We Need To Talk About Ancestry

Or … How The Major Commercial Genealogical Websites Are Killing Family History Research

As a full-time professional researcher, I depend heavily on the resources that I’m able to access online, particularly those databases provided by the major commercial websites. Without the 24-hour-a-day access to census returns, parish registers, wills (and so much more!) that my subscriptions to the major commercial websites offer me, I simply wouldn’t be able to do my job. I am, as I’m always happy to make very clear, a huge fan of digitisation. The problem is that all-too-often, the commercial websites don’t make a particularly good job of what they’re supposed to do, and as a result, I seem to spend an enormous amount of my time criticising them…

My particular bugbear at the moment is Ancestry’s apparent obsession with user-submitted content. We’re reaching the point where the sheer volume of public family trees on the site is beginning to eclipse the primary sources; you could say that we can no longer see the records for the trees!

Forest, near Ashford, Kent. Photograph by the author, © June 2019.

Unfortunately, a lot of the trees are full of errors and inconsistencies – which wouldn’t be too big a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that Ancestry make it so easy for users to copy the details from other people’s trees into their own.

It’s all too simple. You see a name that matches the one you’re looking for and a minute later that person has become your ancestor.

At no point in the process is any genuine research required. No exploration of source documents, no critical examination of what the record might be telling you (was there even a record?) and no analysis of alternative sources. One click and she’s on your tree, just waiting for other researchers to do the same…

A few days ago, I was researching the life of a man called, John Poole. I’d found out quite a lot about him but I was struggling to find a record of his death or burial. After carrying out a few basic searches without finding anything particularly promising, I decided to see what others had found out so I had a quick look at Ancestry’s public family trees. What I discovered made me feel so despondent and so depressed about the way that online research is going that I felt inspired to write this blog…

The John Poole that I was working on features in at least 14 Ancestry public family trees. There’s a lot of conflicting information from tree to tree and much of it is clearly and demonstrably wrong, but I just want to focus here on the details that are recorded regarding John’s death/burial.

Seven of the 14 trees don’t include any information about John’s death at all. (This is fine; John may not be a crucial person on these trees and there’s always a limit to what we have the time to research in detail.) Of the remaining seven, three give a year of death of 1813 (or ‘about 1813’) while the other four give it as 1818 (or ‘about 1818’).

Of those that give a date of any sort, only two reference a specific event. One family tree links the burial of John Poole at St Mary, Whitechapel on 24 November 1813 to our John, while another suggests that John was buried on 9 March 1818 in Bolton.

Let’s just ignore for a moment, the unlikelihood of a Londoner like John dying in a Lancashire cotton town! What matters is that it’s really not hard to show that neither of these burials can possibly relate to our John. All we need to do is a bit of proper research.

John was married to a woman called Juliana Draper (all of the 14 family trees record this detail) and they had at least four children. The two youngest (Sarah and Henry John) both died young and were buried in the City of London parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury in 1811 and 1810 respectively. [1]

St.Mary Aldermanbury Church, City of London, Postcard (1904). Public Domain.

A bit of digging reveals that John and Juliana had moved to the parish sometime around 1807, the year in which John’s name first appears in the Land Tax registers, paying tax on a property in St Mary, Aldermanbury. John continued to be listed in the registers at the same address up to and including 1813. The registers would probably have been compiled towards the end of the previous year but nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that John didn’t die too long before the last few months of 1812.

We also know that he had died sometime before 25 July 1813 when his widow, Juliana, married her second husband, George Furness[2] (again, it’s not hard to find this record) so we have a fairly narrow timeframe during which John must have died – let’s say November 1812 to May 1813. The November 1813 and March 1818 burials are therefore evidently not ours.

