Posted by Anne Gillespie Mitchell on April 11, 2014 in Ask Ancestry Anne

What a provocative title: Online Trees: The Root of All Evil? And it was an interesting panel discussion that I participated in at RootsTech 2014.

task list2So are trees the root of all evil? In a word, no. And in fact, not only are they not evil, if you are doing genealogy correctly, they must be part of your research plan. Yep, I went there. Now, I’m sure some of you just spit coffee or whatever you were drinking at your computer screen. But bear with me.

Tom Jones, PhD, CG, CGL,  wrote a thought provoking article for the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ publication OnBoard 18 (May 2012): “Perils of Source Snobbery.

Now I am paraphrasing here, but his point is don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  Yes, we all know that not every tree online is accurate.  And some of those inaccuracies get copied and duplicated much to the frustration of those who have good information.  But does that mean everything you find in an online tree is wrong? It does not.

“Genealogists who categorically disdain certain sources risk overlooking the information they seek or references to that information, thus blocking their research. Genealogists who categorically trust preferred sources risk accepting incorrect information, also blocking—or sidetracking—their research. In contrast, effective family historians consult and assess all sources, regardless of type, that might help answer their research questions. They exclude no potentially useful source, and they trust no unverified source.” — Tom Jones, “Perils of Source Snobbery”

You can’t assume a given source is always going to be reliable.  Can you count on a death certificate always to have the correct death date? Or a tombstone? Usually. But not always. My great grandfather’s tombstone is an example.

Look closely at the death year.  It was originally 1940 and has been since corrected to 1941.
Look closely at the death year. It was originally 1940 and has been since corrected to 1941.

Can you always assume that information in an online tree is wrong? No, you can’t.  You must look at the information and prove or disprove what you see. If you don’t look, you could be missing something quite critical in your research that will block you for a mighty long time.

So next time you are trying to solve a problem, create your research plan that includes all of your favorite “reliable” resources. Census, vitals, immigration and military records.  But don’t forget to include some of those that you have been ignoring.  Family histories, locale histories. And online trees. You just never know where the clue is going to come from that sets you on the right path. If you don’t look at every possible resource, you might just miss it.

Happy Searching!


Anne Gillespie Mitchell

Anne Gillespie Mitchell is a Senior Product Manager at She is an active blogger on and writes the Ancestry Anne column. She has been chasing her ancestors through Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for many years. Anne holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Finding Forgotten Stories.


  1. BethieG

    Thanks for addressing, partially, this issue. It would have been more helpful to include a message to all those who post their sloppy, undocumented “research” without thorough investigation and create those inaccurate trees. That they should not rely solely on oral history, hearsay, wishful thinking, or attaching other trees that are also inaccurate. It all can’t be done from a computer. It’s not that easy. Furthermore, when dealing with names such as Bill Jones, it is even more important to do some hardcore researching before posting. Accuracy should be the researchers goal, not how many names they can “collect” to build a massive tree. Reviewing on-line trees is fine, but I don’t rely on them especially when they have no attached records to support the tree, which is a common failing. I’ve seen too many glaring errors when my research has intersected with anothers. There are a lot of blind alleys that simply can’t be dealt with by attaching someone else’s faulty ‘information’. People just seem to jump into genealogy without investigating how it is properly done. It is a recognized field with standards and practices, regardless of the fact that for some it is a hobby. Most hobbies have books, classes, instructors, etc. You don’t just start whacking at the ball when you’ve never played nor even watched the game.

  2. Roosevelt Wallace

    I bought your product and was very disappointed. I paid $100 for you to tell me less than I already knew about my genealogy. The result for me was that I was Scandinavian 1/3, African 1/3 and “Unknown” 1/3. The other 1/3 is Native American. Doesn’t your company have DNA data from them? What a rip. I will tell my friends not to waste their money on your worthless product.

    US Army Retired

  3. Thanks for the reminder that while all sources should be properly cross-referenced, there is value in everything!!

    I have found that when I’m stuck in a terrible spot, sometimes those online trees will give me a little boost in the right direction to find a primary source. As strange as it may seem, I’ve found some of my biggest research discoveries when I think I might be going on a wild fact-checking goose chase.

