No, the genealogy website cannot tell you your ancestors…

I’ve been hearing variations on the same comment a lot lately. Many people have a working assumption that a genealogy website can tell them their ancestors. It’s an understandable desire if you’ve always wanted to learn more about one branch of your family. Unfortunately, it’s not true. That’s also not what the sites are set up to do.

Most genealogy websites have the same basic purpose: they are sharing records that can help you learn more about your ancestors. If they offer hints, they’re using an algorithm that takes the information you’ve already provided and identifies other records that might relate to your ancestor. Sometimes that connection is made by name; sometimes by locale; and sometimes by the fact that someone has identified a specific record as likely belonging to your ancestor.

These systems are not set up to tell you which records they’ve identified are likely to belong to your ancestor. That’s why you’ll see a Civil War pension file as a hint for an ancestor who died by 1830. The algorithm has identified that the name on the file is the same as your ancestor. It cannot tell that your ancestor was already dead and couldn’t have fought in the Civil War. You need to do the sorting yourself.

They also can’t tell you which sources are likely to be reliable. Have you heard the terms “primary” and “secondary” information? They help us determine who likely the informant is to actually know the answer to question. Your parents provide primary information when discussing their own marriage date: they were there. Someone discussing the marriage date of a Revolutionary War ancestor is providing secondary information. They were not there, and the date may or may not be accurate. These are a just a few of the aspects you should consider when evaluating a source.

Genealogy websites are an excellent resource, but be sure to evaluate the hints they provide about your ancestors carefully. They cannot identify your ancestors for you.

Published by Bryna O'Sullivan

Proprietor of Charter Oak Genealogy, Bryna O'Sullivan specializes in assisting clients with lineage society applications and with French to English genealogical translations.

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