Posted by Crista Cowan on March 13, 2013 in Research, Site Features, Website

I got an Message today from a woman related to a man in my family tree.  In her research she had come to a conclusion regarding the identity of his wife that was different from mine.


When was the last time you read and responded to your messages?


Of course, my first reaction was an internal roll of the eyes and the arrogant thought that I would educate her about how to do real genealogy research.  I immediately navigated to the man in question in my family tree.  As I began to review my research notes so I could craft a response to her (and I make extensive notes in Family Tree Maker on every person I research), I had the fleeting thought that maybe I shouldn’t have made my family tree public because clearly this woman didn’t know what she was doing and she was probably going to attach someone from my tree to someone in her tree when it was obvious that they were not the same person.

As I read my notes my ego quickly deflated to an appropriate level.

Several years ago I was searching for the husband and children of Thelda M Jones.  I knew she was enumerated in the 1910 census with her parents as a ten year old child.  She was not enumerated with them, her older brother or any other known family members in the 1920 census.  My assumption was that she married sometime between 1916 and 1920.

I knew from her father’s obituary that my Thelda married a man named Cecil Christian sometime before 1936.  I wasn’t able to locate a marriage record for Cecil and Thelda but I was able to locate Cecil in the 1920 census with his first wife.  So, where was Thelda in 1920?  Did she have a first husband?

I searched in vain for a marriage record.  I searched the 1920 census for all women named Thelda, born about 1900 in Utah.  Only two came up.  I was able to exclude one of them by tracing her to her death and finding an obituary that listed her parents’ names.  That left one possibility.

So, I added this man and these children to my family tree with a note that I needed to find a marriage record, an obituary, or further documentation to support that this Thelda and my Thelda were one and the same.

Then, as often happens, my research on that branch of the family got side-tracked.  For four years.

I made my family tree public (warts and all) a few months ago so that I could more readily connect with DNA matches.  But, in that time I have received messages from many more people than just those biological cousins.  Including this one.  As I re-read the message from this woman there were a few things that stood out to me.

She explained what she believed to be the truth about this man and his family.  She referenced the exact records she used to come to this conclusion.  She very specifically pointed out the discrepancies between our two trees.  She then said this, “I can’t see the actual documentation that you have in your tree… I am just wondering if I could find out a little more about the records that support your tree…  Thanks for any direction you can give here, I would appreciate it.”  She concluded with directions for how to find her public tree so I could view it for myself.

Between the records that she had attached to her tree and the previous research I had done on this family, I was able to conclude for myself that the Thelda in her tree and the Thelda in my tree were two different women.  I corrected my tree and sent this woman a thank you note for bringing this to my attention.

There are several things I re-learned today because of this experience.  Here are just a few lessons I hope you’ll consider:

  1. Reach out to others who may or may not have accurate information in their online trees.  Be nice!
  2. Not everyone approaches genealogy research the same way you do but we can all do it better if we work together.
  3. Keep good notes. It will help you keep your sanity and keep you from having to redo research.

Anything else you learned?

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. Lisa Evans

    Crista, I learned that it can be very benefical to make your tree public and connect with others. Thanks for this very interesting post.

  2. Janet Hickey for this story and,the wonderful reminders. I keep my tree public for this one reason. I know the farther back I go and especially with the females I am going to have errors and I hope someone will put me on the right path.

  3. I’ve always wondered how you can keep the unread messages or tips up on the main screen. By that I mean 1 unread message and 50 untouched hints. When I open the hints to look at one the red number goes away until I add a new person to my tree or click on recently added person. I like seeing the red numbers! Let’s me know I have work to do!!

  4. S. W. Thorn

    The main thing is to answer your emails even if you don’t want to collaborate with the sender. Just let the sender know and I’m sure you won’t be bothered again.

    A little courtesy in that regard will be greatly appreciated by all.

  5. John l

    I reach out and also respond to all messages I get. I periodically go back to try to provide hints to people that I have messaged in the past. I don’t “own” my tree, as it is really built off of my ancestors – and a with little help with friends and other researchers.

