"Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 17 December 2012

A tale of two discrepancies

I try to avoid relying on other people’s information, particularly others’ Ancestry trees, but on occasion I do have a look, because you never know when it might present something new that you didn’t know about. However, it’s always worrying when you then find something that contradicts your own info. On a couple of occasions in recent days I’ve been forced to investigate others’ info for myself, to see how they got their data and where they went wrong – or indeed, where I went wrong.
First up was James Thompson. I was looking at some of his grandchildren for one of my previous posts when I decided to click on the little shaky green leaf for their father, James’ son Albert Thomas Thompson, and check out his ‘hints’. On tree gave Thomas’s parents, whom I don’t have yet, so I was excited at the prospect of new info. However, when I had a look at the tree, it immediately became obvious that most of the info was utterly incorrect. James is given the correct wife, Sarah Ann Semley, but this tree claims she died in 1860, and then James moved to Shiloh, Texas, where he died in 1862.  An interesting theory, but since Albert wasn’t born until 1870, I don’t really see how that works! It also gives completely incorrect siblings for Albert as well.  
This kind of sloppy research really makes my blood boil. I’m very understanding when it comes to new researchers perhaps make unjustified assumptions or get careless about recording sources – we all have to make this kind of slip-up in order to learn – but less so when they try to bring people back from the dead!
Of course, there was very little evidence attached to this tree either, which would have set alarm bells ringing even if it hadn’t been for the obvious errors, and I would always proceed with caution, because people make mistakes all the time – I know I do. In this case, I was slightly relieved that this tree was so obviously wrong that I didn’t have to waste any more time verifying half-baked research!
I’m very much an advocate of ‘speculative’ genealogy, because sometimes I think it’s the only way to make progress. If you never take a gamble on something being the right record, you might struggle to get anywhere at all. But speculating that someone gave birth to a child ten years after they died is just plain stupid!
Take, for example, my Newbys (yes, them again!) If I hadn’t taken a punt on the birth record of Walter Newby, I can’t see how I would ever have tracked down his parents. And indeed, my second discrepancy was on this very line...
Walter’s mother Sarah Jane Newby actually appears in several online tree; it was quite a large family, and I have yet to explore the full extent of the parallel branches. However, I decided to check out her shaky green leaves – I forget why – and I discovered another tree that had her husband as a George Winters, and a daughter Olive Winters born in 1910.
After a bit of investigation, I concluded that Sarah Jane was not in the main line of this researcher’s tree, and he had probably just speculated on her marriage with this being the most likely candidate. I think  actually he was being a bit too speculative, as the 1911 census clearly says her birth place was Leeds, which is not entirely consistent, but even so, I can’t argue with the rest of his logic. It does remind me that I really mustn’t assume that all of my speculative marriages and children for siblings are 100% correct.
Whereas I was justifiably bemused and slightly irritated by the last discrepancy, this time I was sympathetic. This poor researcher wasn’t to know that Sarah Jane had gone off and had an illegitimate son or three and then pretended to be married on the 1911 census, had two more children and finally married in 1922. How could he? Even I’m not even 100% sure all the details are right yet!
Anyway, I sent the guy a message over the Ancestry message system, explaining to him my own findings about Sarah Jane and my process for getting there, and inviting him to help himself to info and records from my tree. Hopefully he will take it as the gesture of help it’s meant as. I know I would certainly appreciate a gentle correction on anything I’ve got wrong in my tree, and I thought this was the probably best way to handle it. However, I didn’t bother correcting the other tree-owner, on the basis that their tree was so clearly wrong that no one would ever take it seriously anyway!
L x


  1. Another great post, Lauren. I totally agree with getting information from other researcher's trees - when first starting out I made the mistake of just copying information from the research someone else had done without thinking that they could have made mistakes. Turns out a couple of times they were. I now always look at Ancestry hints when family tree matches are made. If there is any information that I don't have, I do make a note of it and then see if it matches my research as I progress.

  2. Thanks Niall. I think, as you say, it's best just to use any info you find as hints and then do the work yourself to check. In fact, I got a lovely response from the guy whose tree it was thanking me for the pointer and asking if he could use my info in his own tree, which I said absolutely yes to. He also offered me some useful info about Sarah Jane's mother's ancestry that I didn't have yet, and hopefully I can use this to make some real headway on that branch of my tree - genealogical karma in action!

  3. I think it's great you reached out to the second person the way you did. We all need to do this more often.

  4. Linda, I just look at it the other way around - I would want to know, and appreciate the help, and anyone who takes their genealogy half-seriously would do the same. To me, 'publishing' what you think may be the right answer, putting it out there, is a way of checking it - if someone knows differently, I'd hope they would let me know! There's a lot of complaining on genealogy blogs about the 'wrong' information being out there online, but I think often it's with good intentions, i.e. people really believe it is right because they don't have all the facts. Or, they have a theory but know that they don't necessarily have all the facts, but how can they possibly know otherwise unless someone tells them so? Or maybe I'm just a bit soft-hearted?

    (and apologies for the delay in responding, I usually try to comment back as soon as possible, but you know, Christmas and all that...!)


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