How to easily mess-up your family tree with Ancestry

Building your tree online is easy with just a few clicks… and therein lies the problem.


Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love Ancestry, and have been a happy member for many years now, but as a seasoned user, I do know that there’s danger at every turn.

A good family historian will consider every scrap of evidence, not just in its own right, or its contributing source, but also in the wider context of the family.

I’m very lucky that I have paternal and maternal families where 90% have lived within the county of Cambridgeshire, England for almost 430 years. The luckiness comes in the ease at which I can research these two (and occasionally intertwined) trees simultaneously, often with both sides appearing alongside each other in census returns and parish register entries.

This means I understand probability, the likeliness of the location of a marriage, baptism or burial for example. I have of course made mistakes, but those have made my detective skills better.

For those few branches that have crossed the border into foreign lands (ie: Suffolk and whatever lies beyond), I join the ranks of millions of other family historians – using online tools because it’s more convenient than chasing archives, and having to be a little more open to extra checking of records and taking unexpected turns.

However, I’ve spotted a few things that confuse, and that might be a ‘risk’ to your family tree if you don’t just stop for a second and consider what you’re seeing.

Those Member Family Trees

Okay, no-one knows your 4th Cousin 2x Removed like your 4th Cousin 3x Removed does, but if you’ve ever clicked on that ‘Member’s Tree’ hint you’ll know what I mean – instant ‘tree’.

Let’s take a look at my 6x Great Grandmother, Mary Cropley in Ancestry.co.uk:

The hints for Mary Cropley in Ancestry.co.uk
The hints for Mary Cropley in Ancestry.co.uk

Wow! 10 Member Trees – this sounds great!

Mary Cropley's details match
Mary Cropley’s details match

As the hint suggests, “This hint compiles information from 10 other Public Ancestry Trees”. Great – look at that, all of those details in the summary match mine, this must be right! Building this tree is going to be nice and easy…

Mary Cropley Ancestry mis-matches
Where did the matches go?

Now, it’s dead easy to just click a few times on those tick boxes and magic happens, and you’ve got your tree updated nicely.

But…Err… where did those matches go? Suddenly, Mary Cropley is Mary Collis, and she’s married someone else, had different children, and has moved to the wilds of Oxfordshire.

Am i wrong?

No, because I’ve seen the Ely Parish Registers, and know that the details I have are correct. From that “hint [that] compiles information from 10 other Public Ancestry Trees”, not one of them was correct.

false matches
Dream on, buster – you wrote this!

The information you see in the summary is actually the information that you have entered/added, not a summary of the matches from the members trees that you’re about to see – so it’s kind of leading you towards a false hope of success.

Of course you want to find matches, but what I’m actually finding is none when I read through the summary. This is kind of a poor user experience.

Baptism records

The other record that really frustrates me is the Select and Christening indexes. It takes too many clicks to actually discover that you’ve almost added a load of incorrect data to your tree.

Here’s my 6x Great Grandfather (and Mary’s husband) William Beasley…

William Beasley baptism matches!
William Beasley Select Births and Christening Index matches! Woohoo!

In his hints are these two matches, and it’s exciting to see William Beasley named here…

This Christening summary all looks in order..
This Christening summary all looks in order..

..hmm, this seems okay, but now there’s some more info, which actually seems to match anyway, so let’s click ‘Yes’ to the ‘Does the William Beasley in this record match the person in your tree?’ question….

Except that as the eye glances down, it starts to go wrong…

Not just William Beasley..
Not just William Beasley..
Oh! The match mis-matched..
Oh! The match mis-matched..

This is a Mary Ann Beasley match, not William (he’s the father), so the date is wrong, and in fact, the person, place, and county is wrong too.

I could easily have tapped on the Save button, and added this wrong information to my tree, rather than scrolling down to the bottom to find the wrong information.

What Ancestry need to do here, is give some more information in that summary box – state that the match is because William is noted as a ‘Father’, and perhaps give the child name and date, or at least the location name, therefore saving me 2 more clicks before I find the mismatch information.

The correct information for Mary Beasley, is that she remained in Ely, Cambridgeshire, for her entire life – baptism, marriage, and burial.

I’m wondering how many other users bother to check this over before just accepting it?

Where the Hell is that?

Whilst I don’t have an example to illustrate it here, if you’re an Ancestry user, i’m sure that you’ll be familiar with numerical place names (e.g. “110910345, East Sussex, England” or completely nonsensical place names that Ancestry appears to have merrily absorbed (like “Haddenham, Cambridgeshire, Utah, Russian Federation, USA”).

