The experience of researching a family history is usually a solitary one. Many acquaintances of mine have told me of a family member who has “done” the family history. There is always just one person. I’ve always thought that a shame, as I’d like to imagine several family members collaborating on the project, and sharing memories and ideas. Often the family historian has to cope with the indifference of other family members, and the reluctant participation of elders who can’t quite see what the fuss is all about.
And then there are the long hours of research and the sifting through archives and scanning of newspaper notices, relieved only by the occasional trace of a relevant entry, which the researcher often exaggerates beyond its real importance just because it is a rare occurrence.
So it’s good to see that more and more people are publishing their family tree online. I’ve discovered a lot about my family, usually, admittedly, its more distant branches, through looking at other people’s work. But one has to proceed with caution. For a start, researchers rarely publish their sources. They may have full documentation for the information they publish; or they may have just copied it from someone else and not attempted to verify it. Data sometimes gets around from site to site, and if one person is wrong about a fact, then everyone who has copied it is wrong.
And people do make silly mistakes. I have seen family trees where there is a 50 year gap between offspring of a couple, the mother presumably making medical history for ovulation and conception. I’ve seen parents who were born after their children had died. And I’ve seen other trees to which this data has been copied. These kind of blunders are presumably the result of carelessness, of not checking before posting the data on a website. But they highlight the possibility that other information, not apparently exceptionable, might be in error. You just don’t know. So it’s best not to copy other people’s work without checking.
Check with the publisher of the data. They, like most genealogists, will be delighted to hear from a relative. You may be able to combine their researches with your own. Always look for an email contact on each site you go to, and don’t be shy of introducing yourself. You might be related to the researcher, you might not be, but it will be good to find out. And in the process you will find out the source of the published data.
Some people are protective of their researches. It has taken them so long, and cost so much, to gather their data together, that to simply hand it over to another seems not fair. I don’t believe that’s the correct attitude to adopt. The data is almost always hard to trace, and almost certainly soon forgotten unless as many interested parties as possible share it together.
Luckily, some of the biggest repositories of family tree data are free sites. The biggest perhaps is Mundia, http://www.mundia.com/ca/, who boast they have information about six billion people on their site. Mundia is an offshoot of Ancestry.com. It addresses the anomaly of having its members’ research, freely donated, only available via a paid subscription, by making this data freely available on Mundia, without all the other records Ancestry has available. You need to join and give the usual name/password, but it’s free. Trees is all there is. Usually just birth and death dates, but looking further you can sometimes discover other data, such as immigration information, and find photographs, or scanned documents. Depends on how thorough the contributor is. There is access to the Ancestry bulletin boards and messages if you happen to be an Ancestry member, and you can easily contact the tree author through Ancestry to make initial enquiries. You can also easily upload your own tree to help others. Searching is limited, names and dates and place, and if you don’t know them, spouse’s given name. Then it’s a matter of going through the results for the likely one you’re looking for. Tree display is still clunky after all these years in beta, but works. You click an arrow point on a directional compass to move around the tree, and click on a name to open a pop out panel with whatever data there is about the person. Remember to be reasonably sceptical initially about the data you find.
Another valuable source of others’ research is FamilySearch, the Latter Day Saints’ genealogical site, https://familysearch.org/. This is considerably more than a family tree repository, as it contains tutorials, resource materials, copies of historical documents as well as family trees. The trees are accessible from the navigation bar at the top of the front page. Again you need to join with your name/password combination of choice, free. Although not compulsory, the site tells you that as a member you have access to data non-members do not. You can access the search fields from the top navigation bar and that will give you access to historical records and family trees, listed at the end of the historical records. I prefer to keep the two searches, trees and records, separate. I find searching for one kind of a record at a time, though repetitious, saves me from being flooded with lots of results and perhaps missing something as I quickly go through them. You can also filter by location. This is good if your search is not USA based, as most records are for America. It is not advisable to use the facility of an exact search. FamilySearch is like Ancestry, and often gives no result for an exact search, while the results are there with a fuzzy search. It is easy to upload a file of your own researches to help others. Again, unless you take away a copy of a historical record, treat the search results with caution.
Another site with other people’s research is WorldConnect, once an activity of Roots Web, now hosted by Ancestry, http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/, with over 640 million names in the database. The search field here is initially just name, but you can add further details if you want to. Too many and you may get no results if you inadvertently add details that others have no knowledge of. Too few and you may, depending on the name, be flooded with thousands of results. The results here can vary widely between the usual names and dates to pages where quite detailed biographies appear. Some pages have a gedcom file you can download. You can of course upload your own gedcom to help others. As usual, check the data you find.
Yet another site is Geneanet. This one is based in France, and has, along with trees of those with European roots, access to European historical records, http://en.geneanet.org/. It is not confined to Europe though, and has trees from all over the world. It is a paid site, and to unlock full access you will need to take out a subscription. However, you can search as a free member after entering the usual name/password combination of your choice. Free searching is restricted to family name and a place. Depending on the name and place this might get you thousands of results. But many of these can be eliminated in looking at the results of the search. It would help the searching process if you knew the details of the place, not just country, but district/suburb etc. Geneanet encourage members to upload photos, and they have a collection of historical photos to browse through. My French ancestors were called Douzans, and on this site I am always coming across my own tree when doing a free search. The paid search, on the other hand, is very powerful. You may need to understand an European language if you investigate the source of historical documents Geneanet leads you to.And speaking a foreign language does not make contributors to the site any less liable to making mistakes.
Many other, smaller sites can be located by a search in your search engine of choice, an exact name search together with a date or place giving the best result. Sometimes you can find one-name sites or personal web sites this way. This might alert you to the possibility of publishing your own researches. All the sites I’ve mentioned have upload facilities. It helps if you have a genealogical database on your computer so you can export a gedcom file, which is what the sites expect. You can publish at Ancestry.com, still the biggest site, as a non subscription member. Or try another , similar site such as Tribal Pages.com. Tribal Pages has fewer members, but better tree display. It’s the one I prefer. And of course you can search others’ trees on these kinds of sites as well.
What searching others’ family trees does , or should do, is alert you to the possibility of making the number one error in genealogy: assuming that people of the same name are the same person. There are always at least half a dozen people with the same name, sometimes many more. Depends on the name of course. Something Polish with lots of ‘y’s and ‘z’s might be unique. But you should never assume that Sebastian Faulks of Plymouth for instance is the same man you have in your tree. I have found at least once a situation where there were three men of the same name living in the same town at the same time and unrelated. This is why you don’t believe anyone’s data, no matter how big a piece of your family history it fills in, unless you can correlate it with other data. Making the wrong identification can cause you to create a false family tree, or waste your time undoing it later.
But, with reasonable caution, there’s no reason why you can’t discover a lot of information about your family from others’ researches. Your collaborators are out there waiting.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.