What Happens When Cousins Won’t Share?

What Happens When Cousins Won’t Share?

by Kerry Scott on 1 April 2011

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A friend writes:

What is your experience with/opinion on genealogists (amateur or pro) who don’t share and share alike their cited/non-cited info?   For example, a distant relative contacts you for info, you give it, and then he/she doesn’t reciprocate?

I have trouble understanding why people don’t share their info publicly when it is cited and for a relative they never met/who was long gone prior to their birth.  I understand stuff like not wanting to share all the details about your parents, a beloved aunt who recently passed, etc. But someone who died in 1805? Come on! Share with meeeeeeeee!!

Yeah, that’s frustrating.

I actually have pretty limited experience with sharing in general.  When I started doing genealogy in the 1990s, the internet was so new that there wasn’t a lot of that going on.  Then I was away from my research for much of the 2000s.  When I started up again in late 2009…well, I felt like Rip Van Winkle.  A lot has changed, and it’s much easier now to find living descendants of the people you research.  I’ve found a handful, but only one of them does genealogical research; the rest are regular people.  They’ve all been really nice; I have not had a bad experience yet.

On one hand, I wish they’d all share more.  I want every photo, every letter, every detail, and I want it right this minute!  On the other hand, I understand why I don’t always get what I want.  Not everyone is into this stuff as I am.  I realize they may not want to spend hours scanning in photos for me, or be willing to send photos for me to scan.  I’m delighted (and motivated!) when they do, but I try not to be disappointed if I don’t get a lot.  Sometimes it makes people sad, too, to open up that box of memorabilia.  I totally get that.  So I try to keep my expectations low.

With the ones who actually DO genealogical research, it’s kind of a head-scratcher as to why they wouldn’t want to reciprocate in some way.  I don’t share GEDCOM files, but I’m happy to provide the information I have, copies of photos and source documents, etc.  I’m not always super fast on it, because real life has a way of taking over and taking me away from stuff like that for weeks (or even months) at a time.  But I do think it’s fun to be able to share your work with someone who will appreciate it.

Sometimes, though, there are circumstances you just can’t anticipate.  Maybe the other researcher doesn’t have anything on that line, because she knows of a non-paternity event that is a secret (it could be way back…or it could be so recent that she didn’t work on that line, because she knew it was unrelated).  It could be that great-grandpa Herman was abusive, and she doesn’t want to be the one to tell you, or promised her own relatives she wouldn’t say, or who knows what.  There are all sorts of things that make people clam up.  Some make sense, some don’t…but you can’t steam these folks open like an envelope, unfortunately.

Like I said, though, I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this, so I’m throwing it out to the crowd.  Crowd, do you share with other researchers?  How much, and to what extent?  How do you handle people who want to receive but not give?

Photo by C!…

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

JJT April 1, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I’ve had mainly very good experiences with others sharing – in fact I’ve had cousins I found online from both my wife’s and my own side really jumpstart sections of the tree. I am quite thankful for people’s help.

I’ve been an almost complete sharer myself – If I’ve got info or a good place to start looking I’ll do my best to help out.

As I scan my family photos I’ve been posting them to my Flickr account for easy access (except most from the latest generations, although there’s nothing really embarrassing for anyone as I am by far the goofiest looking one in the 1970s.)

But just this last week I had one annoying thing that has me rethinking that level of sharing, at least a little. Ancestry gave me hints that someone else was researching my grandfather and his siblings via the member connect feature. I thought, woohoo!, maybe some cousins I’ve been looking for.

When I looked at their tree it was immediately obvious they had connected my grandfather and family’s 1900 census record to a completely different family. Fine, that happens either by mistake or they are experimenting to see if things fit.

Then I noticed that the person had a father to that family with the wrong name (meaning it ain’t the one in the census record) and was using my great-grandfather’s photo and NYC Municipal police records in his profile! (Still has my names and address on the NYPD letter!) Hard to make a mistake – I have a ton of info out there in my great-grandfather’s profile.

I sent a nice, “gee saw you connected to my grandfather and family and think its a mistake, although perhaps there’s a connection a generation or two back, let’s compare notes and by the way you’ve used my photo and records AND added it to the completely incorrect person with an entirely different name” email. Oddly, not. one. peep. of a response.

After a few days I am still hoping they just haven’t received my email, but either way it would be nice if someone who uses my info sends at least a cursory note about it. I don’t think I’m changing my tactics yet, but I suppose I might limit access to my photos and the original records in my possession at some point.


