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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How accurate is your own family history data?

I have yet to examine a pedigree (i.e. family tree) that went back in time more than six generations that did not have serious data problems. No matter how meticulous or experienced the researcher, there are always serious problems. Why is this the case? I can give you an example. I was once an art major at the University of Utah studying painting and drawing. Over and over again the instructors showed us that we could achieve only a certain level of competence and then we failed to see any further need for improvement. Once we become comfortable with our performance, we accept it as the norm and we could not see how we could improve on what we had done. In genealogy, we accept our previous efforts no matter how misguided or superficial they may have been. It is not until someone comes along and points out our deficiencies that we can make any further progress. A great researcher has the ability to question his or her own work as if looking at it from the outside and see the deficiencies.

Sometimes, over time, we can go back to our earlier work and see how much we could improve. What I mean by serious data problems is information that is unreliable and unsubstantiated and could indicate that the wrong people had been included in the pedigree. It is entirely possible that they might be the right people, but it also equally as possible that they are not. It is common to find that one or two lines have been extensively researched but others have had little or no attention. In the past, people have had the tendency to investigate their surname line extensively, but spend little time on the collateral lines created through marriages.

It often appears to be the rule that the number of errors made in a pedigree is directly proportional to the reputation of the researcher as an expert. As a trial attorney, there was always someone on the opposite side of the case telling me and anyone who would listen that I was wrong and guess what? A fair amount of the time, they were right. I was wrong. How you handle being told you are wrong all the time and then finding out that you were is what determines whether or not you survive as a trial attorney. The problem with genealogy is that there is usually no one out there telling you that your work is not accurate or complete. I have had copies of my genealogy files out on the Internet for years and have almost never had anyone question my work or inform me that what I had recorded was wrong. Consequently, I have spent the last 25 years or so correcting my own errors. When I go back and look at some of my early work, I have to cringe.

Don't misunderstand what I am saying. I know some fabulously competent researchers who I admire for their detailed and highly reliable work. What I am saying is that no one is immune from making errors and when you create a place for all those cumulative errors to be seen, the problem of the unreliability of their conclusions becomes extremely evident. I can illustrate this by clicking out on any one of my ancestral lines on the Family Tree. FamilySearch has implemented some basic types of error checking where the program finds people born after their mother's death and such. Here is an example found from randomly clicking out on my part of the Family Tree.

The first of these red warnings is the following:

This the second error warning:

If would be easy to dismiss this kind of error as being an aberration, but it is all too common. A few more clicks brings up the following:

At this point you might be questioning why I would associate experts with these obvious errors. By the way, here are screenshots of these error messages:

Here is the second one:

In fact, only recently, I heard someone express the opinion that they would not put their family tree up on because of all the errors. The implication of this statement is that everything in that person's family tree is accurate compared to the all the inaccurate information online and especially in the Family Tree and that they do not want to be bothered with correcting the errors in the Family Tree. Had I never gone to court, I would never have been in the wrong. In the legal profession there is the myth of the attorney who never lost a case. In reality, this claim is meaningless. The fact is that most cases are settled or in a criminal case disposed of by a plea bargain rather than going to trial. There was a law firm in Arizona that advertised that they always won for their clients. An investigation showed that they never went to trial, so technically, they could never lose. In addition, attorneys get to choose which cases they decide to take to trial. If you have never lost a case, it is because you never took a challenging case. We can't choose our ancestors. We have to live with all of the problems and data deficiencies.

Genealogists who claim perfection in their pedigrees are like the attorneys who claim a perfect case history. They can define themselves into perfection. Both attorneys and genealogists can get by making such claims because no one has ever challenged them.

Now why are experts the target of my illustrations. The Family Tree is unique in one important way. It is the accumulation of over a hundred years of family history by thousands of people. Unlike the other online family tree programs, it was not built by user contributions within the last few years, the information incorporated into the Family Tree was seeded with record submissions made over 150 years ago. What you see in the Family Tree is a consensus, albeit an approximation, of the submissions. Errors that show up in the Family Tree, like those illustrated above, are not trivial. They reflect what is on hundreds, if not thousands, of people's individually accumulated pedigrees. Like the marriage date showing that Samuel Stratton, Sr. was married at age seven, the data is full of obvious mistakes. People, including a huge number of experienced genealogists who could be considered experts, have had access to this data as it was accumulated. If the information submitted to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the years had been correct or corrected, these types of problems would not appear. It all too easy to blame these entries on careless inexperience. In fact, much of this information came from people who had worked on genealogy their entire lives. Much of it came from genealogical professionals doing research in England and other countries for a fee. The present state of the Family Tree is merely a reflection of the state of nearly every family tree I examine with a critical eye.

