Oct 032013
 
Your family tree is ill

An editorial…

If you are regular reader of this blog, you know we like to explore and study history. That’s our hobby. For this report, we enter a different realm and to pay the bills, we do historical research, for companies and societies and the like (plus Chris repairs vintage phones and electronics). In addition we are genealogists, which is the subject of the report given here. I’ve near had my fill of the genre however, which I explain (in great detail) shortly.

I’ve been planning on writing this article for a long time, an eye-opening expose on the “shadowy” world of the genealogist (bad asses every one). They work in alternate plane where fiction becomes fact. A place where money buys an exciting past. In this field there is little room for the truth – that’s too dull!

Shoving common sense aside, the client lets the “professional” work their magic, knowing very well that much of what will be uncovered is pure and simple fabricated BS. Everyone knows this dirty little secret, the genealogist and the client. We all want a family history we can be proud of and we’re willing to sacrifice what ever it takes to have one. In fact most clients become so thrilled with their exciting new family past that they throw out common sense and often become willing co-conspirators.

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The genealogist is at fault but that’s not to say that those who commission these reports are without blame. They share it together.

Such is this trade, a challenging field I sometimes struggle to work in.

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After committing to the idea of writing this report, I then struggled with my first step, which was naming it. I came up with…

– Lies my genealogist told me.
– Your family tree is ill.
– Genealogy – we are all royalty!
– The great genealogy conspiracy.

Okay, they’re all good, but I need something a bit more. How about…

– Genealogists don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

That last one is a pretty catchy. Yea, I’ll use it…God, I’m long winded

Now on to the article…

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The nature of the genealogy business is such that most professionals who are commissioned to study a family tree will pad the resultant report with numerous white lies or even bold untruths. They do this because it’s easy, they do this to (falsely) show how skilled they are or they do it out of a misguided belief that every one should have an exiting past, even if full of lies.

You see, no one wants to know that their ancestor was dull and boring. Who’s is going to brag about their great grandfather who spend his entire life as a barber, doing nothing of note and gaining no fame. People need to have an exciting past, even if the truth gets bent. Everyone it seems, is willing to accept that – the creator of the report and often the recipient, who may even encourage the writer to embellish. After all, those commissioning a report are paying good money for it, so it damn well better be a good tale. Adding to the pressures, most people have unrealistic expectations.

All too often when I’ve competed a family tree report that’s truthful and factual, backed up by solid documented proof, I’ll get a large sigh. “I was expecting something…well…a bit more. It’s so boring and given all the money paid, you could have at least made it a bit more exciting.”

I’ve been called upon to re-evaluate some reports done by others, and the level of absurdity sometimes borders on the incredible. I’ve seen people DIRECTLY related to not one, but multiple famous individuals and others whose family tree includes fictional charaters.

In one example, I was approached by someone from the southern US, who claims a town in my province of Alberta was named after their great uncle (ahh, the great uncle, he shows up a lot). They angrily questioned why there was no mention of their relative in the town’s history. After all he should honoured as its founder. The odd things was, when I told them that factual data confirms they were the victim of a lie, they refused to believe it. Just like someone who knowingly buys a fake purse, they do so not for themselves. They do it to show off. People commissioning the reports act the same. They want to say “Look at how exiting my family tree is”. They openly participate, knowing they are party to the deception.

I have reevaluated a good number of supposedly professionally researched family trees and of those, almost every one contained what would be called dubious information to some degree or another. Some may have have come about due to misunderstanding of the facts, or honest human error. Fair enough, that’s going to happen and we can dismiss that.

What was really eye-opening was that more two thirds of those studies contained out right lies and fabrications. No honest mistakes here, just blatant lies. Easily disproved and sometimes stretching things to the point of absurdity. And what’s even more sobering, either the recipient of this information either accepts it without question (perhaps because it is so exciting) or were a co-conspirator the whole time.

While the fabrications can take many forms, there are common patterns that repeat themselves time and again and they include the following…

– You are related to royalty.
– You are related to Winston Churchill (he’s a popular one).
– You have Native blood.
– You are related to Marilyn Monroe.
– You are related to one (or more) of the three Johns – US president John F. Kennedy, astronaut John Glenn or musician John Lennon and you share all their respective qualities.
– In Canada – you are related to a famous hockey player.
– Either a town or mountain (the two most common) is named after an ancestor
– Your ancestor either invented something or discovered something significant. – an often seen and very interesting example is a story about a great uncle (remember him) who invented the 200mpg carburettor that the oil companies have tried to keep down.
– Your ancestor was a great war hero, who saved a town, his platoon, or who singlehandedly changed the outcome of a battle. He may have even won the war!
– There is always a swashbuckling criminal in your past, a likeable Robin Hood-ish rouge, who robs from the evil rich, not for self gain but rather to donate to some noble cause. And he never kills or hurts anyone.
– You had a relative that either died on or survived the Titanic.
– Your family participated in the Yukon Gold Rush.
– If you have the same last name of a famous person, you are INSTANTLY related to them.

