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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Responding Appropriately to Changes in the FamilySearch Family Tree

Among those members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) who are actively working with the Family Tree, there is a steady undercurrent of residual frustration with "changes" being made to "their" entries or "their" ancestors. The basis for this frustration lies in harboring the concept that they "own" certain parts of the vast, unified Family Tree program. The frustration is further bolstered by the concept that "their" information is "correct" and any changes have to be "incorrect." What is the reality in this perceived situation?

Yes, the Family Tree is changing and evolving. The truth is that the Family Tree is a wiki-based, unified, collaborative project and that change is a fundamental and integral part of its function and operation. Basically, change is good, static is bad. Family Historians or genealogists have long worked in a very personal bubble of their own making. In addition, much of what many LDS family historians have in their files today has been inherited from previous generations of researchers. There is an underlying and unwarranted assumption that the inherited data is accurate per se. This view is contrary to the reality in many instances. My own inherited genealogical information has had to be constantly corrected. Names, dates and places recorded for over 100 years have proved to be inaccurate when examined in the context of currently available and reliable sources.

For the first time in the history of the Church, we are collectively confronted with almost all of our entire accumulation of family history information in one place at one time and the results of this accumulation can be and is disturbing to those who have assumed a placid and predictable inheritance from their ancestors' collective genealogical research. I am not going to take the time here in this post to illustrate the myriad instances of wrong information presently in the Family Tree, but in the event that you doubt my premise, I am perfectly willing to sit down with anyone and examine their portion of the Family Tree and point out the inconsistency and errors. I have been doing this now since the concept of a unified family tree was introduced in and have yet to find a portion of the family tree that does not have serious problems with dates, names or places.

So, our entire approach to the Family Tree should be one of skepticism with a desire to correct and document all of the information currently showing. But what about all those "incompetent and careless" relatives out there who are constantly adding "wrong" information to the Family Tree and what about FamilySearch that also seems to be adding additional "wrong" information? The answer is rather simple: We are still very much in the middle of compiling all the data. The Family Tree only becomes "stable" when the interested family members begin to cooperate and fully document all of the entries. In my own portion of the Family Tree, I find that there are very, very few of my relatives who have made any contributions at all. Now that the Family Tree advises us as to how many people are watching any individual we want to change, I will get a better idea of how much actual involvement exists. It would be nice if we had a way to see a list of who these people are, however.

For example, my maternal grandfather has a huge posterity, mostly still in the Church. However, as I review the changes to his entries, I find that the only changes have been made by myself or my wife. I do note however, that there are four people (I assume including me) who are watching him. As I go back in time on my family line, you would expect to see more changes and more "watching." My Tanner Great-grandfather has 9 watchers and several contributors. But my Overson Great-Grandfather has only 3 watchers and only two or three others who have contributed any information recently.

When you go back even further, my Third-Great-Grandfather, John Tanner, who has tens of thousands of descendants, has 59 watchers. It is evident that if changes are going to be made to this person, that there are a lot of people who are going to be notified and are interested in maintaining the integrity of the entries. I might also mention that John Tanner has 164 Memories and 63 Sources. What is interesting is that his father, Joshua Tanner, has only 10 memories and 18 sources. He also only has 9 watchers. There are, however, quite a number of different people who have made changes to his entries. The changes that have been made to Joshua Tanner have been appropriate and apparently accurate.

What these examples illustrate is that the Family Tree continues to evolve and change. Information is being added at a tremendous rate. The entries that are being watched and edited are becoming more stable and accurate. In the case of John Tanner, the first in the line to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the changes and number of watchers indicates the amount of interest in this type of ancestor. If I go back two more generations to his grandfather, Francis Tanner, I find that there are only 3 watchers, 5 Memories and 11 sources. Almost all the current changes to Francis Tanner have been made by FamilySearch. As long as this is the case, this is an indication that information is still being added to the Family Tree and that we can expect additional changes.

There is a pattern here. As the descendant families get involved in the Family Tree, the structure and information become more stable and more reliable. Despite a few radical and unwarranted changes, the watchers are able to maintain a reasonable degree of stability. If you go back too many generations, things get really interesting. For example, Francis Cooke, a Mayflower passenger, has only 7 watchers out of this tens of thousands of descendants but there have been a lot of changes by a larger number of people. He presently has six different wives in the program and only five sources and 8 Memories. This indicates that a lot of changes will occur to this person as soon as the entire program stabilizes and all of the information has been transferred from There is still a total mess in the descendancy family lines from Francis Cooke.

All in all, the Family Tree is now fairly stable. It still needs a lot of attention on some lines, but all of this is quite manageable assuming the situation is resolved and the number of watchers and contributors increases.


  1. Hear, hear!

    I mentioned on Genealogy's Star the other day that it's important to start with the assumption that an online family tree could be (and probably is) wrong. It's also important to start with the assumption that *I* could be wrong.

    Where did I find my information? Who created the information? Am I making the "same name doesn't mean same person" mistake? If information was created by others, what connection did they have to the information? Were they present at the events? If so, how long was it between the events and the report of the events?

    As I've mentioned before, I'm working on slave histories. I find that the accounts left by the owners' descendants range from about half false to entirely false, when I compare the accounts to contemporaneous documentation. (Entirely false means they invented someone who didn't exist. Surprising how often that happens.)

    Humility is a valuable tool in any field of study, and that includes genealogy!

    1. I very much agree. It is sometime discouraging to see how careless people are in adding information, but that is the reason for watching and being well informed.

  2. Francis Cooke is in my familysearch familytree. I've only confirmed Cooke ancestors back to late 1700's. I notice there are also 40 notes associated with Francis Cooke. It is tricky to make changes/merges to long standing entries, I only change entries when I have the source that proves the change is correct.

    1. I note that there are yet few sources for Francis Cooke. There is actually a huge amount of research that has been done on each of the Mayflower passengers. I have been waiting for the Family Tree to get separated from before working on some of these lines.

  3. I tend to "watch" people when I have done actual research on them. I watch everyone up until my gg-grandparents, and then only watch those who I have checked and researched, or who I am trying to research in the (vain) hope that someone else is doing real research.