The C-R-A-P in my tree (what’s hiding in YOURS?)

What trash is littering your tree??

What trash is littering your tree??

None of us were born professional genealogists. Some of us (such as moi!!) have NO aspirations to become one. However, I love genealogy. I am obsessed with it. I strive to do a good job. I cite my sources. I attend conferences. I read books. I listen to webinars. I apply what I learn. I’m long past the stage of simply wanting to get to the next generation; rather, I’d prefer to get to “know” my ancestors better by filling in the details of their lives with information on how they lived, what they did, what they ate, who they associated with. This is what makes genealogy fun.

A few weeks ago I began drafting a short biography of my great-great grandfather, Albert J. Stanwood. I’ve been working on this line for well over 20 years, and thought it would be fun to put together something that I could share with extended family members, starting with Albert, and working my way back to HIS fifth great grandfather and colonial ancestor, Philip Stainwood, the first of the name in the United States. It should be simple I thought, since I have the usual birth, marriage, death, and land records, old letters written from one family member to another, photographs and obituaries and other interesting facts for the family. I’ve taken several research trips to Massachusetts, Maine and Minnesota where the family had lived. Everything should be in order. A tweak here and a tweak there should be all that’s needed. Piece of cake, right?

It started like this:

On 23 December 1848, Albert Jerome Stanwood entered the world on what was certainly a cold winter day in Penobscot County, Maine, the first child born to David Stanwood and his young wife, Caroline White. The boy grew up in Township No. 2 Indian Purchase (also known as West IndianTownship) among the plentiful pines and other timber for which the region was known with numerous relatives and extended family, including his grandfather, Benjamin Stanwood, whose kin is credited with giving the new Plantation in which Albert was born its very appropriate name: Woodville.⁠

Off to a good start. Fingers ablaze on the keyboard, I pounded out a few more details about Albert’s aunts, uncles and cousins who lived nearby. Then something incredible happened. Not incredible in the “WOW look what neat thing I found!” way. More like incredible in the “HOLY C-R-A-P!” way. UGH!!

Taking the time to document Albert’s story quickly demonstrated there’s very little that’s more effective at making one truly dig in and look at information with a fresh perspective than trying to take facts and dates and weave them into a story. This exercise exposed a huge, age-old assumption that has likely prevented me from solving one of my brickwalls – when did Albert’s mother Caroline (White) Stanwood die? As a newbie genealogist many years ago, I ASSUMED that Caroline had died by 1893, the year her mother died.

Obituary of Mary (Scott) White, Northfield News, 14 Jan 1893.

Obituary of Mary (Scott) White, Northfield News, 14 Jan 1893.

Since Caroline was not included as a survivor in her mother’s obituary, I’d reached the conclusion she had predeceased her. However, when reviewing my findings again, I quickly realized that some of Caroline’s other siblings who were known to still be alive in 1893 were also missing from the obituary. Only those who were more prominent in the community had been included.

These original assumptions were made as a “baby” (i.e. newbie) genealogist many years ago, limiting the time period in which I’ve since searched for Caroline’s death. Perhaps with this new knowledge I will be able to finally find when and where Great Great Great Grandma Caroline died!

While other holes were found in my research through this exercise, this was certainly the most glaring error. Worse, since I’ve freely shared my information with others online, my error has been duplicated in the family trees of others. Yikes.

Leland Meitzler with Family Roots Publishing Inc. recently blogged about how he has maintained his family tree privately on, preferring not to share it publicly until he has proven some of his theories. In light of what I found in my own tree, that seems very wise. I’ve often pondered whether or not I should make my trees private, but have always chosen to keep them public. My reasons?

1) Sharing information has led to cousin connections.
2) Sharing my information will ensure that others have access to it after I’m gone.
3) Online family trees are simply “clues,” not facts; the user needs to confirm my data through their own research, just as I would when evaluating their trees.

So, how about you? Do you keep your online trees private, or do you share publicly?

5 responses to “The C-R-A-P in my tree (what’s hiding in YOURS?)

  • Leland K Meitzler

    Excellent blog, Lauren, and believe it or not, I tend to agree with your point of view… I know I’ll get tons of cousin connections when I go public – and that’s a good thing – as well as very time-consuming. My life is currently so busy that I can’t do anyone justice when it comes to sharing my back-up data (and I really want to). Add that to some unproved theories that I’ve foolishly added to my tree, and I’m still hesitating… But for how long?

    • Lauren Mahieu

      Thanks, Leland. It is a difficult decision…especially when we are committed to accuracy of data. Definitely a very personal decision, and I’m not sure what I’d do if I were to wind the clock back in time…

  • Kathy

    I keep my ancestry tree private. At first I kept it private because I was overly cautious and just dipping my toes in the water. But later I made a conscious decision to keep it private for just the reason you gave. I knew I had made a lot of mistakes starting out – taking what I found from other trees and assuming it was correct, my own misguided assumptions, etc. I cleaned things up as I found them, but was sure there were probably still mistakes. And I wasn’t sure that my original import didn’t contain private information in the notes sections that I wouldn’t want everyone to see.
    I can still find cousins on ancestry even though my tree is private. Ancestry shows me if someone has added records to a tree for someone who is also in my tree. I have contacted people whose activity seemed to match my family – and I have been contacted by others who saw references to my activity. I do appreciate the public trees :), but will keep mine private. I’m happy to share once we have emailed one another and confirm the connection. And it is annoying to see mistakes repeated over numerous trees.

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