    I think it is good to remember we are dealing with people, and for me, remembering people helps keep them alive; and getting a small window into someone else’s family is never bad. I think remembering rules from kindergarden – play nice and share – are really important.

  6. Patrick Wickersham

    I usually have someone either demanding to know something, or demanding I change something. So I often don’t look at the messages right away. I have got upset and made my tree private a couple of times. Then I remember the nice people I have met, and make it public again.

  7. Thank you Crista. I have just bounced off a difficult interaction with distant relatives. It’s great to be reminded that we need to keep interacting. Only through these trials can we become the best genealogists we can be.

  8. Jacki Tlachac

    I have often wondered if I should reach out to people when I have more information on one of their relatives, but I don’t know if people want that. I do, however, ask questions periodically and have connected with distant relatives and been able to collaborate on information. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking if someone knows their grandmother’s maiden name.

  9. Rick Bisekr

    I always respond back to any messages I get and let them know if I can help them. Many times I don’t have any more than what is shown in my tree, but if there is a question about my tree then I go back and review it. If I notice something different in my tree compared to someone elses tree I try to contact them and let them know about information that I have supporting my tree information. A few years ago, I noticed that someone had put another child in one of my ancestors family and then used all of my reseach of that family back for generations in their tree. I finally got the death certificate of the person they put in my family tree showing them that she had different parents and I also located her with her real family in the US census, but they still have not changed their tree. I finally just put comments on their family tree so others will know that some of information is incorrect. All they need to do is edit that child, go to relationships link and remove the father and mother and then all of the incorrect info would be disconnect from their tree.

  10. Pat

    I thought the reason we had public records was that we can connect with each other and help each othe other out. I have had number of people that have different info than I do are not even interested in both of us checking it together to see who is correct . Am at the point that I double check and verify what I have , and I hate to say leave them to it.
    Don’t get me wrong, I want to help as much as I can, but am to the point that I may just make my tree private and if they want info then I will share. If they ask.
    I want to know if I may have the wrong info, I don’t want to have to redo my tree because of something I have written wrong.

  11. Vera McHale

    I love it. Honesty is a most admirable trait. It is the hallmark of intelligence. I had a lot of mishaps also going back at least 10 years with and a childhood full of people telling me I had a memory like a elephant and wanted me to to hold onto facts that made no sense to a child but would as an adult. I am very sure about my side of the family though other researches disagree with me. But my husbands side left me in a blind spot for pure fabrication about a gal named Julia who had the same name husband and son and hometown in same time period. My husband finally said it is a great story but I still don’t think we had a Julia in the family (a family he still admits knowing little about). It was his family and he was right. Julia is not the right wife of our Patrick or mother of our John. Both Johns did live on the same street at same time. The city directories were very helpful. Sometimes the facts hide in the recess of the mind so I always figure if a person has a first hand account or are by circumstances more apt to know then they have the right direction to follow because their instinct is better. I still have my story about Julia because it included a lot of research on our city.
    Yet I have found some people don’t want to accept a first hand account and that is fine. My husband let me go my wrong way until I couldn’t go any farther. I was elected the family history keeper back in the 1940s. So It is quite a thrill to keep my families history alive and accurate regardless of what others accept. The personal side of family history is reason we do this. We all have something worth remembering. History’s bad side does repeat itself if we don’t. We must forgive, but we also must never forget so the next generation does not make the same destructive mistakes. Life is fun when we choose it to be. And it sounds like Crista has fun just living life to the fullest. I hope she is remembered well for her work 100 years from now.

    • Trevor Thacker

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  12. Monika

    #13 – Love your line! Now I have finally a good excuse for being so honest!! 🙂 I sent a message last night to someone who has a public tree. So I was able to see that she had wrong information about an aunt of my husband, whose descendants I am in contact with. I notice this morning, as I go through my “sent” section, that added the paragraph to my e-mail that says “Ancestor link–click here to grant Monika access to your tree”! I have no desire to have access to her public tree (mine is private). If I want to see her tree I can do so without being granted access to it since it is public. Why does take it upon themselves to add any paragraph to my messages without my consent?

  13. Hi Crista,

    So very true. Everyone is at a different stage of research as well as has different styles and goals. Just reaching out and asking questions rather than accusing or judging is the key.

