Public Member Ancestry Trees – A Mixed Bag

esther death
Burial record for the other Esther Brouillette.  Record from

Public Member trees on have a quite a reputation.  The funny thing is they are wholeheartedly embraced by some, completely shunned by some, and then used as a potential clue by others.  I’ve had a few experiences recently that demonstrate the importance of taking the middle road.

Let’s start with a good experience:

Laura Ann Potter is my 4th great grandmother.  My sister Megan works on this line in our tree.  For a few years now Megan has had a good guess about Laura Ann Potter’s parents but all of her evidence was indirect and a little thin.  Recently we were talking it through.  I pulled up my private Ancestry tree to refresh my memory.  I looked at the hints on Laura Ann Potter – just a few public member trees.  I went through each one that had parents listed for Laura Ann Potter to see what sources they had attached to their trees.  Lo and behold one of them had an excellent source.  A source that combined with the indirect evidence confirmed Megan’s guess.

While that was certainly a good experience with a public member tree on Ancestry, not all experiences match that one.

Let’s explore a frustrating experience:

Esther Brouillette is my 3rd great grandmother.  I know of her from my grandmother.  Esther’s name has existed on family group sheets held by my family for the last five generations but with no additional details.  She was the end of line person.  We knew very little about her because she was born in Quebec, immigrated to Illinois, married, had 5 children and died before the 1880 census was taken.  A short life of at most, 41 years.

Through a lot of research and use of indirect evidence I have determined that her parents are Landrie (or Andrew) Brouillette and Emilie Fortin.  Until very recently the public member trees on Ancestry were very quiet about Esther.  They listed her husband and children but no parents.

Well, a few months ago I was revisiting those trees to see if anyone else had found what I had found.  Two trees were now listing parents.  Different parents than I had proven.  So I took a look because – what if I was wrong?  I was using indirect evidence after all.

One tree had a baptism record attached to Esther.  It listed parents names that matched the parent names listed in that tree.  So I went to that parish book and looked through a few years worth of entries and this is what I discovered.  The Esther in the baptism record was born and baptized one day and died the next day.  So that Esther was definitely not my Esther who lived for about 40 years.  After contacting the tree owner, her response was that she just figured they may have had another daughter later and used the same name.

Okay.  That is possible.  People do that.  But the record being used to prove Esther’s parents was about a different person.  The mother in that record remarried another man eight years after Esther’s death.  Her marriage record states she was a widow.  During the years between Esther’s death and the mother’s remarriage I can find no other birth records that could be our Esther born to those parents.

Here’s the super frustrating part.  The parents listed in that tree have now been added to two more trees.  Oh boy.  It’s just going to spread.  And it’s wrong.

This experience definitely falls into the not-so-good experience category.  It also illustrates why we can’t blindly trust someone else’s tree.  We can certainly use it as a guide to go looking for sources that either prove or disprove the conclusions in the tree.  But blindly accepting a tree can quickly lead us down the wrong road.

Public member trees on Ancestry can be quite helpful.  They can also be completely wrong.  Just like every other genealogy resource, it’s up to us to use them wisely.

How about you?  Have you had any good, bad, or in-between experiences with public member trees?





13 thoughts on “Public Member Ancestry Trees – A Mixed Bag”

  1. Like you, I have varied experiences. I don’t even usually look at trees that have no sources. I assume those were copied from another tree, so I select the trees that have sources. Then I check their sources. I’ve found some good leads that way. Also, I always contact the tree owner to see if they know more, have photos, stories, etc. On rare occasions I will look at an unsourced tree-especially if it has a lot of people in common with my research and goes back far in time. In those cases I also contact the tree owner, asking for sources for their information. I have benefited many times from these contacts.

    As for the errors, they are so numerous and scary! I learned my lesson early when several trees had my 3x great-grandfather John Nusbaum as Johann Nusbaum and then several more generations back from there. I was a newbie and assumed these trees had to be right since so many had the information. I copied it into my tree. About a year later when I looked at that again, I realized the information was not reliable. By then I knew enough to look for sources on trees. These people had all copied from one tree that had no sources, and I soon realized that Johann Nusbaum was not Jewish and not my 3x great-grandfather, whose real name was Joshua Nusbaum, changed to John in the US in the 1860s!

