5 Tips for Using Online Family Tree Sites

Online key

Online family tree sharing sites can be the key to breaking down brick walls.

The existence of online family tree sharing sites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org has made family history research easier than it has ever been before. I wrote a post earlier about how sharing your family tree online can help you find your ancestors. Online family tree sharing sites have helped many people make amazing discoveries and break down brick walls. However, they have also caused the spread of false information in people’s family trees, and many users don’t even realize they are partially responsible for this confusion. Many users of these sites spend so much time copying information from other trees that they don’t make use of the other amazing tools and resources these sites offer. Here are some tips that any beginner genealogist should use to make better use of your online family tree.

1. Keep a copy of your database on your home computer

It is always a good idea to keep more than one copy of anything. By keeping a copy of your tree on your home computer, you are keeping it safe. In case Ancestry.com were to lose its servers, or if somebody makes changes to your tree on FamilySearch, you will still have your own copy. Ancestry.com offers an option to download a gedcom file of your tree. Many desktop programs like RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker will sync with your online tree, so it will always be up-to-date.

2. Be careful when following “Record Hints” and “Shaking leaves”

Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage and Findmypast all have algorithms built into their software to generate “hints” of records that may have more information about your ancestors. This is a great tool, and it can help you grow your tree faster than ever before. But this tool needs to be used with caution. Computers, no matter how cutting-edge they are, are no substitute for the discerning eye of a genealogist. Computers look for keywords that match. They are not always correct.

If you don’t have a lot of information in your tree about an ancestor, there is a good chance that the computer will come up with incorrect record matches. Look closely at the record before you attach it. See if you can confirm the information with other records. And don’t think that just because another user attached the record to their tree that it is correct! They could be wrong. Always analyze the records and make your own conclusions.

3. Make research goals

Record Hints are great for beginners who are just starting out with their tree. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. After you attach several record hints to your tree, you may notice that a lot of information is still missing. Write down what is missing and start searching for ways to find it. Are you missing a copy of a marriage record for that couple in Ohio? Where can you find Ohio marriage records? Write down your goals and set aside time to achieve them. When you create and follow a list of records to search that are likely to have what you need, you can potentially find more information faster than you can in a rabbit hole of record hints.

4. Write out life sketches

When you are attaching record hints and doing searches for various people in your tree, it is easy to get lost. Even when you attempt to write out research goals, sometimes you might overlook things that are missing or things that don’t make sense. Sitting down and writing out a life sketch of one of your ancestors can help you locate gaps in your research or details that need to be found. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just sit down and start writing down everything you know about your ancestor, in chronological order. Do you have any idea what happened to them during that time period from 1840-1870 when you have no records about them? How could you find that information? Does that marriage date in 1868 conflict with the fact that they were listed as single in the 1870 census? Write it down and brainstorm ways to solve the problem.

5. Explore offline sources

It is easy to get so excited about all the resources that are available online that you forget about all the amazing non-internet resources that have even more information about your family tree. One of the biggest resources most people have is other family members and the old photos and documents they have hiding in their attics. Don’t forget to ask Grandpa Joe or Great-Aunt Sally about the family stories! Ask your mom for those old photographs. Get in touch with your cousins who are online working on the tree too, and ask them if they have any photos, stories or other information to share.

Ancestry.com has two features that make it easy to find and interact with your cousins: the first one is called Member Connect, which allows you to easily find other member trees about your ancestor. The other is AncestryDNA, which aims to help you find cousins you didn’t even know existed. FamilySearch also allows you to view changes to any person in the Family Tree, which means that you can see your relatives who are also researching your ancestors. Utilize these resources and don’t be afraid to click on your cousin’s username and send them a message. Ask them if they have more information or pictures of your common ancestors.

Are you sharing your family tree online? What is your favorite website for this? How do you stay organized?

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