In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris
September 5, 2008
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution
Internet-derived Thought Processes
Over the centuries there have been a few "game changing" developments that some researchers say have not only fundamentally changed the way that we obtain information but also the way that our brains function in processing information. The development of writing was one of these changes. Because it provided a way to record a permanent history of events it reduced the necessity of structured corporate memory retention mechanisms such as oral histories. The development of the printing press was another such development - providing wide availability of printed information and a broad dispersal of literature and knowledge to the "masses". Television shifted thinking process more toward communication through visual images and less through words. The evolution of the Internet has been another such fundamental change. People have become dependent on the nearly instantaneous availability of data and discourse on almost any conceivable topic. This has replaced, in many cases, the process of deep analytical original thinking. Information overload also results in short attention span and the perceived need to "keep up" with many diverse information sources - with seemingly little time to spend seriously analyzing any one topic. This often seems to result in uncritical acceptance of anything found through a Google search. This trend has had a significant impact on the quality of much of the genealogical data that is readily available on-line.
The Internet has greatly changed mechanisms for sharing family history information - both via email and through numerous web sites related to genealogy. In the previous column, I mentioned several useful web sites and mechanisms for finding and sharing information on-line - with my usual caveat to remember to independently verify information. One of the most commonly used web sites for family history is the WorldConnect Project, a part of RootsWeb hosted by Ancestry.com. Ancestry.com is a commercial entity with several web sites, mostly available through monthly subscription fees, that provide access to images of many original source documents. However, RootsWeb and WorldConnect are made available to anyone by Ancestry.com - and anyone can freely post their own family history via a GEDCOM file on WorldConnect. But be aware of their disclaimer: "RootsWeb.com, Inc. is NOT responsible for the content of the GEDCOMs uploaded through the WorldConnect Program." Every such file is uploaded by an individual - and there is no control over quality or accuracy of the data. Unfortunately, many people simply accept such files and include them, without any attempt at verification, in their own genealogy files - then post their file to WorldConnect. This can result in significant errors being widely propagated.
Because of the frequently poor quality of much of the information posted there, I seldom use WorldConnect - and never rely on it as a data source. Recently I looked up the listings in WorldConnect for one specific person to use as an example in this column - one of my gr.gr.gr.grandmothers, Elizabeth Riley, who married Moses Estes in 1796 in Logan County, Kentucky. At the time I checked this record, there were 73 separate listings for her in WorldConnect - and I looked at all of them. Here's a summary of what I found:
In addition to these errors specifically regarding Elizabeth, there were many errors in the data regarding her husband and children. At least half of the listings had been copied directly from a single faulty database - apparently with no attempt at verification. Fortunately, none of them cited me as a source of the data - although I did most of the original research on this family over 20 years ago. Since the time I shared it with a number of other researchers it has obviously gone through a number of hands and many errors and misinterpretations have been introduced. It is almost impossible to get the postings corrected - and they tend to stay on-line forever. The bottom line regarding WorldConnect is to use it only as a starting point for researching a particular family - and as a possible way to contact other people who might have useful information. But I would recommend that you never cite one of these postings as a reliable data source.
- NONE of the 73 listings was complete and correct regarding what is known about her, her husband, and their children.
- 18 of the listings gave her birthplace and date as "Bowling Green, Warren County, Kentucky" in 1775 or 1778. (None of these entities even existed at that time - and that locality was populated only by native Americans at the time.)
- 1 listing, posted in 2005, showed her as "Still Living" (age 230?)
- 4 listings showed her born in Wilson County, TN in 1815. (Which is actually where and when she died.)
- 1 listing showed her born in Logan County, KY in 1796. (Which is actually where and when she was married.)
- 2 listings showed her as part of a family in NC in which, if true, her mother would have been 8 years old when Elizabeth was born and her parents married 8 years after she was born.
- 3 listings had her married to the wrong Moses Estes.
While I've mentioned this web site in discussing information available through LDS in a previous column, it's appropriate to also mention it here - since much of what is published in WorldConnect is also submitted to LDS. It has the additional disadvantage that it's often difficult or impossible to determine who submitted the data - and when. In checking the submissions for the same Elizabeth Riley discussed above regarding WorldConnect I found the same errors, with a few more variations, repeated in the International Genealogical Index, Ancestral File, and Pedigree Resource File available through FamilySearch. However, there are aspects of FamilySearch that ARE useful - including marriage records that have been extracted from source documents by LDS volunteers. But, in searches, these extracted records show up in the same search results with the submitted records - so you have to be careful to distinguish the two. Also, it's important to note that FamilySearch includes a very valuable on-line searchable transcription of the complete U.S. census for 1880. That particular feature makes this a worthwhile web site to include in your list of genealogy resources - but to be used with caution.
Personal Web Sites for Specific Family Histories
Individuals often have their own web sites documenting their own specific ancestral lines. These can be useful to you if one or more of their lines also fits in your own ancestry. As with any such collection, the accuracy and reliability depends on the researchers and their information sources. One of the advantages of these web sites over the ones mentioned above is that it's much easier and much more likely for the authors to add qualifying notes stating something about the degree of confidence they have in any piece of data - or any assertion regarding specific relationships. For instance, rather than simply listing that the previously mentioned Elizabeth Riley Estes died in 1815 in Wilson County, Tennessee, one might elaborate with a more detailed explanation such as the following. "The Moses Estes family had lived on a 160 acre farm on the East Fork of Purtles Creek near the southeast corner of Wilson County, Tennessee which they had acquired in 1808, based on a deed in Wilson Co. Most of the 10 children of this family were born there. There is no specific record of the deaths of Moses or Elizabeth Estes. However, an estate sale was held in September, 1815, for the estate of Moses Estes, deceased. Within a few months after that, the 10 children had moved to Callaway County, Missouri where they subsequently lived with the family of an uncle. The probate records for the estate of Moses Estes include a receipt for payment for TWO coffins in 1815. Therefore, the preponderance of evidence indicates that Elizabeth died at nearly the same time as Moses - in the summer of 1815." Another aspect of personal family history web sites is that the author is more personally identified with his/her own site and more likely to respond to communication regarding clarifications or corrections to what has been published.
The bottom line is that there is a lot of good information and a lot of not so good information available on-line for family history researchers. Just maintain a reasonable amount of skepticism about any information posted on-line - and look for alternative ways to verify any such information before incorporating it into your own research. If, for a given posting, you find that you can verify critical pieces of information independently, then you can probably assume that the person who posted it would be someone that it would be useful for you to communicate and collaborate with in your own research. On the other hand, when you see a posting containing such absurdities as some of the ones mentioned above in the WorldConnect Elizabeth Riley postings, then it's clear that the person has not really given any thought to the accuracy of the data - so don't waste time with the posting; move on to something more productive and useful..
Previous Columns in this series
1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
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