    Thanks for sharing.


  14. Jade

    I usually advise not putting something in a tree unless you have good evidence for it. In this case, however, if you had not put inadequate data about a Thelda in your tree, you would not have had the benefit of the other person’s helpful research! More than one way to skin a cat . . . .

  15. Ann

    This happened to me when I first started researching. What were the chances of two Patrick Doyles marrying two Bridget McDermotts with birth dates only days apart, living in the same area? I had made the connection to what turned out to be the wrong one. But luckily my efforts connected me with a woman on the opposite side of the U.S. We found that (moment of humility) I was wrong – and we did share the same great-great grandfather. She had family pictures I didn’t know existed and we still keep in touch. So glad I followed through all her information against my research to arrive at the correct conclusion. This has helped me with all of my research since – not just having the correct ancestor, but how to go about things. (I’m always surprised when I contact someone because they’ve come up as a ‘hint’ and they are not interested in pursuing our possible common ancestor any further. I just love it when that works out!)

  16. Bonnie

    I have had so many nice email discussions on conflicting info and evidence. I am thrilled to be in touch with an Australian about a mutual Canadian (or Connecticut?) ancestor who has been a puzzle. We may never be able to prove her provenance exactly, but worldwide, heads and lots of research has been expended. I find it thrilling! So for those folks who take the leaves at face value and just agree without checking sources, you are missing all the fun. I agree to disagree with those who remain private as I have found the most interesting things by being public and helping others who are interested.

  17. Deborah Winslow

    I have thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with other tree members, even though my tree is private. If someone shares a family line with me, I share information via emails, and will send pictures I have via emails. I have ‘met’ many cousins and keep in contact with many of them. For those trees that seem quite reliable sources, whose ‘fruits’ I frequently pluck, I do my best to pass on to them whatever information I have that they do not have.

    I recently considered making my tree public so that I can benefit from other people’s eyes looking at my tree and offering corrections, but I decided not to for one reason: I have found living individuals in public trees showing with names and birthdates displayed, and I can’t risk my family’s security with a similar mis-step. It is an easy error to make since in many screens, when adding a person, it defaults to a deceased person, and you have to change it to a living person, and if you are working quickly or are disrupted, you can easily overlook that. You add the name, sex, birth information, then get interrupted by the phone or a child and you hit ‘save’ without realizing the default was living, not deceased.

    I think that Ancestry should change the default on adding people so that it is ALWAYS a living person screen that comes up. Then, if the person is deceased and you have that information, you will REALIZE that when you go to add the death information and must change to deceased in order to put in the information. That is simple enough, just once click, and would be well worth that click. In this way, privacy and security will be automatically protected.

    Deb Winslow

  18. Jeanette

    Like Rick, I have an issue with people connecting themselves who are NOT related. I have posted the death record of the Juan Hernandez in question, and still none of the 9 trees disconnect from mine. It is frustrating, as I have done the research and have the proof to support it. It seems that people see a common name and just assume it is who they are looking for…then the next person copies and so on. I have messaged these people and explained the issue, and still they will not un attach. Because of this, I have one private & one public tree. The public no longer shows family photos unless they are watermarked. (I also have one follower who has taken my photos from other sites and posted on Ancestry).
    I wish there were a way that we could remove the “abandoned” trees from Ancestry as well. Those seem to be the most popular that have errors.

  19. Sue Smith

    I had a close event as yours although not through Anc. My mom’s connection to a surname and her submission of our tree to the Family Assoc. meant that our info was out there. To date we have not conclusively determined whether that surname is accurate. There “she” sits on this site with all of the info on the family into which she married. Someone had submitted info on the male family, again not the family for the association. I uttered more than a few laughs that he had info on “her.” He posted her info from a census 10 years subsequent to any info I had. I was positive that he was wrong. I had concluded that she had probably died between the two enumerations. More than once I reviewed my census records (hard copy, printed from Anc.). Yep, the census record he had must be wrong and “she” was still living with some of her young children. Big CONFESSION! I had copies which were NOT of two different census pages. I had two copies of the same census page which I had identified incorrectly! How did I come to realize this? I did the comparison person by person. Each was the same age with no change. What? CHECK. Oh, no, The good thing was that I had not rushed to respond to what I had seen on the website. We have now had numerous exchanges to connect. From the beginning I admitted to my initial distrust of his info and my own mistake. We are indeed cousins. He came through a line which a mutual cousin had indicated to my mom more than 25 years previously had daughtered out. It turns out that he was a bonus baby! He is one generation closer to our common ancestor than I am although we are about the same age. I have since found other discrepancies in the extensive tree shared earlier. Between my new cousin and I we will draw closer to an earlier generation. Disagree with others but take a deep breath (or many) before claiming superior info.

  20. Cindy

    I always answer my account emails, and I get really perturbed when I email a user who chooses to keep their tree private and ask for help or info, and they don’t respond. I think it is very unfair that “private trees” can use all the info that us public users, (using our time, resources, and often our money) post to our public trees, and then they refuse to help us. I think if a tree is kept private, then you should not be able to download info that was posted on a public tree. Yes, you should be able to copy census records and the like, but you should not be allowed to download pics, family stories, etc. that a public user posted. It’s not fair, and it’s just plain selfish!

  21. Donna Campbell Goodwin

    I see you were able to use this feature March 13. Has anyone figured out why it no longer works? I can not get mine, or Member connect activity. My tree is private, but I answer all of my mail always. Cindy, I am sorry you feel that way about private trees, so of us do not TAKE from others with out a response to what has been used from public trees. Also, there are many good reasons to keep a tree private. You have come across the big one. Make your tree private and if someone really wants what you have they will message you. That is if Ancestry will fix it so you can get your messages.

  22. Cindy Re: #23

    The bottom line, which isn’t likely to change, is that once you make something public you loose control over how others may use it. If you want to control it then make it private or don’t post it

  23. I have only been working at genealogy for about 12 yrs, but long enuf for pretty much everything above to have happened to me, both sides of the fence. And a lot more things. At first, I thought Crista had robbed my story and changed names. About the same with Rick(#11). Except that when I presented proof to the person who was “robbing” my info (photos, original records of proof, etc) and subsequently “hiding” it in his Private tree, he barely responded at first. Then I suggested he separate his people from mine, not only showing how they couldn’t be connected, but also showing who the real ancestors should be for his people. I not only got ignored, but he blocked his inbox from any further messages. Then in a couple days he started in again to put more of my people in his tree. So as suggested above, i added a comment in his tree(somehow it was open to me) that the person was in the wrong family, and just who the ancestors should be.
    My ancestors may be more interesting than his(actually his wife’s), but that doesn’t seem to be quite enuf reason to claim them. And now there are dozens of incorrect people in his tree. There are many pros & cons to having private trees, and I guess this is a good reason — so that no one will copy all the errors, My tree is obviously Public, but I don’t go for numbers(online anyhow). I have only 538 people, but 2111 source citations –about 4 per person. Even at that I make mistakes, like the one I corrected yesterday. It is so easy to do when Ancestry gives you all these great hints, isn’t it? And I noticed 1/2 dozen other trees with the same mistake. Did they all copy me? So I have started to message and apologize if I lead them astray.
    But that is an endless task, as everyone knows. It seems like 1 out of 10 people I message will respond in any way. Like someone else above said, there are so many abandoned trees and accounts……… There are Sooooo many issues working here in from technical to people, that it is easy to get totally frustrated. But we all seem to come back day after day and take our punishment, just because we get some rewards too. We need to be open to correction and understanding(and patient) in rejection. that not everyone sees things just as we do.

  24. Rebecca Bannister

    I just posted this to the Facebook page. Your blog post reminded me of times when I have connected with serious researchers and how much I appreciate that. But . . .

