Category Archives: Online Family Trees

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.


My Pet Peeve – Undocumented Family Trees That Make No Sense!

I really don’t have many pet peeves when it comes to genealogy. Sure, I wish the village had earlier church books  or that the county courthouse didn’t burn down – twice – or that I could find a photograph of great granny.

However, I do have one big pet peeve – undocumented family trees online that make no sense! The key word here isn’t undocumented, either. I realize that many people see undocumented online trees as worthless. NOT me!

I love to find online trees in any format relating to my current ancestral line of interest. What makes me crazy is finding online trees with incorrect information so EASY to correct that I know the tree owner is a copy and paste person who does no research in any type of actual records.

Furthermore, these trees not only multiply like rabbits, they also morph into beings who never existed, as far as I can tell.

Here are a couple of examples. John Hash, who died in 1784 in Montgomery County, Virginia is my husband’s ancestor. Nathaniel Barnard, who died in 1718 in Nantucket, Massachusetts is mine.

There are a few facts known about John Hash. His exact year of birth is NOT known. He did marry at least twice, as his 1784 will clearly names my son John by my first wife and my son John by my second wife.

I have not found any evidence as to the names of John’s parents or documentation of the names of his wives. This situation makes for online tree hunting a possibly fruitful exercise if new hints and clues can be gleaned.

First, we have a tree for one John Hashe, who died in Virginia in 1784. Right guy and the Hashe spelling probably was given to him by someone who read that he was a French Huguenot whose name was originally Hache. I can overlook that:

Online Family Tree

His wife is said to be Elizabeth Stogdill and it’s possible, but unproven family lore that she was his first wife. His parents are shown as John Hashe Sr. and Elender Osborne.

Some of his descendants eventually lived in Grayson County, Virginia, which was formed in 1793. I tried looking for Hash family members in trees that included Grayson County.

Look at four trees that popped up:

I’ve never seen any mention of a Darby Hash in Virginia records. First, he reportedly died in Grayson County  – 69 years before it came into existence. Or, he died in Philadelphia in 1724.

Here is one more tree that includes the elusive Darby Hash:

He was born in July 1656 in England – why do I doubt this statement? – married in Virginia in 1719 to Dorothy Juda Iscar and died four years later.

The first set of trees, above, gives a marriage date of 27 April 1703 in Kent County, Maryland. It is evident that this is a transcription of either the original record or someone else’s earlier transcription:

Notice that the transcriber may have repeated the word and. Look what happened in the index:

Did you notice the crop of the third online tree in the first image? Darby has become Anderson John Darby Hash!!! I haven’t a clue how Anderson came into the picture.

Here is another tree:

Here is a look at the actual page:

Notice anything odd? His father was 164 years old when his son was born (and he died 26 years before his son was born!!!)  and his mother, Eleander Osborne, was born 42 years AFTER her son.

As an aside, look again at the first image in this post of John Hash. His mother is supposed to be Eleander Osborne – the same name as his “grandmother” married to Thomas Hache. Sometimes that really does happen, but I strongly doubt it here.

Lastly, we have an entirely new set of parents for Darby:

Jonathan Hatch & Sarah Rowley, Supposed Parents of John Darby Hash

The worst part is that ALL of these trees have terrific documentation:

Garbage in, garbage out!

This tree isn’t nearly as outlandish, but there is no proof of much of it, either:

For example, no proof of marriage in Orange County, Virginia in 1763, at age 39 since Elizabeth is said to be his first wife who died soon. Nor is there proof of his birth in Spotsylvania County, or anywhere else. No proof either that his son William had any middle name AND John’s will clearly names his two sons both called John. Only one is listed here.

I think this has been hashed out enough – pun intended.

My second example is much shorter – Nathaniel Barnard.

There were (at least) two Nathaniel Barnards living in Massachusetts in the mid-to-late 1600s. However, many have turned one man into my ancestor who married Mary Barnard, his cousin, c1666.

Find-a-Grave has a memorial for my ancestors. His parents, siblings and children are mostly correct.

Take a look at his wife – Mary Lugg, 1642-1718. The OTHER Nathaniel Barnard married Mary Lugg, date unknown. !

