How not to use online genealogy

I recently decided to invest in an annual subscription to  I therefore intend to use it extensively over the next year in order to bolster my tree and to add leafs through their very fat database of resources.

A little background.  I've researched my family tree since at least 1988, but not continuously.  Back in the day, there were no online resources.  the most modern thing were census on microfilm and the Mormon IGI (International Genealogical Index - the ancestor of available in the Local Studies Library.  My tree started, as it should, through interviewing elderly relatives, looking through their photos, the few birth and marriage certificates, and any other artifacts.  Those elderly relatives have all passed on now.  if you are just starting with genealogy - do it now.  I then moved on to the English & Welsh County record offices.  White gloves and pencils, in order to peruse through the original parish registers and other documents - no digitalisation, or even microfilming of them then.  Very little indexing as well.

Then I was ordering GRO certificates from London, paying professional researchers to collect them for me, as it worked out cheaper than having them mailed to me by the GRO!  Then rather than looking for DNA matches, it was searching through surname interests or through the annually published GRD (Genealogical Research Directory) for shared ancestry.  The good old days.

I said it wasn't continuously.  Interests changed, I lived out life recklessly, and moved on a few times, leaving all behind.  I lost pretty much all of my genealogy.  Meanwhile, digitalisation was coming in fast, indexing increasing, and the Internet was giving birth to online genealogy.  During this birth, I had used an early version of Broderbund Family Tree Maker (it installed on several floppy disks) on a personal computer, and even managed to upload data and a GEDCOM file to a few places.

Then maybe 16 months ago, after ordering a 23andMe test, I picked it up again.  I found my old GEDCOM file on a web archive.  Downloaded it, opened it with open source Gramps software.  It worked!  Since then, I've gathered surviving notes (so many lost), photos, and certificates.  I then discovered a remarkable resource.  Online Genealogy.

Online Genealogy

There are many online resources.  The big providers include (,,, and  All but the latter website are subscription fee based.  Asides from these providers, there are many other services for genealogy online.  Of the above, I have heavily used FindMyPast, FamilySearch, and Ancestry.

Online Genealogy using

The big advantage of Online Genealogy is indexing and the database.  Over the past 25 years or so, armies of volunteers and paid researchers, have been reading through microfilmed, microfisches, or digitalised images of masses of parish registers, parish records, wills, criminal registers, state records, military records, Bishop's transcripts, Headstone surveys, and more - from not only England & Wales but from all over the World, where they are available.  They read the names of those recorded, and add them to computer files with references.  Businesses such as, buy access to these indexes, and often to the original digitalised images if they exist.  These are all added to their own database.  Their customers search, and find ancestors.

A Few Problems

  1. I can report this for English records, for which I have a lot of experience. The record is still very incomplete.  You might see a Joe Bloggs, but is it your ancestor Joe Bloggs?  Many of the parish records were missing, or damaged.  Parish chests in cold churches can be damp places, the registers pulled out for every baptism, marriage, or burial, thumbed through by all.  Paper was valuable in older records, and the priests and clerks cram their little scribbled lines in them.  There were stories of vicar's wife's using old registers to kindle the fire in the vicarage.  In addition, not ALL parish registers are online at any one depository.  I've noticed that is very good for Norfolk registers, but abysmal for Suffolk.  FindMyPast is good for Berkshire records.  They are far from complete records.  In addition, some ancestors were not in any parish records.  They were rogues on the run, vagabonds, or even more often ... non-conformists.  Some priests were lazy.  All of this on top of those many missing or damaged records.
  2. The indexers were human beings.  Sometimes volunteers, sometimes more recently I suspect, poorly paid human beings outside of Europe (is this the case?)  They vary in skill at reading 18th century, 17th, even 16th century hand writing that has been scribbled down in often damaged records.  The database searches for names that sound similar (to a computer program), but they miss so many that are incorrectly transcribed.  Try to read through the original images if you can.

So the record is far from complete.  The online record less so.  A brilliant tool, but it's not going to hand you your family tree all perfect and true.  If you understand this problem, and you are more concerned about truth and quality, than about quickly producing a family tree back to Queen Boadicea (I have seen people claim such things!), then you are already aware of this.  The problem is, that you know that an ancestor was called Joe Bloggs.  Online, you find a Joe Bloggs, living 100 miles away, born about the right time.  With a click, you "add" him to the tree, then resume climbing up from him.  What you may not realise, is that there were maybe 20 Joe Bloggs born at about the right time within a 100 mile radius of the next generation.  You just picked the one that your online ancestry service flashed up to you.  He is quite probably not close family, never mind your ancestor.  All above him are not your ancestors.

Truth and quality in a family tree

Do you care?  Is it possible to trace back more than several generations, and to preserve that quality? The 20th and 19th centuries in England & Wales are great.  We have records from a national census every 10 years between 1841 and 1911.  They can be searched with your online service.  We have them as correlations for parish records.  We also have state records to correlate with from 1837!  Before that though, it gets a bit scratchy.  Particularly if your ancestors were not titled - as most of them were not!  Then we are down to scribbles in parish registers, a few tax books, tithes, military rolls.  Great stuff, but increasingly - we lose correlations.  We lose certainty.

When we lose certainty, we have to start to make judgments.  Do we add an ancestor based on little record?  We have to make that judgement ourselves.  We should add the resource, name it, perhaps publish our uncertainty.  We should be ready to remove if doubt grows rather than certainty.

I've not mentioned biological certainty here.  Haplogroup DNA can challenge some very old trees.  Things happen in biology.  We call them NPE (Non Parental Event).  Spouses cheat, lie, prostitute, are raped, commit bigamy, incest, confused.  People secretly adopt, particularly during a crisis.  I have seen a claim of the average NPE happening once in every ten generations on average.  I don't think that we can truly measure this.  Anyway, I'm of the school that although DNA genealogy is interesting in the pursuit of the past, that family is not always just about biology.  Who reared them?  Who gave them their name?  If that is family, it's also ancestry.

But the ultimate mistake with using online genealogy

This one is easy.  It is that companies such as and, allow, sometimes encourage the resourcing of other members family trees.  It has nothing to do with rights or property.  It has to do with the reproduction of mistakes, and bad quality research.  It indeed gives genealogy at online sites like these, a pretty bad name.

Many users of these sites are casual.  They have only used the online resources available through the quick click and collect ancestry of these services.  They are only trying to pursue as far back, as possible, within as short time as possible.  Truth and quality is of very much secondary value.  It's the consume society.  They leave their disjointed trees of fiction all over these web services.  Then Ancestry / MyHeritage, invites you to add them to your own.  Very much internet viral in form - the errors replicate like mutations in a strand of DNA, only with lightening speed.  It's so easy to add new layers of ancestry.  But they are fiction.  I've seen people marrying before they are born, dying before they give birth.  I've seen people marry their parents or uncles.   I myself, recently tried it en mass as an experiment to a tree.  It was incredible.  The discrepancies and errors.  Ugly.

So, if you have to, look at other trees. I strongly recommend that you avoid that temptation to simply click and collect ancestry.  Most of the genuine ancestry on these trees is available to be quickly found with your own use of the services on that site.  Do that, but make your own judgments.  Don't add to the virus trees.  Genealogy is for the long haul.