Genealogy and the Internet

Finding Gold Amongst the Trash

This page created 30 Apr 2008

There are several distinct types of useful genealogical data available on the Internet:

The utility of the first two types of information is obvious. It’s the most maligned of Internet sources, user-contributed genealogies, that I focus on in this article, in which I offer the viewpoint that even these records can be of value if carefully used.

User-Contributed Genealogies

On the Internet, published genealogies are found primarily in three forms:

Collectively, these are often called user-submitted genealogies. Like their counterparts published on paper, the quality of the information they contain varies widely.

Traditionally published genealogies have long included fanciful, careless, and even fraudulent information. Careful researchers know they need to regard with suspicion anything that is not well documented, and to check even that which appears to be supported with source citations. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to publish the results of one’s research, and as a result there is much more family history information published. And, sometimes encouraged by the practices of some vendors, a disproportionate share is published by novice researchers with little understanding of sound research practices.

Does this mean that all family histories on the Internet should be dismissed? Not at all. But it does require that those who would seek to make use of these sources adopt strategies for separating the nuggets that might be there from the abundance of distracting data. Consider these genealogies as clues, finding aids, and gateways to collaboration. They can suggest theories to research, provide aids to finding source information, and provide a means to identify others researching the same lines.

Recognizing Worthwhile Data

How do you find worthwhile information among the torrent of questionable data being provided? Some traditional tools are still helpful in identifying reliable contributors. Are sources cited? Does the data reflect care? For example are the place names appropriate for the time period? But Internet genealogies, especially those published on the major family history sites, offer additional helpful clues.

The most useful, I think, is whether the data is unique. When the same individual is listed dozens, or even hundreds, of times in a site index, it may be nearly impossible to tell which data reflects actual research, and which was simply copied off similar submissions. But information appearing only once or a few times suggests a submitter who has found something others haven’t.

Recognizing Unique Information - an Example

An example may illustrate the point. I was researching an ancestor who immigrated in the mid-19th century with a number of siblings. The father’s given and surname was known from several sources, but the mother, who apparently had died when the children were young, was completely unknown. From family notes, we knew of the father’s second marriage. A search for the father on a popular user-submitted database yielded a single entry for the father and the second wife. Good news – absence of multiple postings for this person suggested the submitter might have some unique sources.

I contacted the submitter, who lives in Germany, and is a distant relative of the second wife. He had two things I did not – the full four names of the father, and knowledge of the villages around the family’s home community. This enabled him to locate in the IGI (International Genealogical Index, accessible on a likely marriage record from a nearby town, a task I would likely never have accomplished with such a common surname. There were four marriages in the time period of men matching all four names, so knowledge of the places, not shown on maps I’ve found, helped too. Examination of the source of the IGI entry, a parish record, revealed a note that the groom was from the expected village, substantiating that we had found the correct marriage. Through further research of that parish register several additional generations of ancestors were found.

Another Example

The technique of looking for submittals with unique information can be helpful in other contexts as well. Rather than seeking persons posted rarely, one can look for unusual information about a person who is listed many times over. Another example demonstrates this approach. I was researching the ancestry of a female ancestor who lived in 17th century Virginia. Her second husband was erroneously identified as her father in published works in the late 19th century. Even though this error was disclosed by 1901, some published works, and many Internet genealogies, continue to perpetuate it.

A 1984 social science text purports to identify her father, but offers no source information. I searched the user-submitted databases, focusing on those that claimed to identify her father, and rejecting those with the known error. There was a manageable number remaining, and I contacted each submitter. Most, as expected, had nothing to offer, but a few had done serious work on the line. I received information helpful in identifying original sources that documented the ancestor’s three marriages and other facts, but no definitive proof identifying her father.

Finally, one contact revealed the repository of the authors’ notes for the textbook with the tempting identification. Unfortunately, a search of the voluminous notes showed that no source was shown for the key information. But at least I knew I hadn’t overlooked a source that had been found by the authors.

These are but two examples that show how user-submitted genealogies, when carefully screened for clues, may lead to finding helpful fellow researchers and locating useful source information. After locating potentially useful submissions, the key is to contact the submitter. Many will be able to offer nothing more than “I got that from someone, but don’t recall who,” if they respond at all. But a few will lead to valuable contacts. Of course, always verify from original sources. Even apparently careful researchers make errors in reading or transcribing sources, or simply overlook something. This is true for information published on the Internet just as with any other source of information.

Turn the Tables - Submit Your Own Data

An alternate way to use user-submitted data sites is to turn the tables, that is, submit your own data and let helpful people find you. I have an extract of my data posted both on a popular user-submitted database site and also on my own website. I recommend posting on both because I find active researchers tend to use the known genealogy sites, while cousins casually browsing the Web tend to use regular Internet search engines. These search engines cannot search the commercial databases, but do find personal websites such as mine. I find both types of contacts helpful, but in different ways. As one would expect, I find most of the resulting contacts produce little of value, but occasionally a real gem appears in my email inbox. One such contact lead me to a previously unfound second cousin who was able to relate fascinating stories about her early years, and thus shed light on the circumstances of my father’s life in the years between leaving home and his marriage, a period I knew little about.

Another Example

Sometimes these contacts can yield significant research breakthroughs. In another example, I received an email from a researcher who had found familiar names in my posted database. They were the children of an ancestor who we knew only by her given name. My correspondent provided a transcription of a will naming those children as the testator’s grandchildren. Once this document established the mother of the children was the testator’s daughter, my correspondent provided information on three generations of additional ancestors and a marvelous story of the will-writer being captured and held by Indians. While I might have someday found the connection had I focused on this ancestor long enough, it is much more likely I would never have searched diligently enough to find it. And my correspondent solved the puzzle of the daughter’s marriage that had stumped her for years.

If you decide to post some of your information as a means of contacting cousins and fellow researchers (as opposed to doing so for the purpose of simply sharing your work) I suggest posting only minimal information. I include only birth, marriage, and death dates and places, and minimal source information. I include a prominent notice that source information is available, and invite correspondence to share information. All this is to encourage dialog with my readers, rather than encouraging them to simply copy my information anonymously. For an example of this approach, see my family history website.

Hopefully, these examples suggest how even that most “useless” of Internet sources, user-contributed data, can be a very useful aid in doing sound genealogical research.


Based on my article “The Internet – Boon to Genealogy!”
published in the Edmond Rice (1638) Association Newsletter
Vol. 78 No. 1 (Spring 2004)


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