Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

by Kerry Scott on 25 March 2014

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I recently wrote a post on finding Ancestry trees for DNA cousins. In it, I mentioned that I don’t have a public family tree, and I don’t plan to have one in the foreseeable future. Reader Dan asked why I felt that way, and what the consequence would be if everyone refused to have a public family tree.

Here’s what I think the consequence would be:

  1. Some of us would have a tougher time doing research.
  2. Most of us would be WAY better off.

Here’s the thing: Some people have family circumstances that prevent them from having a public tree. Years ago, I wrote a post on why genealogy is so hard for people from screwed up families (and I mean REALLY screwed up, not Aunt-Mabel-gets-drunk-at-Thanksgiving-and-makes-racist-remarks screwed up). That post is nearly four years old, and it’s still the genealogy post that generates the most reader email. Some people can’t have a public tree, because that public tree would show that their still-living grandparent cheated on his spouse, and the still-living kids are actually half-siblings, and also these other people here have no idea that their own parent was a cheater with another child. Or, it might show someone that they’ve found their long-lost cousin…only that long-lost cousin got lost on purpose, because her still-living uncle raped her when she was four and she doesn’t want to be in touch with him or his family. Maybe you feel these sorts of secrets should be outed, but the fact is, the people living with them have to get through the day, and they might just not be ready for that. Nobody owes you a family tree, just because you don’t know the reason they’re not sharing doesn’t mean that no good reason exists. 

Roberta Estes writes the DNA eXplained blog, and her post on this topic is, in my view, the definitive work on why we need to lighten up on people who can’t or won’t share. It’s geared toward people who are upset over DNA matches who won’t collaborate, but it applies equally to sharing trees and other genealogy-related information. If I am ever crowned Queen of the World, every genealogist will be required to read that post twice. 

For people with these kinds of issues, genealogy can be especially challenging. If you have the luxury of having no major impediments to sharing with everyone who’s related to you, be grateful. Lots of folks wish they could share their research, collaborate, see photos of branches they never knew…but they can’t. If you’re providing a public family tree, you’re helping those people. Good for you. Without your generosity, genealogy would be tough for the folks who do this because they have screwed up families, and can only quietly sneak around looking for the stuff they need.

On the flip side, lots of people have relatively normal families and no dark, ugly reason why they can’t connect with cousins. In those cases, why not have a public tree? I’ve never tried this, but I’ve always wondered what the motivation for creating a public tree would be. If everything’s out in the open, why would cousins ever contact you? Don’t they just take what they need and move on? Is the point to avoid interaction with the cousins?

I feel like this is a lot like passing out candy on Halloween. I have a neighbor who just puts a huge vat of candy out, and people are supposed to take the candy themselves. They grab a handful, they walk away, and there’s no interaction whatsoever. For me, that would be a huge bummer, because interacting with the kids is the fun part. I love seeing their costumes, telling them they look awesome, and letting them pick out their favorite candy. I like talking to the parents and saying hi to the folks I know. The human contact is the whole reason I buy the candy.

That’s why I like private trees; they mean that the cousin has to actually contact you. Perhaps I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky, but nearly all of my genealogy cousin contacts have been positive. I like talking to them. If I left all my goodies out in a bowl, I would have missed out on meeting some great people. I think the quality of many of the trees out there would be improved if we had to actually talk to one another.

What do you think? Do you have a public or a private tree? Has your view on this issue changed over time?

 Photo by wwarby


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{ 171 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Sturgis March 26, 2014 at 6:26 pm

My “main” tree is public – but the other 65 or so I’ve done w/o permission are private…I am admittedly an Ancestry addict. :(


Brian March 26, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Go Public . every private tree I tried to contact never got back to me, in my opinion if you cant share openly and freely you need to get another hobby like maybe collecting insects


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 6:42 pm

So, say, if you’re the child of a rape victim, and you want to research your genetic family while respecting the wishes of your rape-survivor mother to not make anything public, you should be banned from genealogy altogether?

I don’t accept that. If that person wants to do that research, she should be allowed to do so without judgment from strangers. Her rape-survivor mother is more important to her than your complete-stranger needs. That’s as it should be.

It’s not the public/private trees that gets me. It’s the judgmental stuff that people with situations like this have to put up with. I’m sick of it.


adam staines March 27, 2014 at 12:19 am

Kerry fair point but what if there are other siblings of this rapist; do they not have the right to know about their family. You dont have to put the fact a rape occured on the tree, this can be privised but why hide the other facts around the ligitimate family line too, all to privitise one fact?