What an amazing coincidence, one or more of these will show with regular frequency. The sign of a real lazy genealogist!

To cover their butts, a genealogist who is fabricating will always make the connections vague. Instead of “for certain”, they will say there is “a good likelihood”, “research points to”, or “there is a high probability”. Of course the reader of the report will hear “is” instead of “maybe” and with that the genealogist has planted a seed which then propagates itself as intended – sometimes with no fault to recipient who is often excited to hear about his family’s wonderful exploits. If questioned the genealogist can state a particular passage was not a certainty, but rather a possibly, and by doing that they protect their integrity.

Why is this done? Misguided intentions? Sure, and lazy comes into play too. It’s far easier to fabricate than it is to research. Let me tell you, the latter is a long drawn out boring task. Where as research may take months or years, your can fabricate a credible story in an afternoon, but then hold off presenting it so it seems like you spent months on it. Why not do four hours of work, and bill for dozens? After all and no one will of question what is presented. I think you get the picture.

If you do your own research don’t let services like Ancestry.com and the like lead you into a false sense of security. Information you stumble across, might be as highly embellished as those “uncovered” by the so called processionals. Remember all information is provided by members and since little of it is correctly researched or even questioned, errors are common. Some honest, others falling into the same “I need to make it exciting” category. It all comes back that no one wants a boring family and so a few white lies to add to the story is perfectly acceptable. In my own study of family created histories, glaring errors and fabrications are just as rampant as in those created by people in the industry.

Family legends for the most part are either false are at least heavily exaggerated. A common misconception is that if someone famous has the same last name as you, it means you are related. Period. This is just an example on how the amateur sleuth’s misunderstanding can lead them down the wrong path.

By the way, we use that last term professional genealogist loosely. There are few who have studied the field at any great level and most are self taught and believe themselves to be pretty good at the family tree game, good enough that they take on outside projects.

A recent search project done by yours truly proves just how deep the manure on Ancestry.com is. I documented over a thousand people who had listed they were not distant, but direct descendants of Winston Churchill himself. Direct – meaning they are one of his grand children or great grandchildren. His family tree is huge!

So what can be done about this rampant deception that is running amok? First of all, find a reputable genealogist, one that clearly has your best interests in mind, even if the outcome might be less than exciting. Question them! Based upon my own experiences in the field finding one of this calibre might be the hardest part. There are diligent honest genealogists, I’ve heard of them in legend (haha), but for the most part the majority are…well…hacks.

Once you choose one, don’t accept anything they say for face value. Question if things sound just a little too exciting and understand that at least some aspects of your family tree may be little mundane (and sometimes embarrassing – but that’s another story).

If you research yourself be no less diligent. Most family legends are just that, legends, and don’t fill in the blanks. If there are gaps in your family’s history, it probably means nothing much was going on. Face the music. Accept it.

Proving that lore sometimes clashes with reality, we did one genealogy study where were confirmed the client was in fact related to royalty. Dutch royalty, proven via a series of documents uncovered during the research. Results like this are however FAR from the norm.

Chris and Connie do the occasional genealogy study for select individuals who strive to know the truth. But our speciality is debunking family trees already “researched” by others. In doing this we become both revered and hated at the same time. Begrudgingly most people admit they like the fabricated version better, but thank us for uncovering the truth. Even when it hurts. In the end, it seems our work is mostly ignored and most people revert to using the known forgery. Sigh…

This report was motivated by our continued frustration with this industry.

If you liked this report, why not check out these ones too…
Saskatoon Farm.
Collapsed Bonnybrook train bridge.
Traditional First Nations Bannock.

If you wish more information on what you’ve read here, by all means contact us!

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Your family tree is ill

Your family tree is ill.

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35 Comments on "Genealogists don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story"

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Mollie Hafens
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Mollie Hafens

My family insists that we’re related to Churchill too! They even brag about in company. One of my family discovered this while researching “our tree” on…you guessed it…Ancestry.com.

