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Online Family Trees: What’s Not to Believe?

Individuals just beginning their genealogical journey are often tempted to believe the information from online family trees.  Unfortunately, a very large majority of online family trees, regardless where they might be found, include significant errors.  Beyond that, most trees provide few, if any, sources that might permit one to determine the veracity or fallacy of the stated information.

Consider, for example, the family trees at Ancestry for Isaac Mitchell who married Phoebe Chambers and died in Monroe County, Indiana, in 1932 at the age of 91.   I researched this individual and his immediate family in September 2017 for a blog item at  It was my intention to include Isaac’s vital information (birth, marriage and death date and place) along with that of his wife and, additionally, identify all of the children born to them.  In this last task, I was aided by Phoebe’s obituary that mentioned she was survived by 12 children.

Unfortunately, however, only 11 children were named in  obituary and one of the names, Earl, was not noted in any census records.  My research revealed that Earl was, in fact, Carl, and the missing child in the obit was Edward “Eddie” Mitchell who moved to Ohio as a young man and continued to reside there for the remainder of his life.  That left only one puzzling child, Martha O., who appeared only once in various census records and was born about the same time as her apparent brother, Arthur O. who was omitted from the same census record that included Martha.   Eventually it was determined that Arthur and Martha were one and the same.  He was simply incorrectly identified in the census record.

Once everything had been gathered about Isaac Mitchell, his wife and children, and posted to the blog, I thought it would be interesting to compare my findings with the family trees at Ancestry.  With lots of descendants from 12 children, it seemed likely that there would be many trees on Ancestry that included information about Isaac and Phoebe (Chambers) Mitchell.  In fact, there were 191 in all—76 private trees (not available except by explicit permission of the compiler) and 115 public ones (available to any member of the subscription website).

Only thirty-eight of the 191 trees correctly identified Isaac parents, and of that number 13 were private and 25 were public.  Because these 38 trees likely represented a deeper level of research, I looked at each of the 25 public trees to determine the number that correctly identified all 12 of Isaac’s children.

Two of the 25 trees were discovered to be blank.  Of the remaining 23 trees, only 6 correctly identified the number of children as 12 and correctly identified them by name.  One tree incorrectly noted that Isaac fathered 21 children.

Eight trees included a photo of Isaac and the picture was identical in each.  Additionally, one of the trees included a photo of Isaac’s tombstone but not of Isaac himself.  Although many of the trees had no sources, one tree had 21 records and 24 sources.

What conclusions can be drawn from this exercise?  First and foremost, it is obvious that more often than not online family trees contain a substantial amount of errors and omissions.  Put quite simply, they are not to be trusted.  Use them last, not first.  On the other hand, if one is diligent and checks all the trees rather than stopping with the first few, it is sometimes possible to find untapped information and resources.

NOTE:  The photo above is from Isaac’s obit.  Although it differs from the photo of Isaac in the family trees at Ancestry, it is really apparent the two pictures are of the same individual.

Blog post by Randi Richardson



Comments (2)

  1. David Lemon


    I have noticed that most online family trees seem to be copies from other trees and the mistakes, just like a big snowballs, keep adding up. I sometimes can’t find a person’s history in my family and use family trees as a starting point for searching. The sources, if there are any, are the most important part of the searching.

  2. Lee Ehman


    Great post, Randi. The same analysis of a typical MCHC Research Library “Family File” would result in similar errors, I bet. I always warn patrons about this before giving them family files. Your article will double my warnings! Lee

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