How to Use Online Genealogy Trees and Hints Wisely

Is the tail wagging the dog in your genealogy research? Resist the temptation to jump at each hint and online family tree. Instead, take the lead in your own research and follow the scent of each clue with genealogical best practices. Here’s how…

Almost as soon as you start adding information to your family tree on any of the major genealogy records sites (AncestryMyHeritageFindmypast) you will start getting suggestions. These suggestions are known by a variety of names on the various sites, such as hints, Shaky Leaves, Smart Matches, record matches, etc. No matter what they’re called, they can be a great way to quickly make even more progress in growing your family tree.

There’s an old saying: you get what you pay for. In the case of hints, you have technically paid for them by subscribing to the genealogy website’s service. However, you didn’t pay for them through careful research following solid genealogical methodology. You haven’t yet verified their accuracy, or in the case of suggested online family tree, verified their sources.

how to use online trees and hints wiselyhow to use online trees and hints wisely

Online family trees are one of the most common types of hints you’ll receive. And it’s no wonder: there are billions of names entered in online family trees*, so your tree is very likely to match some of them.

However, with all those matching trees there are bound to be problems. If you’ve been wondering about the reliability and usability of other people’s online family trees being recommended as hints, you’re not alone. Keep reading to learn more about using information gleaned from other’s online family trees.

The question of trusting online family trees

Brenda is a Premium eLearning member, and she wrote me recently with a question about using online family trees:
“I’m just getting back into my genealogy research after 10 years of not having time. It seems that research has completely changed to online work! I’m getting [hints that link to other] family lines, but can I trust them?”

And this related question comes from Douglas: 

“Weekly, I get emails with family tree matches, asking me to confirm the match. My problem is not with the matching but with when I dig into their tree, the source for their information is another tree. That info may be a clue but I learned way back that the info needed to be backed up by good primary and sometimes secondary sources, not what somebody thought was right.  Info that I entered in my tree years ago and found subsequently to be wrong is still hanging out in a dozen trees. What is your opinion?”

My guess is that at some point you’ve had some of the same questions as Brenda and Douglas. Am I right? Well, even though it’s exciting to find someone who’s already built a family tree that includes your ancestors, it’s important to proceed with caution. Avoid the temptation to “graft” or copy the tree onto your tree.

That’s not to say you should ignore online trees. Instead, let’s discuss how reliable they are and how to use them wisely and responsibly.

How to use online family trees as hints

Douglas has stated the problem accurately. The researchers behind those tantalizing trees may have made mistakes or copied unfounded information without verifying it. Unfortunately, this is a very common occurrence.

Once copied to one tree, incorrect information can easily get picked up by others and copied over and over again. And the problem is made worse because the more it’s copied, the more unskilled researchers may assume it must be accurate because they see everyone using it. It’s a vicious circle indeed!

mistakes in online family trees

Mistakes can happen in online family trees

Approach every online hint and tree as a clue – a lead – to be considered and scrutinized. You won’t know the accuracy of it for sure until you review the research and verify the sources. That being said, the next logical questions would be “how in the world will I have enough time to verify all of the information in all of these trees?”

The answer is, you don’t.

Instead, do your own genealogical research first, one person and one generation at a time. Work from the present generation backward and learn everything you can from known and trusted primary and secondary sources. If this idea sounds new to you, I strongly encourage you to start listening to my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast. It’s free, and available here on my website, as well as through all major podcast apps. If you’re new to genealogy or returning after a long spell, this podcast will cover the basics in genealogical research and help you get on track.

Family History Genealogy Made Easy PodcastIt’s easy to let other people’s online trees give you a false sense that you are quickly and easily building your own family tree, but it’s just not true. A tree worth having is a tree worth researching. Don’t let the tail wag the dog here. Follow the proven genealogical research process, and then tap into online family trees when you need a fresh new lead.

Automated record hints and matches

On genealogy websites, you’ll get two types of automated hints or matches. The first is for other people’s trees, which we’ve already discussed. The second is for historical genealogical records.

