There is a lot of junk on the Internet.
More experienced genealogists, both professionals and hobbyists, know this. We repeat it in our blogs, in our research plans, in our conversations with other genealogists. We stay away from the Public Family Trees on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch‘s International Genealogical Index. After all, these all just have junk put online by those “shaky leaf” clickers, right?
One should by no means trust an online family tree.
But neither should one trust a death certificate or a 19th-century county history or a federal census record or an obituary.
Just because it’s online does not make it more or less garbage than any other source. You still should evaluate the information the same way you would in any other record. Identify the informant. Determine their involvement in the reported event or the source of their information (if secondary).
Two cases are perfect examples of this philosophy:
Almost fifteen years ago, when “Internet genealogy” barely had an existence, I came across a family tree that contained my then-earliest known ancestor in my male line: Myron Grant Hait, my great-great-grandfather. I contacted the owner, who turned out to be my grandfather’s first cousin. My great-grandfather, who lived in New York, was one of six brothers, all of whom lived in different and distant states: California, Montana, North Carolina, Louisiana, etc. In those pre-Facebook days, distant relatives did not always maintain close contact. When my grandfather moved to Washington, D. C., to work for the federal government, he had even less contact with the extended family. He knew his uncles, but did not know any of his cousins.
This cousin, Linda, just so happened to have quite a number of family records in her possession, including letters to and from my great-grandparents from back in the 1970s when she started researching, and a family history written by my great-great-grandmother in the 1930s. She also put me in touch with another cousin who had in her possession a copy of a family bible, several old family photos, and a collection of Civil War letters!
Of course not all of her research was completely accurate, but much of it was, and of course the original records in the possession of these long-lost (to me) branches of the family were indispensible. Had I ignored this online family tree, I would have never obtained many of these records.
The second case involves a family that I was working on for a client. While searching for records on Ancestry, I discovered a public family tree. Though not a single offline source was cited, the information was extremely specific. I jotted down a few notes from the tree for confirmation, but then went on along my merry research way.
The next day at the Maryland State Archives I happened to run into a friend of mine: also a professional genealogist, member of my APG chapter, and a fellow Certified Genealogist. I knew that she did a lot of research in this particular county, so I asked her if she was familiar with the families I was researching. To make a long story short, the owner of the Ancestry public family tree was her client, who had uploaded the results of her research to the site without any source citations. In other words, though it looked like “junk” because it did not have any sources cited for any of the information, the tree actually reflected the work of a Certified professional genealogist. As I continued to research the family, I was able to confirm all of the information that was in the public tree.
As the first example shows, online family trees are often a great way to identify other descendants of the families you are researching. Some of these distant cousins may have family records passed down in their lines that you do not have access to: items like family bibles, old family photos, etc.
The first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for all records relevant to our research problem. If you have ignored the search for family records in other lines, have you met this requirement?