Falling Down Holes

Sometimes, hobbies can be frustrating

The biggest problem with taking up genealogy is that, in many ways, it is just a really nerdy game of Whack-a-Mole.

Just when you think you have an understanding of a situation, a piece of information appears that changes everything. Suddenly, you’re working on an entirely different branch of your family tree, learning about a different country and dealing with yet more Census results and marriage registers and checking maiden names for accuracy.

It’s fascinating, of course and hugely rewarding, but you can fall down any number of historical rabbit holes. I certainly have…

I’ve been using Ancestry as my primary tool for this project. That’s partly because their Marketing department know their stuff – when I first had a crack at this in 2016, they were the big beast in online genealogy and the only site of that kind I’d heard of. They remain one of the major players today, although there are a number of alternatives, some of which are free to use, which Ancestry isn’t. However, they hooked me back in with a couple of well-timed “free access” weekends and a 14-day free trial which coincided with the lockdown, meaning that I had time to really crack on.

One advantage of using Ancestry is that they have access to a huge range of records from all over the place and their site is built in such a way that it guides the hobbyist towards those records which might help them. Sometimes, the sheer size of their library can be problematic.

It also points researchers in the direction of the work done by other subscribers with “Member Tree Hints”.

The Member Tree Hints are definitely a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are brilliant for people just starting out or with a small number of living relatives, because by linking your tree with another person’s you can gain access to huge numbers of names and relationships that have already been documented.

Conversely, relying on the work of others can be dangerous. You can’t be certain how rigorous the fact-checking of others has been; it is possible that one (or both) of the trees is wrong. Even when you do accept a hint from a well-researched tree, that can create a whole new set of problems. Imagine you accept a hint for someone who married a cousin. The other tree might have lots of detail about siblings, parents, grandparents and aunts who are relevant to that family, but not yours. It is fantastic, properly researched data about people to whom you aren’t related. Add it to your tree and you can end up spending hours researching the lives of people who are essentially irrelevant. I know I did!

As a result, I had to “prune” my family tree. I followed some advice from a Reddit discussion to identify records where there was no familial relationship, then remove them from the database. It took some time, but has been worth it, because of the improvements in the quality of “new” hints and the fact that the total number of data points to check reduced significantly.

Similarly, I alluded earlier to the sheer volume of data available via Ancestry being somewhat problematic. This is especially true when dealing with a person with a fairly common name; you can end up with a huge swathe of hints, making it difficult to identify exactly what is true for your ancestor. I try to start with the “big” things – Births, Marriages and Deaths, then work backwards. As an example, if you can be reasonably certain that your ancestor died in West Bromwich, you can safely ignore any suggestion that they served in the Canadian Army. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks trying to identify exactly what fits my tree and what doesn’t.

These are nice problems to have and Ancestry, like many of the other sites working in this space, makes it possible to export a Family Tree into the GEDCOM format, meaning that research can be continued offline or via other sites without starting from scratch. This is a feature I’ve used before (and will do again) so that I can develop charts that can be displayed.

I’m learning a massive amount about my family’s past and how widely it is spread, albeit slowly. I’m fortunate to have access to a host of records and during the lockdown that is invaluable but at £20 per month to access international records, it isn’t a site to sign up for if your budget is tight.