Public Member trees on ancestry.com 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?