Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Using Ancestry Family Trees in Research

It is commonly accepted that while online genealogies may provide helpful hints, as a whole they tend to be unreliable or at least poorly sourced. I often use WorldConnect to find “leads” on families and also as an avenue to get in touch with other researchers. However, up until recently I had made only limited use of Ancestry’s Public Member Trees as a separate search function. They didn’t seem to provide any more information than any other online genealogies and often even less in the way of sources. The best contacts I made through Ancestry searches were with researchers who had made corrections to census transcriptions or other database entries or who contacted me through my corrections.

However, the tie-in to Ancestry trees that now appears on the image page as a function of the search parameters used has turned out to be far more helpful than I expected. This has been especially convincingly demonstrated by my most recent project, the compilation of a database of candidate families from Tennessee for my brick wall, Susan Elizabeth Smith. This is a fairly sizeable set of families selected based on the following criteria: last name Smith, a daughter named Elizabeth/Elisabeth, Lizzie, or Susan (or appropriate initials) born between 1866 and 1870, plus the family should be residing in Tennessee or at least Lizzie should have been born there. Right now there are 60+ families in the database, although a number of them have been relegated to the bottom (= least likely) categories based on the poor fit of certain data to the established profile.

And this is where the family trees come in useful – they often contain the additional information that reveals a poor fit; in other words, the “negative evidence” that I am looking for in order to narrow down the group of likely families: the daughter of interest may have died young, never have married, or married a different person. In deciding to whether or not to accept the information as provided I go by how complete and carefully presented the information on the family is: if the researcher has provided complete names (not just the names that appear on the census) and dates, has provided sources within Ancestry constraints, etc. And the sources listed add another benefit: they provide links to the databases – usually a census page – used as the source, so this is often an even easier way than doing a regular search for finding more information on the family. It has helped me confirm my “paired” families (families found on both 1870 and 1880 censuses and identifiable as the same families) and in one case revealed a mistake I had made in connecting an 1880 family to what I thought was the same family in 1870. This information has also helped me with a couple of families that I refer to as “Initial Families” – families with only initials and a last name. In only a couple of cases have I found what I believe are dubious connections.

I would sum up the advantages of the Public Member Tree tie-ins as follows:

1. Potentially useful researcher contacts
2. Finding family members in other censuses
3. “Negative” or supporting evidence for the identity of the family

So, while I will continue to approach online genealogies with caution, I have come to appreciate the usefulness of Ancestry Public Member Trees as an integrated research tool.

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