I don't trust online family trees much. But I do utilize them on occasion. Maybe that's idiosynchratic, but it's the truth.
I wouldn't trust an online family tree....well....as far as I could throw it, as my grandpa used to say.
Much has been written lately on the conglomerative efforts of others to blend family trees. For some, they believe it makes the tree more authentic and thus more correct. For others, [like myself], we find the errors [especially the repetitive ones] totally distort the family tree and thus make it virtually useless.
Let's take my own family tree for instance.
Let's look at my great-great-grandfather, William Bean. He was born to William McBean and Sarah Bane his wife, in 1792 in Baltimore, MD. He died on 01 Jan 1864 in Monroe County, West Virginia.
If you go to Ancestry.com's family trees, input just his birth and death date, you will get a plethora of family trees that come up [none of them sourced properly, except for other trees as sources]. Let's look at just the first tree that comes up: brooks Family Tree.
You will note that at first glance this tree looks pretty good. But take a look first at who William's parents are listed as: William Bean [1745-1798] and Margaret Perkins . The dates look plausible enough right?
This tree only lists one child for William and his wife Rachel Wiseman [1790-1856], and that is Margaret Jane Bean. [There were actually 13 recorded children!] And Margaret Jane was indeed one of their children, and she did in fact marry Alexander Eakin, as this tree suggests. But take a look at William's parents here: William Bean and Margaret Perkins.
Oh my! To someone who has actually researched this family, this jumps out as a huge neon sign! Flashing and warning, "Danger! Big Error! Danger! Big Error!!!"
You see the name of one of William and Rachel's son's [the 12th born child] was William. And guess who that William married???
Margaret Perkins!!! Wouldn't it be rather odd if his parents were so named, and then he had a son who also married a woman with the exact same name as his mother?
Well, odd, but it has been known to happen. Especially back in the day when men and women married first cousins! But such is not the case here. Someone has copied a false tree, and just didn't take the time to verify what was in the tree!
Let's take a look at another tree: Greer Goff Coffman Birdwell Davis Pike Asher Gibson Johnson and many more
For me, this tree is the epitome of stupidity gone awry. Here we find William Bean born 18 Sep 1792, which is fact, correct; and dying 01 Jan 1864, again correct.
Now let's look at dear old William's parents: William Bean [1635-1697] and Margaret U Bean [1637-1697].
Here's where a big ol' "DUH!" sign needs to be plastered to the front and back of this individual, and just for good measure, another one to his forehead!!!
Let's see, William's father and mother both died in 1697, but he wasn't born until 1792??? [Again, we have his son and daughter-in-law's names for his parents!!!]
All of William and Rachel's children were registered births in Monroe County. A simple search through the records [which are now online - even worse, they are - gasp!!!! - available for FREE!!!] reveals all of the children's births.
What is so infuriating is that both of the gaff's listed above are perpetuated by individuals without EVER one of them verifying the data they have copied! Simply downloading an online tree and inserting it into your free PAF or other genealogy program does not mean that the tree you have is correct! Accurate! Or worth the bytes it takes up in your computer space!
One of the perpetuators of the myth that it is just this easy to obtain a legitimate family tree is, of course, Ancestry.com themselves. A simple look at their television commercials will assure you that they are indeed making the unaware public think thus.
"What did I see? A green leaf. So I clicked on it. And there was my whole family tree all the way back to the Revolutionary War! It was just that simple!"
Does Ancestry.com provide a disclaimer for individuals who might not realize the inaccuracy of the information?
Of course they do! [Can you imagine the liability suits they might otherwise have?] But it is not blatantly available without searching for it!!! Go to the bottom of the page and you will find a link Terms and conditions, and we find the following [once you scroll down the page a ways!]:
"User provided content
Portions of the Service will contain user provided content, to which you may contribute appropriate content. For this content, Ancestry is a distributor only. By submitting content to Ancestry, you grant Ancestry, the corporate host of the Service, a license to the content to use, host, distribute that Content and allow hosting and distribution of that Content, to the extent and in that form or context we deem appropriate. Should you contribute content to the site, you understand that it will be seen and used by others under the license described herein. You should submit only content which belongs to you and will not violate the property or other rights of other people or organizations. Ancestry is sensitive to the copyright of others. For more concerning copyright issues, view our corporate policy. We will not edit or monitor user provided content, with the exception that, to promote privacy, an automated filtering tool will be used to suppress, and omit from display, information submitted to the tree areas of the site which appears to pertain to a living person. We also reserves the right to remove any user provided content that comes to our attention and that we believe, in our sole discretion, is illegal, obscene, indecent, defamatory, incites racial or ethnic hatred or violates the rights of others, or is in any other way objectionable.
The information, products, and services included on this Web Service may include inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically made to the information herein. We and our third party suppliers provide all Content in this Service "AS IS", and without any warranty of any kind.
Ancestry, and its third party suppliers make no representations concerning the suitability, reliability or accuracy of the Content or the service provided on the Service for any purpose. We and our third party suppliers disclaim all warranties, expressed or implied, in connection with the Content and the services provided on the Service, including conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no case will we or our third party providers be liable for any direct, indirect, punitive, special or other damages including, without limitation, lost or delay of use, lost profits, loss of data or any other damage in contract, tort, equity or any other legal theory, even if advised of the possibility thereof. "
Okay, so I'm not an attorney, but I'm guessing that pretty much covers their proverbial butt's.
But do you have any idea what percentage of the public actually clicks on that link to read this statement?
Well, me neither, but I'd feel safe in wagering less than 1 percent! Yep, I'd wager a whole years salary on that one!!!
And so what happens is that individuals download these faulty, absolutely inaccurate, crappy family trees, believing them to be totally accurate. And someone sees their tree then, and it gets downloaded. And so on. And so on. And... well you get the picture.
Before long you have not just one or two, but literally, as in the case of my William Bean, hundreds, if not thousands, of the inaccurate trees floating about in cyberspace. All propigating new trees which will also be inaccurate, sloppy, and passed on for fact.
I certainly don't mean to denigrate Ancestry.com in this post! As a matter of fact, I LOVE Ancestry.com and utilize it every single day! It is a great tool in both my personal research, as well as my business! But for me, the family tree section should come with a bold disclaimer. And a recommendation that users also utilize the search functions of the site to verify any and all claims on the tree for accuracy! [99% of William Bean's family can be verified right online with Ancestry.com!!!]
And I certainly don't mean to proclaim that Ancestry.com is the only site with this problem! There is also FamilySearch.org; gencircles.com, geni.com, mytrees.com, myfamily.com, and any number of others which also utilize trees uploaded by individuals without discretion.
What the family tree section of these sites do for me is often gives me insight into a direction to aim my research when I get stuck. I have often used the online trees to steer me into a right direction. They are wonderful for that! And I have also found some marvellous, perfectly accurate, and well documented and sourced trees as well! So not all trees are hazards!
They have also brought me mounds of grief from clients and prospective clients!
"I downloaded my tree off of the Internet, and what you brought me isn't anything at all like what I got?" or, "I downloaded a tree off of Ancestry, and it said I was related to Thomas Jefferson [or John Wayne, or Betsy Ross, or even Adam and Eve!] How come you don't have him listed in the research you did???"
The connundrum is in educating the public to take these trees at face value, and not mistake them for fact. But to find the facts either hire a research consultant or do the research themselves [which of course to me is 99% of the fun!].