Online Family Trees: Most Popular Progenitor ≠ Proven True

A few days ago, I read Ken McKinlay’s Family Tree Knots blog post Not Trusting Trees – or – Make Sure You Read the Records.

I can think of quite a few instances where I’ve looked at online family trees, hoping to find sources, or at the very least, somewhat believable clues, that might point me to documents that will enrich my family history.

On the other hand, I can cite instances where others weren’t able to see the forest for the trees – just as Ken pointed out. Even when the (primary) evidence is in front of the reader, he/she is unable to accept it.

Ken’s post also reminded me of my John Whitmer experiment, designed in the very early years (2015) of my blogging life. There was a follow up one year later and the results weren’t very encouraging.

A quick recap of the story is that in 1993, I won second place for best researched article that I wrote about the origins of John Whitmer, who died in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in 1828, published in Bluegrass Roots, the journal of the Kentucky Genealogical Society. My story included 85 footnotes!

I was able to prove that John Whitmer was born on 24 June 1751 in Barbelroth, (today’s) Germany to Johannes Wittmer and his wife Maria Elizabetha Holtz and that members of both families emigrated to Frederick County, Maryland a few years later.

John Whitmer and wife Catherine (maiden name UNPROVEN – and it definitely IS NOT Valde Tarwater – in spite of online information) have thousands of descendants. In 2015, of the 358 family trees found on Ancestry, only THREE (and one was mine) correctly identified John’s origins and parents’ names.

For my experiment, I contacted all the tree owners that allowed contact and shared links to my article which was posted on my blog. One year later, there were 383 family trees and only TWELVE of them had the correct parents.

Even when I provided my article, with all the citations, only ELEVEN trees were updated and corrected. (One of those dozen trees was mine.)

Those results were quite depressing!

After reading Ken’s article, I debated whether I wanted to uncover even more depressing numbers and take a 2020 look at the John Whitmer family trees.

I looked and the results were even worse than I could have imagined. There are now 918 John Whitmer family trees on Ancestry. That’s 92 pages through which to scroll!

It was interesting to see how the results came up. Hundreds upon hundreds of trees still have the completely wrong parents – Michael and Barbara (Oster) Whitmer of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – listed as his parents. Those results all came up BEFORE mine.

2020 Update:

  1. Not a single one of those trees has any documentation attached, except for the usual other “Ancestry family trees.” Of course, there are no records to prove Michael and Barbara are his parents because they are not.
  2. Interestingly, most of those trees have changed John’s birth date cited in my article from 24 June 1751 to 24 June 1752. Why? I haven’t a clue.
  3. The first tree that I looked at actually has an image of a part of my article listing the children of Johannes and Maria Elizabetha Wittmer, showing the baptismal date for John. Yet, her tree STILL SHOWS HIS PARENTS AS MICHAEL AND BARBARA WHITMER AND PLACES HIM IN LANCASTER COUNTY, PA! I’m not sure how that works.
  4. The first tree that correctly identifies John Whitmer’s parents is Tree #300!!!
  5. There are about a dozen trees before mine that have some correct/some incorrect information. Some still say born in Pennsylvania or Maryland, one had his parents but omitted his birth date, one had all the correct birth and death info EXCEPT they had John dying in Logan County, Kentucky, not Muhlenberg. One even chose a different birth town in Germany. Instead of Barbelroth, they cited Zweibrucken.
  6. My tree is #820!!! I also noticed that Ancestry’s computer algorithms collected all the incorrect Michael/Barbara trees and they come up first. Those following me have mostly – but not entirely – correct information.
  7. About one dozen people gave John Whitmer a completely new identity and wife – Johannes Christopher Wittmer, born 1731 in Zweibrucken and died 1828 in Kentucky married to Eva Catherine Fritzinger, who lived to be 100 years old – born in 1725 and died in 1825. She was reportedly born in Switzerland and died in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This couple “had” a daughter Susannah born in 1760.
  8. Oh, and John has become a Revolutionary War soldier who died in Muhlenberg County, but was buried in McKees Half Falls, Pennsylvania – over 700 miles away!

This is truly very very depressing. I have too many other genealogy projects on my list to complete and I’m not about to go through 900+ online trees and message every owner. It was a big enough job when there were 358 trees.

My message to all researchers is to DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. Online trees can be clues, but John Whitmer is a prime example of how badly information can be mangled.

It doesn’t help that Ancestry’s computers seem to think the most popular parents for John should come up first in the search results. Add to that – I don’t know anyone except me who would ever take the time to look at 918 online trees for an ancestor. That makes it very easy for the kind of mess that now exists to be created in John Whitmer’s family trees.

Online family trees are CLUES to possible ancestral records.


2 thoughts on “Online Family Trees: Most Popular Progenitor ≠ Proven True”

  1. Wow, that is depressing. And to think that so many of those who look at Ancestry’s ThruLines think that they’ve uncovered a new ancestor – only because Ancestry has taken the most popular trees to provide those ThruLines.

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