In order to deliver the historical record hint, the website has compared the data on your tree with the data available in the transcriptions of their records. Since many people share the same name and other distinguishing characteristics like birth dates, it’s important to look at each record closely and carefully.

Review both the record transcription and the digitized image of the document (when available), keeping in mind that not all the useful genealogical data is always transcribed. And in the process of transcribing, errors may have been made.

You first want to evaluate whether this document pertains to your relative. Next, you will need to determine what else it adds to your knowledge of them. Compare what that document says to what you’ve already learned about your family. Watch for multiple, specific pieces of evidence that support or are consistent with what you already know.

FindMyPast hinting 2 online family trees

Genealogy Giants guru Sunny Morton says that “record hints on Genealogy Giants FamilySearch and MyHeritage are especially known for a high degree of accuracy; Ancestry.com’s are generally pretty good, too, but the site is clear about reminding you that these are just hints. I don’t have data on how accurate Findmypast hinting is, but I do know that they’ve been adding more records to the pool of records they hint on, and that’s also good.”

wise owlAfter reviewing all the record hints you’ve received, conduct additional searches yourself for records about each ancestor. Use the same process described above to scrutinize and evaluate each record.

Remember that even a digitized record hosted on one of the major websites can have transcription, spelling, or other errors, and sometimes you’ll have to make judgment calls. There’s no substitute for your brain! And there’s no substitute for carefully verifying and documenting every discovery as you go.

Next steps for using hints and trees wisely

By using hints for online family trees and historical records as leads when needed rather than the main path to follow will help you build an accurate family tree.

We are here to help you take control of your family tree and your research every step of the way. For specific information about reviewing record hints, read Getting started on Ancestry.com. 

When you do find errors in someone else’s tree, here’s some sound advice for How to approach someone about errors on their family tree

And finally take a moment to read Don’t lose control when you post your family tree online.

If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning member like Brenda, I suggest Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 152. It features my audio interview with Sunny Morton on take-home strategies for using hinting tools at the Genealogy Giants.

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google ToolboxMobile GenealogyHow to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

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!

Early Virginia Genealogy

Show Notes: Learn how to trace your ancestors back to Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War. Professional genealogist Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing specializes in early Virginia research in her work as a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists.  She explains some of the biggest challenges you’ll face when researching early Virginian ancestors, the records you should be looking for, and some of the best resources. 

Early Virginia Genealogy

Early Virginia Genealogy Video and show notes

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Show Notes

Lisa: A while back, we did a video on Finding early American Ancestors in New England and we got tons of comments on it. We also received a lot of requests to dig into early American genealogical research. In this video and article, we are going to do just that for Virginia.

Guest: Jeri Satterwhite-Deering, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists.

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Virginia Genealogy Research Challenges

What are some of the unique challenges that face people who are trying to research ancestors in Virginia?

Jeri: I think the main thing is that the further back you go, the different record types that you would expect to find and use. You won’t have census records before 1790, and you won’t necessarily have marriage records, or death certificates, because that didn’t come till much later. But those records are there, and then you just have to really know where to dig and what to look for.

I rely more on land records, tax records, court records, and those types of record. As I said, census records go back to 1790, maybe 1783, when they have county type census. Then at that point you need to rely on tax records more and look for your ancestors in land records. Land records are full of all kinds of genealogical clues about your family as you as you dig in deep.

Lisa: And it can be a bit of a challenge for folks who might be researching Virginia for the first time. We hear about things, like you mentioned the land records and tax records, and that could be very new territory for us. It can be a little intimidating to jump into a record collection you haven’t worked before.

Jeri: Right, especially because then you’re relying on original documents, which means reading the handwriting of the time. That takes practice. It’s like when you first learn to write cursive in school. It’s not that hard, it just takes a little bit of time. It’s kind of fun, because they write different, and their terminology is different. But that’s where your dictionary comes in. Practice makes perfect. The more you do, the easier it gets.

