I’ve been a subscriber of Ancestry for many years. Hopefully I’ll stay a subscriber for many more years. My experience with Ancestry has taught me that it offers great benefits for research, but also provides novices with false and misleading information and can create genealogies that are worthless.
As a research tool, Ancestry is awesome – as long as you look at original sources and avoid relying on other subscribers’ family trees as shortcuts. On Ancestry you can find census records and voters lists, marriage records, birth records, death records, military records, directories, land and tax records, wills, reprints of archives, copies of old books, and on and on. Years ago this kind of information required a trip to the courthouse or library and waiting for interlibrary loans to provide microfilm of documents from remote sources. Today most of this information is available through Ancestry. Ancestry does NOT have everything – trips to the courthouse might still be required – but what Ancestry does provide has been a godsend to researchers.
AncestryDNA testing has been an important component to Ancestry using DNA testing to solve complex relationships and confirm or refute existing family trees. DNA testing must be used with traditional research techniques. It is not a shortcut or substitute for traditional research, but it does offer the promise to extend research beyond that offered by traditional research.
All of the research available on Ancestry can be used to build and validate family trees. Unfortunately too many Ancestry subscribers are lazy and ignore research and just adopt other’s family trees. This has a snowball effect. Let’s say that someone has bad information and (without proof) notes that Francis Muncy was married in Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts in 1659. A guess was made that Francis Muncy was born in England, and perhaps John Muncy and Margaret Huggins were the parents. These are guesses (and WRONG guesses I might add), but they are placed in a family tree on Ancestry. Someone else comes along and sees this information and assumes it is accurate and without any substantation this incorrect information is added into their family tree. Before long, dozens of people have incorporated absolutely incorrect information into their family trees without bothering to do any research!
Sounds bad, doesn’t it. If you check Francis Muncy, born 1650, on Ancestry, most of the information is absolutely wrong. It is sad, but much of this could be corrected with simple research. (How Ancestry family trees record Francis Muncy as being married in Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massaschusetts confounds me because the records are easily available that he was married in Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts.)
For this reason, you should always ASSUME that family tree information is wrong unless it is proven. Family trees can be helpful if used in the right way, but you have to be careful. I’ll admit that I have used information in Ancestry family trees, but only when I have very high confidence in it.
Here’s how I analyze the data in Ancestry family trees:
- Check the attached records and sources. If the only sources cited are other “Ancestry Family Trees”, then ignore the tree and move on. Nothing here can be trusted.
- If however records and sources are attached (other than trees), click on and check out those sources to verify accuracy. If the sources noted don’t verify or conflict with the information in the tree, then ignore the tree and move on. You can’t trust the data.
- If the records and sources appear valid and can be verified, then check the logic of the tree. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen individuals listed as a mother or father who died prior to the birth, examples of marriages that occured when the individuals were only ten or twelve years old, examples of mothers giving birth at age eight or eighty. Such examples show that the research or data entry is sloppy. Proceed with caution. Perhaps there was a typographical error, but get confirmation.
- There are times that a family tree is well documented, contains numerous sources, and very detailed. You can almost tell that such a tree was constructed from family resources, family documents, oral history, family bibles, etc. In such cases, I will give the tree the benefit of the doubt, but only as a guide to focus additional research UNLESS I am convinced that the researcher is truly serious and meticulous.
Despite the fact that Ancestry has an enormous subscriber base, communication with other subscribers can be problematic. I have (politely) contacted numerous individuals who have inaccurate information on Francis Muncy, and pointed out sources to prove the correct information. My most common response is….no response. The second most common response is an indication they are perfectly happy with the way they have it and don’t intend to make any changes, thank you very much. A few, very few, have said “thank you!” and updated their trees.
Ancestry does not provide email addresses of subscribers. To send a message to a susbcriber to ask a question, you must use Ancestry’s internal messaging system. Theortically an email is sent to the subscribers saying they have messages waiting for them at Ancestry. Unfortunatnely, that system is flawed and some messages never get delivered. Part of the problem may be due to the fact that many subscribers inadvertently turn off notifications to reduce promotional messages from Ancestry.
Another problem with communicating with other subscribers is the fact that many people don’t access Ancestry often. When preparing a message, you can see the last time a subscriber logged in. Some log in daily, but you will see that many have gone many months, even over a year, since the last log in. I guess patience is a virtue in those cases, but I don’t like asking a question and waiting a year for my response.
Whenever I DO establish contact with another Ancestry subscriber, I always provide my email address and suggest that future communication be via email, not the Ancestry messaging system. Some accept that. Others don’t.
All in all, Ancestry is a wonderful research service for those wanting to do genealogical research. But if you want to avoid the research and just use it to build a family trees from other family trees, it is not to be trusted.