It’s clear from the Land Tax registers that John was still living in the parish of St Mary, Aldermanbury at the time that he must have died. So it’s not surprising that a manual search of the burial register for that parish quickly turns up the expected entry. John Poole was buried at St Mary’s on 13 April 1813.[3]

Burial of John Poole, St Mary, Aldermanbury, City of London.
London Metropolitan Archives LMA P69/MRY2/A/01 Ms.3572/3 p.1

So, why hadn’t my previous searches for John’s burial turned up this record? Well, once again, we can lay the blame at the database provider’s door. John’s name has been transcribed as ‘John Poole Buch Church’. When you look at the entry, you can see what’s happened. The ‘Name’ column in the burial register has been used by the clerk to record the place of burial as well as the deceased’s name and it seems that John was buried in the ‘Back Church Yard’. The fact that the transcriber has managed to come up with this quite frankly laughable piece of work and that the transcription has been allowed to slip past whatever quality control process Ancestry have in place suggests… well, it suggests that they don’t have any sort of quality control process in place at all. If we’re being kind we might conclude that their quality control process is inadequate…

The point here is that a little bit of genuine research will quickly provide you with all the clues you need to demonstrate that John would almost certainly have been buried at St Mary, Aldermanbury. But rather than making things easier, the way that the information has been provided actually prevents you from finding the right record – or at least it makes it easier for you to find the wrong one.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that the record of John’s burial is right there in Ancestry’s database. The record office entered into an agreement with them to make their records available online and, as part of that process, to provide access to them via a searchable index. Their failure to get this bit right – and it’s probably the simplest part of the process – has evidently led to people being unable to find the record in question. Instead, they’ve either left the death/burial section blank or they’ve attached the burial record of an entirely different John Poole to their ancestor’s record. And because it’s so easy to do so, other researchers have come along and added this incorrect record to their own family trees.

This is, of course, not by any means an isolated incident. Ancestry’s family trees are full of errors like this – and much worse! Speak to any experienced researcher and they’ll give you plenty of examples. Those examples are out there right now and they’re multiplying every day.

DVD screenshot of Captain Kirk half-buried in Tribbles.
From: wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Tribbles

It genuinely makes me despair for the future of family history research. And I haven’t even touched on the related issues of unexplained gaps in the data collections, poor descriptions of record sets and wrong references attached to records. It’s a mess and it seems to me that it’s getting worse.


© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 13 September 2021


[1] Burials of Henry John Poole & Sarah Poole, Christchurch, Newgate Street & St Leonard, Foster Lane, London, 1810 & 1811. LMA reference: P69/MRY2/A/001 Ms.03572/2

[2] Marriage of George Furness & Juliana Poole, St Dunstan, Stepney, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P93/DUN/054 p.77

[3] Burial of John Poole, St Mary, Aldermanbury, London, 1813. LMA reference: LMA P69/MRY2/A/01 Ms.3572/3 p.1

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23 Responses to We Need To Talk About Ancestry

  1. Pingback: Best of the Genea-Blogs - Week of 12 to 18 September 2021 - Search My Tribe News

  2. Stonz says:

    As a 20 year customer of Ancestry, I’ve lost any remaining respect for them, and it’s turned to disgust when trying to find data results. I’ve even had to resort to libraries instead, things that once were on Ancestry. Even Newspapers.com are losing articles once there. Don’t get me started on the new search function, it’s horrific to use, Membership is up in Oct and I’m not renewing, 29 year customer.. they have lost me. I’ll work my dna (and that of my 23 cousins) but I’m done,

    My most recent post on Ancestry’s ethics,,, among many topics that keep coming up.
    https://stonznbonz.family/2021/09/08/ancestry/

    Thank you for your post. You’re 100% on the money. We need to find a financial backer who has morales that will become a true competitor to them, where we can do things the right way.

    Like

  3. RW says:

    Oh yes, sigh! I really don’t think Ancestry uses people for transcribers at all, I thinks it’s totally OCR which is cheeep, but really much worse than a real person. That’s why I always want to look at the actual document. I like to never found my grandfather on a certain census for this very problem – OCR error. Bad copies and bad handwriting are truly an inkblot on the digital genealogy crusade, we can all agree on that.
    The other problem, not sure how that will ever be cured. I started out the old way, so I know how much is NOT online and how there are many people named the same, in the same place, same time, and (usually) with similar or even almost same dates. All these eager new genealogists have simply no idea. Online Knows All seems to be the theme they march to, much like the Pokemon fad.
    The same has happened to FindAGrave. Originally, they only had graveSITES documented and people added their tree info. Now, we have “created memorials” being entered whether they are a real gravesite or not, so I can no longer even depend on them unless there is a grave photo or plot#. Now that’s sad.
    What really worries me, is that more and more places ditch old documents to ‘save office space’ or remodel or just think they are not valuable (since history is just for teachers). Add to that fires, flooding and the desire to modernize and be ‘minimalistic’ is really cutting down on original things. Many places don’t even consider donating documents to archives – these are just plain office management folks making these decisions. Never thought I’d see the day. People of new generations with different concerns. Sad.

