(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)
Lisa: AncestryDNA is one of the leading DNA testing companies that has added DNA science to our genealogy toolkit. If you’ve tested your DNA, those results have become one of the important records that you’re using to build your family tree. The interesting thing about these records is that they’re quite different from other types because they evolve and change over time. The results themselves aren’t changing, but our interpretation and the information that we’re able to glean from them is evolving and continues to do so as more people get tested. Here to give us insight into the latest innovations over at AncestryDNA is the corporate genealogist for Ancestry, better known as the Barefoot Genealogist, Crista Cowen.
Crista: Thank you.
Why Have My DNA Ethnicity Results Changed?
Lisa: Hey, happy to have you here. We love to get together and chat about genealogy here at Elevenses with Lisa, and DNA is always on people’s minds. I know that one of the really common questions that I get a lot is around ethnicity, and about changes to the ethnicity percentages. Sometimes people see the results and they’re really excited about them. But then Ancestry publishes a new update and things look different. It can be a big surprise. Tell us a little bit about how often these updates happen and what causes them. Why do they change?
Crista: In order to answer that question, you kind of have to back up a little bit and understand the concept of reference panels.
Understanding DNA Reference Panels
When AncestryDNA started in 2012, we hadn’t sold any DNA kits yet. But we had purchased scientific reference panels from others who had been studying DNA for about a decade at that point. This was a group of people with deep roots in a particular place in the world that we can compare customer DNA to. So, as a customer takes their DNA test, the first process we run it through is this ethnicity estimate. We compare them to this reference panel. As our research team has expanded their reach, and then now we have 20 million people who’ve taken the ancestry DNA test, we’ve been able to identify candidates in our customer pool who are eligible to be part of that reference panel. Then the reference panel grows. And so statistically as it grows, those results are going to get more refined. They’re going to change a little bit. As the science advances, we also learn new ways to compare the data so that it’s more accurate.
Ancestry has been releasing an ethnicity update about once a year, usually in the fall. It’s just because we keep growing that reference panel, and because of the advances in science about how those algorithms work. And you get a lot of new people, obviously, on a regular basis for testing, so they’re adding to it.
Lisa: You started with that initial reference panel that you got somewhere else. Do you ever bring in other reference panels that become available to kind of speed up the process of the growth?
Crista: Yeah, we do. We’ve purchased a few different reference panels from research groups. But primarily, the growth now is coming not just from our own customer base. Also our team of genetic scientists are looking for individuals in places around the world that are underrepresented in our reference panel in order to increase the sample size. They’re excellent.
Lisa: Sometimes, the updates, they come out and people look at and they go, “that looks different! And now it’s saying this and not that.” Tell us a little bit about that because there’s some rhyme and reason behind why that happens.
Two Reasons Why DNA Ethnicity Results Change
Crista: There is. There are actually two challenges that our science team faces. One has to do with place, and one has to do with time.
What we may know as a place right now, likely didn’t exist 300, 500, or 1000 years ago. The boundaries have changed. The people that have migrated in and out of that place have changed. And so one of our challenges is to label those ethnicity estimate locations as something that people will recognize and be able to associate with, but fully recognizing that 1000 years ago that place may have had people there who were called something very different.
The second challenge we have is that time-based challenge. We use this reference panel of living people. But what we estimate is with this data, we’re showing you where your DNA came from 500 to 1000 years ago, and most of us don’t have trays that go back that far.
Lisa: Right, exactly. So how do you zero in on that? How do people make sense of when they see it, that they understand the context of the time frame?
Crista: We try to provide a lot of contextual data and a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there.
When you’re looking at your ethnicity estimate, you can click on any one of those – there’s usually two or even three drill-down screens – that give you some of that historical background, and some of that information about the time period that we’re covering, and what the names of some of the people who lived there were.
Why Do My DNA Results Now Say I’m from Scotland?
For example, Scotland was a big one, in this last (AncestryDNA) update. A lot of people ended up with Scotland as an ethnicity. But really what we’re looking at is who were the Britons? Who were the Celts? Who were the Gauls? And how to all those people, so many hundreds of years ago, how did they migrate in and out of those places? And what would that admixture look like, so that we can tell you. But if we said, “Oh, you’re Celt, Gall, or Britain, even some people wouldn’t understand what that meant. So we label it, Scotland, and then we expect people to drill down into that other information that we’ve provided by clicking through.
Encouraging AncestryDNA Users to Use the Website
Lisa: Do you find that people fully utilize this site? I’m thinking about how folks go to so much trouble and expense to get tested, and yet may not be taking full advantage of the results and the website. I imagine you see a lot of backend data. What kind of usage do you see? I think I’ve seen some recent updates that you guys have been doing to kind of help prompt people to get more involved and drill down.
Crista: Yeah, for sure. One of the things that we’ve done is we have a mobile app. What we’re discovering is that for a lot of people, their entry point, both to family history and through DNA is through mobile. So we’ve made some of the mobile prompts a little bit more prominent and a little bit easier to navigate. And then of course, we’re learning from some of that and applying it to the desktop version.
Another thing that we have that wasn’t introduced when AncestryDNA was first introduced, it took several years, is what we call our genetic communities. And that helps to give some additional context to some of those ethnicities as well.
What are Ancestry Genetic Communities?
Lisa: I’d love to have you talk more about genetic communities. It’s fascinating to see them and to see their evolution. They’ve really moved along quite quickly, haven’t they? Just knowing that there are many people who maybe have never looked at this, tell us what they’re missing and how to take advantage of it.
Crista: Yeah, so that first algorithm that we run against your DNA is comparing your DNA to that reference panel of people to give you those ethnicity estimates. Those are the ones with the percentages. There’s always going to be a percentage next to it. But the communities are a total evolution based on who’s testing and the family trees that are available.