Source: AmericanAncestors

There is also one other super important detail that Torrey included in this entry. Note Nathaniel’s birth year (not stated) and DATE of DEATH. He died by 1659 in Boston!!! Mary Lugg married (2) James Inglis? on 11 February 1658/59. My Nathaniel was an “elderly” 15 years and one month old when his “wife” REMARRIED! Plus, this Nathaniel Barnard has an estate administration in 1659. He clearly isn’t the man who died in Nantucket in 1718.

Final example, again for Nathaniel Barnard:

This one is mostly correct, except it shows Nathaniel with two wives – Mary Barnard and Sarah Barnard.

Nathaniel only married once to cousin Mary Barnard. Clicking on Sarah brings up this box:

Nathaniel Barnard’s sister, Martha, married William Rogers.

Source: AmericanAncestors

I have no idea who Sarah Strong is. No one close to this description is found on AmericanAncestors.

You probably can’t tell from this post that I really do like online family trees. Also, I’m not picking on any one site. I purposely shared samples from multiple websites.

I’d bet my life on the fact that any large tree online will have some errors – typos or a few assumptions that might later prove untrue. Today’s rant is not about those trees. It’s about all the ridiculous items out there – like the Hash family history – and the trees that could be corrected so easily if the owner did the tiniest bit of research to verify their data.

Everyone should view online trees as potential good information, but to maintain a very discerning eye and verify any new so-called facts found on them.

Rant finished!



Pet Peeve – “Sourced” Online Trees

After recently researching the two Jonathan Hills of Prudence Island, Rhode Island, I decided I needed to vent again for a minute. It’s about that big subscription site that only indexes family trees with “sources.”

I guess that all depends on what one’s definition is of a “source.” Mine does not include other family trees (that also have no sources for their information) or titles of vast collections of (possibly user-submitted) data which, likewise, has no visible path to real records.

Jonathan Hill, born about 1657, likely on Prudence Island, is on 914 family trees. As I mentioned in my posts, the name of his wife is unknown – not even her first name. His father, also Jonathan Hill, was married to Mary (maiden name unknown).

Some of the family trees have no wife named for Jonathan Jr. and/or no names for either of his parents. However, the majority of the trees have Jonathan Sr. married to Mary Basset, Mary Sharwood, Mary Hill Basset or Mary Short.

The wife of Jonathan Jr. is listed as (mostly) Elizabeth Holmes, but also as Elizabeth Gates Holes, Helen Gale and Elizabeth Hail (Hale), the last of whom is likely the wife of Jonathan Jr.’s son, also named Jonathan.

What are the “sources” for this information? Take your pick:


Which of these would you consider sources? I would trust only two – U.S., New England Marriages Prior to 1700, which is Torrey’s well respected work. What exactly does Torrey say about marriages for the two Jonathans?

Jonathan (Senior) and wife Mary (Maiden name unknown)

Jonathan (his son) and wife (Unknown)

I have not found any newer research that further identifies these ladies.

What about Mary Sharwood as the wife of the senior Jonathan? The majority of family trees had her listed as the mother of Jonathan born about 1657. Well, Torrey has her listed in his book, too, as Mary SHARSWOOD.:

Jonathan Hill, born 1674 & Mary Sharswood, born 1672
of New London, Connecticut

This Mary was born in 1672, so she obviously isn’t the mother of Jonathan born in 1657. Also, this Jonathan and Mary Hill lived in New London, Connecticut, not Prudence Island or anywhere else in Rhode Island, for that matter.

The second source I would trust, because I looked into it, is highlighted in purple in the image above – Massachusetts, Marriages 1633-1850. This database is apparently the digitization of the Massachusetts Vital Records series created in the early 1900s. Here is the entry for Jonathan Hill:

Jonathan Hill & Elesebath Hail were married october ye 23:1707

This marriage took place in Swansea, Bristol County, Massachusetts. If it pertains to a Rhode Island Jonathan Hill, it seems much more likely that this is the marriage of the son of Jonathan (born c1657), also named Jonathan, who was born c1685.

So much for the “sourced” family trees on line. Vent done.