The Slippery Slope of DNA & Online Trees

Those who spend time in the Ancestry world have had an intense focus on DNA matches lately since it was announced that centimorgan matches below 8 would be dropped from reported results.

I decided to take a look at those 6-8 cM matches for myself.

I am the first to admit that I spend very little time looking at DNA matches for a couple of reasons. First, in my family tree, I either have the Slovak branch where all records end in the early 1800s and no one seems to have a Bible or anything else to extend names back in time OR I have my colonial branch where most of my brick walls are way beyond the 6 generation mark and DNA won’t be of much use. Of course, that is aside from Catherine (MNU) who married Loyalist Robert Carlisle, and about whom I wrote last week.

My husband’s DNA matches are more interesting, and he has way more of them, but I’ve learned very little, aside from gaining a couple of clues.

However, I have noticed a trend – and not a good one – on ThruLines. This is not a criticism of ThruLines at all, but of the humans who compile their family trees.

First, we have three facts:

  1. DNA results don’t lie.
  2. DNA doesn’t care what anyone’s name is.
  3. DNA either matches or it doesn’t match.

Why am I stating anything so obvious? Well, because, in a way, DNA results tied to family trees might be nothing more than a faster way to spread undocumented or downright wrong information.

It’s the old story of garbage in, garbage out. What I am finding is that many online trees have hypothetical or downright mythological ancestors at the earliest beginnings of various family branches.

Let’s say that someone has decided that John Robert Samuel Jones, Major General in the American Revolution (made up example!) is the ancestor of a particular line of Joneses and added them to their tree as the earliest known ancestor in that line. HOWEVER, this person has no sources, citations, documents, records or anything else to prove the connection.

Others scouring for clues about their own Jones line find that Major General Jones’s son is their own documented line. They become really excited and add him to their own tree.

This scenario happens over and over and, before you know it, there are 94 other online trees with the same information. None of them has a single source either.

Next, let’s say half of them take an autosomal DNA test. Results come in and a new potential pool of relatives pop up. Many are descended from the major general’s purported son. They’ve never been able to find a crumb trail to the parents and siblings of his “son,” but now DNA results have provided the answer.

But, stop and think for a minute. Has DNA really identified the father of this person? NO ONE has any documentation connecting the major general to this person.

Major General John Robert Samuel Jones (whose name should be suspect anyway because the Anglo-Celtic common folk didn’t even use middle names in the mid-18th century) is nothing but a NAME STUCK ONTO A FAMILY TREE.

Like rabbits, this wishful thinking has multiplied over and over. It’s bad enough when people doing traditional research add incorrect, undocumented information to their family trees.

For whatever reason, many are overlooking the undocumented information when looking at DNA results.

Here are a few examples from my own family DNA results:

  1. Catherine (MNU) has to be first on this list. Even her grandchildren seemed to have no idea what her maiden name was, but someone has attributed Stark/Starks or Starkey to her. The trees I looked at had NO records of any kind to even document where the supposition came from. I do have two Stark descendants with whom I share matches and it appears our common ancestor is Lt. Col. John Stark of Morris County, NJ. Whether any connection can be made to Catherine who married Loyalist Robert Carlisle in Parrtown, New Brunswick, Canada in 1785 remains to be seen. She is also assigned an exact date of birth that doesn’t match the age that Catherine herself gave in her widow’s pension application. Further, she was born in a town and county in CANADA that didn’t exist in the 1760s according to the connected family trees. How could that be when her supposed father lived his whole life in Morris County, New Jersey??? The connected online family trees are a total mess with a lot of wrong info that I can disprove!
  2. Rachel Throop is my other supposed newly discovered ancestress. Another of my Loyalists, Jonathan Parker, was from New Jersey and he has thousands of descendants. No one has ever found even the tiniest clue as to his wife’s first name, never mind maiden name. Yet, there are now DNA trees online that name her as Rachel Throop, who was supposedly born in New Jersey in 1750. The only problem is that her “parents” Daniel and Sarah Throop, lived their lives in Rhode Island and Connecticut. That’s a huge problem for me! It also goes without saying that not a single tree I looked at had even one source, unless it was another family tree, with, of course, no sources.

On my husband’s side of the family:

  1. Sophia King reportedly married William Sturgill of Ashe County, North Carolina in the early 1800s. Her name is found in a Sturgill history, but no document has ever been found that gives the first or last name of William Sturgill’s wife. William Sturgill has many descendants and every single tree names her as his wife. No documentation on any of them, aside from a family history book stating her name, but cites no sources either.
  2. The King problem is compounded by online family trees saying her parents are Edward King and Felicia “Freely” Lewis from Maryland. Not only are there no documents naming Sophia King as Mrs. Sturgill, there are no sources cited linking her to her reputed parents or even that the parents themselves existed.
  3. George Baker and Esther Robertson are two of my husband’s 4X great grandparents. Even by the time they were born in the 1700s, there were a gazillion other related Bakers floating around. Not only is the surname common, they all used the same few given names over and over so that multiple cousins close in age all had the same first name. No one has been able to sort out the earlier generations with any proof. Having said that, it is thought that George’s father was one of the John Bakers in the neighborhood.

Not surprisingly, while checking out Dave’s DNA matches, up came the Baker family. John Baker is shown as the father of George and a number of other children. His wife is called Elizabeth Terrill.

However, the FamilySearch Family Tree states, correctly, that not a single document has been found that ever names John Baker’s wife, not even her first name.

This is my favorite find, though:

Someone has a photograph of John Baker, taken when he was a relatively young man, maybe 40-50 years old! This image appears on probably 100 of my husband’s DNA matches.

Oh, wait! Notice John’s birth and death dates. He died in 1831 – six years before photography was invented.

Rant finished! People, please look carefully at what the DNA results are telling you.

The reputed common ancestor is just a myth unless there is corresponding documentation linking that person to at least one of his/her children.

DNA results must be used in connection with traditional genealogical research with identified sources.




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