Debbie Sargent April 27, 2011 at 5:14 am

I have had the same thing and still trying to correct it…seems this one person has the surname of JUSTUS in the tree, only total diffenrent line. They actually have me married to someone I never was ….I have repeatly emailed them about taking down the photos and have shown the NON Connection ….but even tho I have BLOCKED this person (on ancestry) they still are taking ALL my relatives and photos / Documents which don’t belong on thier site…


Kerry Scott April 27, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Wow, they have YOU on their tree? Whether the info is correct or not, living people don’t belong on public trees. Sheesh.


Debbie Sargent April 28, 2011 at 5:17 am

and just found out someone related to my mom’s third marriage has her listed on their tree…but then again, I have all three marriages listed on mom’s profile ~and mom has been dead now over 35kyrs…


CLS April 1, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I try to answer specific questions and give an overview when I’m asked, but I no longer make copies of every item in my file and ship it off to everyone who contacts me. My reasons are many: (1) I don’t have time (a lot of my stuff is still in paper files, not scanned), (2) when I have shared, it ends up online as though someone else discovered it without the remotest hint of my contribution; I’ve also had info plagiarized in total (copied and pasted) without attribution, (3) info I innocently shared years ago about my immediate family [including, I just discovered today, ME, although at least it's scrubbed to "living"] is now in Ancestry family trees posted by people who apparently have no connection to me whatsoever, (4) information I shared was used without my knowledge or my mother’s knowledge to perform LDS ordinances on my father (he wouldn’t have cared, and we would have given permission, but no one had the common courtesy to ask/inform us that’s what they intended to do, and (5) I’m still thinking about certification and have been advised that for those families I may use in my portfolio I should be careful about sharing before I submit the application.

Periodically, I do come across serious researchers who will work with me and treat the “sharing” as a two-way street, but unfortunately, those folks seem to be rare. Because I’ve been burned so many times, I’m quite cautious until I know the person can be trusted.


kristin April 1, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I share with cousins and cousins of cousins and even if they aren’t researchers in general they have, so far been great in sharing in return. I just got a message on ancestry from a distant cousin who just found out she was related. I will share with her and find out what she can share with me.


Dee April 1, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I share freely with everyone. Frequently, that’s reciprocated – less often not.

I have a note on the static top entry of my genealogy blog that people can freely copy photos I post if they are related to the subjects also, as long as it’s for personal family research, not for financial gain. I expressly copyright my written content.

It doesn’t bother me at all to find my photos in other family trees on the net…it’s not just *my* family. One of the reasons I blog is to freely share everything I’ve learned and preserve the information for the generations who come after me.

If someone was to take my photos and/or historic documents and post them to unrelated people in their own family tree, I think I’d have to laugh…and then, feel very very sorry for someone who was so hard up for dead relatives they needed to take images of or information about mine and call them theirs. But I wouldn’t rant at them, or send nasty emails demanding that they delete them. I know who my relatives are, and the thought of a bunch of cloned misrepresented family trees just doesn’t trip my trigger. I’m responsible for my content, not someone else’s.

The cousins who hack me off – there are two of them at this moment – are the ones who insist on standing by their family lore and stomping their Buster Browns at me (as well as peppering my blog with their ranting comments) because the historic records don’t support that, and I insist on sourcing what I say. But that’s a whole nother topic entirely…

Good post.


Jo April 2, 2011 at 4:22 am

I don’t share Gedcoms due to a bad experience a number of years ago with a Name Collector who changed a lot of the information and posted details of my living relatives on the net, but am happy to answer questions, and delighted to send copies of photos, letters etc. Scottish BMD & Census documents are subject to copyright, so I can’t share copies, but am happy to pass on the details from them. “New cousins” I have met on the internet have sent me copies of photos and identified unknown people in my own photos – which is lovely :-)


Lynn Palermo April 2, 2011 at 7:22 am

I do share and some times it is very disappointing when the favour is not returned. Recently I invited a distant cousin to view my private tree, she said she was heading to Ireland to do research and wanted to know what I had that may help. She did not have a tree posted. I asked her to share in exchange. I wanted to see the extent of her research. She has had access for awhile now and the favour has not been returned and I don’t know the extent of her knowledge. I suspect now it could have been a story to get me to share maybe not? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. After that I believe in Karma! Beyond that I have a wonderful circle of distant cousins who share regularly so my experiences are not all bad, and I won’t let 1 incident discourage me from sharing in the future.


Caron April 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

I too have had mostly good experiences. In the late 90s (?) I enthusiastically shared my tree with a family member freely and willingly. As the surname in my brick wall at the time was rather unique, I was always interested when it showed up in my searches. At that time there was a company that was selling CDs with family trees on it. I found 5 members of the tree with this surname, but of course, I had to buy the CD to see the detail! Wasn’t I surprised when the source was this family member I had shared all my info with! The info on the CD was my tree with my research! One other time a “cousin” contacted me, shared enough of her family tree to prove we were related. She took everything I sent her and posted it as her own. Then had no further contact with me. She sent me another email a few years later saying she her hard drive crashed and would I please send her an updated copy of everything I had….I don’t think so!