Ancestry has 20 million people who’ve taken the DNA test, and 100 million family trees on our site. And here’s kind of how this works. As you test, you’re matched to other people who have taken the test. And I think the average AncestryDNA test taker has something like 75,000 matches. It’s kind of mind-blowing! But the idea is that the data underneath all of that means that we’re able to really clearly see networks of matches. So even if we didn’t know anything about your family tree, or anything about your ethnicity, just based on the matching data alone, we start to see these clusters or networks of people who all match each other. And so then because we have this rich family tree data, we can go into that network of 1000s of matches, and we can say what do they all have in common? And what we start to see is, the data very clearly points to specific birth locations within their tree within the last 200 years. So, your ethnicity estimate is looking at 1000 years ago, but those communities are where members of your family have lived within the last 200 years. And we’ve now got more than 1500 of those around the world.
Lisa: That’s amazing. And of course, if the person is in the tree they have timeframe associated with them as well, not just place, because like you said it’s just lurching the whole thing closer in time to us, which is really exciting. Right?
Crista: Yeah. And if you start to think about that time piece, right, so we’re looking at tree data 100 to 200 years ago because of this network effect. But what’s possible is as the network continues to grow, and as the science continues to get better, we may not only be able to connect you to specific genetic communities, but also show you migration paths from your original ethnic origins over time, which then allows people to have an entire complete family history story without ever starting a family tree themselves. Hopefully, that then leads them into it because they want to know “which branch of my family tree does this represent?”
My AncestryDNA match doesn’t have an online family tree!
Lisa: You’re talking about some people don’t have trees. Of course, that’s just the bane of every genealogist right? They go and they look, and they say “this person doesn’t have a tree, and they’re my best match!!” I know you get a lot of people who test – maybe they saw the commercials on TV – and they go, “Oh, that looks really cool. I’m gonna do that.” But they were not doing genealogy. How does that break down?
Crista: Yeah, so you know, it’s so funny that you say that, because anytime anybody complains about matches not having trees, I always send them to your RootsTech presentation that you did with Diahan Southard about No Tree, No Problem. Because, because the reality is like, you can figure out a lot from a match even if they don’t have a family tree.
There are probably about half of my matches that do not have any tree at all. And we see that that’s pretty consistent across the board, which means those are most likely people who this is their first foray into family history.
I actually was just on a call this morning with a woman who took the DNA test about four years ago. She had no idea there even was a match list. She didn’t think she could build a tree because she thought she needed a subscription. So, she just took the test to get the ethnicity estimate, and somehow ignored all the emails Ancestry sent her to telling her to check out her new matches or startup a tree. But once she was contacted by a match. One of the best things you can do for those matches who don’t have trees, is send them messages. She got this message from one of her close matches. It piqued her curiosity. She’s like, “how does this person know who I am?” She discovered the match list, and she started a tree. And she’s now had this whole family history journey where she’s figured out who her biological father is. Uncles and half sibling…and so for those of us who have trees and who are involved in family history, recognize those people taking a DNA test. That’s their first step in the door. And it’s up to us, I think, sometimes to nurture them through that door by engaging with them through messaging or sharing information that we might have discovered, in a non-threatening way, hopefully.
Lisa: So they’re testing, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I want to find out my ethnicity is” and not even realizing that there’s this whole matching thing going on. Do you find that a lot of those kinds of folks eventually get bitten by the bug? And I wanted to re-emphasize what you said, that you don’t have to have a subscription to add the tree. Tons of people don’t realize that.
What You Can Do for Free at AncestryDNA
Crista: Yeah, if you’ve taken a DNA test, and that’s the only thing you’ve paid for, you haven’t paid for an Ancestry subscription to access the 80 billion records on the site, then you can still start a family tree. That’s a free service on Ancestry. For anybody who has a free registered guest account, or anybody who used to have a subscription and cancelled it at some point, you can still work on your family tree. And yeah, that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize.
You can also and this is something else people don’t realize, respond to messages from other users. The Message Center is a free service. You can send messages, you can initiate contact with any of your DNA matches without a subscription as well.
Lisa: So you’re really getting to take full advantage of the whole DNA thing, even if you aren’t currently doing the subscription and doing the genealogical records and all of that.
Ancestry Website Interface Updates
I was watching your video recently, I guess it was the June update, and you were talking about how you got to see some of that backend data, and you saw that people weren’t really interacting with the website. I love the new buttons and the ability to add this is a son, this is a nephew, etc. Tell people a little bit about that. And how is that going? Is the rollout done yet? And are you seeing some great response?
Crista: Yeah, so we do continue to make innovations to the match list and how people interact with it. Of course, two years ago at RootsTech we introduced the custom groups with 24 different colors. And it was innovative for those of us who were deep into family history. We had this hypothesis, though, that new users would find that fun and interactive as well. Unfortunately, new users, especially those who’d never considered family history before, didn’t have the mental construct around a pedigree chart or sides of the family, and didn’t even have any idea how to group their matches. And so that had really low usage. The usage it had was among really core hardcore genealogists and people into genetic genealogy.
So, we’ve been doing a lot of testing over the last year trying to figure out how to solve the problem of new users coming to the match list and looking at it and going, “That’s great.” Now what we wanted was to give them something actionable to do. This has been released, and it’s been rolled out to all users, I think, as of last week. Every match has a little button on it that just says, Do you know this person? Yes. And if you don’t, you can click learn more to find out more about that experience. But as soon as you click Yes, it then asks you to assign a side of your family. So, you can say, “Oh, yes, I know this person, they’re on my mother’s side.” And then once you do that, it asks you if you know the specific relationship.
Here’s another little nuance that we’re helping train people into, in both in interaction, but also what family history really means. We give them a list of the possible relationships based on how much DNA they share. One of the things that DNA sometimes uncovers a surprises, and you might think this person is your full sibling that the DNA says otherwise. Or you might think, you know, whatever the relationship might be. So, we give you those options to assign that relationship. And then that fills another customer request, which is when you select the relationship, it updates from a predicted relationship on that match, which is usually a range of cousinship, to what the specific relationship is based on your assignment.
Lisa: I love it. I mean, you guys are in the driver’s seat in terms of knowing and understand the technology. It’s wonderful that you’re helping to guide people to get more out of it, and to get onboard quicker.
How Accurate are Ancestry’s DNA Tests?
I have to ask you this question, because I imagine you have gotten this question a lot and I’d love to know how you answer it. How accurate are the Ancestry DNA test results? I heard somebody asked that at a conference once and I wanted to sit by and listen and see what the person said. What do you tell people when they ask you that?
Crista: You know, it’s such an interesting question, because accuracy can be measured any number of ways. And we need to know what you’re talking about when you say accuracy.
When you ask, “is this person on the top of my match list listed as my parent or child, how accurate is that?” It’s like 100% accurate that that is how much DNA you share with this person. And that that is either the nature of the relationship, or you’ve got a parent with an identical twin. So accuracy, in that case, we’re super confident.
When you ask about accuracy of ethnicity results, we call it an estimate for a reason. One of the things you’ll discover when you click through to view it is that there’s actually a range. That top level percentage you’re seeing is an average of 1000 different times that the algorithm has been run against your DNA and that reference panel. That’s because of just the nature of the way that those results are analyzed. And compared to that reference panel means there’s going to be some swing around an average. And again, we release those updates every year. Because again, as the reference panel growth, there’s more refinement possible.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. Good answer. I like that answer.
The Most Popular DNA Question
What are some of the most common questions that you get about DNA? I imagine there might be some folks watching her going, “yes, yes. Yes, that’s what I was wondering! What do you hear?
Crista: I will tell you what our number one question is. And I bet a lot of your viewers have the same question, and a lot of people at conferences have the same question. We see it on social media all of the time. The most popular DNA question is “where is my Native American?”
Lisa: They still want the princess they’re looking for?
Crista: It’s amazing to me how prevalent and pervasive that narrative is in so many families. They take a DNA test with full confidence that it’s going to tell them that there’s 17 or 12 or 8%, indigenous North American, when the reality is if they do have a Native American ancestor, it is most likely that that person lived three or 400 years ago, and that they just didn’t inherit those bits of DNA. The inheritance of DNA is random, and a lot of new people in family history haven’t really wrap their brains around what that means yet. They think they get half of everything and haven’t done the math to calculate what that means. Or they were told that a parent or grandparent was full Native. I grew up with that narrative in my family, my grandfather boasted of the fact that he was a quarter of a quarter Native American. He was born in Indian Territory, and I think that’s probably partially where that started from. And everybody claims the features. But the reality is, he was not, there is no evidence of that in the family tree once the research has been dug into. But I still have cousins taking DNA tests and fully expecting it to show up and kind of freaking out when it doesn’t.
Native American DNA
Lisa: Is Native America a large reference panel that is well represented?
It was not in the beginning, but we have been collecting additional samples. It used to be, back in 2012 when we started doing DNA testing, if you had Native American DNA, we would just tell you, Native American, and that was all of the Americas: North, Central and South. We now have, I think, nine different regions of native indigenous American, so we can split it out across the two continents. We’re starting to see some communities around some of those as well. So, the reference panel is growing, and the number of testers are growing as well. Here’s what I tell people, and they don’t always like this answer. But if you have Native American DNA, it will show up on an AncestryDNA test.
Lisa: You made such an important point that you could have a Native American ancestor and not have Native American DNA, right?
Crista: Yeah, absolutely. It just depends on how many ancestors have Native American DNA and how far back they were, whether or not you actually inherited those.
How Many Generations Back Can DNA Go?
Lisa: Give people a sense of how many generations back that the DNA becomes minute, in terms of what you might be inheriting from someone.
Crista: I am not a math person, but DNA has changed my world! And it amuses my accountant dad that I can do this now in my head. Everybody inherits exactly 50% of DNA from their parents. Those parents inherited 50% of DNA from each of their parents, but what they pass down to you is going to be about 25% of your grandparents DNA. And then it just gets cut in half every generation back. So, you’re going to have about 12 and a half percent of your great grandparents DNA, and about 6% of your two times great grandparents, and about 3% of your three greats, and about a percent and a half of your four greats! And by the time you get to your fifth great grandparents, it is possible when you consider all the people in that generation, that you did not inherit any DNA from one of them. Because you got all of it from one of the others. So five times great grandparents is the generation where we start to see some of that fall off. But that means that you’re getting it from somewhere, so some of those lines of your family tree will go back to the seventh and eighth, and sometimes even ninth great grandparents.
Which DNA Matches Should I Work On?
Lisa: That makes the case why when it’s focus, focus on best matches right? You were talking about that some people might have 75,000 matches, but we’ve got to start with identifying who the closest were and work on these because they probably have the most potential to give you information, right?
Crista: Not only the most potential to give you information, but also to build a solid foundation, so that you can explore those more distant matches. Because unless you’ve built that solid foundation and validated the relationships all the way back to third or fourth or fifth grade grandparents, the hope of connecting with the eighth or ninth cousin on one of those other lines further back is going to be a lot more difficult and a lot more shaky of a conclusion.
How to Approach a DNA Match
Lisa: You know, when people get a best match, they want to reach out. You were talking about the messaging system is free. It’s part of what you have access to when you test. You’re on the phone, you talk to people, I’ve seen you at the conferences, you know, you’re talking firsthand to your customers and really hearing from them. What kind of coaching do you give people on how to approach somebody, particularly if they get resistance? Is there one more thing they might be able to say just to kind of keep the door open or somehow nudge the match to interact? What do you recommend?
Crista: Okay, so Lisa, I am single, I have never been married. And that might seem like a funny segue into this. But that means I have a whole lot of experiences. And I approach communicating with unknown or unpreviously connected to cousins a little bit like I approach it. You’re not going to spill all of your deepest, darkest secrets on the first date, or you’re going to send them screaming into the night. Or they may just entirely ghost you, right? That’s a new term for people who just ignore you after a date. And that happens. Sometimes people just go on for paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs in that initial message they send a cousin. And my guess is those cousins are seeing some of those messages and just being like, “I don’t even know what to do with this information. It’s overwhelming,” right? So, you have to tone it down.
