Posted by Ancestry Team on May 25, 2016 in In The Community

One recent evening, I was browsing my online family tree at Ancestry. I had just days earlier confirmed a connection that William Shakespeare, English poet and playwright. Engraving fromled me to being able to identify a tenth-great-grandfather on my mother’s side: John Hill, born in 1572, in Somerset County, England. Having identified John Hill, my next mission was to see what other records might exist that could perhaps lead me to even older ancestors.

Anyone who is familiar with Ancestry can easily imagine what I did next… On my profile for John Hill, I clicked the folder tab titled “Hints”. (A “Hint” is a term Ancestry uses to refer to a promising lead that might help one identify additional family connections. Ancestry scans their databases for such leads and then passes them on as links to historical records or information submitted by other genealogists.)

Amongst the several hints that appeared for my John Hill, were some links to the family trees of other genealogists who also claimed to be descendants of John Hill. (Such leads can prove valuable, as someone else may have already discovered meaningful information about a common ancestor that you could, in turn, incorporate into your own family tree.)

As I scanned through several of these other genealogists’ family trees, I noticed something that most of their files had in common: they showed John Hill as being married to Susanna Shakespeare. Exploring this further, I clicked one link, and then another, and then I gasped in disbelief…

This Susanna Shakespeare was noted to have been the daughter of a William Shakespeare. “Nooo,” I thought to myself, could this be THE William Shakespeare??” Sure enough, he was: William Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright, born 449 years ago, in 1564! And if what I was seeing was correct, that would make William Shakespeare MY eleventh-great-grandfather!

“Wait until I tell my family!” I thought to myself (in proper Shakespearean English, no less).

Armed with this new information, I did what any eager family historian would do… I searched for as many historical texts as I could find that might describe the personal life and the family of my new-found ancestor, William Shakespeare (information that would both validate this new discovery and, perhaps, lead to yet more family tree connections).

As I did so, one contradictory fact emerged that was nagging at my inner historian self. In my prior research, I had understood John Hill to have been a farmer; but all of the historical texts I was reading about William Shakespeare referred to his son-in-law, John Hill, as having been a prominent physician. Determined to resolve this discrepancy, I dug further and was surprised to find my ancestor’s life painted in a very different way than I had previously known.

My inner historian self still troubled, I returned to my prior research. Laying the conflicting information side by side, it was immediately apparent what I had done. My tenth-great-grandfather, John Hill, was indeed a farmer, a simple man and a Puritan. John HALL, on the other hand, was a prominent English physician. And yes, it was John HALL, not my ancestor, who married William Shakespeare’s daughter.

Frustrated and angry, I slammed the palms of my hands down on my desk. Mind you, I was not angry at learning that I was not descended from William Shakespeare. Rather, I was angry at myself for having made such a simple mistake. With all my experience, how could I have let myself get drawn down this erroneous path?! Of course, it then occurred to me that I was not alone in my error. After all, numerous other genealogists commingled the identities of John Hill and John Hall and included the Shakespeares in their online family trees. (More than half of those researching John Hill on Ancestry.com had done so!)

An Analysis of the Problem

Personally, I am a big fan of Ancestry’s “hint” system. Through their hints, I have found some remarkable information that I might otherwise never have known about. That said, I nonetheless caution people to look very closely at every hint before accepting it as fact and incorporating it into one’s own family tree. (On average, I estimate that I have rejected about 75% of such hints as being inaccurate or not applying to my family.)

One shortcoming of Ancestry’s hints is that they will include records for individuals with similar names. Interestingly, this is also a strength of their hint system. (Every genealogist has encountered documents with misspelled names. For that matter, people, and sometimes entire families, have themselves changed the spelling of their names over the years. So it helps to be open minded to name variations.) My mistake, in this case, was that I scanned over the hints so quickly that I didn’t even notice the difference in spelling.

More than simply missing a different spelling of my ancestor’s last name, however, I also neglected to thoughtfully analyze other conflicting information. Had I done so, I would have noticed more quickly the different professions of the similarly named men. And I would have realized that the timeframe of the supposed marriage to Susanna Shakespeare was not logical, given the dates of birth of John Hill’s known children. Instead, I seized on the excitement of thinking that I might be related to William Shakespeare; and, albeit it only temporarily, I accepted the findings of other genealogists without first reviewing their sources with a critical eye.

