By Ericka Gizzard
I think there are many of us who have been lured in by the promise of that rippling green leaf, next to our ancestor’s name on Ancestry.com, filled with records and other users’ information. 47 hints?! That’s incredible! Those people in the commercials are so lucky! When I began researching my family history, clicking on that leaf was a given so much information just waiting with one little click, but with time and experience, the cry of “Don’t click the leaf!” became more prevalent at my house. Before I move ahead, I should say that I love that Ancestry juggernaut and use it religiously, so maybe for the purposes of this article I should amend my cry to don’t blindly click the leaf, and here’s why:
The leaf in question is a search result that aggregates records based on the information you have provided. If you only have a name then the results will be broad, and as you add information the search narrows. It’s important to keep in mind that the leaf itself is not the sum total of information available on your ancestor, many times it rarely touches the surface of the records available, but I want to focus on what does pop up.
The first thing that you will find are connections to other people’s trees, this one simple click originated “Don’t click the leaf!,” and I’ve grown to have a love-hate relationship with other people’s trees. On the one hand (the lovehand, if you will), there may be a distant cousin who happens to have a lot more information that will be invaluable to your search – an ancestor complete with a fully sourced and documented life and with pictures! Those people are great. Best fifth cousin twice removed on my paternal side ever! On the other hand (the hatehand), you have many “blind-clickers” who dump every bit of information into a tree, publish trees based on family-lore and hearsay, or are those people who have 36.9 million entries in their tree because they want to connect us all to Adam & Eve. I cannot stress enough that in either case, you must use your best and most critical judgement before adding any user’s information to your tree. Case in point, when I first began I added everyone’s information thinking that I was making grand connections, but what I soon found is that when I dumped information in from 7+ generations back, the information became dodgy and the dates started going backward. It messed up my tree so badly that I had to begin again.
The next thing that you will find are the records that pertain to your ancestor (use that term loosely). Some of these records will, without a shadow of doubt, be your ancestor, and others you have to research more. Always look at the record image and analyze the information before you make that critical judgement of whether to include it in your tree. Records that are more recent, such as late 19th & 20th Century records, provide more information and are easier to verify, but the further back you go, the more difficult it becomes to be certain.
The most important take-away in this is that you should not take someone else’s word for it – a critical eye and sound judgement before including information in your family history. Yes, in theory, it would be great to add an entire large and off-shooting branch to your tree, but what I’ve learned is not to add it for the sake of having it. You want your information to be correct and sourced – the millenias-old tree (people) that brought you here deserves to be sturdy and it grows over long spans of time, rarely in a day.