But by the same token, right, I’m not going to go on a first date, and just sit there and not answer his questions or not try to initiate a conversation. And so again, similarly, when you send out that first message, you’re gonna want to provide enough information that’s something they can respond to. I’ve seen people send messages that say something like, “Hi, we’re DNA matches, do you know how we’re related?” and they give them nothing to nothing to work with. You have to give them just enough that they will want to respond and that they have something to respond to, but not so much that you overwhelmed.
Lisa: And maybe something just a little intriguing. I know that when I’ve talked to people who we are sharing ancestors on my family tree, one of the things I’ll say is, “you know, I have some photos. I’d love to talk to you about that. Maybe you do too.”
I remember, in the old days, I would send them all my best pictures, and they would take them and they never respond. You don’t want to give away the kitchen sink, right? That’s what you’re saying. I think that’s a good strategy. And sometimes back then I would get a message from somebody, and they sounded like a scientist, and I felt intimidated, like, “I can’t keep up, I’m gonna say something and I’ll be wrong” and they’ll be able to say, “Oh, my gosh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, there’s also that intimidation factor. I guess even if we do know all that stuff, we don’t want to necessarily wipe people out with it.
Crista: I used to have a thing about intriguing, but intriguing, but not overwhelming. That’s kind of the mic that runs through my head when I craft those messages.
Lisa: I like that. Anything else when it comes to AncestryDNA that we should be keeping our eyes out for? Anything you want to tell us about? What’s coming in the future?
What’s Coming to AncestryDNA in the Future
Crista: There’s a few things. We can kind of divide them into two categories around the ethnicity estimates and the communities. Just to make sure this is clear, we update ethnicities about once a year in the fall. So, watch for that. We usually send out an email or put a banner on the site. But one of the things that we’ve learned is that a lot of people don’t know that. And so, they don’t know to come check and see what’s been updated. So just watch for those announcements or those emails.
Genetic communities can be updated at any time for two reasons.
One reason is, you may all of a sudden just have enough matches, that you’re pulled into an existing network that has been labeled as an existing community. So those communities could just pop up at any time.
The other reason is that about every six or eight weeks or so we’re releasing new communities. Our science team has been working fast and furious to identify new networked clusters and make sure that we’ve got them labeled correctly, and that we’ve worked with history professors and others to understand the cultural and historical implications because we want to be accurate and informative, but also sensitive to all the nuances around race and ethnicity and history. Because history is messy. And as people dive into it, those of us who’ve been doing family history, understand that. But again, a lot of people are new to family history, and DNA is their first foot in the door. And we want to make sure that we’re a little sensitive to how we present some of that information. So always new communities. That’s on the DNA side of the house.
And then we are working on some additional features for the DNA match list. We’ve previewed them with some customer experience groups. We’ve previewed them with influencers like yourself. And so just we can say that those are coming but can’t talk a whole lot about them. We’re listening to our customers and we’re really trying to make sure that that DNA match list experience works for more casual customers just taking their first steps into family history, and those of us who are hardcore into this and trying to break through 40-year brick walls using our DNA results.
How to Contact AncestryDNA
Lisa: Well, and you said, you listen to your customers. What is the best way for somebody to get in touch with you or just share feedback or a question?
Crista: There’s two primary channels for that, though, we listen in a lot of ways.
Ancestry has a Facebook page. If you go to the official Ancestry Facebook page, you can send a direct message to us with your feedback or post it just there on the wall. Our product managers do follow that and keep tracking and put that into our feedback system.
The other way to contact us is to just do a Google search for Ancestry feedback. It’ll bring up a feedback form that’s in our Help Center. It’s a little easier to find it that way.
Lisa: I think I was just talking to my show about sometimes googling for a page is easier. Ancestry’s website is so well organized, it will grab exactly whatever page you’re looking for probably even faster than navigating.
Well, how fun it has been to get a chance to catch up with you on the latest with AncestryDNA. I know we recently followed each other over on Instagram, and over there I see that we share another passion which is gardening. How is your garden going this summer?
I always had aspirations, but with all of the genealogical conferences and the traveling that I do for Ancestry I’ve never been home until this last summer. And so last summer, I tried it. And I failed miserably. I grew one tomato, and a little bit of basil. That was what I did, but I made it again. Yes. This year, I’ve got some zucchini going and some little herb garden and we’re trying tomatoes again. We’ll see how that goes.
Lisa: Good job. Are you planting in the ground? Or are you doing containers?
Crista: Both. So I have a little garden patch in my backyard. But then I also built some standing like garden racks for my herbs and stuff.
Lisa: Very cool. I’ve been in the same boat as you. It’s like after 14 years of constant traveling – which has been great, I’ve missed it – I started all this container gardening. I’m doing the self-wicking tubs. I saw a guy on YouTube doing it, and it looked awesome. We’ll see how it pans out here in the heat of Texas. But anyway, there’s never enough time to do all the wonderful things that we would enjoy doing and certainly genealogy is that way!
Thank you so much Crista Cowan! If somebody wanted to get in touch with you, where should they go check you out?
Crista: The best place is on Instagram and it’s just my Instagram handle which is just my name Crista Cowan.
Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet.
What Happened to the 1890 Census
The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890. And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)
Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)
Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.
In this video and article we’ll cover:
How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
What you can learn from the 1890 census records
Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.
Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules
A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.
List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:
Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)
District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street
Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)
Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)
Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)
New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)
New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)
North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)
Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)
South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)
Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)
Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census The following questions were asked by the census taker:
Number of families in the house
Number of persons in the house
Number of persons in the family
Relationship to head of family
Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
Whether married during the year
Total children born to mother
Number of children living
Birthplace of parents
If foreign born, how many years in the United States
Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
Profession, trade, or occupation
Months unemployed during census year
Able to read and write
Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
(if so, whether mortgaged)
Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner
2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows
According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.
Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.
Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”
The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.
One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.
The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.
The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:
Enumeration District (ED) Number
ED Description (locality and county)
5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.
These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.
Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.
How to find the records:
The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll). Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.
For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.
6. Statistical information for the entire United States
Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.
Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.
1885 & 1895 State Census Records:
The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.
How to find the records:
Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)
Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules
Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.
The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).
Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.
While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.
Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database
Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.
Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry
This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.
You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.
This is a mistake for two reasons.
only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.
FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes
While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
How to find the records: 1. Go to FamilySearch 2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog 4. Click Titles 5. Search for 1890 census substitute 6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.
City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute
Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.
How to find the records:
You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.
Google Books Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.
Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books
Our ability to find our ancestors is rooted in two important pieces of information: the locations where they lived and the time frames in which they lived there. This means that old maps are essential to our genealogy research.
The good news is that there is an abundance of free digitized old maps available online. One of the best resources is the David Rumsey Map Collection website. There you will find over 100,000 free digitized historic maps. These maps span the globe and centuries. They are perfect for bringing geographic perspective to your family tree.
Elevenses with Lisa Show Notes
In this episode 36 of my free webinar video series Elevenses with Lisa I’ll show you how to navigate this ever-expanding free website. Watch the video and then follow along with the show notes in this article. Here you’ll find answers to questions such as:
What’s the best way to find maps at David Rumsey’s map website?
What is the difference between the search tools (Luna Viewer and MapRank Search)?
What are the advanced search techniques for finding the old maps?
How can I download maps at DavidRumsey.com?
Is it OK to use the maps from DavidRumsey.com in my family history projects?
Rumsey Historical Maps in Google Earth
As we discussed in Ways to Use Google Earth for Genealogy (Elevenses with Lisa episode 12) there are approximately 120 Rumsey old maps available for free in Google Earth. You can find them in the Layers Panel under Gallery. Each map is already georeferenced as an overlay for you.
Click image to watch the video and read the article on ways to use Google Earth for genealogy
You can also create your own overlays in Google Earth using Rumsey Maps or digitized maps from other sources. I cover this step-by-step in chapter 16 of my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.
Best Strategies for Finding Free Old Maps
Once you’ve exhausted the few hundred old maps in Google Earth, head to the David Rumsey Map Collection website. Rumsey’s collection includes over 150,000 map, over 100,000 of which have been digitized and are available for free on his website.
Copyright and Use Permission
You will probably be anxious to use these wonderful old maps in a variety of ways. The Rumsey website provides clear direction on copyright and use permission. Go to: DavidRumsey.com > Home Page > About > Copyright and Permissions.
The good news is that generally speaking, you are free to download and use the digitized maps for your own personal use.
The Best Way to View the Maps
There are several ways to view maps:
The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
The GeoReferencer: Help georeferenced maps, compare maps overlays
MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place
Google Earth: 120 maps in the Layers panel, 140 can be added
Google Maps: 120 maps included
Second Life: View some in 3 dimensions and at a huge scale. Location: Rumsey Map Islands. Includes a welcome center with hundreds of maps, and a 600 meter tall map cylinder showing hundreds of maps.
The Collections Ticker: Pop-out distraction!
Insight Java Client: Downloadable workspace
Of this list, the best two tools to user are:
The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place
I will show you how to use each. Note that in these examples we will be using a computer to search the site rather than a mobile device or tablet.
The Luna Viewer: How to browse & search the maps
In the main menu under View Collection select the Luna Viewer. Under Luna Viewer click the Launch Luna Viewer button.
The Luna Viewer at David Rumsey Map Collection
Tips for keyword searching:
In most cases it helps to start with a fairly broad search to see the full range of available maps
Be cautious with abbreviations. “MN” does not return “Minn” or “Minnestota”.
Advance search provides you with the use of full Boolean operators like “and,” “or,” “greater than,” “contains,” and others.
After a search, to return to the full collection, click on “show all” under the search button.
Let’s look at an example of using the keyword search in tandem with the Refine column. If you search for New York City, you will be searching all of the data associated with the maps. Since many maps may have been published in New York City, you will likely see many maps for other areas. You can improve this search by going to the Refine column and under Where clicking on New York City.
The Refine column will show you the first five options in each category (What, Where, Who, When). Click More to reveal all of the additional refining options in that category.
Click More to see all refining options in the Luna Viewer
From the returned results, click a map to view it.
You can select multiple items in the Refine column to filter more narrowly. Remove a filter by clicking it under Remove at the top of the Refine column.
Like genealogical records, old maps may include several pages. Look above the blue BUY PRINT button to see the number of Related maps. In my example of a map of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, there were two map pages available. Click Related to display all of the available pages.
Click the Related link to view all related map pages.
DavidRumsey.com Advanced Search
The Advanced Search feature can be found in two locations:
Inside the search box – click your mouse in the box and select Advanced Search from the drop-down list
At the bottom of the Refine column on the left side of the screen.
Advanced Search gives you more control over how you search. Let’s look at an example by searching for Sanborn fire insurance maps.
Searching for Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
The David Rumsey Map Collection website includes many Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. These maps were created for insurance purposes and provide an incredible amount of detail about individual buildings and dwellings in a given neighborhood.
I recommend using the Advanced Search feature to search for these maps. This is because over the years the name of the company as publisher changed.
How to Find Sanborn Maps:
Click on Advanced Search at the bottom of the Refine column
In the “find all of these words” section, click Fields and select Publisher
Type in Sanborn
On the results page, go to the Refine column and Who click More
There are at least six variations of the Sanborn publishing name.
Old Map books and atlases often include valuable historical text often called historical sketches. You can find these using the Advanced search. Search for the exact phrase Historical Sketch. Run this search and then in the Refine column under Where select an area of interest.
How to Download Maps from DavidRumsey.com
Click the map from the results list
On the map’s dedicated page click the EXPORT button at the top of the page.
Select the appropriate size from the drop-down list. (Larger maps may take a few moments to download)
Typically the maps will download to the Downloads folder on your computer
Tips for Selecting Download (Export) Map Size: Save space on your computer and future headaches by selecting the correct size map for your use. If you plan on using the map to create an overlay or create a nice large print, select the largest size possible ( I recommend at least Extra Large for creating map overlays in the Google Earth.) This will ensure that the map doesn’t appear fuzzy when you Zoom in. High-resolution is also recommended when printing. For example, if you plan on including the map in a book about your family’s history (for personal use, not for resale) a high-resolution map will print crisp and clear. Maps for use on the web or something like a PowerPoint presentation would be fine at lower resolutions.
