Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Family Tree Looks Lop-sided

It would not be possible for me to record all my ancestors back 23 generations, because the number of ancestors doubles every generation - 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 gr-grandparents. Going back 23 generations everyone has an astounding 8,388,608 ancestors.

Now, here is why my family tree is lop-sided.

After my 3rd gr-grandparents, I lose the trail on half my ancestors. Another two generations and I've lost the trail on half of what remains. So the known portions of my family tree begins to narrow, until there is a particular branch, my 9th gr-grandmother in 1577, who is connected to ordained men with degrees from Cambridge, who are in turn connected to landed gentry, on up to minor nobility and knights.

At that point, the relatives are people whose lives are recorded in wills, deeds, church records, etc. That portion of my family tree blossoms out into a massive branch, nearly rivaling the main trunk.

Which brings us to the year 1215 and a meadow called Runnymede, by the river Thames, where King John capitulated to the demands of his churchmen and barons and signed a document known as Magna Carta. Among other things, this guaranteed the right to a trial by one's peers, and is regarded as a landmark in the struggle for equality and human rights.

So my family tree now looks more like a lop-sided hour-glass, but I'm fine with that. Perhaps, among all those names, is an ancestor who was on that field with the barons and King John.

It boggles my mind to consider the possibility, but - my ancestors are witnesses of history. They came over the Oregon Trail in 1852. They fought in the Civil War (on both sides). They fought in the Revolution of 1776. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean in frail sailing ships in 1632 for the freedom to practice their Puritan faith.

It is humbling and challenging to feel the weight of their courage, commitment and conscience. How might I be a worthy descendant of their blood?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fabulous Tool or Fabulous Confusion? Think Before You Click

April's Tree

When I reactivated my membership and bought  Family Tree Maker 2012 with sync, I also re-ignited my interest in  family history. Because together these resources form a powerful tool for finding the branches of the family tree, and documenting them faster than ever.

While speeding down the old ancestral road, I discovered that the convenience of merging data from other family’s trees may end up costing me more time and effort in the long run.
A three-hundred year old woman? How did that get in my tree? Checking the name, I found eight other trees with the same mistake. Longevity is booming at

Worse, I found more subtle data corruption with wrong names being insinuated into my tree. Garril cannot be mistaken for Garrison. Yet when I looked for corroborating sources to confirm the marriage of Henry Harris Harper Gandy to Tamsin Garrison, I found that he married Tamsin Garril. The time I spent carefully deleting wrong people, duplicate people, wrong dates, etc. could have been spent more productively, searching for source records instead.

I can hear you thinking, “That wouldn’t happen in my tree – I’m careful.” Not so fast: when is the last time you ran a duplicate person check? Or a bad data report? When is the last time you ran a source report or better yet, a report on unsourced data?

Today is the day I discovered my task (my obsession, my joy) is far, far larger than I thought it was just yesterday. Each day brings its own various sad or happy enlightenment.

I recently found two of my Arkansas cousins were thoroughly merged into confusion in most of the available trees. Surely they didn’t die on the same day in the same place? Possible but not probable, and could they really have married the same man? I began to dig into their census records, then their marriage records, and finally their cemetery records.

I found they were twins, Emmie and Addie Twiggs, born 10 Mar 1867 in Union County, Georgia. Emma married Alf Palmer in 1884; they had a baby, B E Palmer, in 1885 who died in 1886, and is buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Gentry, Arkansas. Emmie’s death followed her baby’s a few months later, and she is buried in the same cemetery, E A Palmer.

Her gravestone is mis-read at Find-a-Grave as born 1862, instead of 1867, however the “10 Mar” birth date is quite clear, and so is the correct year (1867) in the enlarged photograph. She died 2 Dec 1886. Her sister Addie Twiggs, happily, went on to marry Thomas L. Downum in 1887, and had nine children (eight still living in 1910). She died in 1919.

Although the transcribed marriage records for the story above are muddled in several cases, what happened can be worked out using just the data available on and Find-a-Grave, (although, unfortunately, not by using the trees).

I have concluded that other trees, at best, might point the way to search for names and places. The best of them include source references that I can then go and search, but actually merging must be an extremely rare and cautious enterprise.