Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Where do your FamilySearch Family Tree lines actually end?

Some users of the Family Tree find themselves with extensive pedigrees. Most of those with such pedigrees are already aware that their relatives and ancestors submitted ancestral information to the predecessors of FamilySearch, including the Genealogical Society of Utah and other organizations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Family Tree is a compilation of essentially all those submissions so extensive pedigrees, in many cases, can be expected, even if the member-user is totally unaware of the prior involvement of his or her family in submitting names.

Some new users of the Family Tree, even those who are not members of the Church and have no knowledge of any previous submissions to the Family Tree, are surprised to see the amount of information that has been compiled. In many cases, the amount of information, i.e. the number of names in the virtual pedigree, is overwhelming and gives the impression that "all the work is done." This impression is more pronounced among members who are aware of relatives who spent a considerable time doing their "genealogy." Some of us can also remember seeing relatives with huge piles of family group records in large binders collectively referred to as Books of Remembrance. Incidentally, I was recently at the Brigham Young University Family History Library and one of the patrons was there with a large suitcase completely filled with those binders. I would estimate that there were more than ten thousand pages of family group sheets. The patron was in the process of scanning the entire stack. So a lot of that paper genealogy is still floating around.

I frequently write about the confused records and duplications that have resulted from the combining of so many years of genealogical submissions. But there is a simple question that every user of the program needs to ask as they approach these extensive pedigrees: where does it all end? I mean when do each of the myriad family lines end from a practical standpoint? Are we to believe that some of our family lines actually and correctly extend "back to Adam?" In fact, I often encounter users of the Family Tree who firmly believe that everything they see is correct because it came from the Church and "they" have obviously checked it all before "they" put it online. This impression, by the way, is constantly reinforced by references being made to using the Family Tree to find your ancestors who need temple ordinances. An illustration of this reinforcement is a recent FamilySearch Blog entitled, "Using FamilySearch's Green Temple Icons to Focus Your Search for Temple Names." The premise of this post is that you can randomly "choose an ancestor born in the early to mid 1800s" and use that ancestor to find ordinance opportunities. The danger of this approach is simple: how do you know you are related to the person selected unless you make the unsupported conclusion that each of the ancestral links between you and that person in the Family Tree are all correctly identified?

In my case, the suggestion that I can find an ancestor born in the mid to early 1800s assumes that I had any such ancestors who were not already members of the Church. In fact, in my case, all of my ancestors who were born in that time period joined the Church. The first ancestor who was not a member was born in 1815.

Unfortunately the blog post avoids this issue entirely and simply reinforces the attitude that everything in the Family Tree is correct and reliable. I guess we really need to ask ourselves collectively, do we really care if what we are trying to accomplish with the Family Tree involves any degree of accuracy and consistency? Does it matter that every single ancestral line for every single user comes to a point where the information is no longer verifiably accurate? Sooner or later, every line ends. Period. The tragedy of this situation is not that the lines end, but that there are more names in the Family Tree after the line has in fact ended.

Of course, confronting the reality of the Family Tree's accuracy is very disturbing to a "new user" who might be frightened off from working on family history if we let them know the problems they face. Superficially, it seems more "productive" to ignore the real issues and let people have a "good experience" in finding names to take to the temples and let them find out later, if ever, that they were not really related to any of those people.

There is even a more serious question. Why should someone, like me for instance, spend my time helping people research their families, if all we need to do is add unrelated names to the Family Tree? Why do research at all if all it takes to advance the work is to mine the names already in the Family Tree?

I do not need to use a hypothetical situation to illustrate this problem. I can choose any one of my existing family lines as shown in the Family Tree and rather easily and quickly find the point at which the next generation relationship is either missing or unverified and probably wrongly attached. If the lines have been properly supported by reasonably accurate research, they will end with a blank for the next unresolved generation. But, because of the eclectic nature of the Family Tree, there are lines the continue without any sources or even logic and you can only rely on the information if you take the attitude that the entries, despite any support, are correct.

