Why You Can't Always Trust Information Found at Genealogy Websites:
Keeping Genealogy Sources Honest with Citations


Elizabeth E. Bullard
August 17, 2012

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When we hear something that we think might be an urban legend, we can count on Snopes to set us straight. When a politician makes some wild statement that we’re not too sure is true, we can count on PolitiFact or FactCheck to rate that statement and give us the real low-down. When a man tells us something that maybe smells a bit fishy at first, we can rest assured that he’s being honest by his handshake and his good reputa… errrm… wait… scratch that one. Anyway, it's too bad that we don't have a handy website where we can go to check the legitimacy of genealogical facts.

Can genealogists trust the information that they find at genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, Rootsweb and FamilySearch? Those websites are reputable, right? If Ancestry.com indicates that the name of your great-uncle’s second child was Roseanne Roseannadanna and then FamilySearch indicates that you descend in a direct blood line from your 8th-great-grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, you really have something to get excited about, right? It’s all so legitimate-looking. Besides, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch wouldn’t post such things if they weren’t true. Hold yer horses there, pardner! Don’t prepare a lawsuit on behalf of your cousin against the estate of Gilda Radner for misappropriation of name just yet. Likewise, you’d better hold off a bit before you purchase that ticket to England so you can stake your claim as a descendant of the Tudor family.

First, consider the real source. Is it possible that someone has provided Ancestry.com and FamilySearch with erroneous information? You betcha. Now, that doesn’t mean that the person that put the information on those websites was some malicious evildoer. In fact, that person probably got his or her information from another erroneous source. The real problem is that inexperienced genealogy researchers don’t know that they need to cite the sources of the information that they collect. So, they dump someone else’s erroneous data into their family tree software, upload it to a genealogy site and BAM! One more family tree that perpetuates a lie and presents it as fact. On and on we go, one tree after another, perpetuating the erroneous information and even adding more erroneous information. Well, now we've done it. We've got a true cluster...erm... nevermind. Anyway, by citing our sources, we convey to others where we obtained our information and how to verify it. We also show that we have researched and analyzed our data in an organized and thorough fashion.

The bottom line is this: Don’t trust any information from any source that cannot be verified by going to the reliable or documented source itself. The information compiled and published by genealogy sites is only as good as the researcher that put it there. Yes, this includes researchers for the LDS Church. Genealogy websites are perfect jumping off points and a great way to get started when you’ve hit a brick wall with one ancestor or another, but take the time to go back and check the actual sources. Verify that what you are putting into your family tree is the truth.

Just because some guy named Bubba in a Rootsweb forum says that he knows for a fact that your 4x-great-grandfather was Aloysius Albin Coolio McPhee because Tammy posted that fact in an answer to his query on GenForum and she has the data, which she has verified personally through FamilySearch and then uploaded into a family tree at Ancestry.com does not, my friend, make it true.

If you're interested, look for a furture article by me about evaluating records, sources, and evidence.