UPDATE: Time-travellers

After about half an hour of posting this particular blog post, I found another glowing example: those pesky time-traveller ancestors.

In this example, my 5x Great Aunt Ann Pavett (née Yarrow) appears to have some extraordinary genes that I’m not sure I’ve been handed.

She travels through time.

Here’s some more delightful Member’s Trees matches, and this time, the fault has spread (I’ve obfuscated the tree owners simply to stop Matthew Hopkins II from being unleashed).

Member Tree matches for Ann Yarrow
Ann Pavett (née Yarrow) born c.1813 in Cambridgeshire…

But what’s this… I’ve discovered a child I didn’t know that she and her husband had…. 60 years before she was born.

Ann Yarrow, time traveller
Forget Doctor Who, Ann Yarrow was the first female timelord.

And so the rot spreads. I look forward to meeting Ursula Pavett’s mother to check my family tree notes against.

Some simple date checking here would help to stop nonsense like this from appearing, and more importantly from spreading.

Keep Ancestry Tidy

User added and imported data is going to be hard to clean, fix, or even verify as it goes in – because yes, that 4th Cousin 2x Removed’s child, will know more about them than me.

You’ve got so many files, softwares, record sources with varying levels of granularity and data fields, and users with independent approaches, that the whole thing must be an ugly tangled bowl of spaghetti behind the scenes at Ancestry.

I’m sure their UX team and data teams are peddling as fast as they can , but as fiction easily slides seamlessly in to eat up the facts without remorse, I’d love to see some kind of partnership to do data verification for places, or even just a few more interface improvements.

keep site tidy sign

Outside of family history (yes, there is such a place!), in the land called ‘work’, I spend a bit of my time tidying up Google Maps – demolishing spammy and incorrect locations, and getting fake and paid reviews removed. It’s slow, but it’s damn cathartic. An affectionate term of ‘Stop Crap On The Map’ has emerged for this, so I feel we need one for Ancestry’s rubbish info.

How about ‘Stop Debris On The Tree’?

I’d love to hear your stories of crappy data, accidental boughs, and alternative slogans in the comments!

As ever, thanks for reading, and happy tree surgery,

Andrew

Author: Andrew Martin

+Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.

3 thoughts on “How to easily mess-up your family tree with Ancestry”

  1. Ah yes, “that” problem….. I’ve given up checking Hints as life is, as evidenced by our hard work, just too short! My particular ‘favourites’ are when the only references on the tree refer you to other trees. Only if there are proper references will I even look; and, yes, I then check them myself 🤓

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  2. Andrew,
    Thanks for today’s excellent column detailing the subtle dangers of using Ancestry.com thoughtlessly to add information to your online family tree. I have had experiences similar to yours using the American version of the site, especially now that I have begun to explore my English ancestry. Carelessly, I clicked on a recommended tree whose “recent” [1650 and back] listings seemed to match ancestors in my lineage who had emigrated to the Chesapeake Area in the mid-1650s. I was rewarded with the addition of over 500 “ancestors” reaching back to one of the Norman nobility who came to England with, or shortly after, William the Conqueror. The list of this individual’s descendants was replete with noble, high-ranking individuals.
    While grateful to uncover such a historically interesting and socially prominent lineage, I must say I was somewhat suspicious as most of my British immigrant ancestors came as indentured servants or were were transported at the expense of the Crown. Needless to say, I have spent considerable time cleansing my online tree of most of these suspect “ancestors”, preserving only the most recent for further study. Having learned my lesson, I now make any addition to my online tree by hand, one individual at a time after I have thoroughly researched the validity of the connection.
    Dubious family trees aside, I do value the massive historical record content available on the site and feel it is well worth the price of membership.
    I look forward to your further submissions.
    Regards,
    Jack Gracey
    Marlborough, Massachusetts, USA

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    1. Hi Jack, Oh, that sounds like a complete disaster for you then! How frustrating, and what a mess to have to unpick and clear up! I’m under no misconception that my family worked the land and crawled out of the swamps, so any link to any authoritative figure would come under a great deal of scrutiny from me. I love Ancestry’s collection of records, and alongside my FindMyPast membership, I feel I get a wide range, and two interpretations of the data (as even their transcriptions can be wildly different).
      Thanks for reading!
      Andrew

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