May 13, 2015

Gritting My Teeth About Online Family Trees

We've all seen them. I'm talking about the online Family Trees that are rife with errors. Many genealogists wonder if it is worthwhile writing to the owner of the tree to provide them with corrections. 

A few weeks ago I conducted an experiment.  I  found 21 Family Trees on that had the wrong death date for my great-grandfather Joseph McGinnis. It's actually an easy error to make as the death record is for a different Joseph McGinnis. It was an error I too made many years ago (pre-internet) and one I shared with a few other researchers. When I discovered that it was the wrong man, I wrote to anyone I had previously shared with and told them.

So I was taken aback to discover these 21 trees with the wrong death for my ancestor. I decided to write a letter explaining the error and directing the owners to  a blog post I wrote going over the facts and clarifying the two Joseph McGinnis males.

My Note Explaining the Error

Here's what I wrote. I deliberately kept it short and to the point. My experiment was to see 1) how many tree owners would respond and 2) how many would correct their error. I should add that I verified that the owners are active and are online every few days. So they have had plenty of time to respond to my note.

Hello [fill in name of tree owner]

Your death date of 1877 for my ancestor Joseph McGinnis (husband of Fanny Downey) is incorrect. The Joseph who died on that date was a different man. I have documentation to prove this.

For the facts, please see my blog post at

Lorine McGinnis Schulze
Olive Tree Genealogy
 The results of my experiment

6 out of 21 tree owners responded. All responded favourably and thanked me. Did any of them correct the error?
  1. 1 owner signed in as recently as today. She has not corrected the error.
  2. 1 owner signed in yesterday. His tree is now private.
  3. 1 owner removed the incorrect date. She is a woman I have also corresponded with many times over the past 16 years.
  4. 1 owner told me had made the correction. He has not. His online tree still shows the same error.
  5. 1 owner removed the incorrect death date but entered a different year and location that is not correct 
  6. 1 owner wrote to me and gave me her private email asking me to share information. I replied 2 weeks ago with info and have not heard back from her.  Her tree no longer has Joseph McGinnis or his wife in it
Was My Time Well Spent?

So the final summary is that of 21 tree owners, 6 responded and only 1 removed the incorrect death year (without substituting more incorrect details)

I hate to say this but the time it took me to write to each of these people and then read and respond to those who responded, was not worth my time. It irritates me to see bad or incorrect genealogy perpetuated but from now on I am going to grit my teeth and spend my time on other more worthwhile genealogy pursuits such as bringing more free genealogy records online to Olive Tree Genealogy website!

Credits Image by stockimages on


Kenneth R Marks said...


I gave up on many of the online tree sites long ago, for similar reasons to you. I do not try to correct anyone, because most don't care. I only respond to "emails" from those in who think they have a relationship after reviewing my tree online. I have deleted my tree from a couple of family tree sites because over 99% of the time, the other person's tree has far less detail than mine and little or no citation. One could make the argument that one should respond to all because there might be a gem in there someday. I frankly don't have the time either. Thanks for your post!

Anonymous said...

I see comments like yours frequently and I have to wonder why folks get their knickers in such a wad over other people's trees. If someone can't be bothered to do the necessary research to find the correct information, it's not my responsibility to try to make them. If someone contacts me to ask about an item, I am happy to share my reasoning. I do not seek them out. I have better things to do with my limited research time.

Christine Blythe said...

Those with family trees on may not take their genealogy research as seriously as some of us, but I'd hate to think this would stop researchers corresponding to correct errors.

I love hearing from others about error corrections in my database. All I ask, is "please share the source so I can support the change." The source I originally used may not be as good, but it is the only source I have.

I'm not asking for something for free without returning the favor as my entire database including images, sources, etc. is available for free at

My data entries are only as good as the sources I've found and cited. I use unsourced data as clues only.

My database online is very difficult to update because it assigns new ID numbers, causing broken links. Corrections can take as long as three months to show because of this issue.

Again, I hope you do contact me if you find errors and have supporting sources.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that software allows for individuals to be entered with sources required. If software was done from a source first the individual and details more of the data would have a better chance to be validated. Until then the issue will continue and if anything get worse.