Most of those records are going to be at county level. If you have a burned county, then you may have to rely on state records. The Virginia state library may have more than what is left in a burned county. There are all kinds of records there. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.

Learn More About the County in Virginia

My first recommendation would be to learn more about the county you’re going to be dealing with. First go to the FamilySearch Wiki for the county. Read what they have to say about which records are available for that particular county and start there. Make a research plan. Make notes and determine exactly what to look for.

I know that you’ve done a couple of past episodes, especially I think it was episode 64, where you talked about how to do research using FamilySearch. I think those are things you need to learn a little bit before you jump right in. I think that would be a really good start if they’re not familiar with FamilySearch. It’s one of the best places to go to look at records when you’re starting out.

Lisa: And it’s free, which is great.

Jeri: That’s right, so it’s definitely a good place to start along with learning about the county. Learning about the formation of the county, that’s almost a genealogical research adventure in itself because you need to know how the counties changed so quickly over time. And you do need to get back to what that parent county was. It’s important to know the genealogy of the counties and know where to look for those records, because they’re not all just going to be in today’s county. You may have to go back to multiple counties to find those records.

Lisa: Typically, when a record was created in a particular county, and then that county maybe splits out or changes we should be looking in the county that it was at the time our ancestors were there, right?

Jeri: Exactly. You might think, “that’s it, I’m done. I can’t find anything else.” When you feel that way, step back, review the various forms the county has taken. Check all of them. You’d be surprised where those records will be in many different places. They might even be in the courthouse basement. I’ve come across that many times as well.

In Virginia, not all deed records are going to be online. For example, here in North Carolina our counties have so many records available online. But in Virginia, they might not be on FamilySearch. You may have to go to a courthouse to actually see those records. However, they are getting better about getting them filmed.

If you’ve exhausted some of that, like I mentioned before, check out tax records. These put your person in their place in time, and that’s what you’re looking for. You always want to remember that a man by one name is not necessarily that man. Always remember that because there are so many same named people throughout history, and you have to be careful which one you’re chasing and get the right one.

Lisa: I love your idea about the genealogy of a county! Getting to know the history county at the same time as you’re getting to know the history of your family.

Virginia Burned Counties

You mentioned burned counties. Seasoned genealogists have heard that many times. But there are those who are new to genealogy, or they’ve been researching other parts of the country, and now they’re finding that their family line takes them into the South where burned counties are more common. Tell us a little bit about what you mean by a “burned county” and what does that mean to the records?

Jeri: Generally burned counties have a lot to do with war. That’s especially true during the Civil War. For the South, many courthouses burned down. But it happens even in today’s time. We see floods, we see fires. Again, look at your county history on the FamilySearch Wiki. It will tell you which counties were burned. Then you can determine where else to look for records.

I had a project recently that was in Washington County, Arkansas. The county was totally burned, and there was nothing really left. But at the state level, I was able to find the tax records. So, for the client’s ancestor, we were able to place him in that county in the time that we needed to place him there even though there was no information about him anywhere in the county. Those records were burned at two different times. Once in the 1800s, and then again later on.

When your ancestor got a deed, they would take it into the courthouse to get it recorded. This means that when you’re looking at a deed book, you’re not looking at the original record because they didn’t keep the original deed. They just recorded it, and then they handed it back. Folks then took it home to keep it in a safe place. I was very fortunate in one of my research projects that when we had burned counties, they had all the people bring their deeds back in and they recorded them again. And so that’s how we ended up with still having deeds that were probably burned the first go around in the clerk’s books.

I inherited deeds from my great grandmother that were in a trunk. That is probably what started this whole journey for me 30 years ago. One of the deeds was from 1812. It was just amazing! They had kept those deeds. The courthouse over in Orange County did not have that deed, so I took it over there, and they got to copy it into the deed book. And then they had it. There’s a lot of ways to get around the burned counties, and there’s reason for hope.

Lisa: That’s very encouraging that they brought records back in and entered them again.

