One recent evening, I was browsing my online family tree at Ancestry. I had just days earlier confirmed a connection that led 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.
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.