Ancestry.com – For Better or Worse

I began adding my family tree history to Ancestry.com around 10 years ago and up until a year or so ago I had it set to “public.” What that means is that anyone could look at my family tree, and anyone searching someone in my tree could look at all the many links and branches.

 

It wasn’t until I discovered that several members had usurped my research, notes and stories and appropriated it as if it was their own that I decided to switch my data to private. I do not mind sharing my research with other like-minded individuals, but it appeared that those who had “stolen” my data – especially stories I had written about my grandfather – were only interested in collecting names so that they could brag about having the largest family tree on the site, which is not in the true spirit of genealogy research in my opinion.

 

Besides, anyone could do that. There is a wealth of data stored on Ancestry.com and anyone can go in and add names to their tree. The thing is, these dumbasses (for that is what they are) have “collected” and added other people’s research willy-nilly, and now much of the public member trees (called One World Trees on the site) are corrupted beyond belief. The dumbasses don’t seem to care that they’ve added the wrong spouse, or added the same spouse several times, or that the time span of ages between a parent and child is simply impossible A woman born in 1817 giving birth to a child whose birth date is 1890?! I don’t think so. I swear it drives me crazy and makes me incredibly angry that people could be so stupid and careless with the research.

 

Thing is, now that I’ve taken my research out of the public domain and switched it to private, I receive search/help requests nearly every single day via email. The way Ancestry has it set up is that if you are researching a certain person, say John Doe, when you type the name into their search engine it pulls up everyone who has John Doe in their file. Some are open to view (the One World Tree files) but many are set to private, as mine is. So what the researcher can do is send an email via Ancestry, asking for more information on the person in question. I get dozens of these every week. I do not mind assisting someone in their quest, but I resent those who ask me for stuff that is readily available on Ancestry.com (and free rootsweb sites) for anyone who cares to do some digging.

 

Personally I have always enjoyed rooting around the dusty archives in old courthouses, and I love traipsing around in ancient cemeteries scouring the stones for names and dates, but I realize that not everyone shares that enthusiasm (my husband, for instance). Ancestry.com has made it easier to research census records without having to visit the courthouses or spend afternoons in a library going through reels of microfilm, and the site’s ease of use has certainly helped me locate a few elusive relatives, even if that ease of use comes with a shocking annual fee. I imagine that many of the people contacting me via Ancestry’s email service are resistant to coughing up the annual fee for all the census data and are only using the free areas – and I don’t blame them, as I felt the same way for a long time. But since becoming a paid member and having access to a world of information in the comfort of my own home, I can’t imagine living without it.  

 

What bothers me most with the requests I receive is that after several emails back and forth to pinpoint exactly what information they need on one of our common ancestors, and providing them with said information (or pointing them in the direction they need to look), I very rarely receive a “thank you.”

 

It seems to me that many requesters want the information handed to them on a platter without exerting any effort or time of their own, and they lack the common decency to shoot a quick “thank you” email to me after I’ve aided them in some way. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but I’m through empathizing. This lack of common etiquette has happened so many times now that I have begun to simply ignore or delete the many emails that fill my inbox without even reading them.

Published in: on April 22, 2008 at 2:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Secrets Buried Under a Family Tree

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote a column recently about family trees and the secrets you can unearth when you begin tracing your roots, and I felt it was worthy of reprinting here.

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The secrets buried under a family tree

I ALWAYS thought that genealogy was for people whose blood ran blue. It was for folks who traced their ancestry to the Mayflower or the American Revolution, not those who came over in steerage one step ahead of the Cossacks.

So when the New England Historic Genealogical Society published the family connections between presidential candidates and celebrities, I was an amused bystander. John McCain is the sixth cousin of Laura Bush? Hillary Clinton is the ninth cousin twice removed of Angelina Jolie? Barrack Obama is related to everyone from the Bushes to Brad Pitt? How American, I thought, to search an entire family tree to connect with the rich and famous who live, twice removed, on some distant branch.

On a lark, I went to visit D. Brenton Simons, the genial head of NEHGS, the society founded in 1845. Simons has so many American presidents in his own ancestry that he stops counting after Washington, Adams, Van Buren and FDR. But what he finds most fascinating are the everyday searches through the 200,000 books and the 28 million manuscripts, papers, and diaries that fill the building in Boston’s Back Bay.

“You can be related to a king or a horse thief,” says Simons, who shows no favoritism for either lineage. “We all make discoveries that surprise and enlighten us.”

So it is that I casually handed over a few names and dates from my own memory bank. I didn’t find a king or horse thief or Hollywood star, but I found a family secret. A garden-variety secret, I am sure, but a secret nonetheless.

My grandparents were married on Feb. 3, 1914. Five months before my mother was born on July 7, 1914.

Funny how data can set your head spinning. What did this say about my grandparents and the origin of their long, loving, imperfect marriage? About their passion or imprudence or the world they lived in 95 years ago?

Suddenly, my grandmother, whom I remember with great fondness as a cleanliness freak, the subject of much family humor, comes alive as a young woman. Suddenly, my grandfather, who led me by the hand into Red Sox Nation, is a young man. Were they lovers whose affection culminated happily in marriage? Or was this a shotgun wedding? What was it like in 1913 for a young couple to find that she’s pregnant? What happened if and when they told their parents?

And what of my mother, who never, at least consciously, knew this? My aunt cannot remember hearing the story of her parents’ courtship. There is no wedding photo. While we celebrated their 40th anniversary, none of us can even remember what time of year that party was held.

Did this secret infiltrate all their, our, lives? A lot or a little? There is, for example, my great-grandmother, who regularly warned her beautiful granddaughter – my mother – that she would come to no good. Am I required now to rewrite that old woman’s malevolence differently, as colored by her own daughter’s experience? Am I required to rethink the legacy my grandparents left me, beyond the soup pot that I cherish? Too soon old, too late . . . curious.

There are other bits of paper in my genealogical binder. It’s moving to see the name of the actual ship that brought my family to America and the naturalization papers that required them to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity” to Czar Nicholas II – which they must have done with pleasure.

But what we really want from the generations past are not just the facts or the DNA. We want the stories. Love, passion, success, disappointment, humanity. There may be no way to know – really know – their interior life. But how many of us would trade in the data for one good diary? Will we remember that in our own “estate planning”?

“We all have tens of thousands of cousins,” says Simons, whose researchers connected Clinton with Jolie, Obama with Bush. “You can walk down the street right past a third or fourth cousin and not know it.”

But how I wish I could stop one couple on the street for a just a question or two. The couple who were married on Feb. 3, 1914.

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Living in the past

I’ve been digging around in my family’s roots for over 20 years and feel as though I am only scratching the surface of those who lie beneath the soil. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring them back to life a little by retelling their stories.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment