For most novice or casual genealogists, Ancestry.com is the Wikipedia of family history; information is robust, easily accessible and often free. While this resource has opened the genealogical doors for many looking for information on their family history and where they’re from, it can also present a problem for those looking to uncover truth. That’s because Ancestry.com and other sites such as FamilySearch.org, WikiTree.com and myheritage.com provide user-entered records, called Ancestry Member Trees. Other sites call them Family Trees usually. While the idea of pooling genealogical resources sounds compelling, the truth of the matter is that these trees are often inaccurate.

In a recent article for the Jersey Journal, Daniel Klein describes the problem stemming from Ancestry.com’s Ancestry Member Trees.  In Klein’s experience, an Ancestry.com search for his own family presents several egregious member trees. Of note, one Ancestry Member Tree lists his great-great grandfather born in 1858 and dying in 1859 of infantile cholera. This is likely because a novice genealogist used reputable data like the U.S. Census, but applied it to the wrong person. While their motives were likely harmless, untrained researchers may not have the innate discretion and skepticism of someone extensively trained in genealogy.

Of course, we cannot eliminate valuable resources like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, WikiTree.com or other online genealogical databases. What we can do is become more discerning about the information we find. Like good scientists, we must take collected data and cross-reference, cross-check and validat it before accepting it as truth.

Ancestry Member Trees (and other similar online resources) pose a very real problem for genealogists. At Price and Associates, Inc. we frequently find erroneous information in family trees that our clients have already accepted as complete and correct. In fact, we recently worked for a California client to compile pedigrees to add to his ancestral file. Through Ancestry.com, we found two of the client’s family trees – an exciting discovery! Unfortunately, we determined shortly that both trees were erroneous, leaving us back where we started.

As genealogists, we love the idea that family history is becoming more accessible to hobby and novice researchers looking to discover information about their ancestors. That said, we encourage those researchers to be discriminating of the information they find – they may be discovering a “family” that’s not theirs at all!