Am I being negative because I don't believe that the these additional unsupported names are unreliable? Perhaps. Actually, I use what is already in the Family Tree as a basis for specific research to extend the family lines, but often as not, I find the information incomplete, inaccurate and I am then required to change the entries to conform to the records and other sources that I find. This happened recently when we discovered that one of our relatively closely related, direct line ancestors had been misidentified for years. The mistake is on literally thousands of family group records floating around in our family. In this case, the line ended with this ancestor, but it could have just as easily been extended using the wrong person as the basis for research.

It only takes me a few seconds of clicking on the Family Tree to find an example. As shown in the Family Tree, one of my direct line relatives is Sarah Sanderson, b. 10 June 1774 in "South Carolina, United States" (ignoring the problem of the date and the conclusion about the United States) all of her siblings and her supposed parents were born in Vermont. She was supposed to have married her husband, my 2nd Great-grandfather in Carlisle, Nicholas, Kentucky on 10 June 1794. She supposedly died in 1838 in Greensburg, Decatur, Indiana. First of all, Carlisle County, Kentucky was established in 1799, five years after the supposed marriage date and the town of Carlisle was not founded until 1816. See Wikipedia: Carlisle, Kentucky. Am I supposed to ignore this history and assume these entries are correct? Apparently so.

You may ask, why haven't I made the changes? This line happens to be a "legacy" line and we (my immediate family) are working our way back through the generations and have been stopped before we even get to this generation. When we decide what to do with the more recent generations, it is likely that much of what is now in the Family Tree will change or simply disappear. We have this problem on every single line.

Can we continue to ignore this problem with impunity? Am I really out of a job?


  1. It's sad that family history has now been reduced to searching for green temple icons. And, what I find difficult to understand is that the instructions from FamilySearch are to walk through the tree name-by-name searching for a green icon. That seems silly since apps like Find-A-Record will search automatically for available ordinances. It's hard to understand why family history now seems to be defined as "busy work" searching endlessly for green icons and that the work of the serious, committed genealogists is being completely dismissed.

  2. I was also disturbed by the Where to Find Green Temple fs blog. And I whole heartedly feel the same way about unreliable records, non-related ancestors, and so on. Why do you think FamilySearch continues to ignore these problems? I can only assume that those creating the blogs don't really do their own family history, or else they would uncover the same things you outline. Pity. I assume these same folks may be advising those higher ups who make policies and slogans such as Find Take Teach.

    1. Actually, I think that Find, Take, Teach is a good idea. But perhaps the teaching needs to come before the finding?

  3. I agree with you. The FT should be a tool to create a record "worthy of all acceptance" above all things. For me, that implies collaborative work thriving for accuracy. There is room to grow and improve still.

  4. I am a guy that likes to have "success". I don't worry as much as most people as to whether a given line is really "my line" or not. If I am finding real sources, and attaching them with real family relationships into the Family Tree, I am helping the tree become more accurate with each submission. This is good enough for me. Eventually using this method I find that many of the people are indeed my relatives but I didn't every hit the preverbal "brick wall". This way I am always contributing. Most often I do this by sorting out people with similar names and making sure each is well-sourced so they don't become mis-merged in the future. I feed good about my efforts. PS: But I don't submit them for temple work, unless I find a reasonable relationship.

    1. I agree, I do a lot of cleaning up of other people's sections of the Family Tree but only if they know I am doing so since my name shows up on all the changes.

  5. I feel that there is a division of opinion in church leadership as to the importance of ACCURATELY doing family history vs. at least doing SOMETHING. In other words, given that so few church members do anything at all related to family history, for the second camp, members doing SOMETHING is better than members procastinating, even if what is done is resubmitting for temple ordinances names that already have had their work done numerous times before. For those leaders, requiring accuracy or training can only lead to even more dismall rates of participation in family history by members.

    And perhaps that camp feels that members going to the temple for what the members perceive to be essential ordinances for their own ancestors will improve those members' spirituality and thus it is not really that important whether the particular ordinances were duplicative -- the members will get blessed for at least having tried. And since FS Family Tree is a wiki, that camp may feel that eventually whatever was done that shouldn't have been or not done that should have been will all get sorted out in the wash down the road, and thus, sooner or later, that book "worthy of all acceptation" will be produced in spite of members' well-meant but imperfect "research".