts I’d never thought about. It catapulted me back to the 17th century. And it spelled out answers to just about every question I’d ever had and then some.

Maybe that was the problem. This tree was too good to be true. What the tree seemed to be missing was documented fact to back up all of these great assertions.

In the end, that tree gave me a goal – to prove it, either right or wrong. While it took me four years, during which time I misplaced the location and most of the details of that tree, I eventually did find records that documented the facts I was interested in, at least as far as James was concerned. And I had a lot more fun digging up the details myself than I would have just accepting the tree at face value.

We can’t all link ourselves to royalty. I have absolutely no doubt that I will never find a prince or queen in my family line (court jester, maybe). But odds are good that each of us will eventually find at least one line of our own family show up in a family tree posted by someone else.

When you do, be sure you review that family tree carefully. Look at the research behind it and follow the path yourself. If possible, contact the owner of the tree so you can share details and facts. And, if everything works out, you’ll have not only gained information about your family, you’ll also have found a new cousin.

If you didn’t have a chance to catch Brooke Shield’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? last Friday, you can watch it and unaired bonus scenes at This Friday night, tune-in for the rebroadcast of Sarah Jessica Parker’s search for her connection to pair of big events in American history. You can learn more as well as see the schedule for the remainder of the season of Who Do You Think You Are? here.

Jeanie Croasmun

Jeanie Croasmun has been working at while futilely attempting to prove the horse thief story in her family history for over seven years. During that time, she learned enough about her family to determine that the story is likely a great work of fiction. But the search continues ...


  1. Jeanie, you said:

    “When you do, be sure you review that family tree carefully.”

    Considering that Ancestry actively promotes the “researching of family trees” and the “Click and Copy” method of research rather than the “search for people in original documents” method which is generally recommended by most serious genealogists and family historians; Just how successful do you truely expect that advice to be?

    If Ancestry really believes that the research should be checked then take steps to force it to be checked…

  2. Lynn

    I agree that you need to be careful. I’ve found several family trees that seem to match mine, but when I looked closer, they had people older than their grandparents and all kinds of mistakes. There have even been several instances where many trees had the same error! I’m grateful for the ease, but you do have to review all the “facts” carefully!

  3. Mary

    After a few dreadful experiences early in my research with some of these trees, I stopped copying them.

    Now I print them out and check the facts before committing anything to my own tree.

  4. Sherry

    What I find even more frustrating is when someone has used a lot of my gathered data …then posting it without documentation as their own. I don’t expect credit, but it someone takes the data …yes please add the documentation and spell the names that are my family names correctly.
    But I do love the ease of census data online with in your home…so much better than rolling through reel after reel of microfilm in a dark library or room!

  5. Pat Blanchard

    Although I source like a mad woman, I do use the unsourced trees as a stepping stone for additional information that leads me to even more sources. I also have found some wonderful photographs attached to those unsourced trees. As for folks copying my work for their own trees, I am of two minds. I’ve done all the work, so I feel a bit peeved; but then I realize that at least they are copying good information, and I feel kinda proud that someone appreciates my efforts and includes it with their own. Besides, there have been too many times I’ve needed help … thank goodness for the generosity of public trees (sourced or not). The sad thing is that just “cut and paste” doesn’t give you that “Oh Boy!” moment you experience when you’ve found that precious record you’ve been hunting for. I think there’s room for a variety of approaches to building a family tree … it’s strictly a personal choice, and how much time, labor, and money one can afford to expend.

  6. Linda York

    Amen to Pat — I too have found trees with errors
    so checking the facts and documentation is very important – but I do appreciate the click and paste
    feature and the web search from FTM – it is your choice whether to go ahead and search for documentation beyond the files found or not. I want all the documentation i can find. I just wish e-mail addresses would be available for contacting the owners of the public family trees — a more direct contact choice!

  7. Jennefer Burk

    Now, if the importance of checking for sources for the family trees found on the internet was stressed to the newcomers to genealogy, we could all go out and celebrate. Many members of my family searched for nearly 15 years to sort out the mess on research done, on file at the LDS church and shared by a lady who had not checked sources. A wonderful researcher from the church worked diligently for several years to help straighten it out. Inaccurate info will always be strewn about, so it will always be up to the conscientious genealogist to do what they can to correct or prevent it from happening. And, by the way, I too have had my research taken and put online. The lady puts herself down as the authority on it and I end up hearing from people wondering why she can’t provide them with sources. Thank you so much Jean, for pointing out the need for proving someone elses research.

