Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Maddening Draw of
a Universal Family Tree


I have to admit it: I cannot resist checking out those fun relationship apps built especially for genealogy conference attendees. I'm always looking for connections. And, face it, family history enthusiasts want to know about family connections.

The downside: those apps have to rely on data to drive their calculations. And that data usually comes from a universal family tree—the tree of everybody, crowdsourced by fallible people like you and me.

Naturally, since RootsTech Connect registration offered the chance to tap into this year's "Relatives at RootsTech" program, I opted in. I couldn't resist. Knowing full well about their genealogical Achilles' heel, I still wanted to see what the program could produce. 

In short: I was disappointed. Not only did I fail to produce even one fellow conference attendee closer than an awkward second cousin twice removed, but the two registrants I did find at that level were "verified" by a pedigree which did not line up to what I had documented. In fact, in one case, the age discrepancy between generations bordered on biologically impossible.

While I know there are compelling reasons for collectively maintaining a universal tree, whenever I have taken a close look at my corner of that universe, I have been disappointed. Yes, collectively, people keep watch over unsubstantiated assertions, but on a case by case basis, it seems my branches lack the kind of support needed to keep my genealogical neighborhood clean. Yes, of course I could take on the task myself, but that misses the point of collectively mounting that challenge.

This weakness is not just a symptom of universal trees, of course. A quick spin through the individually-posted collections on any genealogical database website will provide an eyeful for those willing to take a look. And that is my concern this weekend, on the jumping-off spot from one month's research goals to the next. 

Beginning with tomorrow's post, I've set aside the month to rectify my lack of progress on researching one particular third great-grandmother, Delaney Townsend Charles. While I can't locate documentation on the particulars of her life—other than a cameo appearance as "Lania" in the 1850 census—apparently there are several others who can glibly spout off many details of the generations preceding her.

Without, I might add, one single slip of supporting documentation.

How do people make such genealogical assertions? If I don't have any historical token of an event's occurrence, I feel compelled to leave that data point blank—thus my situation of not being able to push back even one generation. Forget that—I can only infer an approximate date of death for both Delaney and her husband, Andrew Charles. But the temptation to make research headway cannot overcome the caution needed to ensure accurate recording of the facts.

Relying on others' research can become a crutch to us especially when we limit our data exploration to only those same resources on which we build our online trees. Whether from a site hosting a universal tree or from one hosting individual trees, digitized documentation can only move our research progress as far forward as the hosting service can produce for our use.

There comes a time—for some, sooner than for others—when we need to learn to look elsewhere for the records we seek to verify our ancestors' specific existence. My March research goal will be one which insists on this brave step out into the documentational unknown.   



  1. I have a few brick walls that I continue to visit - looking at other's trees to see what they have found. You are right. The most promising leads in ancestry usually rely on one source "Ancestry Trees". . . My closest were 2 third cousins. Both have questionable trees, although "I" know how we are related.

    1. I am beginning to be convinced that there is always the possibility of an end run around those proverbial brick walls. Someone, somewhere once knew who those people were...


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