Discover your inside story. Save 20% on Ancestry DNA April 21-26

April 15, 2013

Online Family Trees - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Online Family Trees - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Travel Document for Maria Gereken 1867
I've always been reluctant to put family trees online. Early in my internet "career" I did put them online but my intent was to have descendants find my tree and then contact me so we could share information. Most of the time that never happened, people just grabbed the trees and ran.

I know this because I soon found details from my trees (details that only I knew) published elsewhere, with no link back to me and no mention that I was the source. It wasn't gratitude or thanks that I wanted. What I wanted was the connection with other descendants! I wanted the opportunity to share information and photos, and to find out how this new "cousin" fit in to the family.

It was also distressing to see my trees merged with other trees and the resulting mess that often ensued. Many family tree researchers don't look at the facts and assess them to see if they fit with their ancestors.  One of the worst I ever saw was a tree that was a compilation of other trees, complete with "sources". But the "sources" when checked, did not match the facts for the individual! I hated seeing my careful research mangled into something unrecognizable. And no, I'm not saying I am infallible. My research can lead my astray. But I'm methodical and cautious and I analyse the sources and facts within before adding them to my tree.

So I deleted my online trees in favour of "teasers" on my Olive Tree Genealogy website.  These "teasers" were just a brief summary of my tree, and a prominent email link for descendants to contact me. They work well and they provide me with new cousins with whom I can share information and stories.

But last year I grit my teeth and put my youngest son's family tree on a third party website. I did this because I wanted to  share the information I had on the family. It was proving difficult to research, as the immigrant ancestors were from Germany and settled in Yorkshire England circa 1869. I also hoped that the broader exposure than my website could give the family would result in a descendant or two finding me.

Yesterday it paid off. I was contacted by a man who is descended from the sister of my son's great-grandpa Schulze. And best of all his family has the Family Bible! Soon I was looking at scanned images of three pages of the births and deaths of the children of the immigrant ancestors Henry and Mary Schulze. I also learned their German names - Georg Heinrich Christian Schulze and Maria Catharina Friederike Gereken. The Bible entries are in beautiful ornate script, no doubt written by Maria herself at the birth of each of her children.

This new-found cousin is a wealth of information. He also shared the scanned Travel Documents issued to Mary Gereken in 1867 when she planned to leave Germany for England. I asked his permission to share these records with other family members and it was quickly granted. This is a very exciting find and one I'm anxious to share with my son and his Schulze aunt.

But I'm still not going to put my entire family tree online. This encounter was a wonderful example of the best that can come from putting your tree "out there". But I believe it's atypical and as happy and excited as I am, I don't trust that I will be lucky enough to have that good experience again. The ugly part of online trees have scared me off.


Heather said...

What an amazing story! Thanks for sharing!

jleesimons said...

I am with you on this one 100 percent. I've had similar experiences posting information and having it grabbed without even a "hello." In one case a man shared back to me my tree that had my grandmother on it (she only had one child, and I am the only grandchild). When I questioned them, they quickly broke off contact--I would suppose in embarrassment.

Pam Beveridge said...

Wow - what a thrill!

shedawn said...

Just Curious! Did you privatize your tree and have it by invitation only? That's what I have done and yes there are a few that I have invited who have copied things but they are family anyway. I also have made contact with lots of people who are connected to me and to some in my tree, so I can't completely agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I agree! I had someone contact me and without permission "TAKE" family information, including pictures. The girl thought it was ok! After all my hard work, time, travel, cost, etc., she thought it was ok, them when she sent me a take a look, it was all wrong. By wrong she had parents born after the children were, and some died before the children were born (yrs before not months), so my trees became private and I removed all photos. Keep them private, if they are truly doing family research they will contact you, and if they are a name collector then they can collect names and incorrect dates, it is their mess after all is said and done!

Debi Austen said...

Wow, what a connection! I, too, have my tree marked as private and have had several people contact me in order to connect. I can then decide if I want to share my tree with them - in most cases, we weren't related at all so no need to share it.

Anonymous said...

I have continuously reached out to people who have photos and documents that would help me, with very little success. Even second cousins who just don't get it can't be bothered to correspond. I understand private trees, but I wish some would be more forthcoming when contacted.

Sonja Hunter said...

I understand your frustration, but I still leave my tree public so I can still make those few good connections. One person, for example, saw that I had a fair amount of information about a family and sent me a photo (of someone I didn't have a photo of). My person had been an acquaintance of her grandmother. Yes, there are people who copy records, but I have resigned myself to that. I won't, however merge my tree with any other so I can be sure of my information. Besides, if other people didn't make their trees public, how could I contact them to share information? I guess I've have more good experiences than bad or I just downplay the bad. If people don't want to bother emailing me to share information then perhaps they aren't worth sharing with anyway.

GenealogyHangout said...

I had the same experience with Trees that I'd put 100's if not 1,000's of hours into...find on the 'Net' with not one iota of credit given...made me feel :(

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

I appreciate all your comments and ideas. I have made a few trees online and made them "private" but I don't find it solves the problem of the takers who take and don't share back and/or republish under their own name (and with tons of errors!)

One thing a Private tree does is allow you to make the connection but not share the tree. Then you can share files IF the other person seems responsible and also willing to share.

Thanks to all of you who commented!

Mariann Regan said...

I'm so glad that you tried again and that it worked out so well! Some people are honest, friendly, and responsible -- and you found one!

From the beginning, I decided that I'd make a private family tree on ancestry. That's because my own cousins are private my nature and can get upset if other people know things about them. I use other trees only to get documents and facts (census, obituary, tombstone photos) that check against the info I have, and I add nothing wholesale.

