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Why “hints” can lead you down the wrong family history path

The internet has revolutionised genealogy and has made it easier than in previous generations to research your ancestors, putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives. One of the tools which commercial websites such as Ancestry offer is “hints”, a system which suggests other records which apply to your target person, in addition to what you’ve already found. Although these suggestions can be very helpful, they are limited in their use and the following tale will suggest why they should be treated with caution.

I recently did some work for a client who was trying to trace his ancestry in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century. (I have changed names here to protect his privacy). The client had seen numerous user-built family trees on Ancestry all suggesting the same set of parents for his known ancestor, Alexander WILSON. Alexander had had an interesting life in commerce which was well-documented and the client had been able to uncover lots of information about his later life in North America, his death, marriage and children. But could not find any paper trail showing that the people named on 25 Ancestry trees as his parents – Alexander WILSON and Catherine CRAWFORD of Stirlingshire – were the correct people. Could I help?

Official Family History Records from 19th Century

Before 1855, births, deaths and marriages were not required to be officially registered. Most families did have babies baptised, but not all did, some were baptised many years after their birth, and not all records of baptisms have survived. As Alexander WILSON’s life had been well-documented, that allowed an accurate calculation of his year of birth of 1825. One user had searched for a baptism of an Alexander WILSON in 1825 and decided that the first result shown, giving the parents as Alexander and Catherine was correct, and added it to their tree.

Adding this as “fact” to their tree then means that Ancestry suggest the “fact” to other users, and before you know where you are, you have 25 other trees copying the research and presenting this baptism as definitely linked, even though the surname is very common, and the given names are not unusual either. My client was right to be sceptical.

Online searches revealed – unsurprisingly – several boys named Alexander WILSON born in or around 1825. Several had siblings which matched other names which were common in the client’s family. It looked very much as if I wasn’t going to be able to prove one as correct and was only going to be able to present a list of possibilities.

Until, almost as an afterthought, I decided to search newspaper records just on the off-chance something about this relatively prominent merchant and businessman mentioned his family background. And there it was, at the foot of an article in a local Ayrshire newspaper about a dinner given in his honour. In brackets, at the end, after all the stuff about who spoke in his honour, and what was on the menu. A single, throwaway line which proved beyond all doubt that the Ancestry trees were all wrong: “We should mention that Mr WILSON’s father belonged to Troon, and his mother to Kilwinning district”.

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