A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing
What a ridiculous concept! Ancestry.com dangerous? How can America's most beloved genealogical resource that has allowed more than two million members access to nearly sixteen billion records since its inception back in the 1980s possibly be dangerous? Isn't that a bit hyperbolic? Well......maybe.
Thank goodness Ancestry appears to have abandoned – for the moment, anyway – the execrable marketing ploy “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just look.” The online ancestor hunting service now has a new gig going in the DNA business: spit in a tube and they'll tell you all about yourself. It's interesting. I tried it and the resulting ratios were about as expected. No twists, no turns, no surprises. Unlike the poor schmuck in the TV commercial who had to trade in his lederhosen for a kilt. Or the stunner some lady got when her Ancestry DNA test revealed that the doc who ran the local fertility clinic turned out to be her biological daddy. Ooops!
Please don't misunderstand. I love Ancestry.com. It's an amazing resource on which I have heavily relied for many years. What I don't love is the potential for misuse and abuse that can make it – as I said – dangerous. Let me explain.
Have you ever said something like “I know just enough to be dangerous?” Or maybe you've heard the old expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” (Even though the actual quote is “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”) In either case, the idiom refers to people who gain a modicum of knowledge about a given subject and then believe themselves to be experts capable of managing much more than they actually can, often to the detriment of themselves and/or others. Many times, this is the case with Ancestry.com users.
Ancestry.com and its many derivative competitors are like tools. When employed by skilled hands, they can yield fantastic results. But when wielded by clumsy amateurs.......well, it ain't gonna be pretty. That's why I got so exercised over that stupid slogan. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Just going online and plundering and blundering around in the dark is a sure recipe for disaster. It's like giving a five-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and telling him to take it for a spin. The resulting carnage will be unpleasant.
I spent more than forty years skulking around dusty archives, courthouses, churches, libraries, and newspaper morgues and stomping about in dozens of remote cemeteries in search of my ancestors. I turned over the odometers on several cars. I interviewed scores of old relatives, old friends and old neighbors. I spent more money than I care to think about on photocopies, certified copies, fees, and postage. I squinted at dark, grainy photographs until my eyes blurred. I attempted to decipher illegible records recorded by people who could barely write. I found out that a surname with four or five letters can be spelled forty or fifty different ways. In short, I dotted every “i,” crossed every “t” and empirically verified every jot and tittle of available information. Then and only then, after I had established a rock solid base and knew what the hell I was looking for, did I begin to utilize resources like Ancestry.com. Through Ancestry and other Internet sources, I was able to cap off decades of work, adding details and finishing touches I would otherwise not have been able to access. Like finding out the name of the ship that carried my great grandfather from Liverpool to Boston. Or finding his name in nineteenth century English census records. I published the results of my quest in a profusely illustrated and exhaustively researched book that thoroughly chronicled the roots of the family back to the early eighteenth century.
Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a distant cousin who informed me that he had started working on the family tree online as a hobby seven or eight years ago and had traced us all the way back through British kings and queens to the ninth or tenth century and he was willing to share his work. I was too busy weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth to really pay much attention. To think I had wasted forty-five years and all that money and tire rubber and shoe leather when all I really had to do was spend a few minutes sitting on my ass in a chair and punching a computer keyboard. Wow!
And kings and queens yet! My old Aunt Tootsie warned me at the start of my journey that I might find “some old horse thieves.” Guess what, Auntie? Moonshiners? Yes. Old men who married their young step-daughters or got their teenage nieces pregnant? Yes. Liars, philanderers, relatives who hung themselves in barns and in mental institutions? Yep. Found them, too. But no horse thieves. Lots of farmers and a few craftsmen, but no kings or queens.
Of course, everybody wants to be related to somebody famous. And that's part of why Ancestry and its ilk can be so dangerous. If I had a nickel for everyone who wanted to be related to a Founding Father back when I was doing professional genealogical research during the years surrounding the 1976 bicentennial, I'd be a rich man today. Disappointingly for many, not everybody gets to be famous. Most people walking around today are descended from common farmers, merchants, tradesmen, and the like. And unless you can conclusively trace your lineage to some of Europe's patrician families, the chances of finding any records predating the sixteenth century or so are pretty slim. Ancestry has enormous resources documenting about two hundred countries. But even Ancestry can't get you back to Adam and Eve; their data well bottoms out in the 1300s.
