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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The "I am right and everyone else is wrong" issue in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Lately, I have been seeing a very disturbing trend among the contributors to the Family Tree. This trend usually manifests itself in the form of complaints and rants against the nature of the changing nature of the Family Tree when the changes are directed at the complainant's cherished genealogical conclusions. I am calling this tendency the "I am right and everyone else is wrong" syndrome.

Of course, the person who is ranting about the changes may be right. But the rants and comments usually end up with frustration being directed at the Family Tree. First of all, the Family Tree is not the problem, it is the solution. The real issue here is that genealogists are not used to the idea of conducting their "business" in public. They cherish their solitude and the fact that no one is around to tell them that their conclusions are wrong. There are genealogists who venture into the traditional genealogical forum of journal articles and such but these individuals stick to their own small groups and the validity of the conclusions are seldom questioned because the claimant follows the accepted format and procedures for establishing their opinion (usually referred to as a proof). I might add that most genealogists are entirely unaware that this level of communication exists. Also, those writing at this level seldom encounter disagreement with their conclusions for the simple reason that their general family members or relatives have no idea their written statement exists.

I feel I should give one simple example. If you are or claim to be a descendant of one or more of the passengers on the Mayflower have you examined in detail the conclusions and citations given in the series of books referred to as the "Silver Books?" If this term is not familiar to you, you are not alone, but you are also one of those who are unaware of the "higher criticism" level of genealogy.

Just in case you want to know, here is a link to the Silver Books:

Now, we move to the very public forum of the Family Tree. What is happening here is that these traditionally isolated genealogists are now confronted with the masses of their previously ignored relatives. This situation is confrontational because all of the opinions, right or wrong, from all of the previous submissions to the predecessors of FamilySearch are right there on the Family Tree. For example, here is a screenshot of part of my own Tanner line as it appears on the Family Tree.

The person who appears here as William Francis Tanner, Sr. is the English immigrant to Rhode Island who name is William Tanner. Despite the embellishment of his name and his birth place and is marriage information and his parentage, all of this is entirely and completely speculation and unsupported by even one document. Personally, I am not yet ready to "take on" this mess. I am still trying to work back to this point through other Tanner descendants. But this is an example of the battleground where there are contributors who are "right" and the rest of the world is "wrong."

The explanations given by these people who express their frustration with the Family Tree are usually very detailed and very complicated. This is not to say that they are wrong, but communicating at this level of complication is difficult especially when you do not know who you are communicating with. The Family Tree is actually a very good forum for this type of communication. But rather than join in a discussion, the claimants usually vent their anger and refuse to work with the Family Tree at all.

I suggest that the Family Tree is not for the faint hearted or those easily offended. Change is a fundamental aspect of the Family Tree and its strongest virtue. There will always be new adherents who try to add unsupported changes. I just recently had someone add a duplicate female version of one of my ancestors who is shown with a wife and several children. This type of change happens because the Family Tree is an open forum. But it these changes are not a basis for ranting or abandoning the Family Tree. In my case, I merely sent a notice to the person asking them to remove the duplicate non-existent person. If that fails to happen I will make the further change myself.

The existence of these types of problems are a great benefit not a problem. We are now moving from isolation to interaction. This may be a painful process for some, but as Harry Truman is reported to have said, "If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen." I would suggest that another of President Truman's sayings is also applicable, "The buck stops here." For me, the buck really does stop here. Until I can no longer do so, I will be working to maintain the integrity of the Family Tree. There, now you have notice of what to expect and guess what? I am not always right, there is an awful lot of room in the Family Tree for learning new things about my family so I expect your corrections and contributions also.


  1. What I have found fascinating is that 99% of the time, the arguments are for people born before 1750 and often come down to people refusing to believe that more than one Mary lived in New York in 1700. Maybe Family Search should institute a moratorium on any work on anyone born before 1800 in Family Tree for a couple of years while people learn to use it and insist that instead everyone get their family records in Family Tree as correct and well sourced as possible from the present to 1800, a time span where there are actually records. My wife and I have done that for just her father's side of her family. Fixing her direct ancestors, all their children, and all their children's spouses took a full two years. We are now working on her mother's side.

    1. Exactly the same thing we have been doing for about the same time period.

    2. I should have mentioned that I am doing very little on my family, other than putting a watch on a huge swath of them because so much has been contributed on them over the years and there are so many active genealogists there. I would have to say there are at least twenty different active contributors that show up on and off on the very long "changes to your watch list" e-mails I get every week.

      Those changes are almost exclusively: source attached, document attached, story attached, photograph attached. There is an occasional merge. Rarely a minor data correction.

      A couple of weeks ago someone whose name I hadn't seen before used a hint to attach a child in a Canadian census to a family that never left Utah. I removed the child and sent a quick message regarding double checking hints and she wrote back with a short, polite apology.

      All in all, I find the whole system quite wonderful.

  2. I originally was taking one generation at a time and verifying then working on every descendant line for that ancestor, then going back to the next generation and so forth. Then as I looked at things more, I realized that many people have the skills to do descendant lines but few people can do the direct line correctly, especially knowing where a line really ends. I had.many lines like your William Tanner that went back many generations into fantasyland. I am finding that as I correct those direct lines and source them and explain why they really end where they do, others very rarely make erroneous changes and they are cleaning up the descendants in a big way without me having to do that part. As I focus on the direct lines going back rather than doing every descendant line, I am finding that I am inviting a lot more collaboration from others than when I focused on the descendants of every ancestor. Of course, once I fix every direct line going back and stop them where they actually stop, then I will do every descendant of all of my ancestors, if it's possible to do that in a lifetime. I absolutely love the FamilySearch tree. As you have said, it is the solution and not the problem. I love to see it grow and become better as time goes on. We live in an amazing era for genealogy research and I marvel at what we can accomplish in far less time than those who came before us ever could have imagined. I often marvel at the hastening of this work and I'm so grateful to do my small part in it.

    1. You are right, someone has to do the verification of the direct lines. I do the same thing.