    So I hope this doesn’t come across as me being on a soapbox but I would like some feedback from other researchers and even folks. is a great site. So first I don’t want this to come across as an attack of any kind. I have used it for years mostly as a data source and a place to connect with others who are researching the same family lines. I first put pen to paper to trace my family tree when I was in the 9th grade. Creating a rudimentary tree was an ongoing assignment in our high school (Cherokee High, Canton, Georgia). Like many students before me I called and visited my grandmother, great aunts and elderly cousins and asked them to tell me who their parents where etc. Most of my peers stopped there but in me a fire was lit. It’s been over 25 years and I’m still a genealogy addict. The internet of course has brought many changes to my searches and has given me resources that researchers of previous generations could never have imagined. But – and here’s why I’m posting today – what has that done to verification of data? How many researchers copy from public tree to public tree without stopping to check the sources? I have spent many hours in dusty libraries, walking through cemeteries, pouring through census records and looking at wills, marriage licenses and death certificates. I’ve never added a person or date to my tree without being able to confirm it with one of those sources, and thanks to the internet quite a lot of this type of information is available online and doesn’t require the footwork that once was. Fifteen years ago veteran researchers lectured me on this very subject and it took me having to laboriously track down a couple of widely published mistakes in my direct line to understand. I have given up adding comments to trees that I KNOW are wrong. I’ve seriously considered making all of my tree information private since I’m tired of opening a tree with false information and finding one of my personal photographs attached to it. I shared my photos in the beginning because I felt blessed to have so many historic pictures and found great joy in sharing them with others. Now I’m so disappointed when I see one of my pictures that I found in great-uncle’s attics or in my grandmother’s Bible on someone’s tree with bad information associated with it. Today I happened on a tree that included my 3rd great-grandfather. This particular line has been quite stubborn and lo and behold today I found a tree with his father and grandfather and his death date. I poured through the source citations and it lead me back three trees and there was nothing concrete in any of them. The migration pattern made no sense (North Carolina back to Virginia) and the spelling was changed from White to Whitt. Obviously the horse is out of the barn on this issue. has posted millions of names and there is no going back. How do serious researchers whose goal is to “get it right” coexist in this? Am I beating a dead horse? Anybody care to weigh in?

  25. Rebecca……
    First of all, I imagine that any serious researcher using knows and has experienced the pain. But not all who use the Ancestry website are serious, or they just don’t know how to research. They are probably the same ones who never learned how to use footnotes, or sources for their term papers, etc. in high school. ….That being said, the question now is how to deal with it. Obviously, adding your comments hasn’t proven very effective. It is actually painful to have family members omitted form a tree, or entered with so much erroneous info that you hardly recognize them, or have numerous extra people added to the family, etc. I’m still telling myself that I have to learn to ignore those people who do that, especially whn they ignore our messages to them. I think the serious researchers can recognize a “bad” tree after seeing a few mistakes, then write that person off as having anything we could count on— with exceptions, of course. ….. Anyhow, I try to convince myself that if my tree is out there in Public with minimal mistakes, I should be honored that people want to use my “correct” info. It would just be nice if they would express appreciation.

    The other thing I want to quickly mention in the forums. That is probably a better place than here in a blog to do give and take with others on a topic like this.

  26. Dear Folks: Would like to say that speaking for myself, I was new to computers,limited rememberance of family on either sides.No written records,no contact whatsoever with any living relative to ask questions of.At 73,I don’t always share the energy I wish I had.I am forunate in that thru search and DNA I have found possible cousins who have been supportive and some supportive with help and direction.Volunteer at LDS has been more than helpful.If I tread on anyones pictures etc. it was in error not selfishness and I beg pardon.Again thanks to those who helped me.

  27. Claire

    Member Connect is one of the best features of and that is why I am dismayed that (apparently through someone’s software error) all content has been wiped out. We get many emails from ancestry promoting (selling) their various services, but no notice was sent to us regarding this feature being removed. It took 20 minutes on the help desk to find out that there is no way to recover the information — literally years of contacts with no other means now of reaching these people. Very poor customer service and poor quality assurance.

  28. Robyn

    Enjoyed the blog post.

    I too have come across a few blatant errors. Would love a web chat on how best to approach. I usually try to contact, explain that my information differs, and ask if they would be willing to share their documentation so I can resolve the issue.

    Ancestry allows comments to be added to trees, it is acceptible or viewed as offensive to leave comments regarding different conclusions.

    I certainly don’t want to search the wrong tree and hate for others too as well….