State Level Records for Virginia

How do records end up at the state level? You mentioned a couple of times to check with the State Archives. Was there a process where every so often the counties were supposed to send copies of books to the state? Or did that happen much later?

Jeri: Well, I think it did, like, are in North Carolina, particularly. So many of our marriage records have gone to the state. So, they’re at our archives now. And so, they came out of the county’s hands, I don’t know, maybe because they just kept getting burned to the ground. They, and so they ended up, you know, at the at the state level at the State Archives for most of them. And so, your state archives is a good place for your research. State libraries are good, like the Library of Virginia (state library), as the just you couldn’t ask for better. And online and offline. It’s a great, it’s a great resource for learning and looking for records as well.

Important Types of Records for Early Virginia Genealogy

Lisa: You’ve mentioned a couple of different types of records. We talked about tax records. Would we find tax records for somebody who doesn’t own property?

Personal Property and Planned Tax Records

That would be your personal property tax records, and then you had planned tax records. So, there are two different ones and you want to look for each. There may only be just one white pole, which means that one person is over the right age to be taxable. It might be a horse, it might be a silver watch, things like that.

Land Tax Records

Then there’s the land tax where they’re going to tax you on how much property that you own.

Included in the property tax would be enslaved persons. So, if you’re doing African American research, especially for Virginia, these are helpful. If the person you are researching was an enslaver, they would have these people listed by their names, typically their first names because that’s generally all they had. Some of them were sorted out by age. Not necessarily every county would be the same. But you would have perhaps age under 15 or 16, and then over 16. And while that’s a broad range, you’re looking for every little thing you can when you’re doing that type of research. Those are the kinds of things that you would see in the tax records.

Chancery Records

Another great resource is chancery records, which I love. They’re court records which you can find at the Virginia Library. You can search by plaintiff or defendant or just a surname. I usually just do the surname when I search. You go to each county so choose your county, and then choose your name. It’ll bring up folders of court records. Everybody sued everybody just like they do now. Everybody was in court all the time. Sometimes it’ll just be maybe a lawsuit over land, or it could be a lawsuit over a horse or an enslaved person as well. But a lot of times you would find records that would involve state records, probate records, and every now and then you will really get lucky and you could find a whole family’s history in some of these files that explain the parents and the grandparents, the grandchildren. I’ve had them go many generations in one file and even include the neighbors. It puts your person in their place and time and helps you not confuse them with someone else

Virginia Chancery Records

Virginia Chancery Record, courtesy of Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing

I would say that if you don’t look at those you’re missing out, totally! They are refilming a lot of the records right now. So, when you search your file might not come up. You would be able to see the file folder, but you might not be able to see the contents of it. But then you could take that information and go to your county level court records. Again, I would go through FamilySearch and do your search in the catalog by the county, not just a record search. By doing that, you can actually find those folders are still going to be within the county. You’ll have to dig a little deeper. But it’s always rewarding to do that.

Colonial Tithables

Lisa: You’ve mentioned several really important types of records, chancery court records, deeds, wills and estate records. What other types are there? You have on your list colonial tithables. What are those?

Jeri: Those were really early. They’re like taxing, and it has to do with who the person by the age, and if they’re old enough to be taxed. It’s another form of the tax record. Those are the really early lists that you would be back quite far. You might not need those for a while, but if you get lucky, and you’re really getting back pretty far, then those are good.

Understand Virginia Law

Lisa: I imagined to be able to really use these records, we have to really understand things like geography and the law. What are your recommendations to a genealogist on really getting to understand the law? What’s a good way to go about that?

Jeri: Reading, taking classes, I mean, there are so many classes available online nowadays, just from the comfort of your home to be able to learn a lot. That would be the best thing to get familiar with the law. Learning the law is a little bit more complex but it is important. For example, it helps you determine if someone would have been the right age to get married. It’s a good way to separate the person out that might be the same name. It would help you know if your ancestor was able to buy and sell land, whether they could be a witness, all those ages change frequently. Then you know whether to go look for those records.