    Like

  4. Martin Robb says:

    There are two separate points at issue here. One is the poor quality of many Ancestry transcriptions, a point with which I heartily concur, having come across one or two hilarious misreadings of names in my own searches. Ancestry really do need to get a grip on this. However, the other point, about users simply copying information from other family trees without properly checking the information is surely an inevitable by-product of a user-led service. Speaking personally, I’ve learned to ignore most information about my own ancestors that I find on other family trees, and just go to Ancestry for the documents – of which they still have a pretty unrivalled collection, especially for London. Genealogy is essentially an amateur, democratic and messy pursuit – which has both its strengths and weaknesses.

    Like

  5. Bob says:

    I totally agree. My and I in researching our family tree find errors ourselves. We try to keep it as accurate as possible . Working for the library of congress my sister as acess to some good stuff
    and has really kept our tree in good shape.
    Thank you

    Like

  6. Barbara Zabitz says:

    I agree with your premise as well…

    Like

  7. My understanding is that ancestry and many other large providers pay a pittance and employ a mixture of transcribers and not all necessarily with English as their first language to input this data. No doubt they also have a target to transcribe so many a day.
    Put this all together – low pay – low experience – questionable understanding of English – time pressure = increased potential errors. Throw the end user in the mix with limited experience and understanding of the platforms and data (10 years in and I’m still learning everyday) it’s no wonder professional researchers like yourself are going to get frustrated by what you describe above.
    Unless you fire this up to ancestry and they agree to pay more to upgrade their transcribers and improve quality control you are sadly preaching to the converted.
    Sadly this will also more than likely increase membership costs and lose members – so not going to happen.
    Catch-22
    Feel your pain but unless you contact ancestry……?

    Like

  8. Barbara says:

    This is a very good example of what I am experiencing. I find it better to keep my tree private and “hidden”. I prefer to do my own research, but as said, sometimes interesting if having problems finding something to have a look at other trees and “thoroughly” research further.
    Thanks for this article.

    Like

  9. Susan Brazeau says:

    Thank you for this and also to the other comments! I keep my ancestry.ca membership to be able to have access to copies of records that I culd not access otherwise. I never use anyone’s else’s trees, excep to see if they have something different than i do and the sources (if any) they use. In fact, I have been barred from a very very distant relative who continues to use incorrect information for my great aunt and my great great grandfather, despite the fact I sent her copies of the documents from the General Registry Office in England. She used only the indexes as her source. Sadly, others continue to use her fancy looking, extensive tree, so the errors are being perpetuated.

    I am also very frustrated with the transcription errors on the Ancestry.ca sites.
    For example, I have found errors in many transcribed Canadian census reports in which the transcriber has used the name of the father in a family group at the top of the page as the father for every other family group on the same page. If someone read and accepted only the transcription (as, I believe some do) then they will have incorrect and confusing information on their tree that can lead to more serious errors.
    I have found this issue in different census across Canada and in different parts of the country. I have spent many hours correcting these and other transcription errors, often citing proof from one or more other records. Although ancestry adds the change on the transcription page, it does not change it in the Search engine.

    Like

  10. Shirley McMahan says:

    Thank you for such valuable insight. I cannot physically travel to ancestors record locations and rely on those commercial sites for information. You covered a lot of the non reliable sources which cause frustration to me. One issue in particular I dislike is that researches don’t use good common sense. For instance I’ve seen where someone has a son married to his own mother or he died before he was born or had a child when he was 5 years old. Selling of names is also an issue. II see this as careless and also just not using common sense. To give credit to some of these sites I will say they’ve helped me to replace the many records that were lost in a house fire I went through 10 years ago. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to start over any age, but I discovered that many of the records were in existence online so got the courage to continue.