I remain cautious of sharing everything. However, I do not want to miss that connection I might have been waiting for…I am ever the optimist!


Jenn Barnes April 2, 2011 at 7:28 pm

My attitude is similar to Dee’s – except I have shared tons but I don’t get a lot back. Or, if I do get something back, 96% of the time it is not cited. Sad face!


Jacquie April 3, 2011 at 6:36 am

I’ve had good experiences and I’ve had not-so-good experiences. When I am contacted by a relative for information, I start out by sharing a little at a time. If I get a response, I’ll send more. If I get another response, I send more. I’ve had some huge successes through sharing. There are the surprises too. In the old days, I mailed a couple of dozen trees to family members, asked if they had any updates. As expected, I did get responses, but not everyone. Now, I find, these trees have been tucked away. Other family members are finding these trees from 20 years ago and contacting me and willing to share. On another note, for all of those times that someone has totally used my information inappropriately, I’ve had perfect strangers contact me with information that lead to wonderful discoveries, and breaking down of brick walls. Just this month, someone contacted me and said she had undocumented information on my family who to her was a collerateral by marriage (or maybe even more distant than that) which lead me to discover 3 more generations of my direct line. (I had misspelled a maiden name for 15 years.) So when I’ve had a less than successful connection with a relative, I try to remember the successful connections with strangers.


Kerry Scott April 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I am blown away by these stories of people putting stuff out there about living people. I am absolutely fanatical about not sharing ANYTHING regarding living folks—no photos of people who are still alive, no names or stories, nothing. No way. I don’t even like the “Living Surname” thingies on Ancestry, because it’s so easy to figure out who those people are. You can see the dad’s surname, you can see the mother’s surname…five seconds in a birth certificate index and another five in a marriage index and you know exactly who they are. I’ve done it myself.

I don’t even enter living people; that way there can’t ever be a mix-up. Those people stay on my hard drive or in my paper file…no cloud for them.


Susan Tiner April 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm

My only experiences sharing so far have been in responding to requests for information from several possible fourth cousins per FTDNA Family Finder matches. In each case I wrote back and invited the person as an ancestry.com guest to view my tree.

It’s interesting what you say about never including any information about living people. I have not been this strict when it comes to stories on my memoir blog, specifically stories that make references to my living mother, though, currently, there are no references to her besides actions and decisions of hers that had serious consequences for my life. If I were as strict as you, the blog memoir wouldn’t be possible, because any reference at all to her would violate the standard.

This is what makes memoir a controversial form of writing.


Kerry Scott April 3, 2011 at 3:18 pm

You’re not giving out her full name, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, etc. though. Memoir-writing is one thing, but the kind of very specific info that is in a family tree…people should have a choice as to whether they want that sort of thing out there for themselves.


Susan Tiner April 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

That makes sense Kerry. I still think memoir is controversial though.


Claudia April 4, 2011 at 6:06 am

I found a cousin in Germany and it is a nice experience we are able to share pictures and information on my German grandfather. I sent her a family picture of my great grandparents and their six children. Her mother (85) was able to identify and give the date for all children. Her picture had been destroyed in WWII and she was so excited to get the photo.

I have another cousin whom I found of Ancestry and I sent her a few email about my other grandfathers family. She never replied but copied the information I had posted on my Ancestry Tree. I do not cite my sources online, if they want that piece of the puzzle they can send me the email. Then I will play “Lets Make A Deal.”


larry April 4, 2011 at 7:11 am

“I actually have pretty limited experience with sharing in general. When I started doing genealogy in the 1990s, the internet was so new that there wasn’t a lot of that going on. ”
Backin ’69 I musta been on the cutting edge of sharing. We had these flat rectangular paper enclosures and I would compose correspondence that related my research and what I was still searching for; I then requested assistance for my search from the correspondent. After inscribing the postal address on the front of the enclosure I affixed the proper amount of government scrip, also on the front, of the enclosure and delivered it to the local transfer facility. After anywhere from a week to several months I might receive my requested information.
If I have some time I will do some research to see if any sharing of information occurred prior to the late ’60s.


Kerry Scott April 4, 2011 at 7:35 am

HA! I dimly remember those flat rectangular things. I also remember going to the library (!) and opening these big fat things called “phone books” to look for living descendants. I never found any. Nowadays people are so much easier to find that there’s a lot more sharing going on.

I do still use those flat rectangular things a LOT for requesting stuff (vital records, etc.). I have more outgoing mail clipped to my mailbox in a week than the entire rest of my street combined.


larry April 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

Glad you like my reply. ;-)
Definitely easier today to find someone, but it is just as hard to get the info back from them.


