Why do we keep all these people in our family trees?
At one point, I had close to six thousand individuals in my public tree on ancestry.com. Some branches of my public tree were meticulously researched over many years, but others are merely copied from other trees, or represent basic, easy-to-reproduce research that I no longer maintain because I don’t really care about those people.
When I look at a person in my public tree, I ask myself three questions:
- Am I making a significant contribution to the person or lineage?
- If I’m not making a big contribution, have I at least done enough due diligence to feel confident that the information on my tree is correct?
- If I haven’t done my due diligence, then do I really care about this person or lineage?
If I can’t answer yes to at least one of those questions, I delete that person from my tree.
Why? What harm is it to have some extra branches in my tree?
Genealogy today is really a crowd-sourced exercise—we all borrow and rely upon the work of others, adding our unique contributions here and there. That means we copy errors from other trees, and errors in our tree can be copied elsewhere, magnifying the mistake.
That’s the harm, and it is extremely difficulty to stop the spread of an error because… well, large parts of most trees are just copied, and the owners of those trees don’t really care about the branch with the error.
More important, the repetition of the error can create an illusion of truth: the more times you see the erroneous lineage, the more likely you will believe it to be true.
It’s all a bit of a vicious circle.
My favorite example is a Pennsylvania Dutchman named George Slough. There were several men by that name, and thirty or forty years ago, a family researcher merged the George Slough who migrated to Pelham Ontario from Pennsylvania in the 1790s with a George Slough of about the same age who died unmarried and childless in Pennsylvania in 1759. It’s quite easy to prove they are different men, but with dozens of trees and a long-accepted genealogy, not a single person has modified their trees, even though I can provide an alternate lineage. A few have even been openly hostile to me.
The same goes for supposition and educated guesses: given enough time, a guess can morph into fact.
A great is George Harding, my wife’s purported 3rd great grandfather. Every tree I’ve seen on ancestry and familysearch list him as such along with a detailed lineage for him going back generations. I copied the entire thing but when I dug in more deeply months later, I couldn’t find any evidence that George or his parents even existed.
Eventually, I traced the source for his existence—a genealogy researched in the 1970s which explicitly stated that the only evidence was a handwritten note on the fly-leaf of a book, and that researcher couldn’t find any further evidence. They even wrote that they hoped someone in the future would have better luck!
Not a single tree recorded that this lineage was just a guess, and now that it’s been 40 years, it’s essentially become fact. That’s no help to anyone.