Do you use Ancestry? if you are serious about researching your own family you will
probably have come across it. Perhaps you have dipped into it using pay as you go credits, or maybe you have taken out one of its subscription plans. Over the last thirty years it has grown into the biggest online genealogy site on the web, claiming to hold 10 billion records and servicing more than three million subscribers.
One of the services it has added over the years is the ability for subscribers to add their own family trees. The site makes it easy for them to link to records held by Ancestry such as images of census records or parish registers. When searching for one of your own ancestors you may well have been taken to at least one user-generated family tree that has a record for the person you are researching.
Professional genealogists are rigorous about checking facts. No professional worth his or her salt will make an assertion without having the evidence to back it up. We look back at the original records, whether wills, BMD registers or censuses. When I put a fact on a clients family tree I can show exactly where I found that information and which document I used to support my assertion.
None of that attention to detail applies in many Ancestry trees. In fairness some are painstakingly researched, with each event and fact scrupulously linked back to an original source. It is possible to discover exactly what document was used to verify the event, and in which archive the original document is kept. You still shouldn't rely on the tree but at least the information will enable you to make those checks yourself.
Ancestry takes no responsibility for the information in the trees on its site and, worse, there is no compulsion whatsoever for the creator of the tree to check any of the facts. Too many of them cite no source at all for the information. They will allege Fred Bloggs was living at a certain address at a certain time, but give no evidence to back it up.
Most professional genealogists have come across some real horrors in Ancestry trees. I have found instances of parents allegedly marrying their own children. Individuals being shown as dying on a certain date when a simple check would show they were having children five years later. I found one last year where a family member was shown as having died in 1943 when, in fact he lived until the 1980s. The person researching had found a similar name in the same geographical and just assumed it was the same person.
The worst mistakes I have seen are where researchers use another Ancestry tree as the source for the evidence, without checking anything else. I have just finished work for a client which included an individual who died in 1849. This man appeared in six Ancestry trees, only one of which had got the death year right. All the others asserted he had died in 1823 because they had copied the information from another tree which itself had no evidence cited. It was wrong. This error had just duplicated itself because people assumed the tree was correct and did not seek to check it.
You might ask why this matters. Surely the person building the tree is just doing it as a hobby; a bit of fun. Well, back in the days when people were doing this at home, and keeping a record on bits of paper, it probably would not have mattered very much because very few other people would have sen it. But once something goes onto the internet, it reproduces at a very fast rate and the web has no way of deciding whether something is true or not.
It takes a little time to check genealogical facts. It may require a knowledge of archive sources that not everyone has, which is why people do turn to professionals to do their research. However people will, for various reasons, prefer to do it themselves. I would just ask that, for the sake of future generations, if not for your own peace of mind, that you rigorously check any information before adding it to your tree.