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I love genealogy. Family tree research has been part of my life since my early 20s. Now and then, I still work with clients to find their ancestors.
Recently, a friend – new to family history research – posted at Facebook about apparent errors at FamilySearch.
Here’s what I said to her, with a few extra tips in case they help you, too.
Why FamilySearch Has Errors
FamilySearch is a great website, filled with helpful records. In fact, it’s one of the largest and most complete free genealogical websites.
I recommend it.
However, some researchers get upset when information at that site is incomplete or even inaccurate.
It may help to understand the origins of that resource.
Some of the earliest FamilySearch records were based on long-ago records compiled by church members. With that information, members could go to LDS temples to bless specific ancestors, if those ancestors hadn’t been blessed previously.
Researched long before the Internet existed, some of those records were based on family legends, or a difficult-to-read family Bible entry, and so on.
The emphasis was on identifying ancestors, not 100% accurate information connected to them.
It’s possible that some of that information is still trusted more than it should be.
And sometimes it’s placed online as if it’s 100% correct and documented… when it isn’t.
FamilySearch is still a project of the LDS church. Newer records at the site are far more reliable. And, after all, it’s a free starting point for people intrigued by their ancestry.
I use it regularly. It can reveal ancestral connections I didn’t know about, but also highlight research mistakes that are easy to make, even for a pro.
In my opinion, that site is both useful and important for research. Just remember that no website is 100% reliable. Double- and triple-check everything.
The actual genealogical library in Salt Lake City – now formally part of FamilySearch – is one of the best and most complete in the world. With access to its primary and secondary source materials, serious researchers can create better, more reliable records for online resources like FamilySearch.
Ancestry.com can be more accurate, but not always.
For example, it can be far too easy to confuse an ancestor named John Murphy, whose oldest son was named John Murphy, with many nephews also named John Murphy, all in the same community.
In a large, extended family, multiple “John Murphy” babies were born within months of each other, with haphazard entries in church and community records.
So, even at Ancestry.com, it’s important to fact-check everything as best you can. (Contrary to rumors, Ancestry.com wasn’t founded by a Mormon, and it isn’t owned by the church, either.)
My Best Advice
My advice, as a professional genealogist, is:
- Narrow each search to the document (preferably just one) that is the earliest, credible resource you can find for a known ancestor.
- Then follow its connections to documents and family stories that followed.
This research can require a lot of time & patience.
Or, it can seem like the most fascinating jigsaw puzzle, ever.
For example, I’ve helped descendants of Irish immigrants find their ancestors, and their actual Irish roots. I specialize in family trees with popular (and easily confused) Irish names, such as “Mary Murphy” and “Joseph Kelly.”
In Boston, Massachusetts, that work often took me to off-the-beaten-path cemeteries, to study actual grave markers and monuments.
But even those can have errors. (Tip: you may want to save time by checking Find a Grave listings, before trekking out to some overgrown, isolated cemetery.)
Here are more resources to help you through the maze of family history:
- Family Bibles can be helpful.
- Vital records websites and offices may have information you need. Check online in case you can access them from your home.
- Old newspapers, often indexed at the local public library, might include your ancestor, at least in birth and death announcements.
- Wills and probate records can be more difficult to work with, but they may offer fascinating family insights. Those may include comments your ancestors didn’t want anyone to read until after their deaths. (I’m not kidding. Some are hilariously awful.)
In general, if you can find just one credible record for your ancestor, preferably supported by a second one, that’s a pretty good foundation for your research.
You may reach a dead end (no pun intended), but even then, you’ll know which records merely look like your ancestors’, but aren’t your lineage.
That can save you hours of fruitless research, later.
The Biggest Genealogy Mistake
Also, one of the biggest follies I’ve seen in genealogy is someone believing a rumor about a famous ancestor, and trying to work down the family tree from that person.
That is, someone has always heard that their ancestry includes Henry VIII, and then tries to follow Henry’s descendants’ records down to the modern-day researcher’s family.
It’s not that someone’s ancestry can’t include a Tudor or maybe a Cromwell. (My family tree includes both, including the famous Thomas Cromwell, though the tree branched off immediately before the infamous Oliver Cromwell.)
However, working up the tree is always easier, if only because each later generation seemed to create a wider range of records (birth, marriage, property, taxes, legal, probate, etc.).
So, you’re on firmer ground if you start from the present time and work back up into history.