Kerry Scott March 27, 2014 at 7:13 am

Because people are going to wonder how you’re related. If her tree shows your dad with a living descendant, and you’re your dad’s only kid, you’re going to contact her and say, hey, what are you doing with my dad in your tree? And why is the maternal line showing a completely different bunch of people from my mom? Now, maybe she should tell you….but she might respect the wishes of her mom instead. Or maybe she doesn’t want the burden of having to tell you that your dad’s a rapist. Based on this thread, people get pissed off enough when you mislabel their great-grandma…imagine the reaction with something like that.

People think keeping facts or people private is like a magic invisibility shield. It isn’t. Any decent genealogist can figure out who those people are. Take the most recently deceased person in the tree, find her obit, and boom. There’s the name her “private,” living descendants. Find THEIR obits and boom, there’s a bunch more. The idea that your living people are really private is only true in the hands of an incompetent genealogist.

The bottom line is that situations can be complicated, and that our own needs/wants don’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why we need to cut others a bit of slack. Most people do this for fun, not because they need another source of angry and stress in their lives.


Jason Lee April 2, 2014 at 3:35 am

I strongly suspect that rape and infidelity explain only a tiny fraction of private family trees. More often, private trees seem to be a product of privacy and security concerns (sometimes paranoia), worries about criticisms of inaccuracy, and a small but significant percentage of genealogists are clearly griefers.

There’s no reason to be rude to people who won’t/can’t share but a lot of people do have poor excuses for hoarding ancestral information.


Meg March 26, 2014 at 6:39 pm

I used to have public trees. The reasons I changed them to private are 1. At least two other people copied my years of research from my trees and posted to another website. (without contacting me) 2. Another gentleman copied all my public trees and posted them as his own trees, although he was related to only one branch. 3. Several people were making their own inaccurate links to family members, including one tree that has great-aunts and great-uncles married to the wrong spouses and has had the wrong information copied to at least ten other trees, one that has the wrong parents for my dad (and the creator won’t change it) and one that has the wrong parents for my grandfather that has already been copied to other trees.


JL Beeken March 26, 2014 at 9:36 pm

I really don’t understand the part where people refuse to change information that they’ve been told is wrong.

But I’ve decided I don’t care what people do with the genealogy they take from my site. I can’t control the world. I only put out there what I’m willing to give away for free. If someone copies it all and doesn’t contact me they get what they get.

If they re-post it and another copier comes along and swallows it whole they also get what they get.

I know what’s in my database, the parts I would swear by and the parts I wouldn’t. If they don’t want to know, so be it.


Jade March 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Why not change stuff proven to be wrong? One recent correspondent told me the Holy Ghost told her that what she “thought” was true, so she was not going to change it.


DJ Hannig March 28, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Respond to Jade – I don’t think people should worry about other peoples trees. Run your own race and know that what you have done is correct and well researched. If others copy rubbish well that is their loss and you could spend your life trying to fix up other peoples trees and meanwhile this takes you away from your own. Everyone seems to be worried about all the trees that are full of sloppy copied work (and there are hundreds and growing!!)- a good researcher can instantly see through these trees and easily recognize quality work when it comes along.


Katie September 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm

There is a family tree on Ancestry.com that has the wrong mother for my father, and she won’t change it. She took a lot of information that I put into my family tree, and she claimed it as all of her own work. For example, documents and photographs. People are welcome to my family tree, but they usually link it to their trees. She didn’t even bother to do that.


Kerry Scott September 23, 2014 at 7:47 am

So frustrating!


Joe December 16, 2014 at 3:16 pm

How does one link it to their own tree thus giving credit to the true author. This is my desire and plan to check my Ancestry trees to make sure this is the case.


Kerry Scott December 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm

I haven’t tried this, but I believe that if you save something from someone else’s tree to your own tree on Ancestry, it will put in a link under “Source information” on that individual’s profile page in your tree. I believe you can click that link to get back to the original tree.

You can also enter sources in yourself, when you’re entering data into your Ancestry tree. It has fields for that.

Additionally, you can keep PDF copies of everything you enter online, and add source citations to those. For example, when I find a person in a census record, I save the image of the census page, then paste it into a Word document. Then I type in my source citation underneath the image, and save the whole thing as a PDF. That way, I have the document itself and the source citation, in a format that most people can read.

adam staines March 27, 2014 at 12:28 am

Meg the solution to your problem is to put out your data and the supporting information and to allow others to see you are right, by hiding it you are only helping the wrong information get out there?