A lot of those earliest records are sketchy and sparse and come from church collections. Don't go on Ancestry expecting to find your great-great-great grandfather's birth certificate all framed and waiting for you. Birth, marriage, and death records weren't required to be kept on a civil level until the early twentieth century. You might find a few on a catch-as-catch-can basis dating from about the mid-nineteenth century. Before that you're largely at the mercy of ecclesiastical records of various sorts. Census records aren't very helpful much before 1850. Prior to that, censuses usually named only the head of the household; anybody else living in the dwelling was a number, i.e. “4 males, 3 females.”
But I'm wandering off topic. Let me get back to why I consider Ancestry.com to be dangerous. In a nutshell, Ancestry and similar services allow people to practice what I call “make it fit” genealogy. Let's say you've talked to Grandma and gotten a few twigs to populate your family tree. Now you go on Ancestry, armed with these vague references, and start searching. Lo and behold, little “leaves” start cropping up. Admittedly, some of those “leaves” don't exactly jibe with what Grandma told you, but, jeez, they're awfully close and they would enable you to leap back another generation or two in your search, so you just take the questionable data you've found and “make it fit” in order to branch out your family tree. Never mind that you may have inadvertently grafted an entirely different species onto your root stock. It's close enough and it gets you back to the kings and queens of England.
I have seen published references on Ancestry to women giving birth to children fewer than nine months apart. I have seen records of children born more than a year after their father died. I have seen instances where a person dies but is still listed as living in a particular locale six months later. Some careless, clueless clown killed my great-great grandmother thirty or so years before she actually died. How did that happen? Simple. There was a reference recorded in somebody's incomplete online genealogy that said she died “after 1875” because that was apparently the last this person had seen of her. Well, the next person in line sort of forgot the “after” notation and just listed her date of death as “1875.” And the next person and the next person and the next person perpetuated the error. Now you've got a dozen published records on Ancestry.com that swear this woman died in 1875. Of course, the fact that she lived until 1907 is immaterial. People saw it on Ancestry so it must be true.
Ancestry.com has something it calls “OneWorldTree.” It's described as “one big community family tree. OneWorldTree takes family trees submitted by Ancestry members that were 'stitched' together with family trees and historical records from other sources. OneWorldTree identified probable name matches between these sources and now displays consolidated results in a worldwide family tree that can help you with your family history research.”
Okay. That sounds just ducky. Well, I found one of my uncles hanging on this “community tree.” I'll call him “Uncle Joe.” According to OneWorldTree, “Uncle Joe” was married twice within a four year period. His first marriage in 1922 was to a woman named “Sarah.” According to the tree, he married again in 1926, this time to a woman named “Jane.” So, let's say I'm a “newbie.” I don't have to know where to look, I'm just looking, right? And here I just found good old “Uncle Joe” on “OneWorldTree” and now I know that he was married twice to women named “Sarah” and “Jane.” I'd better write that down in the old family tree! It's on Ancestry so it must be accurate.
But wait. As it turns out, I knew “Uncle Joe” really well when I was growing up. Used to visit him nearly every day. And I knew all his kids. And I knew and really liked his one-and-only wife, my aunt “Sarah Jane” whom he married in 1924 and with whom he remained until his death fifty years later. Think maybe somebody ought to prune that branch on the old community tree?
So my cuz has it all figured out, eh? Ninth century kings and queens, eh? He probably stumbled on somebody's “wonder tree.” These are full-blown genealogies all researched and written out for you. Just cut and paste and pass it on to the kiddies.
But who's to say that the author of that tree knew his genealogical ass from a hole in the ground? I found a couple of these “wonder trees” while researching a detail about my great-grandmother. According to one of them, she died while giving birth to my grandmother. Hmmmm. Then whose obituary did I read in newspapers dated seventeen years later? I'm sure my great-grandfather would have been astonished to find that the woman he buried in 1890 after a long battle with cancer had actually died in childbirth back in 1873. Better still, another “leaf” lead to a tree that correctly identified my great-grandmother's birth year as 1836. Unfortunately, it also showed that her mother was born in 1832. Ooops! Somebody must have missed that little detail. Another genealogical gem mined from Ancestry.com noted that my great-grandmother had four daughters. This much is true. But the tree went on to list them chronologically by name, and here's where the branches began to shake. The girls were born in 1868, 1871, 1872, and 1873. Except that the daughter born in 1872 had a different last name than the ones born in 1868, 1871, and 1873. How does that work? The daughter that this idiot just threw in there to make her fit was actually born in 1862, the product of a previous marriage.
