I’ve seen the pros and cons about sharing your family tree online. On the plus side, you share your knowledge with others about your ancestry. You put cousin bait out on the web. On the negative side, others may take your data and call it their own. Others will take your data and mangle it to fit their needs. Websites might claim to own your data once you post it.
I sat on the fence for a long time, years in fact. I was jealous of all the cousin bingos others were having. But, I was reluctant. Then, a couple of incidences happened that made me jump off the fence and into action.
First, my family tree started to appear online. In some cases it was a stranger posting data found in the census and calling it a family tree. In other instances, it was my family tree–and I mean MY family tree. I know it is my work because of the way I was taught to show nicknames that no one else seems to do and my quirky way of using ??? for “name unknown” (I really hate when people are filed under Unknown in my database…I prefer them under ??? at the beginning of the people list.) But, it’s my family tree that I’ve shared with people over the years. Long before I realized that you needed documentary proof of every fact. Long before I did research in Azorean and French records. Long before I learned to input names with uniformity. They are all my early glaring errors in all their glory. And, they are being repeated by anyone who decides to copy the data.
This really bothered me for awhile. I realize now genealogy has a huge learning curve. When you start, you come in with this Disneyesque ideas of what your family tree will look like. You have no clue of the challenges that await you, the long hours bent over a microfilm readers and computer keyboards, the months waiting for that one birth certificate to arrive via mail. You haven’t realized there are errors on documents. You don’t yet comprehend that your relative’s memories are helpful but they cannot be fully depended on. And, you do not grasp that people change their narrative when necessary. You are so naive in that “I can’t believe I found them all living together!” way that colors our first couple years of research.
Once you make these realizations, usually after finding inconsistencies, you go back over your research to find further proof. Those trees that others have submitted online are long before I became the genealogist I am today.
My second reason probably has happened to every genealogist since the beginning of time. I will be brought in on a conversation and find a cousin relaying information that is simply not true. They may be stories I’ve already corrected. They may be all new ones. But, because I’ve worked on the family tree so long, there are certain facts that I know for sure and I cringe when I hear otherwise. I feel obligated to set people straight. I want them to have the right information about our shared ancestry. I can only do that by sharing.
Finally, there is simply no better way to put cousin bait out there than posting your family tree! As I work on this little hobby, I realize that my tree spreads into several parts of the world and parts of the US that I did not originally realize. By posting my tree online, someone in the Azores, Ireland, or France might see my data. A cousin back in Massachusetts might find me. They might recognize the names as part of their tree. And, then the two sides can link up once again. Wouldn’t that be cool?
These things as well as others made me decide it was time to post my family tree online. After all, if anyone is going to screw up my data, it’s going to be me, darn it! (Wait…that can’t be the message I want to get across… On a serious note, I would rather post my tree with information that is accurate to the best of my knowledge at this time and have folks share it and reshare it until eternity than to see information being shared that is simply not true. I would rather my cousins be able to go to my posted tree, see their ancestry, ask questions, and learn from it. I would also like them to have the opportunity to add to it and share what they know. I certainly don’t know everything and getting stories from the people who knew these people in real life is a benefit to any family tree.
As a genealogy friend, Carol, recently said, I cannot control what others do with the information that I post. I’m okay with that. But, at least I will know that in one place on the web my family tree is posted the way I meant it to be. And, if someone wants to see where we come from, they are more than welcome to it. And, if they want to contact me and say hello, here I am, ready to add a new cousin.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com