  8. Judy

    Using data already established in other family trees is great – when the information has been researched and is correct. I’ve found many people just copy data, without regard to its accuracy to their trees. I find many unsourced trees, which indicates to me the owner has not researched the information. I research data, communicate with other tree owners and determine the data’s relevancy to my family. For this reason I do see many people (especially since the “Who Do You Think You Are” series began) copying my sources and branches. I wish others would take the research seriously instead of just plugging in or copying convenient information.

  9. BEE

    “Hints” from other family trees have been a big help in “filling in the blanks”, especially when they contain maiden names, who “he or she” married, and missing dates of birth/death, but I then do my own “search” for documents to confirm as much of this information as possible.
    Sometimes it appears that someone started a “tree” with a couple of names, copied all the information they could find from other “trees”, regardless of true or not, and then when their “trial membership” ran out, just left it, and they now constantly appear as “hints”.
    I definitely view this feature as helpful, but in most cases, once I have that information, I hit “ignore”. In the case of my husband’s family, there are tons of “connections”, and it would be an impossible task to search through them all, especially when so much of it is obviously copied.

  10. Annette Jackson

    I agree that we find many trees without documentation here, with children older than their parents, families where children are born in different locations every year (that is mostly due to people clicking on the wrong locale name from the dropdown box on this site), and other odd situations. But more than that, what I find disappointing is trying to contact people to clarify and share information, and hearing nothing back. My mother started researching our family in the 1960s, and rarely failed to hear from someone, even if it was just to say, “Sorry, wrong family,” or “Have stopped researching,” or “No information to report.”

  11. Cindy

    When I first started working on my family tree, I admit I was guilty of taking what people had on their trees and adding it to mine. After many, many hours of having to go back and remove bad info
    (I’m still finding things) I made the decision not to copy anyones tree, unless they have sources listed. I like the way Ancestry does the family trees now, because before merging your trees together, you can check sources. If they don’t have any sources, I don’t add it. I just wish Ancestry had some way to merge duplicate people together, that are in my tree. I am sure there are many people who have duplicates or triplicates like I do.

  12. BEE

    Is it possible to delete the “recent member connect activity” that is attached to one of my “trees”?
    My grandchildren’s maternal gr-gr-grandfather died 1862 in the Civil War – civil war pension index, Civil War Soldiers list, etc. I found him on the 1860 census, living with his wife and 3 children – age 26, born abt 1834, but could not find him anywhere on the 1850 census, so that is all the information I have on him.
    This “member connect” has an 1880 census for this man’s widow and “9 family members” showing on the “overview” page for this man. This “member connect” person and 18 others with “public” trees have parents for this man and a family line that goes back to the 1400s!
    A check of the 1850 census of the names given as his parents, show that they do have a son with the same name, but he was born abt 1841, and still living with his parents at age 19 on the 1960 census! I would sure love to be able to add just a few of those many generations to my grandchildren’s family tree, since it goes back through some significant historical events, but obviously – or at least obvious to me, the man born in 1834, couldn’t possibly be this man by the same name born in 1841, and yet, here is all this “history” on 19 trees on ancestry!

  13. Kathy

    I have met many new “cousins” while looking at other family trees then communicating with the owners. Keeping my family tree public has opened up many doors to my ancestors that would have otherwise been closed to me. Sharing genealogy information is often a two way street. We must look both ways before crossing by researching, verifying, and then documenting before we can get safely to the other side. Yes, some family trees may contain errors. If you are like me, you have found a fair amount of errors in accepted/legal documents, too. Thus, we come back to… before trusting, you must verify =)

  14. Brooke Shields on Who Do you Think you Are


    My favorite quote from this episode was when Brooke said “Being able to find your place in the grand scheme of things, there’s something empowering about it.”

    Waiting for the next episode.

  15. Joanne Sholes

    I, too, find I have a love/hate relationship with various features of online trees. One feature I have come to appreciate is the ability to leave a “Comment” about a particular issue. I usually try to connect with the owner of the tree but when that fails, I like being able to attach a clarifying comment to the individual in a tree. I have found comments and the ‘post its’ on the old roots trees very useful. At least that way I have a ‘fighting’ chance to stop the random repetition of errors.

  16. It’s fine with me when people copy things from my tree that *belong* in their trees. But there are several people on who have copied lots of people from my tree who obviously do not belong in theirs. Usually they have combined info from two different people with similar names, probably as the result of a mistaken hint, and have gone running off in the wrong direction from there. Basically, that is their own problem, but it’s annoying because then presents every one of those people that have been incorrectly copied back to me as a hint and as a member connect link. Sigh.

  17. Pam

    Judging by the whinging of the first few comments, I say “don’t put your tree online!” There is plenty of good Family Tree software on the market.