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  11. I agree as well…though, for me, the online services are absolutely necessary as I’m in Canada and my research is all in England or on the Continent…I can’t travel (especially not now) to acquire records. I have ordered from smaller repositories but that’s certainly not as convenient.

    The trouble with transcriptions is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to know even the basic knowledge of those who volunteer. I’m sure they all mean well, but seriously, in your example above it’s absolutely plain that the name of the deceased is John Poole and the note underneath is the location of the burial. Common sense would, one would think, prevail. However, I’m speaking as someone with two history degrees, a diploma in library and information technology, and many years of research experience, so clearly I’m able to discern what appears obvious. But someone from a different country with little or no knowledge of the history, geography, and culture of the location of the record set they’re transcribing, I guess it’s not as obvious.

    I fully admit that I have backed out of transcribing certain record sets when it became clear my own knowledge wasn’t up to interpreting what I was seeing on the page, but for many, I guess that never occurs to them. Again, they mean well, but the fault lies with all the big services that use volunteer transcribers without any sort of screening process. That would take time and personnel, which I’m sure is why they don’t do it.

    And how that got past quality control, I’ve no idea. My most egregious example also involves a Londoner supposedly dying in Lancashire. As it turns out, the reason my 2nd great-uncle Arthur James Barlow disappeared from the UK records after 1905 (when he married) was that he emigrated to Canada. My mum met him in 1961, two years before he died in British Columbia. Yet the majority of trees showing Arthur James Barlow (son of Jesse George Barlow and Caroline Lawley, born April 1883 in London) show him dying in 1905 in Lancashire where another man of the same name born in the same year IN LANCASHIRE, died. On the up side, in messaging some of the tree owners, I found two distant cousins living within 100 miles of me. They took my evidence, did their own research, and came to the same conclusion I did, so changed their trees accordingly – and then we all exchanged more information 🙂

    As a librarian who helps people with their genealogy as part of my job, I make sure to emphasize how trees are to be used as hints only, that it’s NEVER good to just add people directly from another tree. We look at different trees – those with records and those without, and I explain that those without any documentation aren’t worth anything at all, while those with supporting documents still need close analysis. I don’t have time to teach them the full Genealogy Proof Standard process, but I do at least go through some basic steps with them and emphasize that no record will contain all the information we need, that assessing documents against what we already know is vital, and that we must be prepared to accept that sometimes we err when new evidence arises.

    The best we can do is to share our knowledge with those starting out – I see a lot of that one the Facebook genealogy groups to which I belong. I’m also rebuilding the genealogy collection at the library where I work to include books that outline how to build a tree properly and how to cite our sources. Over the years, I’ve learned much by trial and error, but given my history background, never made the mistake of just merging info from other trees as my natural inclination was to go through an analytical process before accepting anything. That’s likely why it took me almost 30 years to break down the mystery of the above-mentioned Caroline Lawley’s background (though had more records been as easily available to me now in the 90s, it might have taken me less time).

    Sorry for the screed. Also, love the Tribbles reference!!

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    • Judyth Neuzil says:

      As a person that has volunteered to transcribe in the past, I find that many do not understand the role of the transcriber. We were required to type EXACTLY what was contained in the field. We were not allowed to interpret it even if common sense indicated it was in error. As a newbie transcriber I went to great lengths to check several years of census, etc, to make sure that I was putting in the correct spelling and such. Two people would transcribe the same record and if there was a difference a more experienced transcriber would choose which was correct. They always went with the literal translation even if it was incorrect. The person whose interpretation was rejected was then assessed an error. That was very discouraging and many transcribers drop out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As someone who worked for the UK National Archives on the release of the 1901 and 1911 censuses I have a lot of experience of transcription and have nothing but admiration for people who voulnteer to take it on! It’s a thankless task, I know.

        My issue with Ancestry is that the end result all-too-often isn’t good enough and that suggests to me that either their transcription rules or their quality control process isn’t up to the task!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I should have made that clear – the main issue is that Ancestry doesn’t provide clear enough guidelines for those who don’t have the background. I know, as I have done some transcribing for them (Middlesex Parish Records). In the John Poole burial record example, where it’s pretty clear Back Church Yard is a location, not a name, there should be an instruction not to transcribe directly in that case. And their quality control should be better. Last night I was frustrated by the fact that the one baptism I needed from a Parish Register page hadn’t been indexed. Not that I can’t add the information myself in RootsMagic, but adding it directly to Ancestry is also helpful.