MapRank Search at DavidRumsey.com
The MapRank Search “app” at the David Rumsey Map Collection website allows you to browse & search 6000 maps by two important criteria: Time & Place.
There are two ways to find the MapRank Search:
In the main menu under View Collection click MapRank Search. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Launch MapRank Search
Scroll to the bottom of the home page until you see Featured App – MapRank Search, and click the Launch MapRank Search
How to Find Maps Using MapRank Search:
Start with entering the location name in the search box (in the upper right corner) and click the Find a Place
The location will appear on the modern-day map. The old maps that match the location will appear in the column on the right, prioritized starting with the map that most closely matches what you searched.
Below the modern-day map, move the time slider levers to narrow in on the desired time frame.
Note that the old maps in the results column will change based on the specified time frame.
Broaden the location if desired by zooming out a bit on the modern-day map. Note that the results list will change as you zoom.
Hover your mouse over a map in the results list and notice that a reddish-brown box will appear the selected map and will also appear on the modern-day map. This indicates the area of the map that the old map covers. This will aid you in selecting the map that will suit your needs.
Click a map from the results list and it will open in a new browser tab, although some maps will appear as an overlay on the modern-day map. In that case, click the Luna Viewer button to go to the page where the map can be downloaded.
How to Compare Modern-day Maps with Old Maps
Whether you have found the map by searching with the Luna Viewer or the MapRank Search you will eventually find yourself on the page where the single map is displayed. On the left is the source information.
In the upper right corner of the screen click the View in GeoReferencer button. You will be taken to a page where you can view the old map overlayed on the modern-day map. In the upper right corner move the slider to make the old map transparent so that you can compare between the two maps.
Recap: Comparing the Two Best Search Tools at DavidRumsey.com
Luna Viewer: – 100,000 maps
– Search, then refine
– Sometimes glitchy interface
MapRank Search: – 6000+ maps
– More control with time slider & map
– Map results list ranked by closest coverage
Live Chat Q&A: Answers to Your Questions About David Rumsey Maps
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Megan: What is the difference between Google Earth and My Maps? From Lisa: Google Earth is a free software download. This is where I create what I call family history tours. They are a collection of data points and media that come together as a research tool and storytelling tool. My Maps are created in Google Maps. I prefer creating in Google Earth because it offers more tools and options, and it’s where I keep all my mapping work.
From Gwynn: Heard in the past Java Client might have security holes has this been fixed? From Lisa: Read more about the latest on Java Client at the website’s FAQ page.
From GeneBuds: Must set up account to use Luna Viewer? From Lisa: No, you don’t have to have an account to use the Luna Viewer. “Registering for an account allows you to save your work and preferences, search external media, create Media Groups and Presentations, customize your settings, create annotations, and upload your own content.” As I mentioned in the video, I prefer to do all my work in Google Earth.
From Gwynn: Sanborn Fire Maps: Where do I find the Key to the symbols? Are they the same from year to year or do they change? From Lisa: Here’s the main resource page for Sanborn maps at the Library of Congress. You will find specific information about interpreting the maps including Keys and Colors here.
From Karen: If you are specifically looking for plat maps for our US farmers would you put the word plat in the search field? From Lisa: I would use the Advanced Search and enter the word plat in the “Find all these words” box. Click the plus sign to add an additional “Find all these words” field and type in the name of the location. If that doesn’t deliver the desired result, omit the location and just search on the word plant. Then, on the results page, go to the Refine column and under Where click More. Then you have a nice list to browse. You might spot a map that includes your location. TIP: When you find a result, be sure to check the Related number at the top of the page so that you didn’t miss any additional pages of the map.
From Mark: Lisa and Bill, is the intro music something that you all wrote? From Lisa and Bill: No, it’s by a talented musician named Dan Lebowitz. Our goal this year was to learn to play it ourselves 🙂 We’re glad you love it as much as we do!
In this post I’m going to answer common questions about the best strategy for creating and maintaining your family tree data.
Should I build my family tree online?
This is a question I get in various forms quite often from Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners. But there’s really more to this question than meets the eye. Today’s family historian needs a master game plan for how they will not only build their family tree, but where they will build it, and where they will share it.
On the podcast I describe it this way:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
I’m going to explain what I mean by this by starting at the beginning.
When You Start Your Family Tree
If you’re new to researching your family’s history, you probably started out with one of the big genealogy websites, such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, or FamilySearch. I refer to them as the Genealogy Giants because they have millions of genealogical records, and they offer you the tools to build your family tree on their website. (Learn more about what each of the Genealogy Giants websites have to offer here in this handy comparison guide.)
These sites make it easy to start entering information about yourself, your parents, and your grandparents either on their website or through their mobile app. But should you do that?
My answer is, “not so fast!” Let’s think through the long-term game plan for this important information that is your family’s legacy.
Family is Forever
Genealogy is a hobby that lasts a lifetime. It’s nearly impossible to run out of ancestors or stories to explore.
But have you noticed that websites don’t last forever? And even if they do, their services and tools will undoubtedly change over time.
And there are many, many genealogy websites out there. A large number of them will encourage you or even require you to start creating an online family tree on their site in order to get the most value from the tools that they offer for your research.
As you work with these different genealogy websites, you may start to feel like your tree is getting scattered across the web. It’s easy to find yourself with different versions of your tree, unsure of which one is the most accurate and complete version.
It’s this inevitable situation that leads to my conclusion that you build and protect a master version of your family tree. I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t use an online tree. In fact, regardless of whether you do, you need a “Master Family Tree.”
Plant Your “Master Family Tree” in Your Own Backyard
What do I mean when I say that you should plant your “master family tree” in your own backyard? I’m talking about using a genealogy database software program that resides on your own computer. Let’s explore that further.
A master family tree has three important characteristics:
It is owned and controlled by you.
It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
It is protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
Your Master Family Tree
1. Your master family tree is owned and controlled by you.
If you create an online family tree on a genealogy website (or in the case of FamilySearch’s global online tree, you add your information to it) you have given final control of that information to the company who owns the website.