    Of course, it would be lovely if every tree had perfectly sourced material, but not everyone starts genealogy with the same goals and just because their sources are undocumented should automatically discount everything. It does make it more difficult to track down primary sources – but I’m game for a good hunt most of the time.

  4. Mike Daigle

    An few things I want to point out.

    1) A source is only as accurate as the person writing it down. You learn this along the way with Census takers, tombstones, marriage places for example.

    2) It is REALLY important to find ALL sources for an event, and even with that, have a healthy dose of skepticism. You are searching for accuracy, not being “right” when some else has contrary facts.

    3) When I personally started my own research I did what most people do and started adding in people, with no sources what so ever. I learned very quickly that doing things this way is pretty much worthless. What brought it all to light was when one person asked me “Where did you find this and how do you know if it is correct?” Since then I have strived to turn over EVERY rock. The family tree is now strong with very deep roots.

  5. Lois Griffith

    Today I was searching for info about a certain ancestor who died in 1772. A hint popped up offering info about this person ( at least a person with the same name) trying to claim a pension in 1830 for the Revolutionary War. Wait a minute…my man died in 1772. I looked at some other trees that had attached the record. Obviously they didn’t consider the dates. Then I looked at an online genealogy book of this family to see if I could find a nephew, cousin or other relative with the same name that might have been the claimant (in those days names got used over and over again). So far I don’t have an answer. My point is that it is not only other trees that have to be thoroughly investigated, but every “hint” must be looked at carefully to determine if it does indeed relate to your person. But that’s part of the fun of it all!!

  6. T

    Amen! More than once I have found a full name or a name spelled correctly or a date I’d been hunting really hard for. Most of the time this branch is not sourced and usually not more than one generation but it gives me more to search with. Just two nights ago I stumbled upon my great grandaunt with the husband she was “supposed” to have married and with the correct spelling of his first name I was able to connect him to her. And the bonus was his sister had already married into the family so I had all the information, just not their connection. She will still be a problem because she died soon after and he married twice more. But I have the clue now. I have something to work with. Sure beats what I had last week which was a big headache!

  7. Denise Moss-Fritch

    Unfortunately accurate evaluation of the information contained in a source, as applied to a specific person, is also necessary. Frequently that evaluation is lacking.

    There are a dozen member trees on Ancestry that claim John Fritch immigrated to Pennsylvania, from Germany, prior to the Revolutionary War. Those claims are based upon a Philadelphia naturalization hearing in 1892, 80 years after the death of John Fritch in New Brunswick, Canada. Logical evaluation of that source’s information would show the data does not apply.

  8. Tricia

    You can not assume every record was documented correctly. The date of a marriage license does not typically mean the couple married on that date. A census taker adds the wrong gender to a girl child namd “Billie” then proceeded to list the name as “William”. Two such events in my tree relating to my parents and aunt. Or assume that because a person is listed in other trees…research was done. I’ve seen my 4th g-grandfather married 20 years before his birth! Sadly those who click merrily away are the ones you and I probably sat next to in school who copied your test answers. Then you also have those who have covered up an event they personally don’t like…I do love a good mystery but to disavow marriages?? Really people! And those who want something so much because of a family yarn-teller? Heard family legends that were just that with no legs to stand upon…yes there’s Native American roots in my tree…just NOT my direct lineage. I’m certain none of our ancestors ever imagined the children of their children’s children’s children…would go snooping into the past with such dogginess pursuit! Fun isn’t it?

  9. Adriana

    I use undocumented trees as leads. Sometimes the only way to find a record is to know where and when to look. A source would be nice so that I could easily find the origin of the information and then evaluate the quality and accuracy of that source, but a lead is better than nothing.

    We should cite sources not because all sources are equal or all sources can be trusted, but because the people who view our trees can decide for themselves if the tree is correct. Just because I’ve cited the census every 10 years doesn’t mean I’m right. But at least you can click on the census and then judge whether I’m right on or off base.

