Sunday, February 21, 2016

When Systems Collide

I have a problem—a patrilineal problem.

Now, I know that is not the typical problem you would expect the average person to encounter. In fact, not even avid aficionados of genealogy would likely encounter such a problem—unless, of course, they were taken up with the specific pursuit of genetic genealogy.

You see, I'm a systems person. I've found that, rather than dicker about little details here and there, a problem is best dealt with by looking at the big picture. I guess you can call that a holistic approach: that one part of the body of a problem will get knocked out of joint if it doesn't mesh properly with another part of that same body. Each "system" has to work in harmony with the other systems in the universe of the whole. When they don't, no amount of tampering with a screw here, or a relay there will make the whole work properly. You have to get to the root of the problem—and most often, the root will lead you back to a system that needs to get re-configured.

Enter lil ol' me into the world of genealogy. That would be way back in...oh, never mind how long ago. Let's just say I was born wanting to do genealogy, back when we only had wood-burning computers.

Well, one day as I and my family were ambling through Costco—a dangerous place to be idling away those precious minutes—on an end cap display, I spied a Broderbund software program for building your very own family tree on your wood-burning desktop computer. It was called "Family Tree Maker." I bought.

Now, don't think I am about to launch into a diatribe about the evolution of Family Tree Maker or how I've been feeling since last December. Oh, no. That deserves a post of its very own—plus updates. Numerous updates. But that's not where I want to go with today's post.

I want to mention something which occurred after that glorious time when the heavens parted, the angel choirs sang and beckoned me to a new promised land of genealogy nirvana and I bought the software. It was now, oh, roughly about the time Al Gore had invented the Internet. Not only were those genealogy addicts fans feverishly plugging family names into just the right slots on their software programs, but they were beginning to reach out to others who were engaged in the same activity.

There were questions like, "I have a John Smith, but I can't seem to find his parents...anyone else have John Smith in their tree?" Or, "Anyone working on the Frankenmuth line from Michigan?" You could celebrate genealogy Christmas in July, just by tapping into online forums at places like Rootsweb or even at Prodigy.

The most likely question to pop up, given all these queries, ultimately turned out to be, "Can you share your GEDCOM with me?" And that's where I encountered my problem.

You see, blissfully unaware of the fact that Smith researchers are really only interested in other Smith lines, and Jones researchers only want to read about Jones ancestry, I had piled my entire family tree into one big file. It was a jumble of Joneses and Smiths and Davises and Aktabowskis and Taliaferros and lions and tigers and bears.

Oh, my.

That, if you haven't yet guessed, was my systems problem: I encountered that MEGO and TMI response, every time I shared my GEDCOM. Because it had everyone in one big pile.

I decided to amend my ways. Once I signed up for my subscription to Ancestry—I can hardly believe it's been since December of 2000, according to my member profile page on their website—I decided to adopt a new system: a separate family tree for each of our parents' lines. That meant a tree for my maternal line, another for my paternal line, plus one each for my husband's two lines. Because...this is Ancestry. We can do this.

That system went along swimmingly, although I do have to mention that there was really no need to do so—who needs to request someone's GEDCOM when the trees are publicly shared, right on the Ancestry website?! That, of course, removed the very point instigating me to set up these separate trees in the first place. Still, no problem; it helped me keep things organized in my own mind.

...until I decided to spring for the AncestryDNA test. This is where those wonderful, organized systems collided. As it turns out, I, with my nice, neat, four family trees could not opt to link all of them to our two DNA profiles. Each DNA test may only—repeat, only—be linked to one tree.

So, where does that leave me? Either leaving out half of the story for each of our ancestries by capitulating to the system demand to choose one and only one tree for each of our DNA tests. Or caving and going back to my original system of one, big, happy mess all piled into one family tree.

In that moment of decision, I opted for the safest route: for each of our DNA tests, the link winner became the tree with the longest roots, since that was most likely to generate matches. In both my case and my husband's, that became the maternal line. Which is why I say this became my patrilineal problem: neither my paternal line nor my husband's is linked to anything connected to our DNA test results. Since Ancestry does most of the genetic genealogy heavy lifting for its customers by algorithms that ferret out matches from their massive database of shared family trees, that means leaving each of our slates half blank—on the very side that needs the most help.

What an error that becomes! For those DNA Circles, much of that matching comes from what's listed in each subscriber's linked tree. And it's our maternal lines for which we have the easiest time finding documentation. It's both our paternal sides—especially that father's-father's-father's quest to find the origin of my husband's Stevens surname and my (possible) Puchalski side—that could use the help! And yet, if I linked solely to those paternal trees, I wouldn't get the many matches we've already witnessed. It's as if my only option is to go back and re-tool my system to fit Ancestry's system demands. An ugly picture.

I now begin to understand why so many Ancestry subscribers seem to have multiple family trees, all with essentially the same data, but sporting slightly different titles: the Smith tree, versus the Smith-Jones tree, versus the Jones tree.

Silly me; I used to think that was because people just had a hard time making up their mind.

Above: Undated pen and ink sketch prior to 1828, "Study of a Woman with her Head on her Hand," by English artist Richard Parkes Bonington; courtesy Google Art Project via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Only one link how unfair is that? I suppose you could lump it all together and then fetter out the info to different branches...seems they are being a bit stingy.
    I used to have a copy of the Family Tree Software too...I think I sold it at a garage sale:)

    1. Well, unless some companies make good on their promises, it's just as well you sold it--it's on its way to becoming an antique :('m not bitter...

  2. I have the exact same problem with my Ancestry trees, Jacqi. I so wish they'd let us link our DNA results to two trees! Right now mine are linked to my paternal tree, which leaves my maternal side out in the cold. I guess the only recourse is to make a stripped-down combination tree of direct ancestors only. Sigh...

    1. I've resigned myself to that fate as well, Shelley. If there were a way to give Ancestry some feedback on this--for instance, if there were a good number of us in this same situation--it would be wonderful if they'd consider making this change. But I'm not sure I want to wait. Like you said, we otherwise have half of our genetic selves left out in the genealogical cold.

  3. I'd love to see a lot more in the way of selection / filtering and searching in Ancestry. For instance, if I want to find relatives that once lived in North Carolina - I find this very hard to do now.

    I would also like to see tree to tree duplication on demand - for instance, one tree with everyone in it being the "master" tree and the ability to create a tree of just one branch - or selected surname(s) - or perhaps a "branch lopper" that says make a standalone tree from this person "on up (back in time).

    There are a ton of things "they" could do...


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