Understand Virginia Geography

Lisa: Are there any other resources that you think should really be on the forefront of the minds of people who are going to be digging into their Virginia roots?

Jeri: Land and maps are really my favorite! The David Rumsey collection is free and it’s excellent. I think you did a video episode on finding and using David Rumsey maps, too. Oh, my gosh, it was great!

And I definitely look for maps with Google. (Resource: The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke.) You can Google historical maps for Roanoke County, Virginia, for example. Some of those older maps have the landowners on them. I’ve got a huge map collection. You can find them from the formation of the county. They will have the landowner’s names written where their land was. Maybe your person did not own land, maybe they were just tenant farmers, but you found the name of the landowner, or you find them in another record. Look to see who they were living around. You can then find where they were, when they were in that particular county. That also gives you a way to look for more records that might involve your ancestor, as well.

Lisa: Well, that makes great sense. Maps are such an important part of it’s all location and timeframe, right?

Jeri: Yeah, because everything was about land. It still is, but it always has been about the land, and you don’t want to bypass that. You don’t want to just look at census, marriage, and death records, and that’s it.  You really need to understand the context of their life and everything that was going on around them in the area that they lived. You then know more about who they are. Say their name, know who they were, and make them come back. They can be alive.

Getting Help from a Professional Genealogist Specializing in Virginia

Lisa: That’s a great way to look at it. Jeri, if people get really stuck, and they just feel like I need help with a professional genealogist, how could they get in touch with you? And what do you guys do at Legacy tree genealogist?

Jeri: They can contact us, and we can steer them to the right professional genealogist for their project. We have a wonderful team, and they do really good work! If you get stuck or if you don’t feel like you  have the years to go and take the time to take classes and do everything, come join us and we’ll be happy to get you on the right track and help you find your ancestors.

Exclusive Discounts: Learn more at https://www.legacytree.com/GenealogyGems This is our affiliate link and includes special discount coupon codes just for you.

Lisa: It’s a good feeling to be able to take a big leap forward and professionals can help you do it. Jeri,  this has been terrific. Thank you for giving us a jumpstart into our Virginia genealogy.

(This interview was edited minimally for clarity.)

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Pay It Forward in Genealogy: 4 Ways to Give Back to the Community

During this giving season, why not give back to the community of global genealogy lovers who quietly and continually enrich our family history research? Here are 4 ways to pay it forward in genealogy from the comfort of wherever you are! One gem you may not have heard of: the British Library’s project to index old maps.

pay it forward in genealogy

4 Ways to Pay it Forward in Genealogy

1. Help with global gravestone research.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably discovered the final resting places of many an ancestor–perhaps along with important biographical data and even additional relatives–with the help of websites such as BillionGraves and Find A Grave.

BillionGraves says it’s “the world′s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data, and is growing bigger and better every day.” Its volunteers take GPS-tagged pictures of headstones in cemeteries around the world and transcribe them for their free searchable database.

How you can help:

  • Image headstones: download the free app to your smartphone from the App Store or Google Play. Take images of headstones in cemeteries you visit, whether it’s your own ancestor’s burial place or a local graveyard.
  • Transcribe personal information found on gravestone images. You can transcribe the images you take or you can visit the site and transcribe images that someone else has uploaded. Click here to get started.
  • Upload additional source documentation to BillionGraves tombstone images, such as obituaries, cemetery records, and the like. You’ll make these virtual gravestone sites even more genealogically valuable! Click here to learn more.

Find A Grave has a slightly different model for collecting global gravestone data. Here you can create free memorial pages for ancestors, which “generally include birth, death, and burial information and may include pictures, biographies, family information, and more.” You can also upload your own headstone images and transcribe them (or someone else’s images), and you can even upload a spreadsheet of cemetery burials you may have already transcribed.

Who’s behind Find A Grave? It’s owned by subscription website Ancestry.com, but it’s a separate, free site powered by volunteers: “Thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour. The site simply wouldn’t exist without the million+ contributors.”