Alona Tester said...

While this was obviously a time consuming experience for you, thankyou for doing it, and for sharing your experiences. It shows that even when presented with facts the majority of people still can't be bothered to update their tree - which is sad.

Personally I don't trust trees online. I'm happy to do my own research rather than take it from others. And through my job I hear endless complaints about the trees online, and how wrong they are. My suggestion to them is that they don't have to use them.

Anonymous said...

There is a good chance that I would not have replied to your e-mail. You sent a link to a blog. I might think it was just a spam link that we are all warned about. Had you used ancestry's connection process and sent a link to your public tree I would have been more likely to review your tree and make the correction if I was one of those 21 people with the wrong facts.

T said...

I've had the same experience as you. I wonder why they have a tree if they don't care if it's right.

slpeg said...

Thanks for your trial!
I have had the same issue with my early Massachusetts settler who has the same name as a man living in a different county.
Dozens of trees have combined the two as one person.
Anything I add to my ancestor quickly goes to their trees. When I look into those trees, most of them start with the man who is not my line. I have had some positive responses, but many more with no response. I have tried messages and public comments on the erroneous tree.
It reminds me of the fake genealogies created 100+ years ago (Gustave Anjou duped some of my family), and people still accept them as truth. Now, with online tree access, the problems are growing exponentially.

I don't trust online trees, either. I DO use them as an aid to my research and always check the sources. As a result, I have discovered many proven extensions to my lines.

slpeg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Persephone said...

I have struggled with this issue for years and after many trials, have decided that it is not a waste of my time to confront mistakes and poor research. I get about the same array of responses that you, Lorine, got, but I don't go after several people at a time.

Here is my system (worked out after many flames and alienations):

I focus on one person, about every couple of months.
I choose someone whose error or, more likely, errors affect someone in my direct line.
I wait a day or so before responding, to cool off my indignation.
I lay out my evidence, usually in a time-line form, to illustrate the discrepancies.
I write a very insulting rough draft to get the irritation out of my system. (Sometimes I publish it in my blog which I write under a pseudonym. I'm that bilious.)
I write a kinder version, full of face-savers, such as "I could be wrong" (I'm not) and "You are free to ignore this" (they are).

The result? I usually get ignored; sometimes I get a curt response; sometimes I get a delightful reply. However, that's not the point.

The point is, by marshalling my arguments, I invariably discover something I've been missing in my research, and thus benefit myself.

Therefore, I believe that if you lose the agenda about correcting someone else, and go on the totally selfish notion that this is yet another great way to review your research, it's not a waste of time at all!

And yes, like Christine, I do appreciate hearing from would-be correctors of my tree. Okay, I grit my teeth a little; no one likes being told they are wrong, but in the end, it's another opportunity to be more accurate - whether it was my mistake or theirs.

Anonymous said...

There are numerous trees showing an incorrect death location for my grandfather. I have posted comments directly on his profile in many trees which had the incorrect information. While most haven't changed the info, at least the correct info is right there (with a link to an on-line image of the DC) for people who might copy the tree in the future.

The bigger problem is that some of those incorrect trees have used an individual's family tree website as their source. I've sent the correct info and documentation to the site owner, without response. Until she changes her tree, the mistake will be perpetuated, despite the evidence.

However, over time, I have seen a decrease (not scientifically measured) in the number of trees with incorrect info. Only one woman heatedly defended her info, insisting it was correct despite the documentation.

Why do I care? I guess it's because he was my grandfather and he died in a tragic accident. It bugs me to see his death misrepresented.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Dear Anonymous - I used Ancestry's connect service. I do not have a public tree online as I choose to make real connections with others who share my lineage.

I signed my full name and gave the name of my fairly well-known website as well as the link to my blog post.

If you looked at my post you would have seen that I could not possibly outline the process and facts that prove the death year assigned to my ancestor was wrong.