Be honest with yourself; if you knew nothing about your family and saw stuff like this on the Internet while you were just “looking around,” would you know what to make of it? Probably not.
And God help you if you try to correct somebody's error on Ancestry! I've had my head handed to me for trying to set the record straight. How dare I question somebody's painstaking research? Research that they undoubtedly spent hours online researching? Who was I to correct their work? Never mind the fact that the error I was trying to correct involved my own mother. What the hell did I know?
I have another cousin who means well. He's even made a couple of fact finding trips beyond his computer desk. The problem is he often jumbles the facts he finds. For instance, he published a photo on Ancestry that showed my grandfather, one of my aunts, and a little girl of about ten years of age. They were fishing. He correctly identified Grandpa and the aunt, but he labeled the little girl standing with them as my oldest sister. Sadly, my sister never stood a day in her short life. Born with cerebral palsy, she died when she was seven and never went fishing with anybody. The little girl in the picture was actually the daughter of another aunt and uncle, a cousin who happened to have the same first name as my sister. I tried to correct him, but the picture's still there for somebody else to reference and misidentify.
Genealogy is much more than entering a name in a search box and seeing what somebody else has come up with. Sometimes it requires detective work that would make Agatha Christie's “Hercule Poirot” proud. For example, I once found an error in an old memorial book from a relative's funeral. The date of death listed conflicted with official records and family memories. It was a year off. A call to the funeral home confirmed the error. The death occurred in January and apparently whomever recorded it in the funeral book just wasn't used to writing the new year yet!
Sometimes things carved in stone shouldn't be. The birth date is wrong on an uncle's gravestone because his second wife – to whom he had been married only a few weeks when he died – didn't know the correct date when she provided the information to the monument company. I knew that not because I saw it online, but because I had copies of his birth certificate and other corroborating documents obtained at the county courthouse.
I spent years butting my head against the wall of my great-grandmother's past. Try as I might, I couldn't find a thing about her beyond census records and some newspaper clippings. Not even on Ancestry. Then one day I was going over some of those old newspaper records I'd had in my possession for decades. There was a notation about her being visited by her aunt, “Mrs. Doctor So-and So.” Light bulb moment! The doctor being quite prominent in the community, let's see what we can find out about his wife the aunt. Bingo! Records back to before the American Revolution. In which, it turns out, a family member served. Seems that a few members of the family – my great-grandmother and her aunt included – had significantly changed the spelling of their surname for some reason, which is why I had been hitting the wall for so long. Once I found the right name, I found the right path. But I didn't find the beginning of that path plundering blindly around on Ancestry. It was a clipping from a local newspaper – an actual physical document in my hand – that got me started. Once I knew what I was looking for, Ancestry helped me find the rest.
A powerful tool. That's what Ancestry.com is and that's how it should be used. But in the same manner that you can't just pick up a hammer and a saw and build a mansion, you can't just log on to an Internet site and construct a family tree. When a sculptor creates a work in stone, he doesn't just go down to the masterpiece store and look around for a completed project. He cuts the stone out of a quarry then begins the arduous task of chipping away at it with rough tools. After months of backbreaking labor, he's ready to employ finer, more precise tools to bring out the features and polish the surface.
I could go on and on with analogies about going to kindergarten before you go to college or about not trying to climb your family tree from the top down, but I think I've made my point. You simply have to know at least a little bit about what you're doing before you start using resources like Ancestry.com. Otherwise you're going to spend all your time running up blind alleys and down dead-end streets before ultimately hitting a wall and either making egregious mistakes or just quitting outright.
Final illustration: I entered my grandfather's name into the search box on Ancestry. That's all you need to do, right? And all the answers will automatically come to you, right? Yeah, right. When I entered his name, I got more than seventeen thousand results. Only about a dozen actually related to him. Not only were there men of the same name scattered all over the world, there were several who were born about the same time and lived in or near the same place. And there's no way I would have been able to sort it all out if I hadn't already known what to look for.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and places like Ancestry.com can definitely be sources of a little knowledge.