    I am guilty of ‘cut and paste’ BUT I use the information as a starting point for my own research and, when asked about said information, I always tell people that this is the case. It’s a personal choice whether to add this info to one’s own tree to start with, or print out for further research first. If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have been able to verify the connection of one of my family members to a particular branch of information I had gleaned, as I hadn’t got a clue where to look next. It gave me a real pointer as to where to go to get this verification.

    As with all things in life though, there are ‘experts’ and ‘newbies’. Instead of criticising, why don’t the ‘experts’ try helping the newcomers…….

  18. Scott

    #14, Bee: You make a good point. As #16 Joanne suggested, I often make a “comment” if I see something way out of line. Though the original owner rarely responds, at least my two cents are out there.

    I’m like #18 Pam, though: I use an old program that is on my computer and have never set up a family tree using ancestry’s online thing.

  19. Susan

    I appreciate ancestry openning this up for discussion. Currently sources go into the search or the hints sometimes without any idea who determined that that source should go with that particular person. I would like there to be some kind of “professional standard” on this and yet people seem to have completely opposite views on it.
    One problem with having information go into the general pool is that it takes away many people’s incentive to locate or make public those items they have found. One of my goals is to have “cousins” find me, so it defeats my goal to have them never even have to view my tree but still get the sources I find. This reduces my incentive.
    Another problem with having the source information go out without people viewing the trees is that the errors are increased. One person who I believe in adding info to a book used only the census material. The problem with this is that she has some of the most basic information wrong. Because I have the cemetery photos, will, probate, marriage licence, etc. I know the person’s accurate name and birthdate. She has the middle name and a year.
    Somehow there has been a recent shift in people’s responses because I have noticed several researchers are actually pulling their sources off of ancestry, not adding new ones and not participating in member connect. These are people that were feverishly adding sources a few months ago and apparently have been on a long time. Why the sudden change?

    I do think that the member connect may be a good start. There are many times that I have wanted to stay in “contact” with a “cousin” but they aren’t necessarily a source. There ARE times when a family tree IS a source.

  20. Beth

    I too have a love / hate relationship with the family trees. I try to be very exact and document, document. It bothers me when people don’t take the time to check correct spelling of towns/counties or even if the county exists. As far as the “Who do you think you are” show, I have mixed emotions. I watch it and usually end up upset. These celebrities fly wherever they need to go and meet with professional genealogists that for the most part have already done the search and digging for information. They have no idea how hard the search or the skills it takes to find this information. I’ve been working for 30+ years to find my Great Great Grandfather’s parents but can’t afford or have the time to travel back east where the records may or maynot be. But within a months’ time these celebrities have found their families back to the very beginnings. I don’t mean to sound bitter, just frustrated that this show is giving the wrong impression to many people who have never started their family history. That it can be as easy as a click and a leaf is not an honest representation of the work.

  21. Kelly

    Thank you for this article. This is my biggest problem with and the reason I have canceled my subscription repeatedly. I have found matches in other trees only to find people have copied my work, and done so incorrectly. There are trees out there with my grandfather bearing his father’s name, with my grandmother married to my uncle, with my great grandfather having 5 and 6 wives he never had. I keep my trees private now and will no longer share. I have 10 years of work into this research and I’m very tired of watching inaccurate versions of it copied in an almost viral manner.

  22. Donna Wolfe Hoy

    OK. I think there are a couple of topics going on in these discussions. First using the family trees offered on line and the truth is you should be very careful. There are many errors so travel at your own risk should be the warning; however, if your stuck they can give you a starting point or hint. As far as another discussion about the show, I think it has bred some interest of those who otherwise would not be interested in their tree. So for that, it is useful in that it might encoourage more libraries to carry better reference areas for geneaology. As far as traveling and getting records, I just traveled to Salt Lake to LDS library and it was a fantastic trip. There I learned that they have multiple sites around the country that has access to their information and there is one just about 25 miles from me, so in the future I don’t have to travel 1500 miles. My frustrations in the tree are the usual ones. Census records that are not accurate. Nicknames used rather than actual names, and the list goes on and on. My tree is large and the family seems to go in circles, so a father and mother may have been a father and mother of someone else as well, so then there are duplications which drive me crazy. Sorry, but I can’t remember all of the details on 8500 people and growing. But the joys of finding people’s stories makes me feel a part of that history. Those that only copy and paste as missing the best parts. My opinion.

  23. Malky

    It must also be remembered that the “official” records are not always accurate also.
    Monymusk Churchyard. As recorded on the stone.