The blog post is quite lengthy and explains the confusion in detail

I believe that anyone who cares about accuracy in genealogy would have taken a look.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Thanks everyone for your responses. I am really enjoying reading your own similar stories, and some different tactics to approach this.

Yes I even enjoy reading the nay-sayers :-) And for Anonymous who wonders about knickers in a wad, I understand your point of view but there is an opposite view which is that as genealogists should we not want to see GOOD and ACCURATE genealogy made public? If yes, then the onus is on us to either correct the bad genealogy or write about the good.


anitab said...

Thank you so much for sharing your process and the results. This is actually a bit 'freeing' for me - I always feel like I ought to do my part to encourage accurate information; and yet, I need to prioritize the use of my research time. Seeing the poor results (from your excellent efforts) helps me make that decision about prioritizing.

I would agree with the remark that 'defending' our own work is a good way to take a second look at it; I did this recently, because of a tree at Ancestry, and feel more confident than ever about the conclusions I reached with the sources I have.

Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca Kichta Miller said...

I spent two years trying to get corrections made to the nearly 200 trees that have incorrect information on our families that I had when starting out with this quest in 1971. I have since removed all of my trees from everywhere. Unfortunately, these 200 trees are still "out there."

Grant Ancell said...

I have always used online trees of that part of my tree I am particularly researching as a sort of fishing trip. I am regularly surprised by the connection that some people make. But that's their choice. When a suggestion or alternative is offered I go away and research it to check it's reliability. The internet is like all history, just an opinion of whoever wrote it.

Chili Bob said...

Had the same trouble about my father and he would not correct it. I should know about my father better than the other person
Robert W. Cress

Nancy Bell said...

I do not have a tree online and never will, but am happy to share information with anyone who contacts me.For many years I resisted even looking at them due to their negative reputation, but do now look for clues on them. When I see an error perpetuated ad nauseum on one of my people, and have the time and inclination, I make a comment and don't go back to see if they made a correction.If they don't, my thought is that new people looking at the tree may read the comment and be careful about trusting that and other public trees. Thanks for confirming what I thought about whether the owners of these trees really care about their work.

Lori Samuelson said...

There could be many reasons that people didn't quickly update their trees - they may be traveling, ill, checking it out for themselves, didn't check the email it was sent to, etc.
I have removed trees from hints on ancestry so I don't have to look at the errors. I do use the feature, however, when I'm trying to build a line. I check the sources and they're often unsourced or sourced to a tree which was unsourced. This sounds nuts but it works for me - I've trained myself to laugh when I see this; I've even named it the circle of life. Getting indignant is only going to be detrimental to you and then you won't be able to continue to provide correct info which is the right thing to do.
The email you sent was professional and I wouldn't have had a problem with it. Others may not look at it this way as there are very sensitive folks out there who take offense at a direct approach. I've used the following: Hi! I noticed your tree on ancestry and I have a question about (gggrandpa whoever). Where did you get the info for his death date? I found something different here (provide link if available.) I look forward to hearing from you.
Yes this is time consuming but it's great to do on a rainy cold afternoon so I just keep a list of the most outrageous ones and put it on my to-do list for the future.
I also need to mention that people may not have responded because they have gotten nasty responses previously. This happened to me this week: Received an ancestry email that said I had the wrong parents for a child. I couldn't find the child in my large tree by the name that was given. I wrote back stating I couldn't find the person and perhaps they had confused my tree with someone else's tree they were looking at. Person wrote back that I couldn't find the name because she had provided the "real" name of the child and I had the wrong name. (Well, duh, how am I going to find a different name if she doesn't give it to me?) She then gave me the name that was in my tree. I had sourced the info-it came from a well respected text and I had noted that the child was adopted, used the adopted name because the birth name wasn't given. I wrote back where I got the info and why I had the name as I did. She wrote back telling me I needed to change it immediately because I was giving out wrong info. I wrote back with 2 options: I could remove the child from my tree or I could leave the child as is and put a comment as to who the birth parents were. She didn't respond so I left a comment until I hear back. I understand her point but there's no way to identify adopted/foster so do you not include these individuals in the family? A coworker was adopted and she told me she wanted her adopted mother listed as her mom as that is who she considered her mom. Sorry I digressed from the original topic but the point is if you were burned by past emails you might not respond in the future.
Think about this - most people on ancestry are not genealogists; some are hobbyists and the majority got a 2 week free subscription, copied everything they could find and then leave the tree public. There is always going to be wrong info but I'd rather have it then go back to the olden days when nothing was available online. Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I have attempted to let people know when they have incorrect information but it doesn't do any good so I don't waste my time anymore. What idiot thinks a 6 yr old would have fathered a child.

