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Are Other Family Trees a Reliable Research Source?

One of the best family history research tools on the Web also has the potential to cause the biggest headaches — other family trees.

The great thing about being able to browse others’ family trees is that some distant relative is probably researching some branch of your tree. Those people may have access to information and records that you don’t have. And by sharing trees online, you can each learn something new and grow your own.

The downside of using information from other family trees is that they’re one of the least reliable research tools out there.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as careful with their family tree as you might be. You might copy several generations into your tree only to find out later that there was a mistake and you wasted months or even years researching lines that aren’t actually your own.

Here are a few tips to help you make the most of online family tree collections:

  • Start with trees from family members you know. Maybe an aunt or grandparent started your tree at some point. If you personally know the creator, you can ask them questions if anything looks funny, and you can sometimes get access to source documents from them.
  • Always pay attention to sources. More importantly, verify them. When at all possible, try to get your hands on copies of original documents rather than just citations stating that the information came from a specific database.
  • Double check dates.┬áIf you use an automated tree-matching system for suggestions (like on Ancestry.com) pay very close attention to dates related to your ancestors. I’ve found they often match incorrect people (such as a father and son with the same name), trying to have you connect them as a single person. If you aren’t careful, you might accidentally approve one of these connections, which can throw your tree off by generations.

Do you have any other suggestions for using family tree databases in your genealogy research? Share them in the comments.

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