But I've been surprised to find that other members of my family have put some of their trees online--back to the 1700s and 1800s! When I come across them, I treat them as carefully as the other trees. But I do use their photos. I figure they must be genuine, and I actually have some of them in my database.

This is a newly public world we're all living in. Sometimes I wonder if notions of "authorship" are doomed, in these days when we are each our own printing press.

Thanks for this thoughtful post!

T said...

OH, MY experience exactly! My family has had too many impossible moments. How one family can have so many people from outer space is a mystery to me. I had hoped there would be one other relative "out there" who knew a clue for me but so far all who have made contact are at the same brick walls I am. We have a pity party every now and then lamenting our frustration but other than that, the only place I find my family is on other trees complete with MY document scans and no credit given. And I found one copy of my tree with a wrong set of parents that I have since corrected but the other wrong tree is still out there. He took lots of stuff from my tree. My original intent was to help anyone else looking for "my" people. Some of them were so well hidden it took forever to find them. I thought I could help someone else. Turns out I sure did! Now, I don't know. I've been thinking about this very problem for a few days, ever since I found the tree with all my information and all my documents and NO link back to my tree. I spent money on those documents! That person went to far more trouble saving my information to their computer and then uploading it to their tree than if they would have used the "add to my tree" button. But if they would have done that, I would be given as the source. This way it looks like it's all their research. I've alerted my other researching cousins to this tree because we have shared so much information collectively but we always give each other credit. Their information was also stolen from my tree with no source given. I can't even take the theft as a compliment because obviously they know nothing about research or fact finding. I'm sure glad they aren't my neighbors!

Anonymous said...

Anyone with the slightest interest in family history is invited to take my contributions & run. I have found some of my work taken in that fashon. Years later, I have looked at the individuals on their trees on-line & happily find where the "genealogist" has enhanced my data.

Once, a lady in Germany gave a clue to me to look in a town in Germany. That clue has led to the addition of thousands of blood relatives and spouses obtained from parish books of several towns in the area. I withhold my sources & notes from the internet.


Alona Tester said...

As with everything, there is a good side and a bad side. You just need to weigh up will work best for you. Personally, I don't have my tree online, but I do have my genealogy blog, and reli's have found me through that. So that works for me.

Geolover said...

Lorine, your experience with trees is pretty common. I have adopted a 'live and let live' attitude toward other trees that make a mess of mutual lines unless the others' owners show signs of at least trying to bring documentation to bear. Then I offer a few corrections and other help.

I have posted some documentation on some of the most frequently messed-up lines, and seen corrections made in a few tree instances, so it's not all bad.

I still occasionally get an offer of 'help' from a person who ran across my narrative shared with a cousin-in-law who (without notification, much less attribution or permission) posted it word-for-word in a tree hosting site that instantly copyrighted it. The would-be helper quotes my words back to me . . . . It is to laugh.

Greta Koehl said...

So wonderful to hear a story of how sharing a tree paid off! But you and the commenters are correct - too much "grab and run." I couldn't have expressed the reasons for keeping trees private better - it's not the glory, it's the connections. I have compromised a bit - I have a website with lots of family tree information, but it is not as simple to copy it and incorporate it into a family tree. And on Ancestry I have only one tree private - the one where I have done the most original research. My other trees also include some original information, but I leave them open for copying and use my own system for place name formatting, so that I can recognize which people have "clicked and claimed" them for their own trees.

Melody said...

Lorinne, I've had similar qualms as you. When I first started working online, I posted my data freely and shared it freely. Then, I got burned. My data started being submitted by distant cousins who were only loosely connected to my tree. They gave themselves full credit and gave none to me.

It bothered me for multiple reasons. I was the one who spent all that time in front of microfilm readers doing the nitty gritty work. I deserved the credit. And, it was a disservice to those researchers who came across the tree in it's various incarnations because they had no one to ask about the mistakes that became obvious years later when more work was done.

Now I blog about my tree. When I offer my work to someone I give them fractions of it. I give it to them in PDF or TXT form. I figure if they are serious later we can GEDCOM. Before I give it all away, I want to make sure they are really interested.

It's only recently that I've uploaded a portion of my tree to WikiTree. That's because it's a section that I need help with and I know very few descendants. I would like to find cousins. I've learned quite a bit about this side but am stuck in some places. I'd love to share the stories I've uncovered with the cousins, whoever they are.

I feel guilty sometimes about my stinginess. I've taken full advantage of other posted trees especially at GeneaNet. But, I've always contacted the people and I've always given them full credit. Really, it's the smart thing to do. Later, when comparing new finds it's vital to know where information comes from. said...

I do not care if people copy genealogical work from me without attributions because if one puts anything up on the internet, it's liable to get replicated with many errors.

What really worries me is when someone copies and branches off of a family that I know definitely is not their family !

I stayed away from posting trees online until WikiTree . It not only has " trusted lists " and privacy settings but people collaborate together with sources .There are some poor genealogy and bad trees that people see on WikiTree but those are from GEDCOM imports mainly from Ancestry. Our WikiTree projects members are cleaning them up in the name of producing better genealogy online ~ a daunting but necessary task.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I am one of those, that in my early eagerness, not only took information from other people's trees, but didn't check or cite sources.

Hopefully I'll have time to go back and correct any mis-information now that I've taken a few classes and begun to educate myself a bit.

Anonymous said...

I would like to contact the guy who copied my minimal tree info on I don’t have an account; I just use Ancestry at the library. Is there some way to make contact? His tree is full of errors but I would like to exchange info on the folks on his side that I know a little about

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

edesorban - it is easy to contact another person who published their family tree on Ancestry.

Go to the tree you are interested in.

Click on the OWNER icon at the top of the page.

A pop up window loads and you will see the following choices


Click on CONTACT and write your email. I suggest you provide your personal email in your note so he/she can contact you directly