Patrick said...

I received a picture of my Grandmother as a young girl when she was living in Arkansas back very early in the 20th Century. I posted it to my ancestry account. Within a month someone had copied it to their tree under a completely different person! Tried contacting them and received no response. Feel your pain

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I now only send notes to the most outrageous: honest, Daniel didn't have a son named Ichabod, or I think you have combined these two people with similar names - my ancestor was here in the 1870 census, yours was there. The ones I really try to correct are children who took a step-father's name after a death or divorce, and then the researcher considers the step-father to be the birth father. Some people pay attention, some don't.

My favorite is on my husband's tree. People have chosen a father, not because there is any documentation or proof he was even married or fathered a child, but because he is a cousin of a US President. I have posted on several Web boards asking for any proofs and the silence has been deafening. The fraud began when a nice cousin, who wrote a family history, had a 15 year old boy married to a 40 year old woman (who was BTW married to someone else) and fathering a child. Pretty unlikely and naturally undocumented. Later family historians used an unmarried older brother but with no know wife. So it goes.

Cleta Terrell said...

I'm glad to learn I am not the only one who is upset by the incorrect information I find in some of the online trees. Especially annoying are those that show the death of a father 50 years before the birth of his first child.

Then I've recently seen my great grandmother and her brother included in a family with the same names of their parents but in a different state. This was shown as being in the 1880 Tennessee Census when my great grandmother was already married with two children in Mississippi and preparing to move to Arkansas where her father and that brother were already living and her father had recently remarried.

Marie Peer said...

Thank you, Lorine. You've given voice to my frustration with online trees. I have worked hard to find information and ancestors from sources over the past 30 years yet when I saw different information in a tree on ancestry, I'd ask if the tree owner could share their basis. There can always be other information I might have missed so I ask and wait... and wait... and usually no reply. There are times when someone will say they imported someone else's tree with no sources and I appreciate their honesty in letting me know. Your post makes me feel much better. Maybe it isn't just me they aren't replying to; maybe this is what genealogy has now become and will be in the future. So much is said of sourcing and so little is actually done. Thomas Kemp of GenealogyBank said during a recent Legacy Family Tree Webinar, that everyone must put their tree online. He said that is the future of genealogy. He indirectly said that it is no longer reasonable to search for ancestors through 'the way we did it'... we now must use online Family Trees. Thomas Kemp is highly respected in genealogy circles. What he said can be heard on his Legacy Family Tree Webinar presented May 14th. Do you think he is right? I've been considering other hobbies since hearing his statements. If this is the future of genealogy, I don't see much enjoyment or purpose in the future. What do you think, Lorine?
Thank you again. I really appreciate knowing others grit their teeth and are frustrated as well. Marie Peer

Jim said...

Please please please do not give up - I treasure corrective comments made to my online tree and always (although not always immediately) research and correct my tree in response to valid inputs. I use one of the new versions of FTM which makes it easy to correct and sync the tree on my local computer with the one posted on Ancestry.

Anonymous said...

A few years back I contacted someone about the death date of my father. They argued with me that I was wrong and they were right. It frustrated me that they would not believe the death certificate or me, who was by his side at his death. Some people will never admit that they are wrong, the sad thing is future generations will be confused about which date is correct. All I can do is make sure my records are correct and documented.

Linda Stufflebean said...

I had much the same experience when trying to correct parental errors for my husband's Johannes/John Whitmer of Muhlenburg Co., KY on my blog, Empty Branches on the Family Tree. 357 online trees with only a handful corrected after I emailed all of the tree owners. It definitely raises a warning flag to newbies who are both unaware of the number of errors to be found in addition to the number who don't actually do any of their own research.