    Gordon McIntyre 2 Apr 1911 Wife
    Elizabeth Nicol 5 Jul 1864
    Mary McIntyre 14 Aug 1882
    Gordon 10
    As recorded elsewhere,
    stone: B17
    Elizabeth Nicol 5 Jul 1864
    Mary McIntyre 14 Aug 1882
    Gordon McIntyre 2 Apr 1911
    Gordon McIntyre n.d.
    Herein lies the problem. The person who writes the records may not always be correct in their assumptions.
    “Gordon 10, and Gordon n.d.” are the same person. There is no surname on the stone, but is assumed to be a McIntyre in the record. If you check the records, you will find that they state that he died at 10 years of age, his mother was Mary McIntyre, and his father was in fact Peter Mackie. His death is registered as Gordon McIntyre Mackie, 28/06/1891 aged 10. His birth is registered as Gordon Mackie, 05/06/1881, BUT, his name on the birth register is recorded as Charles. There is a registrars stamp on the left margin noting a “name” change. His mother died of “Child bed fever” on the 14th August 1892. Child-bed fever on average causes death within 10 to 20 days of the birth. Her death cert states “Cause of death, Child-bed fever, 12 days.” This then begs the questions, was Charles a different child? Did an infection during Gordon’s birth cause the death of his mother? Was Gordon’s birth not actually registered, due to the then problems with the mother, and his death led to the assumption by the registrar, that his birth was actually under the name of Charles?
    Answers on a postcard



  24. Pat Grogan

    I think that’s hints and suggestions are causing many many errors. I recently wrote to a young man after vewing his tree, saying:

    Must be a typo or some sort of error here. According to your tree, and several others, the father you have listed was only 13 years of age [born 1746] and his “wife” was 29 years old [born 1730] when their daughter was born in 1759.

    He replied:

    I couldn’t tell you, I’m just going by what the website [meaning] has.

  25. Susan

    I should clarify. It would be nice to have a professional standard on the appropriate way to “work through other people’s family trees”. I don’t mean I want professionals determining how our trees are used. One problem with ancestry’s very recent focus on the TV show with professional research is that if we go that route than ancestry becomes obsolete. I would view that a great loss. The death knell to genealogy through the years is when material gets bogged down by becoming the private turf of professionals. The family trees have been and continue to be essential and are certainly a huge part of ancestry’s success.

  26. Sue Evinger

    Everyone needs to use a little common sense in these matters of other trees. Too many people have the same name and it can get a bit confusing, to say the least. It is good to look at others ‘Trees’ as some times the truth is there just a little jumbled. Like one person said copy it down and research it first before you add it to your ‘Tree’. I posted a picture of a relative and in another ‘Tree’ it was put on the wrong person. Needless to say they didn’t look at dates, but anyone can look at my ‘Tree’ and if it helps someone I am happy. I have been able to find ‘cousins’ that I would not have known about otherwise. Common Sense!

  27. Julie

    Documentation of sources should be of primary concern to all of us. Unfortunately, new and/or uninformed users ‘click’ incorrect information and then that mistake will multiply like wildfire on without any way of correcting.

    Family Tree Maker is wonderful yet it has a major flaw regarding documentation of sources. FTM allows ample space for volumes of info- then, unfortunately, converts it into the ‘Notes’ section on Ancestry which is only accesible to ‘Editors’. This means that tons of valuable information is inaccesible to the masses. I suppose I have the choice just not to post my Tree to Ancestry but I would hate for all my research not to be used others. However, under the ‘Flawed System’, it isn’t being used anyway I suppose.

  28. Terri

    Like everyone above, I too have a love/hate relationship with online family trees and the info that some people put out there as fact. I have FTM 16 on my computer (have just added FTM 2010 also), and have just started adding some of my info on a couple of months ago. I also PRINT out hard copies of my files for quick reference as I am working. I started researching about 10 years ago, and my first step was to use an existing genealogy (which has been published, and widely copied on the internet), then try to prove or disprove the facts. This taught me how to research, and what materials were available, both in archives and online. I recently came across a inconsistancy in this original genealogy, and when I contacted the original researcher (who is a known family member), she agreed that my conclusion was correct-that the original info I was questioning (and that is published, and copied EVERYWHERE online) was due to a incorrect assumption she made 40 years ago, when she was researching! This just goes to show you that errors can and do multiply if you do not check out facts! ALL sources should be taken with a grain of salt! And as time goes on, as more serious researchers put their info online (with sources), the quality of trees will improve-with hope. I do want to say though that I too have met “cousins”, and have had help from other researchers that I contacted through their family trees, so I guess we will have to take the “good” with the “bad”.