Conclusion

I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” (He was so ahead of his time!) This is especially the case with genealogy.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that internet-based research be avoided. Quite the contrary, I am a big fan of the internet! It has facilitated the sharing of information like mankind has never known before; and this sharing of information has led many a genealogist to discover meaningful legacies! (As a personal example… While I might have been disappointed to learn that I am not a descendant of William Shakespeare, through the internet I was able to discover — and verify — a connection with another tenth-great-grandfather, George Calvert, First Lord Baron Baltimore.)

Nonetheless, genealogists have a responsibility to themselves, and to the genealogy community overall, to include citations on all information they publish online. And genealogists, likewise, need to be diligent in reviewing and verifying the sources cited by others, lest they make the mistake that I did and accept as fact something that is far from it.

As William Shakespeare himself said, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

This post was originally featured on Legacy Blog.

12 Comments

  1. anita

    Knowing that Shakespeare’s last direct descendant died centuries ago, your title concerned me so I’m relieved to discover that ancestry hints didn’t lead you to that erroneous conclusion!

  2. Beth

    This is wise advice, and I think most people have been there, done that. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement at the possibility of being related to someone famous or attached to an important historic event, but you’ve got to keep your head about you and really research it before believing it. I found information on family members supposed to be drowned in a historic flood that someone else posted as fact and was purported to be documented in a book, but I got a copy of the book and there is no mention of any of my family members being victims anywhere in it. Until I can find this as fact, it is a question mark. On the flip side, my daughter IS related to a “witch” who was executed at the Salem Witch Trials!

  3. Janice

    This is a valuable story. Now many trees on Ancestry – and other sites – have the Rev. John Robinson of Mayflower fame as a father of my Abraham Robinson. But it seems there is some difference of opinion on this. I would love to know the truth with certainty, but it is eluding me …. sigh. So until I am sure, I’m not adding the Rev.

  4. Ann Lamb

    I enjoyed this article. It reminded me of how excited I was to “learn” the names of my 3rd great grandfather Wiiliam McClean’s parents and to see that their tree led back to the Clan McLean of Duart to Robert the Bruce and Lothbrok the Viking. Except, was it too good to be true? I then researched those purported parents and found that they were never in NJ where my 3ggf was born, had 4 documented sons but no William, and many other no-no’s. Too bad, but it was fun while it lasted! I’m still watching for a DNA matches with McLeans but so far no-one knows more than I do. Hints mean “proceed with caution”.

  5. Eileen Phelps

    My mother was a Taylor. Some of her relatives still think they are connected to Zachary Taylor’s family, though this was disproved several decades ago. Mistakes like these come about sometimes when people conclude that finding just one instance of a name they are searchng for means they have found the right connection. Before the internet, many records of the rich and famous could be found in books, but records of the ordinary folk were not available without spending money to hire professional researchers.

  6. Tracy

    Another fundamental mistake made here is that the county is called Somerset. NOT Somerset County.

  7. Tom

    “I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, ‘You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.’”

    Abraham Lincoln…! I don’t think so!

  8. Tom

    Beth, there were NO witches, only people ACCUSED of witchcraft!

    Gee, people, get your facts right!

  9. Mary Lourcey Jones

    Awesome post. I’ve fallen into that trap also. I’m much more careful now, thankfully.

  10. Kay

    I guess I consider myself fortunate for having learned this lesson very early on. When I first began genealogy in 2006, I was given a gedcom by a cousin I met online. I immediately merged it into the work I had done to that point and learned that I was related to half the royal families in Europe and that my family could be traced back to Adam and Eve. Needless to say, once I gained a bit more knowledge in research techniques, these purported relationships all began to fall to the wayside and not long after, I deleted the entire file and started over. Since then, I have learned to question everything I find in order to avoid this again.

  11. Mike

    I will say this. Source EVERYTHING you can as you go along, otherwise, the tree is worthless. At one point in time, I myself was curious if there was anyone living directly connected to William Shakespeare. I found that it IS true, that the direct line did die off. BUT, his sister Joan Shakespeare does have decendants. These come forward in time through the HART surname, to the GLIDDEN surname, to the CALDERWOOD surname. Pretty interesting stuff!

  12. Lindsey

    I also looked on ancestry and it traced my maiden name Webb back to Shakespears two Grandmothers who were both Webbs.

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