Hunting And Gathering

I am notorious in my household for coming home with the wrong grocery items. I’m always pretty close: fat-free sour cream instead of the fat-ful, italian-seasoned bread crumbs instead of just regular old Panko, chili powder packets instead of taco seasoning. I fully admit my grocery store impatience. As soon as I pass between the waist-high pyramid of La Croix 12-packs and the salad-to-go buffet, a rushed laziness descends upon me, which always results in a second trip to the grocery store and a nice little wait in the Exchanges and Refunds line.

I’ve noticed signs of this lazy, impatient rush in other people, too. Mostly on the internet.

You may have noticed that genealogy is pretty popular right now in the United States. There are several TV shows, podcasts, YouTube channels and websites dedicated to the topic. is one of the biggest genealogy websites. On their commercials, they advertise the millions of family trees people have entered onto the site and the ease of shaking leaf hints. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.

Shaking leaf hints are notifications like on Facebook. They suggest records that might match people you’ve entered into your family tree. If you press the leaf, you can compare the information you have on your family member with the facts on the record. Then, you can decide to accept the notification, and it will copy all of the facts on the new record to your family tree.

Now it’s true that these features are really useful. But there’s a misleading component to all of it, and it has to do with that Mexican-seasoned shredded cheese I accidentally bought last week.

Here is the fact page of Fred Wilson, my great-grandfather, a man I’ve been researching for 10 years, off of another person’s Ancestry family tree. Let’s call that person Angela:

The Made-Up Fred Wilson.png

That picture to the left of Fred’s name? I posted it. The censuses listed under sources? Angela copied those from my family tree. His wife, his children, the dates of his birth and death are all there because Angela pressed the Accept button on my research. But her copying doesn’t bother me as much as the part of this profile that she didn’t take from me. See the red circle on the right? Yeah, those people aren’t my 2nd great-grandparents.

How did that happen?

Short answer: rushed laziness.

Long-ish answer: I’m guessing Angela is also related to a Fred Wilson and received a shaky leaf hint about my research on my Fred Wilson. Excited by the new find, she probably clicked Accept on the information without looking at it. Not that I blame her for being excited. Genealogy is the science of belonging after all. But all she had to do was open one of those censuses to see her mistake. Above Fred’s name on every one of those censuses, his parents Ambrose and Lucy are listed; and below him are his brothers and sisters. It’s pretty easy to see the disconnect if she’d compared Ambrose and Lucy’s family to her Wilson family. Instead she made them a part of her family tree where 14 other people have picked up the error on their own.

The perpetuation of this mistake aggravates me. I sent her a nice note. Just a “hey, thought you’d like to know that there’s a pretty big mistake on your tree. I’d love to help you find the right Fred. Let me know.” That was 2 years ago. No response. I can’t help but thinking of the time I took to post accurate information and how it has been written over in a click of a button. My fingernails are chewed down to the quick.

So, that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my genealogy research and the thing I tell new researchers: it’s really easy to attach yourself to the wrong people on genealogy web sites.

How do you avoid it? Simple: hunting and gathering, just like I should be doing in the grocery store. Walk down every aisle (or every web site) looking for what you need. Once you’ve spotted a promising item (or document), gather as much info as you can about it (or, you know, read the packaging). Once you’ve done that, review it before you buy or accept it. If facts in the documents don’t agree, make informed decisions about the probable. If items in your grocery cart are gluten-free, sugar-free, and carb-free and you don’t want them to be, throw them out. Then, and only then, should you take it home.



13 Replies to “Hunting And Gathering”

  1. Catching up on some of your posts. I totally get this too. I have found eight people have perpetuated a huge mistake in exactly the same way you describe on my tree. My friendly note has been ignored by all but one. Love the comparison to shopping. Buying the wrong cheese and naming the wrong parents will fuck up the whole recipe!

  2. I love the analogy, and the information. I’m not looking into my genealogy, but I thought of you this morning when I published a post with photos and new information I learned about my father and nephew. I hadn’t been to your blog for a long time so I thought I would come visit. I sent the information about the yeah write project to Sreejit.

  3. OMG, yes! This drives me nutty. I try really hard to take info directly from original sources, like birth and death certificates, instead of someone else’s family tree. Nice essay to explain the pitfalls of lazy research. I enjoyed reading this.

  4. Excellent analogy. I have a similar frustration. Esther Brouilette is my 3rd great grandmother. She was my dead end. Through painstaking research over two years I have proven who her parents are using indirect and negative evidence. In the past, all other ancestry trees have her as a dead end as well. One person attached incorrect parents to her and it is spreading like wildfire. I kindly messaged the person, explained that the parents couldn’t be correct since their daughter Esther Brouillette died the day after she was born. The response I got was something to the effect of, “Well, I know that but I just figured they must have had another daughter later on and used the same name and I just haven’t found the baptism record yet.” AHHHH!!!!! The father died three years after the daughter and there were no children in between that I can find. Plus, I have proof that the other couple are in fact the correct parents. But my tree is private and so the mistake from this woman’s tree is being spread. Frustrating!

  5. Cool story, bro. No, really, I like the way you tied the two things together, grocery shopping and genealogy. Not to mention it really made me think about how cool it would be to trace my own family, but I tried it once on years ago and couldn’t get far at all.. my family history is so muddled and lost and forgotten, it seems.

  6. Gosh, that would drive me crazy. It’s like it denigrates all your careful, considerate research, and just chucks a pile of ud all over it at the same time. SIGH (that wasn’t very helpful of me – sorry). There is so much in this world we have to learn to not think about as we have no control over it.
    happy researching and leaf shaking

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