  29. Frances

    Start with nothing – an adoptee with a quasi-identifying info from Ontario where records were closed for decades – add a birth father who chose not to acknowledge paternity, a grandfather that hid his true Jewish name from the family he moved into, a mother who relinquished one other child by leaving the child with the birth father, a grandmother who changed her name mid-life and put ’em together and find a place to start….those of you who have ‘real’ birth parents have some history, if only verbal – those of us in the ‘adoption’ milieu have virtually little or nothing to work with. Be grateful for your small mercies, accurate or inaccurate and enjoy the search. For those of us without birth parents, we MUST go backwards, in order to move forwards in our lives.

  30. NKWalker

    Pam 19, I am far from being an expert but am able to spot obvious errors. I long ago gave up trying to point them out unless I know the owner and know she wants my input, although I very much appreciate corrections myself. One tree whose title contains a very common name spliced on a great swath of my relatives including my mother. Always hoping to find cousins, I searched their tree without finding any connection to mine, so I messaged the owners with the information that my ancestor had chosen an anglicized version of his name that happens to be the same as theirs. I asked that if they actually know of a connection between their tree and mine would they please point it out to me. I got no response. Their tree boasts more than 51,000 people, and I suspect many of them were cut and pasted rather than carefully researched. These people are not researchers, they are what mainstream genealogists call “collectors,” and they are doing something different from what the rest of us are attempting. Beyond taking my research they neither need nor want any help from me.

  31. Frankly I cannot figure out why anyone cares if someone “copies” their research unless you are a professional and making a living doing genealogy research.

    It does not diminish my enjoyment in any way to find a photo or document or research I have completed in another tree – with or without noting my work.

    I do genealogy to please myself and what someone else thinks of me or my work is none of my business, although I love getting email from my “cousins”.

  32. Kerry

    Ah, at last-the elephant in the room is discussed! When I started researching, it was the “traditional” way-research, libraries, books, and more research! It was painstaking-but generally speaking, more accurate than the new “copy and paste” method. I also have the love/hate thing going on. In sheer frustration, I have posted corrections on others’ trees-only to be ignored. I have kept my tree private to assist in protecting some of my hard-won data from the “instant resulters” who think genealogy or the study of history is copying what someone else has done-correct or not. I am always open to correction or comments from other researchers, and believe this to be the in the best interests of continued learning. However, I remember all too clearly the last time I brought this subject up, and the cruel flamers comments- who yes-also populate this dry, history based site. I was treated to, “well, YOU are so perfect!” and a host of other infantile word projectiles supposedly from adults-protected by distance and their computer screen. Ok-call me perfect-but it bothers me that people screw up data and the truth about MY family!

  33. Bianca

    I’m a newbie…but learning very quickly the value of NOT blindly accepting the advice from the little green leaf…and to properly source the facts. I’ve gone the way of a private tree so my mistakes are not copied by others. I invite guests by request. One of my guests is an expert (and “cousin”), who leaves me tips via e-mail or the Comment feature. I fix my mistakes. That works beautifully.

    Over these past few months (since I started researching) I have met the parents of my grandparents, my father (who is normally very quiet) is now telling me and my children his stories, my mother presented to me original pictures of her family, I met “cousins” and a few good people willing to help me out, and I’m exploring other countries and history. The trees, photos, and stories from other people have been a big part of this experience…so far it’s been an incredible journey!

    With so much good, there is going to be some frustration with those people who don’t take it seriously or know the rules. I don’t know the rules, but I am serious and I am learning. My progress forward is really based on the advice and sharing of trees from the experts…

    So, Pam #19, I agree.

  34. Barbara Reecamper

    I know what you mean. It’s fun to prove it yourself. I’ve been doing this since 1997. The problem now is Family trees that show up as new hints are trees copied from me long ago. Also, it’s amazing how many trees have no sources or records listed.

  35. Patti Wood

    1620. That is the magic date. I am constantly amazed at the number of “just clickers” who have ancestors living in New England in the 1500’s.

  36. P J Evans

    I try to check the informstion I find online – there are published records available for some places, and GenWeb can be very helpful – but there are a lot of people who dump data into their files and never check it in any way, so I find non-existent place names, people who appear multiple times in a single file, mythical genealogies (particularly the ones going back to Rome, Greece and ancient Egypt) and (one of my favorites, found in Ancestral Files and a lesson in bad information) children who were linked as their own grandparents.

    I’d rather read the original records myself, if they’re available. At least then the mistakes will be mine.
    And I hope that people using my records don’t graft their people onto my tree and do give me credit for my data.
    (Sharing is part of genealogy. You never know when a stranger will have the piece you need.)

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