          I think part of the issue as well is that it’s not actually transcription, but indexing – and the point of indexing (I’m a librarian) is to provide as many access points for users as possible. In the case of Ancestry, those access points are the names, dates, locations etc we use as search paramters.

          Again, I wasn’t meaning to bash anyone who takes the time to volunteer with Ancestry (or any other genealogy record provider) to index record sets. It’s always easier to read a name/location/occupation if you know what you’re looking for.

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      • Judyth – thanks for pointing out that I had not expressed myself properly and made it appear that I was blaming the indexers. I too have done indexing and know how time-consuming it is and always try my best to be as accurate as possible. My issue is with Ancestry for making their guidelines so rigid that it doesn’t take into account that record keepers didn’t always follow the rules and that there will always be exceptions. Telling people to enter things exactly as they see them can be a recipe for disaster – instead, they should give examples of when that “rule” can be bent (as with the John Poole burial record example).

        My works were written in haste and I’m sorry for not reading them over before posting and making clear what I meant.

        Like

  12. Cindy Tyson says:

    So totally agree!! Ancestry’s latest commercials tell people that they can just enter a name and in no time at all have their whole family tree. To me this just adds to the erroneous information in the public trees. Familysearch.org is even worse. Somehow one of my lines has been taken back to the 1400’s. There is a major error that puts my ancestor as the child of a man who can’t possibly be the father. It doesn’t help that my ancestor is John Hood with no known middle name. I have a marriage record for him but in 30+ years have never found parents or siblings for him. Never found a birth or death verification either. I have found Wikitree.com to be a better source for collecting and maintaining my information. It is free and documentation/proof is necessary. Other genealogists help with finding data.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yes – a big one with me as well…and that DNA is the be all and end all of genealogy…it’s an element, like any other.

      As for the FamilySearch Tree, they really do need a big disclaimer on it. The record sets at FamilySearch are incredible, especially now we can dig deep into the catalogue and browse ones that haven’t been indexed yet (I’ve found many records that way), however, the tree is a menace without any context for the uninitiated. So many mistakes by people who clearly have no idea what they’re doing. I try to fix things on my line where I can, but don’t have the time (or frankly, the energy, knowing someone might argue with me) to devote to a wholesale rewrite of certain lines.

      Like

    • Liz Francis says:

      I had an uncle, John Hood – Scottish ambulance driver, wounded and died 1918 Wife Agnes.

      Like

  13. Michelle says:

    Totally agree. I just removed an incorrect husband and children from a woman on Family Search tree at the weekend. This ‘husband’ was from the Isle of Wight, getting married in Essex to Emily who has lived entirely in Shropshire. What was particularly maddening was that Emily, along with her correct husband Herbert, were RIGHT THERE in the census still living with her parents!!! Didn’t even need to search for it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Someone has my 4th great-grandmother married to two men and having babies with them in the same Cambridgeshire village at the same time…I’m not kidding you. The truth is that my 4th ggm had a cousin with the same name, who was a year different from her in age – they married within three months of each other, but the marriage register doesn’t indicate who the father was of either of them (pretty common for records from 1799/1800), so we don’t actually know WHICH Hannah Izzard married Jesse Pearce. I have done extensive research on this trying to untangle the knot with no success. Whoever put this twig onto the tree didn’t bother to actually think or dig into the records, just assumed one woman named Hannah Izzard was committing bigamy and defying the laws of reproductive nature all in a very small village apparently with no-one the wiser!

      Sorry – rant over.

      Like

  14. Judith says:

    Really agree here. The best (or worst) example I have found is a person noted now to be in 160 Ancestry family trees. Female born 1807 London to a wealthy family but who clearly dies of smallpox in 1808. She has baptism and 2 burial records ( they moved her body and reburied her with her brother with Bishops approval) with parents names, dates and residence all 100% clear but she is noted as having emigrated to New Zealand in 1841 with a husband and an illegitimate child. A cursory check shows the emigrant was from Kent, a totally different person. Every time you search now the wrong records come up for her so they are just copied into more trees.

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