  29. Linda Van Dolah Hanks

    I am so thankful that Christa is there just on the otherside of the computer screen. She is a great help to me and my family tree.
    Thank you sweetie for being just who you are!

  30. I try to respond to everyone who contacts me, but on the other hand, I’m also not offended if I don’t hear back from someone I’ve tried to contact.

    I get it. We all lead busy lives and have different priorities.

    I try to respect each and everyone’s feelings and wishes.

    That aside, I do believe in open and honest communication and sharing of genealogy information. Through this communication I’ve broken through numerous brick walls and found errors. Heaven knows, I want my family tree to be as accurate as possible.

  31. Pat

    Talking about wrong info . My father in law visited a few months ago and we sat down and where talking about different people in his family . His family are from Indiana , and I was asking about people he knew years ago and who married into the family . He mentioned a gentleman named Giant said he married his wife’s mothers sister , think that’s right .lol. Anyway he’s started telling me all about this man, then a light bulb came on and I said , you could not have known him , he died in 1920 . Well between my father in law and my husband , who also said he remembered this man, I had to prove to them he in fact died in a tornado in 1920. They could not believe it when I showed them the records I had. Both where not even born when this man Giant was alive.
    I love this story , always bring it up when we are working some one into the tree. If I did not have the documents to prove this , it could have again been transferred incorrectly .

  32. Char

    I love all of the comments. I am new to this process and am learning as I go. I started out with what I knew to be true. Not all of it is document verifiable,yet, but I trust the info my parents and grandparents gave me. I have also learned a great deal from some very helpful ancestry users, who have politely asked me to view their trees,and also let me know when I have errors, which do exist for certain. However, I did not appreciate the insulant comments from one person who told me to get off of her family tree. To the best of my research, we are actually related, but she was so rude I made my tree private again. I guess I don’t understand the need to be hateful about it, a simple bit of info would be so much more helpful. Sounds like you have all been there too, so hope you will forgive me if I step on your tree once in awhile! Happy Hunting!

  33. Debbie Hutchison

    My trees are private, because we have seen too many people “borrowing” facts from public trees. And because so many “facts” are not sourced.

    Would love to see an third option: a public tree with the “merge these records with your tree” choice dependent upon approval from the original tree researcher/owner, not at the whim of the borrower.

    This would encourage more communication and collaboration among members and discourage wholesale patchwork trees “plagiarized” from other people’s research.

    Also helpful would be a field automatically added to your tree indicating the tree from which your borrowed information was merged. Sort of a paper trail to document your use of other trees as sources.

  34. Lil heselton

    I know we all are hurt when someone “lifts” information we have slaved over and paid for but as someone said before, we don’t OWN any of it (except possibly our stories or analyses). We need to swallow our egos and not let it rule our research.

    Frankly I have seldom had a response from anyone with a private tree. They are not willing to share but they are willing to take – I can see when someone copies my info. Even then most private trees do not want to share their info and never respond. I never even check the private trees anymore because I don’t know if they have proven information anyway.

    Isnt it more important to put the proven information out there (I even scan in all the documents) – at least the serious genealogists can benefit from it- There will always be the “people gatherers” – they don’t care about proof just how many people they have in their trees.

  35. Mark Stickle

    I realize that I’m responding to a thread that has been dormant for awhile, but it’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so here goes nothing. The process that Crista described as a wonderful example of how it is supposed to work (as well as a reminder that all of us serious researchers will initially get our hackles up a bit when we sense that someone is ‘challenging’ our conclusions). The give-and-take experience is wonderful, and it is what used to make the genealogy community so great. But I have to say that it is a rare experience on Ancestry — we seem to liver in a time when the relentless quest for the Shaking Green Leaf is all that matters. When I send out messages to other tree owners offering to share or compare notes, or asking a question about a common ancestor, the response rate is abysmal — consistently less than 10% of my queries generate even a minimal response. By the same token, I virtually never receive incoming messages from others who are working on my lines. I think it’s pretty depressing. And while it won’t be popular to say it here, I think that at least part of the blame has to go to the marketing philosophy that Ancestry has invested so heavily in.

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