Rolens
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Rolens

So my great-great grandmother was not a Cherokee Princess? :>

Rolens
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Rolens

Humor aside, I did get solid proof, a photo, that my great grandfather worked on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mary Schmidt
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Mary Schmidt

Thank you for being so frank. Most of the trees on Ancestry.com are not sourced. That means they don’t have a primary document, written at the time of the event, to back up the facts. Some are merely copied and pasted from other people’s trees, and those from others before them. The questionable data gets replicated again and again, so many times that it becomes “fact”. Computers are good at this. Most data on that site is hearsay at best.

Nora 1955
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Nora 1955

Google it – Ancestry.com and other so called genealogy websites are known to seed their database with fake information as a way to entice new or gullible customers to pay for that data.

Chic-a-go-go
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Chic-a-go-go

I have several associates who created a family tree at Ancestry.com and most sounded fake. Like you said, it seems like everyone is related to someone famous.

BTW, we used to be a customer when you were Cameo Intimates. We miss you!

Harry Jr.
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Harry Jr.

Most of the documents on Ancestry are made by users who are not willing to do the hard work of documenting their sources. They copy a lineage from others who are as sloppy or lazy as they are, then assume it’s the truth.

Sarah Rowlands
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Sarah Rowlands

I have to agree with this. Through Ancestry I have been lucky enough to make connections with 2 distant cousins who are both meticulous researchers and who have been doing this a lot longer than me… but I still check EVERY record before adding anything to the relevant branch of my tree.

BUT that’s 2 trees – out of the 1000s that correctly or incorrectly have one of my ancestors listed… which sums up the problem with the tree linking system really.

Linda
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Linda

Eye opening!

Mary Schmidt
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Mary Schmidt

You say that you debunk reports. Can you do mine?

Golly Bee
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Golly Bee

I had three separate genealogist supply three very different reports. They were not even close to the same and few had documents to back up what was presented. I am so upset, there is zero integrity in that industry.

Janet Angel
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Janet Angel

I hired a genealogist, a cheap one at that, and they excitedly claimed that a 1850s California Gold Rush town was named after an ancestor. That town is Angel’s Camp. Amazing since my family came into the US in 1920s! I guess you get what you pay for.

Jim Madigan
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Jim Madigan

Truly brilliant! So good I read it twice! So how much hate mail from genealogists have you received?

Sunny
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Sunny

I’m Greek, born there, and I’m very proud to be Greek. A genealogist report said I was family to John F Kennedy. Lies! Thank you all for the support.

Sarah Rowlands
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Sarah Rowlands
I actually rather like ancestry.com BUT I use it for accessing scanned copies of records and not other family trees. I in my 20s and temporarily living in the US but all my family is English… it would be prohibitively expensive to obtain originals. In that respect I think it can be helpful. I’ve set my preferences so that I don’t get suggestions from member trees since they are 80% dross. In my tree of 189 individuals – sadly no Winston Churchill 😉 – I have about 563 attached records. And if I don’t know when someone was born or if I have the right death record I don’t add it – I’ll wait til I can afford to order a certificate and confirm. I guess what I’m trying to say is ancestry and it’s ilk can be VERY useful to the young genealogist, who may not have the time… Read more »
Stewart
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Stewart

I enjoyed your article Chris and I feel the same way about it.
Sometimes a family story from the past,is used cover up something that they didn’t want known .
A lot of it was covering Children born out of wed lock.
They would come up with a story that the Father of the child had died in some sort of accident,
But a lot of times they would just leave there family and immigrate to get a fresh start.
Don’t forget they usually had many mouths to feed.

Dave Burke
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Dave Burke

The problem isn’t necessarily Ancestry.com. The problem is people making their trees public and full of errors. Then other people just copy what they see. I did some of that at first and took quite awhile trying to figure out how to correct the errors. The data/collections on Ancestry are pretty extensive. They have tons of transcription errors that are hard to wade through. I think a lot of people just give up and leave their mistake ridden trees on there. Takes a lot of patience and diligence to do the kind of research that Chis and Connie do.

Warren Bell
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Warren Bell

Thanks for your article, it confirms what I know. I’ve caught someone repeated using my name trying to be friends with families that have the same names of relatives (said person blocked my path on two occasions and made threatening gestures). I also recently found out the name of a relative who died is almost the same name as a classmate who was involved in crimes against me by a violent teacher. just yesterday I received another letter from CRA accepting my tax return but stating my DOB was incorrect. I have recieved many such letters for about 15 years and sending my birth certificate as requested (asked for photocopy) did not resolve the problem. It seems my name is a popular target

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