This is one reason why the Family Tree, as opposed to all of the other online family tree programs, is such a challenge to the present state of accuracy in the genealogical community. Are these same errors present in other online family trees? Certainly. Not one of the programs has enough data to substantiate all of these problems. In fact, if you were to examine my examples above, you would see that much of the information is approximated and some of the places are too general to be of help. By the way, anyone who wants to look at these entries can do so by simply searching for these particular ID numbers in the Family Tree.

Granted, the standards for data entry in the genealogical community have increased over the years. But there is still a huge overburden of old genealogical research haunting the community. In this regard, it is interesting to examine the sources attached to these individuals, supposedly substantiating the conclusions shown in the Family Tree.

Here is one of the sources for Samuel Stratton, Sr.

You might note that Samuel Stratton, Sr. is supposed to be born and died as follows:

1617 Concord,, Kent, England
25 December 1672 Watertown, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States

The source cited and attached shows a Samuel Stratton Sr. born in Concord, Kent, England with a son named John Stratton with the son born in Carlton, Bedfordshire, England. If this doesn't look suspicious to you, then you probably have entirely missed what I am talking about here. First of all, there is no such place as Concord, Kent, England. What connects the Samuel Stratton in Bedford to the person who supposedly died in Watertown, Middlesex, Massachusetts? The fact that there is a serious error with this person's birth and marriage date is only the beginning of the problems. There is a Concord in Buckinghamshire and another in Sunderland, But no such place in Kent. 

There is a Samuel Stratton buried in Watertown, Massachusetts, but who is he? Two of his children are listed as born in Podington or Podrington, Bedfordshire, England. One is listed as being born in Massachusetts in Watertown in 1629 while the next child is born in Carlton, Bedfordshire, England in 1632. By the way, the place is Podington, Bedfordshire, England and it is about 110 miles away from Kent, England. Oh, also, Watertown, Massachusetts wasn't settled by the English until 1630, so no one was born there in 1629.

This is only a brief example of the tangled problems I almost inevitably find in the pedigrees I examine. But you say, you haven't looked at my very meticulous, carefully crafted work. Well, I am always open to surprises. But the numbers favor my suspicions. If you go back six generations you have, at least, 64 individual ancestors not counting all their children and multiple marriages. This also depends on whether you count yourself as the first generation back or start counting generations with your parents. This Stratton family is eleven generations back from counting me as the first generation. That means I have 1024 grandparents in this generation. Anyone want to tell me that they have documented every single one of their eleventh generation ancestors? 

Now, the promise of the Family Tree is that all this will eventually be sorted out. We have enough people working on the issues to correct it all. But we are not off to much of a start when people add sources that don't make any sense as in my example above. Spend some time thinking before you add a source. Please. You may also want to start looking up places and numbers on your own family tree. You will probably be surprised at what you find. 


  1. Amen! On another point, you are brave for having your files on the Internet. Realizing that I make mistakes, making my tree public perpetuates the mistakes, because invariably, someone will hijack my data and pass it (and all its mistakes) off as both gospel and his or her own. As an trial attorney like you, a most devastating thing is to insist on a position with substantiation that has been recently overruled, so I feel obligated not to put my work out there without the geneology equivalent of "shepardizing" to the best of my ability and resources, and I feel responsible if it is misrepresented or misappropriated.

  2. If you don't put your genealogy on the web, then don't die. Because if you do, no one will have it nor shepherd it at all.

  3. In my opinion, trees are made to be shared. Why else make them at all? No doubt my tree is riddled with errors above the 6th generation. Occasionally someone working on the same line as me will have alternate information or an error and point it out to me. Sometimes when comparing trees I find an interesting tidbit or clue that leads me deeper into my ancestor's life or helps me to work sideways, up or down my tree. Most of us have information about our recent ancestors that do not make it into published sources, but are invaluable for helping us find true documentable sources.
    Examples: Illegitimate birth; Middle name used exclusively; Prior marriage; Foster family; Bigamy or Divorce (one of my examples - For years I thought my 3X Grandfather was dead before 1920 because my 3X Grandmother was a widow on the census and all other documents. However, I stumbled across a 2nd and 3rd marriage for my 3X Grandfather in an unexpected location which helped me to unearth some of his relatives and eventually his correct death date. This information may be helpful to someone. If I didn't share this, no-one would have the complete picture).