Find A Grave has recently updated its site to make it more secure, faster, easier to use, and accessible to new devices and other languages. More than 100 million graves from over half a million cemeteries worldwide are already searchable at the site. To get started, download the Find A Grave app at Google Play or the App Store, or just visit the website.

2. Transcribe old documents and maps.

Millions–even billions–of digital images of old documents contain genealogical clues, but those names, dates, and places need to be extracted from those image files before they become easily searchable. Transcribing that information is also known in genealogy circles as indexing (or creating indexes). Here are four places to contribute your indexing skills:

FamilySearch Indexing. Thousands of you have likely participated in this best-known volunteer record transcription project out there. (We blogged about it recently in honor of their worldwide weekend indexing event.) Their indexing platform recently became fully cloud-based, so you can index more easily on your computer or mobile device. Volunteers are especially needed right now who can read Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch.

British Library Georeferencing Project. The British Library is recruiting volunteers to help geo-reference thousands of old maps that are already online. Geo-referencing, or geotagging, means assigning geographic reference points (longitude, latitude) to points on a map image. Doing this with old maps allows them to be linked to their modern-day locations, allowing us to compare the past and present (as Lisa teaches about in her free Google Earth video class). Over 8,000 maps have already been “placed” by participants (and subsequently checked for accuracy and approved by their panel of expert reviewers). The latest phase of the project includes 50,000 maps, mostly 19th-century maps from books published in Europe. The British Library says that “some places have changed significantly or disappeared completely,” increasing both the intriguing challenges for volunteers and the value to those who will benefit from their map sleuthing skills.

Ancestry World Archives Project. “The Ancestry World Archives Project is thousands of volunteers from around the world with a passion for genealogy and a desire to help others discover their roots,” says the project home page. “And all it takes is a computer, some basic software we provide and a little of your time.” Even though Ancestry.com itself is a subscription website, any records indexed through the Ancestry World Archives Project remain free to search on the site.

Here’s a screenshot of their current projects (click on it to visit the site):

National Archives Citizen Archivist Program. “A Citizen Archivist is a virtual volunteer that helps the U.S. National Archives increase the online access to their historical records,” reports Melissa Barker in a recent blog post. “This is done by crowdsourcing metadata about their records through tagging, transcribing, and adding comments to the U.S. National Archives catalog.”  Click here to read the full article and get started.

3. Reunite heirlooms with long-lost relatives.

Probably millions of “lost” family items are out there: in flea markets, second-hand shops, online auction listings, perhaps even your own closets or attics. Genealogy Gems has reported many times in the past about genealogy heroes who claim these “orphaned heirlooms” just long enough to research and contact living relatives who would love to find them.

Whether it’s a family bible, an old marriage certificate in a dusty frame, a fading photo album, or a pile of old letters, each “orphaned heirloom” is unique–and so is the experience of tracking down its family and reuniting them. Here are several stories to inspire your next visit to eBay or a secondhand shop:

4. Solve “unclaimed persons” mysteries.

Unclaimed Persons Project“Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person,” writes Lacey Cooke, Genealogy Gems service manager, who has a forensic anthropology degree. “It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them.”

Lacey is the one who introduced us to the Unclaimed Persons project earlier this year. With Unclaimed Persons, an online community of volunteer researchers joins forces with medical examiners, forensic investigators, and coroners to help reunite families and bring closure so that the dead can finally be laid to rest. Click here to read more about that effort.

How will you pay it forward in genealogy?

Click on one of the opportunities above–or tell us about one you’ve tried–to give back to your genealogy community this season. This largely-invisible community is all around us and enriches all our efforts, from late-night research sessions by ourselves (in records indexed by volunteers!) to local societies who host classes that inspire us or who answer our obituary inquiries and Facebook posts about their locales. If you are already one of those volunteers, THANK YOU. You are a gem and we here at Genealogy Gems are grateful for you.

P.S. You can also “pay it forward” by sharing free content like this from our website with your genealogy friends and society members. Why not link to this post on social media or in an email and challenge those you know to do good in the genealogy world?

 

 

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