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

Monday, March 7, 2016

Navigating Your Way Out of the Fire Swamp of the FamilySearch Family Tree -- Part One

In my last post, I pointed out that some parts of the Family Tree were analogous to a "fire swamp," that is full of unexpected and difficult challenges. My reference to a "fire swamp" comes from the book and film,

Goldman, William. 1998. The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure : The “Good Parts” Version Abridged. New York: Ballantine Pub. Group.
Reiner, Rob, William Goldman, Andrew Scheinman, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, et al. 2001. The princess bride.

OK, since I am starting out with such sterling academic credentials as to my qualifications for advising everyone how to navigate out of the fire swamp, you should pay particular attention to my suggestions. No, really, The Princess Bride is probably about the level of the issues apparent in the Family Tree.

I have also been known to refer to parts of the Family Tree as launching off into fantasy land, but I have pretty much settled on the fire swamp lately. As a result, I decided to set down some specific steps for cleaning up your family lines and pruning off the really bad limbs and branches of what is on the Family Tree.

Step One: Start with the most recent (in time) individuals with verifiable sources and consistently edited information. 

Let me illustrate what I mean by an individual with verifiable sources and consistently edited information. Here is a screenshot of my Grandfather Harold Morgan (b. 1892, d. 1963)

The dates and places are all standardized. There is a warning icon about a "duplicate child" but that issue is unresolvable because of the error message, "Cannot be Merged at This Time." Until the Family Tree is completely fixed, that message and many others will continue to appear. Here is a screenshot of a contrasting entry from further back on this same family line where it is apparent that no one has been correcting or editing the information.

In this example, the birth place is recorded as Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1718 which is entirely possible. But the Christening Date is recorded as 15 March 1719/20 in "Butterton Par.Ch, Hulme End, Staffs." Did his mother really have a baby in Massachusetts and then cross the Atlantic and have the baby christened in England and then return to the "United States" where he could die? If we drop down a little further in this entry, we can see additional problems.

We have definitely stepped off into the fire swamp. Of course there are no sources listed for any of this information. This conflicting, inaccurate and very confusing information comes from 150 years of submissions to FamilySearch and its predecessors without any process of correction or verification other than a search for duplicate entries. Submissions were allowed as long as the entries conformed to a standard format. No attempt was made to determine if the information was accurate. Even if the information was obviously incomplete, the entries were still accepted. This is not a reflection on the people involved in the process, but more a reflection on the lack of an adequate system to verify the records. Guess what? That system now exists. It is time to correct and repair the damage of the past century or so of submissions. Let's not stick our heads in the sand and pretend that this situation does not exist.

The lack of any correction to the places is a red flag that nothing has yet been done to verify this information. It is basically entirely unreliable. Unfortunately, there are a significant number of people who think the Family Tree has been verified and is "true" in all aspects. They then rely on this kind of entry to find names to take to the Temples. This is the functional equivalent of making up the names.

By the way, this line goes out one more generation. Here is the screenshot.

Apparently, this person's father was "of Harrison Co., Kentucky" and was supposedly born in 1690. This is about 102 years before Kentucky became a state on 1 June 1792 and about 103 years before Harrison County, Kentucky was formed from portions of Bourbon and Scott Counties. I do not have to search for more than a few seconds to find example after example of this type of error.

Here is the real problem. Using the Family Tree Descendancy View, I can see the following descendants of the most remote ancestor, William Hambleton. Notice the availability of names for Temple Ordinances.

I am certain that someone will find these green icons and run out an do the work without verifying that any of the people are actually related or real. Does anyone out there care that this situation exists and that until the corrections are made the situation will continue to exist?

Step Two: Follow the Family Line and find the last person with verifiable data.

This is the next step. I would begin with my Grandfather and work back on this line. Here it goes.

This line goes back through John Hamilton Morgan to his mother Eliza Ann Hamilton. The sources begin to disappear with Eliza Ann Hamilton. Here is the extension:

Here is the next extension showing the Thomas Hamilton (Hambleton) I used as an example above. Where does this line really end? It ends at the first unreliable entry.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post series.


