Using Web trees

These days there are so many family trees available on the web that it’s a real problem deciding what to do about them.  While some of them have lots of citations and even documents included, others simply copy the work of others and that without much critical evaluation.  Now you can, of course, spend lots of time trying to verify data you find and then carefully document where you got your data from and what your evaluation reveals.  But if there’s one thing in short supply for anyone doing genealogy, it’s time.  So how can you use the limited time you have when confronted with a virtually unlimited supply of raw data?  I use the Reagan procedure, “trust but verify.”

Here’s my basic procedure.

  1. Look for likely trees.  In Family Tree Maker /, it’s as simple as clicking a leaf or starting a new search.  Most of the time there’s at least one tree which appears in the search results , and even when there isn’t, there may be a tree for another family member.   Even using another genealogy program, you can probably find a tree for a person searching Google or another search engine.
  2. Once I’ve found a likely tree for a person which matches information I already have, I start entering the data into my tree by hand.  It’s possible to merge trees, particularly if you are working with a tree you’ve started online, but I’ve found that it rarely saves you time in the long run since there are likely differences in how I do things and another person does things so that I have to look at everyone I’ve merged and make changes anyway.  This may include eliminating  lots of “Living Surname”, which I find it too cluttering to keep around.  I’ve got one tree that I’m doing this to right now and it’s not a whole lot of fun.  Besides, when you enter data by hand, you have a chance to catch errors in your tree or the other tree.
  3. Verify the data you’ve entered.  For recent generations of Americans, this is usually possible  via the censuses, at least up to people born before 1930.  Hopefully, in another couple of years, the 1940 census will be released and a great many other people will be available to be found.  Even now there are lots of data sources for recently born people.  Since most of my ancestors for the past couple of hundred years lived in Ohio, an important resource for me is the Ohio Deaths 1908-1953 database at  This is all the death certificates for Ohio during this time period.  This will let you find people born back to the 1820s or so and often the names of their parents as well.  Several other states also have death certificates for a period of time available at
  4. Repeat the whole process using the new data you’ve found.
  5. Contact people who have uploaded the trees you’ve used to see if they’re interested in exchanging information on your areas of mutual interest.  This is the easiest way to find information on living people.  Of course some people are worried about giving out data on living people, (and I’ll be discussing such worries and what to do about them in a future post), but it’s worth a try.  Be sure to give some proof that you’re actually who you claim to be, BTW.

I admit the above is a bit sketchy, but I’ll try expanding on each step in future posts.