You noted other people posted “your tree”; I would argue its not your tree, it your research. The tree is the product of the research and does not belong to anyone. Your issue is in fact you were not credited with acknowledgement for your research, which would not only be polite but would help others see the original source of the research and to judge the quality. Research should be published, but credited where data comes from other sources, this is the basic principle of all research.


Rowen O'Dell April 23, 2014 at 2:14 pm

Private tree for me too….I too used to be very giving and was sharing everything. Then all of a sudden the information AND pictures shared with a couple people made it all online to Ancestry. Not only did I not get any credit for ALL/any of the pictures from MY line, but the information I had plainly stated came from other people was also used at theirs, and no credit given.
I have seen my (used to be public) tree info added to several trees, and I know it’s mine because of a little trick I used in spelling a couple of names after I caught on. NOW if someone wants to contact me about my tree, I will make a decision what they can see and what I will share.
Also have seen a lot of incorrect information on public trees.The people who take and don’t verify are really making a mess for others.


Beverly Flores March 26, 2014 at 7:06 pm

I see both sides of the private and public trees. My family tree is public but a lot of stuff that affect people that are still living is not made public. I do have to say that I have contacted a lot of my cousins with private trees (I had the DNA done)and I approach them as My DNA results shows that we could be cousins. Then I list all my surnames to include maiden names and a few people just tell me that we are not connected or they can’t find that particular name. Some of the people I have contacted with history all the way back to the 1600′s. I just think that this saves me a lot of time researching if they don’t have that surname. I do want to say that if it was not for one person’s family tree my husband would not of found his family. They are from New Spain, Mexico and Philippines. So thank you thank you because I can’t not translate Spanish. I like that we can have Private or Public


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 7:10 pm

I agree that it’s great that we have a choice. Everyone can and should be able to choose what’s best for their own family. After all, this is supposed to be fun, not stressful.


Margaret March 26, 2014 at 7:16 pm

I found out by accident that my ancestry notifications were turned OFF. I didn’t turn them off, but noticed I hadn’t received any sort of messages in a long time, so I called ancestry and was told my notifications were off. I sent out 10-15 messages per week on my DNA matches and hear from maybe one out of ten. I wonder if their notifications are off too.

Why does one go to the time and expense of DNA testing if they’re not going to follow-up on the matches? Yes, it is hard work. I have two profiles and both have 170 or more pages. I use the filters in various ways to help capture data. I have four brick walls or maybe six, that are playing out with the DNA matches.

It is frustrating when your best matches are private and do not respond to messages.

I have a direct ancestors tree online for DNA matches and any serious researcher will recognize their lines. I matched a tree today with a common name, but because I have worked my lines, I recognized the name and location in their small tree. If the lady answers me back she gets a fully documented generation by email. One lady, I was able to send three generations on info. YES, you will WIN when you respond to my messages. I am going to help you with your tree if I can at all.

Rant and vent over! Good night!


Su Lynn Hanson March 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm

That is a good post. Just an inside..I had my Ancestry DNA, an received the results 2 weeks ago. I did it because it is part off Ancestry, and see so many are doing it. But I do not have a clue where to go from here. My 2 big matches, I had already been in touch with. I looked at Bout 50
95% matches and did not recognize but one surname grouping. I contacted GEDMATCH to get information, as I do have a private tree and got a rather snotty response. I share, when asked, but not to open my entire tree. I have broken brick walls for others family trees, some I just recognized the gap. I started wrong, I guess, many years ago and thought if I paid the subscription, I could use the tree software for my goal, which was to trace my family migration and prove the family stories. I used my tree for my very personal recollections of my great aunts and uncles, for the Family journey I am writing. I am not a selfish person. I know there are many others who started down this path, and if I had known what I know now, I would have used another program to record my journey to my family.


Joy Dean March 26, 2014 at 7:32 pm

I think it is good that we have a choice however it does not stop me from feeling annoyed when someone with a private tree takes photos & information from my tree & does not acknowledge my contribution to their family tree. When I access anything from anyone’s tree I let them know who I am, where I fit in their tree & if possible why I took the information or photo. Nobody from a private tree has ever paid me this courtesy however people who have a public tree often acknowledge my contribution to their tree. It seems to me that people who have private trees are rude & inconsiderate of the people who have public trees & have gone to a lot of trouble to research their family. I never put anything on my tree unless I am positive that the information is correct & verified so maybe this why so many people with private trees pirate my information. Saying all that I love researching my family & sharing my information & photos with people who I can have contact with & in lots of cases talk to personally. I would not have been able to get as far with my family tree if it had not been for people who have public trees who have shared their information with me & in some cases put me in touch with family members who could help me.