  1. "Does anyone out there care that this situation exists and that until the corrections are made the situation will continue to exist?" That is my exact question as well! FamilySearch has spent nearly a decade implementing Family Tree. But, the most important part of any system implementation is the data cleansing, and it appears FS assumed that this would just somehow happen magically. FS really needs to reach out to the seasoned genealogists and enlist their help with the not-so-fun and not-so-easy task of cleaning up the data. In my mind, the work of verifying, sourcing, and cleaning up the tree is every bit as important as "finding a name to take to the temple." I think if we heard that message coming from FS the clean-up work would be greatly expedited. I find it interesting that FS is installing a Family Discovery Center in the FH library that will draw on the Family Tree database. I wonder what kind of experience visitors will have given the jumbled mess that exists in many parts of the Tree.

  2. I love this post! How is it more people at the top, even in FamilySearch, don't seem to know this Fire Swamp stuff? The engineers do know and build in as many impedances as they can to stop the crazy stuff. But honestly, the buzz words and pushes trying to get the untrained novices on the tree to Find the green, Take, and then Teach.... Arrgg. One of our UK website contributors, Colin Ramsbottom, uses a cute phrase to try to get correct principles stuck in people's heads:
    "Blitz the Blue before Grabbing the Green." Oh yeah! Thanks for trying.

  3. It's not only the past, but it is also what people are doing today.

    With FamilySearch Family Tree you are only always a few clicks from the loss of information and the return to the family mythology of the past.

    That said it is presently the best solution and I would be careful to place too many restrictions on data entry and the ability by anyone to easily make changes. My experience points out it cannot be the only place to put information that one wants to survive their death. Once one is gone a click or two can undo it.

    The main problem seems to be with end-of-line individuals and for those individuals who lived before 1800 where the lack of records leave blanks in their vital information.

    Several examples, though I am sure others probably have their own personal favorites.

    One person who has been particularly diligent, has in the past over and over again merged two men with the same name, but who lived 132 miles apart. She did respond to my inquiries about her sources: Her database that syncs with Family Tree collected from on-line trees. She did agree after comparing notes that she and I were not related, and she once again promptly merged the two men.

    She also has been adding various baptism records to the father of the man in Maryland, who is an end-of-line individual. Always the same parents but born in various places and on various days. When she gave up on that, she started two "shadow" trees. She added the name of the end of line individual giving him a date of birth that was 10 to 15 years later, so she could attach "her" line to him.

    Perhaps the most troubling aspect of what was done was she deleted all the events that pertained to the end-of-line individual's land ownership that had been culled from the Maryland State Archives for the first time. When asked why, she asked where I had received the information "from whom ancestry or what" I let her know it was the Maryland State Archives. That appears to have worked.

    A person also asked to just allow him to enter a doppelgänger of the person we (two of us) kept removing as his end-of line person’s parent. He had so much information he wanted to get about the business of extending his line back with information he had. He said nothing would convince him that the information in his database was incorrect.

    Another example, everyone whose name is Calvert has the tradition they are descended from Lord Baltimore, alas when the research is done, it cannot be proved. Being an occupational surname we are not all related. DNA supports that. The tradition is particularly strong in my family. An article was published in the Maryland Historical Magazine in 1921 and then in a hardback in the 1940s. Suffice it to say the gaps in the records were filled with information that is supported by no contemporary records and in some part has been proven wrong. However, added wives, specific dates, and the connections to Lord Baltimore reappear in my line about every two weeks.

    I have written more than one should have to read, but again the conclusion is as stated above: FamilySearch Family Tree is currently the best solution for what it was developed for and I would be careful to place too many restrictions on data entry and the ability for anyone to easily make changes, even my friends above. We all need to remember FamilySearch Family Tree cannot be the only place to put information that one wants to survive their death.

    1. One of the best comments ever. Sounds like you should take over writing my blog. :-)