Beware of Member Family Trees

Far too many of the member family trees on remind me of the mangled and mis-matched dolls
that Sid created in the movie "Toy Story" by taking parts of different dolls and putting them together.

Here are three examples of what I mean.

Example 1: "Vickles" Butson

The family of Solomon Butson and Jane Keam who married and had all their children at St. Blazey, Cornwall never contained a son named "Vickles". However, a transcription error in the 1861 Ontario marriage record of their son Nicholas Keam Butson recorded him as Vickles Butson. (I have presented the full details of this problem, with images of the original records in an Ancestry Butson board post.) Ancestry does not have the original document; there is only an index reference. So people cannot see the original image. The result is that a number of member family trees show "Vickles" Butson as a son of Solomon and Jane. The members have created a new "son" instead of properly attaching the record to the real son Nicholas Keam Butson.

This problem has then compounded itself in some members' trees. Since they have made the original error of fabricating the non-existent son "Vickles", when they see the 1851 (really 1852) census that shows Nicholas with a handwritten form that can be misread as Vicholas, they then assume that they have found yet another record to support the existence of "Vickles", and they compound their error.

Example 2: Solomon Butson's Sons in Canada vs. Isaac Butson's Sons in St. Agnes - 1841

Among other children, Solomon Butson and Jane Keam had sons William, John, Henry and James -- all born at St. Blazey, Cornwall (on the south coast). All of them were in Canada by the end of 1840 and thus never appeared in the 1841 English Census.

However, the 1841 English Census does include Isaac Butson's family at St. Agnes (on the north coast), including Isaac's sons William, John, Henry and James. So careless members have latched onto the 1841 English Census record of Isaac's family in St. Agnes and attached it to one or more of the sons of Solomon Butson. The same surname, the same given names of the brothers, Cornwall ... but entirely different families, and linking this 1841 Census record to Solomon's sons is a significant error.

Example 3: Jannes & Gerrit van Wijk of the Netherlands vs. Johannes Abraham & Gerrit of South Africa

Tracing their Dutch immigrant ancestors back to the Netherlands, several member family trees correctly identify Jannes van Wijk as the father of the immigrant. And they correctly identify Gerrit van Wijk as Jannes' father. However, they also conflate this father-son duo with a similarly named South African father-son (Johannes Abraham & Gerrit) and then trace back many more generations of entirely spurious ancestors.

The real ancestor Jannes and his father both were born, died, and are buried in the Netherlands and never went to South Africa. There is abundant evidence (baptisms, marriages, consent documents, military records, pension records ...) that prove that this is so. However, these records are not on So the armchair researchers have found something else in Ancestry -- probably another family tree -- that happens to have the right father-son names at about the right time and even though they are half-way round the world, the members have equated the two pairs.

The conflation of the two pairs should have been caught immediately as an error. By equating the South African and Netherlands Gerrits, the result is that the spurious unified Gerrit was married one year before he was born. And he had five children by the time he was six years old.

What to do? Beware and Be Careful

These are our ancestors, and we cannot pick and choose how we put them back together. They were who they were, and the task is to find out the truth and to see them as they really were and not in some distorted version. is an excellent tool -- if you exercise careful judgement and evaluate the sources carefully.

If you are creating your own tree as an member, here are some guidelines to keep in mind, so that you do not create a "Toy Story" family tree.

  1. Do not assume that the records in are the only records there are.
    Ancestry has very good coverage for U. S. and Canadian and English records once censuses began. Their coverage in other countries is far less. So do not make wild leaps, such as in example 3 above, in those countries where does not have many records.
  2. Do not swallow the information in other member family trees without diligent evaluation.
    Simply because there are seven member family trees that all say the same thing does not make it right. It is highly likely that one person made some claim and that the rest of them swallowed it whole and are simply perpetuating the first one's error.
  3. Do not add someone as an ancestor in your tree unless you have at least three historical sources that all validate the facts.
    Many of the errors that I have seen, such as Example 1 above, are there because the member took a single record as "proof" of something. Some of them even went so far as to misread other records to conform to their original error. You really need to step back and look at the big picture. The person had a full life and left many records. Not all of them are on Not all of them are on the internet. But once you can find three distinct contemporary historical records (and not later accounts and recollections), then you have established a good credible case for the person.
  4. Evaluate the credibility of the matches that would result from conflating two people.
    Example 3 above is a textbook case of this sort of problem. If the result of your associating a record or a person with a person in your family tree would make the person be married before they were born, then don't make that association. If it would make them have children when they were five years old, then don't make that association.
  5. Do not place your own efforts over the facts.
    Once the facts are clear, do not hang on to pseudo-ancestors that are not really yours. The excitement that you felt when you found them was nice, but now you have to let them go. Prune your family tree of the errors, so that what you have is solid and you can work from that solid information.

Last updated August 23, 2009