In order to own and control your tree, you will need a genealogy database software program installed on your own computer. I use RootsMagic(and I’m proud to have them as a sponsor of the Genealogy Gems Podcast) but there are other programs as well.
A genealogy database software program is installed on your computer. The program and the data you enter into it belongs to you and is under your personal control.
Genealogy databases allow you to not only easily enter data, but also to export it. If you wish to use a different program later, or add your existing data to an online tree, you can export your family tree data as a universally accepted GEDCOM file. (Learn more about GEDCOM files in this article.)
2. It is the final say on what you currently know about your family tree.
As you research your family tree, you will come to important conclusions, such as an ancestor’s birthdate or the village in which they were born. It can take a while to prove your findings are accurate, but once you do, you need one location in which to keep those findings. And most importantly, you must be able to cite the sources for that information. That one location for all this activity is your genealogy database.
However, the nature of genealogy research is that it can take some digging to prove the information is correct. During the process of that research you may find information that you aren’t sure about, and it can be helpful to attach it to the online tree that you have at the same website where you found the information. That gives you a way to hang on to it and keep researching. You can always remove it later. We’ll talk more about strategies for using online family trees a little bit later.
Once you are convinced that the information is correct, then its final resting place is your Master Family Tree. You enter the information and add source citations. This way, whenever you need an accurate view of where you are in your completed family tree research, you can turn to one location: your genealogy database software and the Master Family Tree it contains.
3. It’s protected with online backup to ensure it is safe.
Your family tree isn’t safe unless the database file is backed up to the cloud.
Who among us hasn’t had a computer malfunction or die?
It isn’t good enough to simply back up your computer files to an external hard drive, because that external hard drive is still in your house. If your house is damaged or burglarized, chances are both will be affected.
Another problem with backing up to an external hard drive is that they can malfunction and break. And of course, there is the problem of remembering to back it up on a regular basis.
Cloud backup solves all these problems by backing up your files automatically and storing them safely in an offsite location.
Cloud backup is actually very simple to install and requires no work on your part once it’s up and running. (We’ve got an article here that will walk you through the process.)
There are many cloud backup services available. I use Backblaze (which you can learn more about here). As a genealogist I have a checklist of features that are important to me, and Backblaze checked all the boxes.
Regardless of which service you choose the important thing is to not wait another day to set it up. This protection is a critical part of your Master Family Tree plan.
Using Online Family Trees
Now that you have your own database on your own computer that is backed up to the cloud for protection, let’s talk about strategic ways that you can use online family trees.
First, it’s important to realize that you don’t have to create a tree on a genealogy website just because they prompt you to do so. While there are benefits for you to doing so, the company who owns that website actually benefits tremendously as well.
In today’s world, data is very valuable. I encourage you to read the terms of service and other fine print (I know, it’s boring!) because it will explain the ownership and potential use of that data.
While it’s not the focus of this article, it’s important to understand that other industries are interested in family history data, and data may be shared or sold (with or without identifying information, depending on the terms).
But as I say, there are benefits to using online family trees. These benefits include:
Hints – Online family trees generate research hints on the Genealogy Giants websites and some of the other websites that offer trees.
Cousin Connection – Online family trees offer you an opportunity to possibly connect with other relatives who find your tree.
DNA – Online family trees can now dovetail with your DNA test results (if you took a test with the company where your tree resides). This can offer you additional research avenues.
These benefits can be helpful indeed. However, problems can arise too. They include:
Copying – When you tree is public other users of the website can copy and redistribute your information including family photos.
Errors – If you discover an error in your tree, you may fix it, but chances are it has already been widely copied and distributed by other users.
Email – If you have your entire tree online and your email notifications are active, you may receive an onslaught of hints for people in your tree. Often these are very distant cousins that you are not actively researching. And let’s face it, the emails can be annoying and distract your focus from your targeted research. For example, as of this writing at Ancestry.com you can’t select which ancestors you want to receive email hint notifications for. You can only select hints for the entire tree.
So, let’s review my strategy:
Plant your tree in your own backyard and share branches online.
Now that you’ve planted your tree in your own backed up software, let’s explore the ways in which you can share branches online.
Targeted Online Family Trees
Many people don’t realize that you don’t have to add your entire tree to a website. You can just add parts of your tree.
For example, I may just put my direct ancestors in my tree (grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth). This can still be a fairly larger number of people. I may want to include their siblings because they grew up in the same household. But I can leave out the far-reaching branches and relatives that really don’t have a direct impact on that line of research.
You can also have multiple trees that focus on specific areas of your research that are important to you.
Exploratory Online Family Trees
Some genealogists also create trees that represent a working theory that they have. This type of tree can help expose where the problems or inaccuracies lie. As you research the theory and as hints arise it can become very clear that a relationship does not exist after all.
An exploratory tree is an excellent reminder that we can’t and shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s intent or purpose with their online tree. I’ve heard from many people who are angry about inaccuracies they find in other people’s trees. But we can’t know their purpose, and therefore, it really isn’t our place to judge.
However, it is a fair argument that a good practice would be to clearly mark these exploratory trees accordingly to deter other users from blindly copying and replicating the inaccurate information. An easy way to do this is in the title or name of the tree. For example, a tree could be titled “Jonas Smith Tree UNPROVEN”.
Creating multiple, limited trees can be an effective strategy for conducting targeted online research that only generates hints and connections for those ancestors that you are interested in at the current time.
And remember, you can remove any of your trees at any time. For example, you can delete an exploratory tree that has served its purpose and helped you prove or disprove a relationship.
Plan Now for Success
A family tree can seem like a simple thing, but as you can see there’s more to it than meets the eye. A bit of planning now can ensure that your family tree stays healthy and growing.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Show Notes: Have you seen records from Geneanet popping up in your Ancestry hints? Here’s the answer to a Premium Member’s questions about the Geneanet records she is seeing show up as Ancestry hints. Learn how to figure out what new record hints like this are and how to decide how much weight to give them.
