The Accuracy of Online Family Trees

I do a lot of work for clients that have found an online family tree, such as those on Ancestry or MyHeritage, and so I am often asked to use these as a starting point. I have therefore seen a good many over the years, presented in this series of blog posts are some of my observations about where people make mistakes, and how you can get an idea of how accurate what you find might be.

Firstly, I am not completely against the sharing of genealogical data online (if there are safeguards over data about living people), although I do personally keep my trees private—I have had people take the data that I have spent many hours carefully researching, and then tagging on complete nonsense. Therein lies the problem: the data they contain is only as good as the research skills of the person that created them, or that blindly copied them, and carried on adding to them.

In this post, I will look at some of the “danger signs” with an emphasis on dates and places, that suggest the data you have found in an online tree is probably wrong, or at the very least, questionable.

  1. No exact dates: for example, a year only. Sometimes an exact date cannot be found, and so a date might be an estimate, or based on an age at a known point in someone’s life. This should really be the rarity and is usually a sign that someone hasn’t found a record that proves what they are looking for. Even if this is the case, the date should really be expressed as approximate, for example “about” or “circa”, to show that it is such. Most genealogical software (including Ancestry’s online tree) can handle this sort of ambiguous date.
  2. The wrong kind of dates: Prior to 1837 in England and Wales (1855 in Scotland), it is more usual to not have an exact date of when someone was born. There are always exceptions, but for most ancestors the closest date we have is likely to be the date of their baptism. Whilst a baptism usually occurred within a few days or weeks of a child’s birth, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes parents would have a few children baptised on the same day—in a family baptism—the older children possibly being several years old. A similar phenomenon occurs with burials and deaths. Before the start of civil registration, it is more usual to have date of burial—probably only a few days after the death—than it is to have the exact date of death. If a tree has only birth and death dates for people born or died before 1837, then be warned that the author probably doesn’t know what they are doing.
  3. Not allowing for the Julian Calendar: Prior to 1752 in England and Wales (1600 in Scotland), the Julian Calendar was in use. Under this, New Year’s Day was not 1 January, but 25 March (Lady Day) So March was the first month. Out of interest, this is why some months sound like numbers, but they don’t match with their current numbering: September (Sept is seven in French, but September is the 9th month); October (An Octopus has eight legs, but October is the 10th month); November (Novem is nine in Latin, but November is the 11th month); December (Decimal is ten, but December is the 12th month). The consequence is that between 1 January and 24 March, the people at the time would have considered the year to be one less than we now would. For example, if we found a baptism of an ancestor born on 14 February 1600 (as shown in the original register), this would be in what we would consider 1601, and therefore, by convention in genealogy, we would write the date as 14 February 1600/1 to make this clear. To the best of my knowledge, the Ancestry tree doesn’t support this kind of dating, so it is unavoidable to correct the date to one form or the other. However, sometimes an amateur has not properly interpreted this date. For example, it would be quite possible for a child to be baptised on 31 December 1700, and buried on 1 January 1700, i.e. the following day, which is better expressed as 1 January 1700/1. When the British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar (which replaced the Julian Calendar), an adjustment was also needed to bring the days back in line with the equinoxes. The Julian calendar didn’t allow properly for leap years, and so had been getting out of synchronisation for nearly 1800 years since it was introduced in 45BC. Therefore, in the British Empire, 2 September 1752 (a Wednesday) was followed by 14 September (a Thursday), with the lost ten days adjusting the calendar back to where it should have been. Obviously, if an online tree you have found showed that someone in the British Empire was born on 5 September 1752, be very wary of the accuracy. Further information can be found about the Julian Calendar on Wikipedia.

In the next post I will continue to look at some of the danger signs to look for in online trees.