Missing Links vs. Myth-ing Links: Using FamilySearchT To Find Your Correct Ancestors
by James W. Petty, AG, CGRS, BS (Genealogy), BA (History).

Every Lee family member wonders if they were related to General Robert E. Lee. Every Franklin wonders if there was a Benjamin in their past. And every Humphries has a claim to a man named Pelham (Sorry, but that’s a whole other story). Finding the link to that possible relative or set of earlier ancestors points to an interesting genealogical dilemma.

There is really just a fine line between “Missing Links” and “Myth-ing Links”. A missing link is an ancestor who is unknown, but is the tie between a known history of real people and a possible group of earlier ancestors in a documented genealogy. A Myth-ing Link is that uncertain ancestor who can link the known people of history with the people or historical account the researcher wants to be connected to, for which there is no documentation. It would seem logical that every researcher would be seeking the “missing link” and avoid the myth, but it is surprising how many people cling to the myths of family tradition, or seek out supposed glory by connecting to a historical figure.

Bob Jordan was just amazed. He had been searching for his ancestors for some time, and had struggled just to identify his great great grandfather Mark Snow, who died in Vermillion Co., Illinois in 1848. In a cemetery record he learn that Mark was born in Montpelier, Vermont on Jan. 30, 1800. With that information in hand, he searched the Ancestral File database, part of the FamilySearchT Internet genealogy site and discovered Marcus Snow, born Jan. 30, 1800 in Montpelier, Vermont; the son of Jonathan Snow and Lydia Hammett. But what amazed Bob was what was attached to that information. Snows and Hammetts grew into Sears and Braleys, and then into Freemen and Shermans. The information continued on back in time, not just for three or even four generations, but for six and seven generations. Nicholas Snow, his ancestor 12 generations back was born in 1530! Bob discovered that his 10th generation grandfather married the daughter of Thomas Prence, one of the first governors of Massachusetts. And another ancestor was William Brewster, one of the Pilgrims who arrived in America on the ship Mayflower in 1620! These weren’t just people of history, these were the stuff American myths were made of; and they were HIS ancestors! But were they really?

My son approached me recently and asked: “How reliable is FamilySearchT?” His friend Eamon and wife April had just discovered her ancestry using FamilySearchT on the family history site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearchT revealed hundreds of names and dozens of generations of April’s forefathers back into England in the 1500’s. They were just thrilled. My answer was enthusiastic, but qualified. I was happy for their success in finding new information about her genealogy, but…and I emphasized the “but”, the information in the FamilySearchT site may not be documented, and shouldn’t be considered accurate without additional confirming research. I explained that this Internet site is simply a tool to help people share and find genealogy information.

As mentioned, Family SearchT is the family history Internet site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and has been one of the most popular sites visited on the Internet, receiving millions of “hits” every day. It is perhaps the most important information source available for people searching their genealogy and family history, but like all compiled databases, it also has some serious drawbacks. Many people will use this collection and discover a treasure of new information about their family. Too many of them will accept their new found genealogy as fact, and never bother checking it out to learn what their correct genealogy might really be. Understanding this site more fully will help all researchers evaluate the information it contains properly, so that it can be used to further their genealogy efforts.

Family SearchT (located on the Internet at www.familysearch.org), is actually a collection of several different computer databases, namely:

  • Ancestral FileT – A database consisting of lineages submitted by patrons of the Family History Library (both LDS and non-LDS). The file consists of both pedigrees and family group records. None of these records include documentation.
  • International Genealogical IndexT (IGI) – A database consisting of names of ancestors relating to specific birth and marriage events. Part of this information was submitted by members of the LDS Church as submissions for temple ordinance work. The other part of the file was added as the result of names submitted for temple ordinance work by the Family History Library resulting from the Names Extraction Program. Some of this information includes documentation.
  • Pedigree Resource FileT – Material relating to the Ancestral File, in pedigree form, but also including unedited notes, and source descriptions.
  • Social Service Death Index – This index was prepared by the Social Security Department of the federal government, and pertains to Social Security Application forms of persons who have been reported deceased since the advent of Social Security in 1937.
  • Vital Records – Various vital records information, consisting of parish register data, civil registration, and other sources, for a number of different countries. Presently only records for Mexico and Scandinavia are included on the Internet, but additional sources will be added in the future.