Carol April 4, 2011 at 7:14 am

I also have had good and bad experiences with sharing. The good ones have been unbelievably good and have helped with several brick walls. The bad ones are annoying. One was a reply on a message board that just hinted at information on an immigrant I had been searching for on passenger lists on and off for years. I replied back graciously and never heard back. This did help though, because it narrowed down the year and I was able to find a WPA transcript of the passenger list, the original being reported lost by NARA, probably after the WPA worker finished the transcription!

I will not share info on living people and I do not share sources unless specifically asked and then it depends on how well I know the requestor. My reason? I worked hard for that information, or someone else did, and spent a lot of time and money to document the info. I don’t expect any monetary return, but I DO expect someone else to treat my research with a little respect.


Shelley April 8, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Larry made me laugh.

I had fewer people to share with in the late 90s, but shared a lot. I had to take my precious papers to the library to make photocopies – I quickly learnt to make extras to have ready when I next had a contact. At first I got back far more than I sent out. Big fat yellow (for some reason they were always yellow) envelopes in the mail were exciting! Now I find it harder to get to that point of exchanging masses of information, although I have more to share. I think the advice to start slow is right, in general, but not every exchange has to be equal. Now I’m in a position where I often have more information than a new contact and that’s OK. I benefited from more experienced researchers when I was starting out too.


Sally April 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm

This all hits home. I used to share back & forth easily & generously but it seems that with the advent of the Internet & computers making it so easy for people, more people are interested in the data but not so much with the sources & the validity of the information. It’s like genealogy is a game for them & they need to get so many names on their family tree so they can win.

These days, I’m more cautious. I, too, have found my researched claimed by others…and, with the way some of them change things I’m glad my name isn’t on it.

I have also had some creepy stuff happen, someone wanted to exchange information and said he had to mail me pictures so needed my address. Coming from 20 plus years of genealogy this is familiar to me but something felt wrong so I gave him my PO Box number. He sent pictures of himself & a very familiar letter saying he was coming to the USA & would visit. Never had anything to do with him again and was very grateful the US Postal service wouldn’t give out my real address.

Also had a cousin I hadn’t talked to in 25 years email…his total message was: Hi, I’ve gotten into genealogy & heard you’ve been doing it a long time. Send me everything you have to save me a lot of time.

LOL Of course, I never answered back.

So, I guess that now I pick & choose. I do volunteer look-ups, I share & dig with serious genealogist but, I do not turn over all my work to anyone. It’s still a work in progress & since I have had the experience of a line that looked rock solid and then disapproved it a year later, I would hate to send anyone down the wrong trail the way I went. BTW, who knew two women with the same birth dates & same names would marry men with the same names at the same time & NOT be related??? Probably you all did… took me a long time to sort them out & sadly the OTHER one was much easier to trace. LOL



Valerie July 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm

I just found your blog today (thank you Google+ and Sparks!) and was reading up on your controversial posts. I’m kind of feeling bad about asking my aunt for a copy of the research she’s done on my dad’s side of the family. I would never dream of taking credit for it; she’s been working on it for years! But I would also feel weird if I started researching that side. I kind of feel like that’s her territory.

I became hooked on genealogy just a few years ago, mainly because I knew so little about my mom’s side. I have managed to locate a few distant cousins. A few of them shared some information with me, but most really don’t know anything. A great aunt lived to be 101 and her daughter inherited all of the family photos. She has graciously allowed me to visit her multiple times and scan my heart out. I would gladly share that kind of thing with cousins, if I could find any who cared!

The contact would have to be a little more personal than Ancestry, though. I, too, have experienced people connecting my information to the wrong people. I finally took my tree private, partly because I don’t want them connecting the wrong dots, but also because in some cases, I’m still connecting those dots and I don’t want to inadvertently pass along bad information. There’s enough of that floating around out there already!


Suzanne August 31, 2011 at 12:31 am

It is ironic that the people who have been the most generous, careful and respectful are third and fourth cousins that I have met over the internet. Last year a first cousin asked me to send a GEDCOM of our family because her husband had pretty much finished his family and wanted to do her side now. I thought he had done some work already and that we would share and compare. Wrong. Their Christmas letter casually mentioned that he was putting everything up on his new website. I checked out his site and at least he did include a small note about how I had done all the work on his wife’s family and that I had excellent citations — “thanks for sharing.” Some of my data was clearly marked as unverified but he posted it anyway. He never even asked if it was okay to post my work online. I felt used and was distressed to see he had major errors in his line (child born ten years before mother’s birth, etc.). He had somehow managed to mess up my line as well. After multiple emails pointing out the most egregious errors I decided not to have anything more to do with his site. It’s embarrassing to have my name associated with his work and I will never send anyone a GEDCOM again.


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