  10. Laura Teer

    I have found several errors on my family tree and discovered oral history can be misleading. Several of my family pictures have been attached to other family members where they do not belong. I send out emails etc. to these misguided folks posting incorrect information. I also have made errors and ask for other family members to check my work also. My G Grandfathers headstone is incorrect on his Birth and Death. The Census and death certificates can also be incorrect. It is a combination of Oral, written and government records to find the truth.

  11. Deloris Williams

    This discussion is a great one, I just wish more people would actually read it and understand it. For all of those people who have taken one my ancestors named Andrew Davis, born 1845 in NC, where he never stepped foot out of and died in 1914 in NC, and attached him and his descendants to their trees for a person named Andrew Polk Davis, b. 1846, a Confederate Soldier in the Civil War in GA, with a well marked tombstone in Georgia, you may want to throw away that old Famiily Tree CD many of you have apparently copied from. You see, that Andrew Davis, born in NC that so many of you have copied onto their trees, was a former slave, and that wife you have listed in your tree whose name was Polly Nicholson, was also a former slave; and all of their children you have listed in your tree for your Andrew Polk Davis with Polly Nicholson, were the children of former slaves.
    It would have been so nice if all of these people who copied one another, one who listed in her profile as an “Advanced Researcher” by the way, had done any actual research on their family; the fact that not one of them even bothered to look at a census record is clear, since my Andrew Davis (who was not named “Polk”, btw) is in the Census from 1870 -1910, and his death certificate is even online in an collection; and I even have records of my own that follow him and his ancestors back 2 generations during slavery. There is ample info out there about the real Andrew Polk Davis which anybody bothering to do any real research can find, and this is one of the main reasons that people look at Ancestry trees with disdain.

  12. Angela

    One issue that I have encountered is that sometimes people bring their own personal agendas to collaborative sites. For example, ex-partners who do not wish to acknowledge any connection to ex-partners or the resulting offspring or worse who use sites to actively interfere with the lineage of their ex-partners work in order to create hardship for the other person unnecessarily.

    Another issue with collaborative trees is that when you download a gedcom of your own work, you are often left with other people’s work attached to your own whether you want it or not. If your original work was on a collaborative site, improper merges, blatant errors, typos, etc could keep you busy making many many corrections or worse finding yourself in a position of having to start from scratch. The good news is that on other sites, people will often point out errors to you that you may not have noticed which can be a great help to getting things sorted out, the bad news is that others may take the info at face value and thus I always recommend citing sources and verifying info for yourself. If there are more than one possible date/name given then by all means provide both with an explanation where possible since this will put you in contact with more people regardless of which date they have shown a preference for but again, make a note of this on the profile so that people are not blindly accepting everything that is out there.

  13. Fredrik Coulter

    One more reason to source everything is that there will come a time in your own tree when you get contrary information. Once you get two “facts” that don’t agree, you need to be able to go back to the original source to confirm what it said. There have been times when my brain and fingers entered information onto my tree that was just not supported by my source. (Human error.) If I hadn’t sourced the original information, I would not have found my error.

    It also doesn’t hurt to scan the heck out of everything, posting the scans to the facts. Then you can easily go back and find your mistakes.

  14. don

    Ancestry itself is one of the biggest problems. Just the other day I got an email from them for a hint on an ancestor who died in 1928 his birth and death dates are included in the email. It wanted me to see how he was handling life in the great depression (which began in 1929) and whether he was one of the homeless people in the 1930 census – probably not, since he was dead. Their hint system doesn’t even have the capability of checking to see whether someone was alive when an event happened. Ancestry doesn’t care about accurate trees, just subscription money

  15. David Smith

    I would say that the misuse of trees are the root of all evil.

    People new to genealogy shouldn’t even look at trees until they have a solid grounding in the basics. Too many newbies believe that if someone took the time to put it online, they must have done the research. They don’t even stop to consider that the person who put up the tree might have been incompetent.