These collective databases represent more than a quarter of a billion names, making it one of the largest on-line databases on the Internet. By using this file a researcher has access to information submitted by tens of thousands of other genealogists, and numerous original resources. Even with this much information available, the data in FamilySearch is still just a drop in the bucket. None of the billions of people alive in the world today appear in these files, because the administrators of the program respect the right to privacy that people deserve, and therefore they do not include data about living individuals.

The fact that these databases are compiled sources tells us they contain a lot of information that is undocumented. The people managing the Ancestral File and other databases have neither the means nor the ability to verify each item submitted to these collections. Consequently, the decision was made not to try to do that, but offer the information to the public on a “buyer beware” basis. Information found in the database may be correct, or it may not. To help researchers visiting the FamilySearchT site to understand that some information submitted by patrons may be inaccurate, the Ancestral File database program indicates with a plus (+) when alternative possibilities exist. That way the alternative information can be studied and considered by the researcher.

Extracted records are an extremely important and useful part of these collections. Civil and Church Records, such as parish registers from England, Denmark, or Mexico (to mention a few), or birth and marriage files from Ireland or Germany, and many other countries are included in both the IGI and Ancestral File. These are names and dates from original record sources, making the search in these databases the first step in original record research. Those records can then be searched on microfilm (available through the Family History Library and its branches). FamilySearch also provides on-line access to the catalogue of the Family History Library, so that a researcher can find out what records are available through the library network, and which records have to be searched by correspondence, or through the original archive or research center.

Like the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this article, anyone using it has the potential of tapping into information that might extend their genealogy anywhere from one to twenty or more generations. But, as mentioned, this resource has serious drawbacks. Except for the information that was added to the IGI and Ancestral File databases by the extraction programs of the Family History Library, almost none of the other information is documented. It might be well researched, correct information; or it might be myths and fantasies submitted by untrained or wishful enthusiasts.

Despite all of the good information that can be gained from FamilySearchT, numerous errors exist. Many dates and places of events are estimated, with little certainty of accuracy. Many names and relationships, gathered by untrained hobbyists, are simply wrong. The information that Mr. Jordan gathered from FamilySearchT included many valid names and family connections, but almost every family group that appeared on his downloaded pedigree contained errors and outright mistakes. Some errors pertain to simple clerical mistakes. Others are glaring falsehoods, created perhaps because people submitting the data wanted a connection to history, and the only way to achieve it was to make it up. Recently I saw a lineage back to Henry Howland who was an early settler in Plymouth Colony, a few years after the arrival of the Mayflower. Henry’s brother, John Howland, was one of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. The submitter of this lineage may have wanted to demonstrate a direct connection to the Pilgrims, and so identified Henry as the son of John Howland, rather than as his brother, and that way he could claim descent from one of the original Plymouth settlers. Other mistakes that are very blatant include listing birthplaces that wouldn’t be possible, such as showing someone born in Ohio, a century before America was even settled!

FamilySearchT is really just a tool, a resource to assist genealogists in finding correct lineages. It is generally easier to confirm and correct existing information than having always to re-invent the wheel. Most researchers are not seeking the “Myth-ing Link” in their genealogy, because the myth will always be a lie. If in the course of that evaluation, it is discovered that a lineage is wrong, valuable information will have been learned, incorrect information identified, and new steps taken to correct the data. But should the information prove to be correct, a wonderful new portion of family history will have been added to your genealogy for a minimum amount of work. Use FamilySearchT wisely, and use it often. New clues lead to new discoveries, and that is what genealogy research is all about.

2002 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.