I received the following question from Monete, a Premium Member: What is this new thing I’m seeing on Ancestry hints, Geneanet community trees? It’s a good question, and a common one. Genealogy websites like Ancestryare adding new record collections all the time. It’s important to know how to quickly understand what the new record collection is about, where it comes from, the scope and most importantly, decide how much weight to give it.
Records Included in Ancestry Hints
It’s important to note that not all records are included in Ancestry hints. Only 10% of Ancestry® records appear as hints. So we want to keep in mind that although we’re seeing lots of new hints for records, they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination all of the records in the Ancestry collection. Hints are made up of the most popular record collections. There’s always going to be a need to continue to do your own research and to explore other records.
Where to find Ancestry Hints
You’ll find hints in a variety of places such as:
the leaf icon at the top of the screen near your account profile
attached to ancestors in your family tree
on ancestor profile pages
Ancestry hint in family tree
Reviewing and Comparing Ancestry Hint Information
View the hint by clicking the Review button. In the case of hints from the Geneanet Community Trees Index, you’ll see the pop-out panel prompting you to evaluate the record.
Click the Review button to reveal the side panel.
Compare the details of the hint to the known details in your ancestor’s profile by clicking the CompareDetails slider button. This allows you to review and compare each piece of information.
In a case like this where we are unfamiliar with the record collection, it’s important to learn more about it before we compare and make decisions about the information. That way, as you evaluate each piece of information you are considering adding to your family tree, you will have a much better idea whether you trust the source, and you’ll be better able to interpret the information it is providing.
To learn more about the record, it’s a logical next step to click the hyperlinked record name at the top of the panel. However, in this case we notice it just brings up to a full-size page where we are again being prompted to review and add the information to our tree.
Use the Ancestry Card Catalog
When you run across something like this, the first thing to keep in mind is that this record collection they are referencing is obviously part of their total collection, which means we should be able to find it in the card catalog. That’s the best place on Ancestry to learn more about it. Copy the name of the record and then go the Card Catalog. You’ll find the Card Catalog in the menu under Search > Card Catalog. It can be helpful to access the Card Catalog in a new browser tab so that you can jump back and forth between the catalog entry and the record you’re reviewing. You can open it in a new tab by right-clicking on Card Catalog when selecting it from the Search menu.
The card catalog is something that we don’t think of using that often. But really, we should because this is where all the other records are that are not coming up in our hints are listed. It’s also a really terrific resource to tell us more about the record collections that we’re running into as we’re doing our research and evaluating our hints.
On the Card Catalog page, paste the name of the record collection that you copied in the Title search box. If for any reason it doesn’t come up right away, try typing just the keywords into either the Title box or the Keywords search box.
You should see the collection in the search result. When you hover over the collection title it tells you when it was published, if it was recently updated, and the beginning sentences of the collection description. You will see what type of record it is by the category in which Ancestry placed it, and get a sense of the size of the collection.
Searching the name of the record collection in the Ancestry Card Catalog
In the case of Geneanet, the category is family trees. So, without knowing anything more about it, we would expect this is probably user-contributed information, rather than, let’s say, a census record created by the government, or a birth record recorded by a pastor in a church. These family trees were created by many other genealogists. They may or may not include source citations or even be accurate.
Let’s learn even more about the collection. Click the title of the record collection. The next page will feature search fields and related records. Skip that for now and scroll down to the bottom of the page. This is where you really get to the heart of things about the collection. First you’ll see SourceInformation. Basically, this is saying Ancestry is the source (that’s where you found the hint) and Ancestry got it from Geneanet.
Next you’ll see the About section. This will help us determine the original purpose of the collection, how it was created, and so on. The About section tells us that this is an online database. And it tells the original data came from the Geneanet Community Trees Index in Paris, France.
Next you’ll find Using this Collection which provides an overview of the kind of information you can expect to find in the records. Next is Collectionin Context. This explains “Geneanet was created in 1996 as a way to connect genealogical resources. They use a unique, collaborative model to share family resources while building community. Genealogists, both amateur and professional, are connected with users and genealogical societies. Anyone may upload content.”
“Anyone may upload content” is the key phrase here. People add information to family trees for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are just testing out a theory and they aren’t even sure it’s accurate. And many people copy and paste information from other people’s trees. All of this means that we can only use this information as clues, not as facts. We must do our own research and homework to find the records that back up the assertions made in the record. Family tree records if used unwisely could easily introduce errors into your family tree.
Finally, in the About section we find the Bibliography which includes a clickable link over to the original sources for these records: Geneanet. Take a moment to visit the site. You can also learn more by some quick googling. Typically, companies like this are going to be listed on Wikipedia pages as well. That’s a that’s a good place to get a basic summary about when was this company founded, find out when it was purchased by the big genealogy website, if it is currently active, and the main website link. All that kind of stuff we can typically find over in the right-hand kind of summary column on the Wikipedia page.
Using and Managing Ancestry Hints
Hints can be great clues, but they can also put rabbit holes in your genealogical path and derail your research goals. This hint might not be your top priority right now. It might not be the most important aspect of your ancestor’s life. Or it might be super interesting, and in that case you can go for it. But I encourage you not to get addicted to just responding to hints. It’s OK to put it on the back burner, leave the hint and don’t even deal with it. You can mark it Maybe and then come back to it later. But don’t let it sidetrack you from your research goals.
That’s the thing about genealogy. It is becoming more and more automated. Have you found that it just feels like it’s happening more and more on its own? It’s sort of being fed to us through the automation, the machine learning, that’s happening on these websites. However, first and foremost, we need to keep our brains engaged. We need to be the one who does the evaluation and ultimately makes the decision as to what we think is accurate about our ancestor and our family history.
In the case of Geneanet, Wikipedia tells us it was created in France and ultimately was acquired by Ancestry in August 2021. We saw on the Card Catalog entry that the index was published on Ancestry in 2022. So, we are looking at information coming from an index. We’re not looking at the actual record. These records are housed on the Geneanet website. You can access the actual record by clicking the View on Geneanet link on the Ancestry record hint page