  16. Lois Leib

    I look at online trees for clues only. If I find something, I look for information to verify it before I attach it to my tree. All the people in my tree have sources, besides other people’s trees. If I can’t verify the info, I don’t attach it but keep doggedly searching. Another thing, there are people who have copied sources, facts, photos from my tree and then kept THEIR tree private. I write to these people asking what connection they have to my family, hoping for more clues, and they don’t even have the courtesy to answer. So, I have decided to make my tree private. I’ve spent too much time, effort, money researching and sending away for documents. I didn’t mind “sharing” but when the person who takes my info refuses to share or answer an inquiry, I get quite miffed. If someone would like info from my tree, then I will share it if they e-mail me. I have written to people who are distant relatives who had private trees and they’ve shared the info. Don’t know why someone would take info from a carefully researched tree, copy it and make it “private”.

  17. Susan Allan

    I so agree with Lois and many others on here. I am amazed at the number of people who clearly, simply blithely copy other people’s trees (which have errors) and which are then duplicated and duplicated so that you end up with half a dozen people having the same incorrect segment in their tree. Other trees are useful as a trigger but that’s all. In my early days, I too assumed that someone who had a really detailed tree had actually researched properly and sourced appropriately and I copied it. I soon learned the error of my ways. I am totally sympathetic towards mistakes but I cannot abide the kind of laziness which allows someone to use for example a census return for 1851 as evidence for someone who dies in 1834!!!! I found one yesterday relating to my husbands 5x ggm. I have the BMDs from Scotland’s people showing who her parents were, who she married and the names of her children and where she was born in Caithness. On someone else’s own tree, she had this lady with differing parents and had attached census returns which totally contradicted the information about her birthplace, birth date and names of her children. There were no BMDs cited. So although there might have been useful links, it was swiftly apparent that we were talking about 2 completely different women. It is so infuriating. I do think the problem is the difference between those of us who want to find out and understand more about our history and those who want to construct the biggest tree possible with relatives apparently going back to Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Adama and Eve. ( I have found all of these and many more on Ancestry family trees! ). I think we are right to try and persuade researchers to do the job properly and to understand there is no use claiming someone as a relative if in fact they are not or simply assuming their speculation is correct if there is. O evidence to support it!

  18. beverley gribble

    been on ancestry for a year now & I have only just discovered the blog ,I’m not much of a blogger myself but have enjoyed reading all your comments x

  19. Susanne Watkins

    It would be nice if there was an easy way to mark a person or fact as ‘proven’ or ‘preliminary’ in my trees.

  20. Helen Campbell

    I agree with you Lois. Have had my tree public for a few years but have just gone private today because although I really do agree with sharing I am sick of people with private trees taking my photos and certificates and not allowing me to see their tree. I think that if you have taken from a public tree you should be prepared to go public with your own.

  21. Donna Campbell Goodwin

    One small comment about Private Trees, which mine is. I made it private because of FAG members using my pictures and information to set up memorials – even my own mother, father, brother and grandparents and used all the information as their own. These memorials have been transfered to me, but that is really a bad practice. I do use some resourses of public trees, but always send a note of thanks, which takes very little effort to do. Now, because it is private, does not mean I and others will not share with others. I now have over 60 people with access to my tree and we all seem to share the same genealogical values. “If it is not documented, it never happened”. Guess that comes from 30 plus years of nursing.
    Like everyone else even with documentation I am still finding errors on my tree. It happens.

    #20 Helen, my Campbells come from MO via KY and TN, yours?

    Best to all in your searches.

  22. Tony Waller

    The big downside of private trees is that no-one knows in advance whether they’re gold dust or just dust. I’m researching for myself and current and future generation of family, and in the expectation that I might make contact with distant relatives along the way. If being public can help others along that’s fine by me, regardless of whether they keep their tree private or use the information to create a fantasy tree. Only occasionally do I bother to ask private tree owners to share as I’ve no idea what might be shared and mostly I’m fine doing what I do (and I’m very thorough) and in any case I’m going to be checking for myself anything that I haven’t found already.

    I do make an exception when I notice that I have a match with a private tree for a relative who has emigrated from the UK, partly because I know how difficult it can be to track the link backwards (e.g. from the USA where the census information gives origin as ‘England’) and partly because the potential benefit to me of contact with a local researcher is that much greater.

