If you have ever searched a family tree online, you have probably seen mistakes. What should you do if you find an error in someone’s family tree?
You might be wondering if it is appropriate to contact the person who posted the tree to let them know that they have posted incorrect information, and ask them to correct it. Alternatively, you might think the best thing to do is ignore it and just do your best research.
As it turns out, this is a very controversial topic and everyone has their own very strong opinion about how to proceed. In this post, I’ll let you know what I do when I see mistakes in a family tree.
How common are errors in family trees?
If you have spent any amount of time looking through family trees online, you have probably seen a few errors. How common is it to find errors in a family tree?
Family tree research is hard, and there are so many numbers, names, dates, and locations to keep track of, so it’s very common to find mistakes. In fact, sometimes trees are incorrect accidentally – the person may believe that they entered in correct information, but maybe they don’t know the whole story from another line of the family, and what the believe to be true is actually incorrect.
To take it just a step further, I am willing to bet that almost every family tree – if not every family tree – whether done by hand, printed on a typewriter, or posted online, has several errors. Some family trees will have more errors than others. The quality of the information in the tree depends on how thoroughly and carefully it was researched.
Incorrect information in a family tree is rarely intentional
I think it is really important to stress that people rarely post or publish incorrect information intentionally. There are dozens of reasons that people might have a mistake in their tree:
- Incorrect information given to them by other family members
- Adoptions or non-paternity events that are unknown to other lines of the family
- Public records and other documents (like census records) can contain mistakes, so unless someone has first-hand knowledge of the true information, they won’t know that they are making errors in their tree
- Technology can assist us in making errors, like when trees are added as sources on Ancestry (as an example), it can be easy to have duplicate children listed for a couple
- Sometimes people just want certain things to be true, so they “unintentionally” ignore information that contradicts what they have been told or believe to be true
The last item on my list – about people wanting certain things to be true – is something that deserves a little more discussion. People who get involved in family tree research are often very invested in their family trees and their family’s narrative.
A person’s ancestry, or what they know or believe about their ancestry, can often dictate how they view themselves and even define their identity as a person.
This is a perfect lead-in to the answer to the question that you really want the answer to:
What you should you do if you find an error in someone’s family tree
When you spot an error in someone’s tree, you basically have two choices. You can do nothing, knowing that there is a possibility that someone might copy the incorrect information into their tree, spreading the misinformation further, possibly eternally. The second option is to contact the person who has posted the tree and let them know that it is possible that they have a mistake in their tree.
How do you know which to do? No one likes to be told that they have made a mistake, and most people don’t respond well to criticism. And is it really that big of a deal that someone has wrong information in their tree?
I’m a live and let live type of girl, generally speaking. As long as no one is suffering bodily harm, I tend to ignore mistakes and just make sure that I do my own research and verify my own sources.
So, my general “wide-view” advice is that you try to ignore mistakes. Especially since most mistakes are not posted intentionally. If you really feel like you should continue in your quest for accuracy, however, I do have some advice.
Whether or not you decide that the possible mistake is egregious enough to contact the person can depend on many factors. Just a few of the factors that you might consider before deciding what to do:
- your relationship to the person whose information has been posted incorrect (I have found incorrect information posted about myself!)
- how far back in history the person in the tree lived
- how sure you are about having the correct information
- when dealing with a famous or notorious ancestor, there might be some facts about their history that are up for debate
- whether or not you have evidence to corroborate your claim that the information is incorrect
- how incorrect the information is (DOB listed as January 3 instead of January 5, for example)
- your relationship to the person who has made the error
How to let someone know that they have an error in their tree
If you’ve found an error, you are sure that you are correct, you have the evidence to back it up, and you feel like the mistake should be corrected, if possible, then you should consider sending a very polite note to the person who posted the family tree that contains the incorrect information.
I consider myself a fairly diplomatic person, and so I like to approach these types of scenarios under the assumption that I might be wrong, and perhaps this other person has information that could actually help me correct my tree, if they would let me know the source of their information. I also like to let them know that I have alternative information, and I’m trying to figure out which source is most reliable.
The type of message that I’ll send will generally look something like this:
I saw your family tree on The Family Tree site, and it has been so helpful to me. Thank you so much for posting such a thorough family tree.
It seems as if you and I share George Herbert Washington as a common ancestor. He is my great-great-great-grandfather. I saw that you have his son, my great-great grandfather James Washington, listed as having been born in 1908. My grandmother has a copy of his baptismal record, and it shows him born in 1924.
I am really trying to find out as much about James Washington as I can, so I’d love to find out the source you used for the 1908 birth date. It would really help me make sure I get everything right in my tree. I can send you a copy of the baptismal certificate if you think that it would help you.
Thank you so much for your time, and I really hope to hear back from you.
If you noticed, I did the following things:
- I complimented her tree
- I pointed out our common relationship (established that we have a common interest in correct information being on the tree)
- I don’t assume that I am right and that she is wrong (there legitimately is a chance that she knows something I don’t)
- I give her a chance to help me fix my tree (even though I know I am right), and offer to send the certificate to her so she can help me figure out what is going on
The ball is in her court. She might be interested in seeing the certificate, and once she sees it, she might determine that her date is wrong. Conversely, she might have evidence that James Washington was baptized when he was baptized as a 16-year old.
What if you let them know that there is an error and they refuse to fix it
If you have politely contacted someone about the error in their tree, unless is pertains to your minor child, you’ll just have to ignore their tree from now on when it comes up in search results. There is nothing that you can do, unfortunately, and it’s really not worth stressing out about. I would definitely avoid getting into any type of conflict online over it.
I wish I had a better answer, but at the end of the day, this is genealogy. It’s a friendly hobby, and we should all be supporting each other.
I hope that this post has helped give you some insight into errors in public family trees online, and that you have some ideas about how to proceed if you spot a mistake in someone’s tree. If you have any questions about something that you have read here, or would like to share your experience with letting someone know that their tree is incorrect, I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Thanks for stopping by!