Unknown said...

I'm with the gal who asked why get your knickers twisted about errors in others' trees. Yes, it's my family, but it's everybody else's too, to mess up if that's what they want to waste their time doing. It's up to me to source and research. If I pick up errors from other trees, I hope they will be eventually be corrected by me through further research. I consider all trees, including mine, to be a work in progress, never to be complete. I don't bother correcting others' errors, even of information on close family members. I figure if they are really interested, they'll do their own research and correct the errors sooner or later. If others message me with corrections, I correct the information as soon as I read their message, which is usually within a week if I'm not out of town. I spend much more time than most people researching because it is my primary hobby, not having TV or kids to look after. I live in the middle of nowhere, so I must rely on the internet for my research. I forgive those who probably have less time to devote to research and figure some day, one or two trees may actually be quite good as a result of the collaboration of 50 or so trees...LOL. I hope you'all will forgive me my errors.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Hi unknown - thanks for dropping by. I don't correct others online trees because I learned MANY years ago it's a waste of time.

I wanted to conduct my little "experiment" to see if anything had changed. It hasn't

But I do believe genealogists have an obligation to get the truth out there in order to debunk the bad genealogy. The best way to do that is to publish a blog or your own online tree where SOURCES are given so that others can judge the accuracy and usefulness of the information for themselves.

It's not just about "us" and "our family" it's about helping newcomers so they don't stumble into the quicksand of the really bad genealogy that's out there.

I'm 100% dedicated to getting SOURCED genealogies and/or trees out there for others.

Kay Levy said...

Hi all,

I had a problem with two people with the same name, both born in the same general area and about a year different in birth dates. One was my grandfather (a physician), and the other a manufacturer (also two others with the same name). Often they had my grandmother married to the manufacturer and the other way around. Finally, I did a tree for the manufacturer that showed the relationship to my grandfather (and the two others with the same name). Used many sources and photos for all entries. Whenever I come across the errors now, I send an email detailing the error and a link to the tree that shows the correct information. I also place a comment in their tree under each of the people with the incorrect information. I have made a standard comment that addresses the problem and the name of the tree I did to address the corrections. My tree is private, but the correcting tree is public.

Steven Bonnell said...

I'm in the middle of this process right now. While looking for a 'documented' tie to a Revolutionary War Soldier, some folks have also attempted to show his Parents. So far, if they add his Parents to their tree, it is wrong.

I've found FIVE John Bonnell's who fought in the Revolutionary War, and the inter-mixed facts are amazing. The fact that two of them lived and died in Pennsylvania really adds to the confusion. And I've seen these issues in some of the older published books.

What I've done so far was to create a Matrix of the data at
believing that IF the data could be visualized side-by-side, the conclusion would be more obvious. We also now have DNA that verifies the distinction of the ONE John that I'm focusing on.

I was hopeful that once I display the DNA Results alongside the Paper Trail, people will take me more seriously.

However, from reading this thread, I guess I should just be glad I got it right !!

Anonymous said...

Another thing to consider is that the person who posted the information might be deceased or can no longer afford a subscription. My cousin's wife posted info on Ancestry. He wants to correct it, but he does not want to pay to subscribe just to make a few corrections. Also, he does not know her password.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Anonymous - you said maybe the person posting the info could be deceased or no longer subscribed. I think you missed the part in my post where I gave the number of people I wrote to AND that I said I was checking and they are all logging in regularly (weekly or more often than that)

So these folks I wrote to don't get a pass :-)

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain - I've tried the same thing to help people who I see have made errors and sent them the reasons why. Crickets, for the most part.

I still send emails from time to time, but don't expect replies or updates anymore - but I've done my genealogical duty :) That said, what the experience has taught me is that I take online family trees with a grain of salt and don't fully believe anything until I've checked it out myself or emailed the poster to find out how they came across it.

Keep at it --- and know you're not alone! lol