    I’ve also been lucky enough to inherit one or two items which are key to understanding the history, for example my great grandfather’s marriage certificate. Mundane enough, except that the marriage is in New York and I’ve not yet found any other documentary references on-line to his leaving England. In fact he travelled to New York with his elder brother and sister, was followed out by his girlfriend, married and returned to his home town leaving his siblings to take up US residence, but no-one would otherwise suspect it. There is an IGI transcription of that marriage, but it’s so corrupt as to be unrecognisable until you get a copy of the badly written US civil record it’s transcribed from. I believe it would be very dog-in-the- manger of me to keep such information (and more) private. All the documentation I have discovered has an on-line copy in my tree.

    By all means keep trees private, but do be aware that you’re likely to be missing contacts with other serious researchers.

  23. Janice

    There are problems with trees on Ancestry but the good thing is that you can fix mistakes easily in your tree. When I find error in another tree, I often try to contact the owner of the tree – can’t complain if I didn’t alert them, right? My tree could have mistakes too but I would want someone to tell me if they saw them. A good genealogist will be willing to check and re-check. On the other hand, recently tried out creating a tree on “Family Search Family Tree.” Well, it is impossible to fix anything there and folks can and do have the power to take over your tree. Much better here where at least you can fix errors in your own tree easily!!! Thank you Ancestry! Without your service I would be at a loss.

  24. I’ve asked for the same feature that Susanne Watkins is suggesting. Part of the problem we have with trees on Ancestry (and other places) is there is no way to indicate quality. I know there are parts of my tree that are speculative but there is no way to indicate that.

    I’ve been following the GEDCOM X standard a little and I much prefer their data model. It would help greatly if users could indicate facts and relationships as wrong or weak and display that in the tree itself. Show relationship links in another color to indicate lack of evidence, birth/death date errors, impossible relationships, etc.

  25. Tony Waller

    Ancestry does at least have provision for notes, comments etc. which are publicly visible and these can be used to document whether particular tree entries are speculative or unproven. Otherwise the number and quality of citations is frequently a good guide to the quality of a particular branch of a tree.

    When I add external references as evidence I always create a citation from scratch if necessary. Creation of citations is rather laborious but a valuable and under-used facility which would be hugely improved if Ancestry made the copying and transfer of user-created citations possible. To have to create (for example) a citation for external evidence of marriage twice over (once for each partner) is a real pain. Similarly a baptism can give evidence for residence of both parents, but then has to be separately created as a citation 3 times over…

  26. Patti T

    The sad part about all of this is that even though you may find a name and a date, you never know anything else about the person.
    Recently I met a wonderful man on ancestry whom I found out is a cousin. He was able to provide me with pictures and stories about my g grandfather. I’m the type of person who likes to verify my sources, but this is not always possible. I am stuck because I can’t find a paper trail (and we all know even those can be wrong) from when the gg grandparents came from Ireland.
    On the other hand, while searching through public member trees, I found someone who had my gg grandparents having children who were born 40 years before they were. When I emailed them and told them of the mistake, they totally ignored me and didn’t change a thing. They were simply going to stick with it, because it meant they could go back 2 generations more.
    Genealogy is tough, in the respect that very little can be verified. My great grandmother was known as Leah. Yet most census that I can find her on call her Sarah.

    The best thing I ever did was take the suggestion of someone on Ancestry to create a time line. It really does help.

  27. Normalee Groshart

    I appreciate the comments and realize that the records are only as good as the person recording. A census taker can misspell names and not realize the mistake. I’m finding that true in my research.

    How do I unlock a tree so that others can view it?

  28. Narelle DeBoos

    I always check the number of sources or photos a tree has before I steal info, then confirm it by finding as many records as possible ( often after noticing incorrect records attached to trees) but have since discovered, from a relative who accesses Ancestry from a public library but has years of research behind her….that her tree has no attached records, as you cannot add them without an account.
    So maybe even unsourced trees could have gold in them!

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