By Patricia Hartley
Genealogy is a lot of things. It’s fun. It’s addictive. It’s time-consuming, engaging, and irresistible. It exercises your sleuthing skills, introduces you to new people and places, and occasionally gives you the satisfaction of really hard work paying off.
I started my research at age 20 when I realized I had a half-brother from my father’s first marriage. I knew nothing about my dad, his first family, or his parents or siblings since he died when I was four. I met my half-brother, started working to fill out my paternal line, and became hooked. That was 30 years ago.
Today, I couldn’t be more proud of my work – but I have made mistakes along the way. And I’ve learned more than a few hard lessons. Not the least of which was that getting addicted to the process of adding to my tree, rather than really building it, would never be fulfilling.
What about your own family tree makes you the most proud today? Is it the fact that you’ve never copied another person’s online tree to yours? Or that you have broken down a seemingly insurmountable brick wall in your research? Maybe you take pride in the detailed source citations you include with each piece of information you add to an individual’s profile.
If any of these are true, then you certainly have a valid reason to brag. You’re building a strong and well-researched ancestral history.
However, if you’ve been focused on the number of individuals you’ve plugged into your family tree, your goals and priorities may need to be reevaluated. Sure, it’s interesting to see a tree with thousands of names (if they are all accurate and well sourced) but there is more to growing a family tree than adding branches. You may be missing out on all the best parts.
But, more importantly, a poorly fleshed out tree is prone to errors at every turn. It is just too easy to make big mistakes when we know little more than someone’s name and birth date.
Who Are All Of These People, and Why are They in Your Tree?
If you trace only your direct lines back six generations to your fourth great-grandparents, you would have 126 people in your family tree, or 63 couples. If each of these direct ancestor couples had eight children together on average (seven in addition to your direct ancestor who’s already in your tree as their child, which is on the high side for recent generations), you’d add another 441 or so people.
If you added those children’s spouses, and account for multiple marriages and above-average kid counts, you’d have around 1,000 individuals in your tree. Add another generation of children and spouses to those children, and you might top the 4,000 to 6,000 mark.
That’s a LOT of names, and, if you’re doing your research, a LOT of work to verify and document their existence. If you’re looking for busy-work, are trying to rival FamilySearch’s 1.2 billion-individual shared family tree, or hope to eventually make a connection to George Washington, you’re doing great.
Chances are, though, if you’ve collected that many names, you haven’t had a lot of time to devote to the actual research of who these people were — where and how they lived and died, what they did for a living, and all those interesting facts that make an individual a person rather than just a name.
Each of the people in your tree should, ideally, represent a life lived rather than just a name that fills in a blank
This is not to say that you shouldn’t spend time adding important individuals to your research. You should. But you want to make sure that you really understand and grow at least a decent proportion of these relatives so that you gain a clearer view of your family’s past and avoid making unfortunate mistakes that can get you off track.
Go Beyond the Names, and the Basics
Performing in-depth research into a person’s life will reveal a story that is fascinating and rewarding to research, no matter who the ancestor was. And the process will likely reveal clues about others in your tree.
Newspaper articles, obituaries, land records, and probate records often mention other family members as well as friends, associates, and neighbors (a.k.a. the FAN club) who played a role in your ancestors’ lives. Finding out that a great-great uncle moved out west to claim and cultivate farmland may explain why your third great-grandparents suddenly appear in a Texas census when 10 years earlier they were in Georgia.
To learn more about each person in your tree, start with the basics and the begin to move outward. Every profile should include at least eight facts, including (but not limited to):
- Date and place of birth,
- Date and place of death,
- Burial place,
- Name of spouse and date and place of marriage,
- Faith and participation in religious events like baptism or christening,
- Military service, and
- Places they lived throughout their lives
The process of finding the above details should open up a variety of sources that can be further explored and branched out from. For help with this process, and building your tree in general, you might find Family History Daily’s online courses helpful.
Now, Step Back and Think About Your Motives
Why did you start your family tree in the first place? Perhaps you intended to…
- Solve a family mystery
- Verify family stories or countries of origin
- Find or discover more about your birth family
- See if you’re related to anyone of note
- Trace the history of certain medical conditions through the generations
- Further an ancestor or family member’s genealogy work
- Compile or verify information you’ve found in other sources, like a family Bible
- Learn more about a person after whom you’re named
- Prove lineage for a heritage society
There are countless other reasons, of course – but, whatever yours is, take a moment to step back and make sure you are fulfilling it and not just adding names for the sake of adding them.
You might also enjoy: Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step Proof Test?
For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about ancestry. She has a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama and a M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.
11 thoughts on “Why You Need to Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree”
I love this! There are people behind the names. It’s so rewarding to actually know who your ancestors were instead of just what they were called. I am a professional genealogist, and it always warms my heart when people get excited about learning about their ancestor instead of just finding more names.
I’ve been professionally doing genealogy research since 1965. I actually have traveled to the record offices across the United States and visited my family cemeteries extending back generations. I absolutely disagree with your analysis. I have so many kinds of documents that are not even included in Ancestry or FamilySearch. Not all the records are digitalized. I developed a beautiful organized system that can assist any family worldwide. I connect to 4th and 5th cousins and even beyond and we are pulling all of our resources together. Our families fill in the missing people and documents. It’s so magnificently wonderful to see the magnitude of what can be accomplished. I do family genealogy, not just direct ancestor families. As you go back in time in the 1700s especially the children married into families of brothers and sisters of one family. They migrated together in groups and their families intermarried. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle.
Thank you for saying this! I have found it’s so easy to add names from sites that are supposedly accurate, only to end up with duplicates and unknowns. The name of the game for me now is documentation. That will probably take me the rest of my life and I think it will be an incredible journey!
I think the point of the article was not to say ignore everything in other people’s trees; it was likely aimed at those, especially beginners, who just add in other people without verifying anything themselves. For example, on Ancestry there are many, many trees which list my 3G grandfather’s parents as a couple who were born, lived and died in England, while there is clear proof my relative was born here in the states (and they have that listed in the same tree). As if the parents emigrated to the US, had children and moved back to England to die, in the early 1800’s. I have never found a shred of evidence that these people are connected at all, other than same last name (a common one at that). And my relative lists his father on a census as being from Ireland. But somewhere along the line one person accepted a ridiculous hint from Ancestry and hundreds have copied it.
I built my trees from information from a close Aunt and late in her life we found that possibly she had it all wrong! We all were using the same information so we now have a huge mess! As much as we love our family members, that can be a BIG mistake. Research is important and even if it looks solid…it can be a mistake. Just sharing…..I mean hundreds have sued her information and the sad part is there is no link, no information or source to unblock the block??
No one seems to know how to find the truth….we have a wonderful heritage on the one hand and on the other, we are all stuck in someone else’s story that is not ours after all, most likely???