    1. Amy, you and I use those trees exactly the same way! I’m glad you figured out the John/Johann Nusbaum situation. It can be so easy to add whole sections to your tree that are completely wrong. When people save people directly from another ancestry tree I cringe a little. Even if I find something helpful in another person’s tree, I go a piece at a time. I want to handle every name, date, place, and relationship.

      1. Same here. Once you make a big mistake like I did, you learn! (I even had a poster made up of my father’s family tree with all the wrong information….)

        I think Ancestry is partially at fault. Their ads make it seem that it is okay just to click and add without checking.

    2. I had similar experiences when starting out. I learned the best thing is to put files I’m not sure of into the Ancestry Shoebox file. Also hints can be ignored. The good thing is that the ignored hints don’t go away. They stay on the Hints tab of the individual profile. That way they can be reviewed later if needed.

      I find keeping a running log of questions and thoughts about a particular ancestor is another way to keep track of the search trail. It also sparks creative thinking or realizations sometimes.

      1. The Shoebox would be great if it was easier to sort through. I used to save things in there, but then couldn’t remember what they were or how to find them. Now I just either leave the hint ignored or add it with a comment that I am not certain it is relevant.

        1. I also feel like the shoebox is not the best, easy to lose things in there. I just leave hints alone if I can’t prove or disprove them. Usually down the road I have learned more and can figure it out. If I find a record that is a maybe I add it as a web link with a title like “possible death record”. That way it’s attached to exactly the person I think it pertains to and I don’t forget about it in my shoebox.

          1. Sounds like we have similar approaches. Maybe Ancestry will eventually make the Shoebox easier to use—a search function or even the ability to sort by name would help.

  2. Paraphrasing Cassius in Julius Caesar, (I, ii, 140-141)
    “The fault, dear GenealogyGirl, is not in the public trees,
    But in ourselves, that we are not more cautious,”

    because they are riddled with errors and we have to be so careful to verify sources 🙂

  3. I haven’t had any problems with the public trees I used because I contacted all the owners before time and got generous responses. There are two public tree owners whom I gave access to my private tree. I provided my phone number, email addresses and the details about many of my sources. I always collaborate with living relatives if possible to review information. So things never get added unless there’s a document and/or a note if there is a question related to the entry.

    Both of them misapplied the info terribly and it hurt both times. One woman took the mother of a Great Aunt and gave her children that were actually her mother’s cousins. I sent an email asking the woman if the copy function had created the error and if so we should report to ancestry. She never responded but did have the decency to delete the complete erroneous entry for the Great Aunt and her family. Then I never heard from her again.

    The worst was a descendant of another Great Aunt’s sister. I gave her access. She did a horrible job of adding my maternal Great Grandmother to her tree. My precious GG died after she was in an accident and we think she was pregnant, too. She died in 1921. The death certificate is right there. As is all the info about her children from the 1920 Fed Census. This woman copied GG over to her tree and proceeded to add another husband for 1940 and gave her 4 more children. I contacted this woman emailing the documents and she acted like she didn’t know what was wrong.

    Now I take a look at other people’s trees and engage them in some discussion before I grant access to my tree. I really think there is a percentage of the membership that is totally clueless.

  4. That’s a very good term and I like it “click happy”! Yes, that sums it up perfectly. Anyway, I get the last say over those who make a sloppy copy. If they don’t respond to offers of help or are vague in their replies I revoke access to my tree. This sounds rather crude but as my Uncle says, “Kick them off the bus.”

    1. Yes you do get the last say! I almost never grant permission to my tree. Instead I answer any questions and share any documents. I prefer that people invest a little time and view each item and draw their own conclusions rather than just go through my tree clicking away saving my work directly into their tree. That’s where the mistakes happen. I do also put my work into familysearch so it’s freely available.

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