Chris Schmidt March 27, 2014 at 12:08 am

My experience has been the opposite. I normally get responses from owners of private trees and if any owner of private trees use my information they usually acknowledge it.

The problem is, in my experience, there are a lot of data collectors out there on ancestry. They don’t care about accuracy…you have a John Smith that would be about the right age in your tree therefore it is must be their John Smith. You see a lot of this people taking other people’s research and merging it into public trees- and you contact them 98% of the time they don’t acknowledge you or make the correction and 1% of the time they contact you insist they are correct even though you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not.

Everyone has errors in their tree. I have not had time to verify all the informaiton yet in my tree on all connecting families- in fact its a process that will probably take the rest of my life- but I want to avoid errors being duplicated across the internet. So many people just take what they want from public trees and don’t verify and that is how mistakes get duplicated across the internet. One of my lines there are 30 trees with information on it…I have extensively researched and verified this line from primary sources and have at least three sources for each fact. 28 out of 30 of these trees are incorrect.

I would rather keep my tree private so we can share by email and I can at least point out unverified information and we can perhaps work out together what is correct. I am happy to share always but I want to protect against mistakes becoming duplicated.


Polly March 27, 2014 at 9:36 am

I so agree with you about the data collectors and everything you said. My family tree will be one of the most important things I will be leaving my children, grandchildren and all those to come so it must be correct.


Peter Crisitello March 26, 2014 at 7:36 pm

While not a current Family Tree these Family tree web site(s) were created before PC’s became popular and with technology that does not exist any more!? I would have to start from scratch to re do it in some type of current programming format.


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Wow, that is old school.


cmfilipiak March 26, 2014 at 7:42 pm

I have a private tree so people have to contact me. I use to have my tree public and then I would find my information in other peoples tree with all my notes (spelling errors too) with no credit to me. I can’t grow my tree if people just cut pieces down off of mine and don’t tell me how they are related. If you are related to me and you tell me how you are related, I will invite you to view my tree. I have sent reports to people who are not related on their part of the tree that relates to them. I share, but only after you have shared too!


Bill March 26, 2014 at 7:58 pm

I have had a public tree in Ancestry for many years. Recently though I have been considering making it private. My only reason is because I have seen much of my research on others family trees or on message boards. I like the fact that my research helps others. But what makes me a bit upset is that these people who copy my research don’t bother to post that this info came from me. No, its not an ego thing. I don’t just sit at my computer and do my research. I travel all around, going to cemeteries taking pictures of headstones, going to public libraries that have a genealogy section, going to court houses. My time and money for gas for my vehicle is in the thousands of dollars. Then there is my Ancestry subscription, the cost to get death certificates from the different Vital Records departments, the cost of photocopies, the cost of my 3rd Great grandfathers Civil War records from the government. I have a lot if money tied up in my research and also a lot of time. And then to see my work online without any recognition or a thank you, yes, that upsets me. I am very anal in my research and am confident that it has been done correctly. So, this is the reason I am considering making my inline tree private.


LMarker May 27, 2014 at 9:03 am

Exactly why I won’t post on Ancestry. Well said.


Liv March 26, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Joy Dean is right – “it is good that we have a choice” to make our family trees public or private. I maintain a private and public family tree. My private tree is my “work tree” filled with all type of family connections that are under investigation. I keep it private so that other researchers won’t be mistaken for its accuracy. Once I’ve had a chance to verify family connections on my work tree, I transfer those findings and information to my public tree. I maintain a public family tree because it is necessary with regards to slave ancestry and my ability to make family connections. For many African American researchers identifying slave ancestors is “inescapably” tied to white slave owners. What ticks me off more than anything is to come across a public family tree where the owner of that tree has published their ancestor’s Probated Will but took the time to redact all of the slaves names from the document (I know the slave names have been redacted because I have copy of the original in my files). Even though this redacted information was published on a public family tree I can only infer after reading your post, that the idea that there were slave owners in their family prevented them from publicly admitting it.


Su Lynn Hanson March 26, 2014 at 9:08 pm

I have a private tree…started with a public one. My tree is private because of all the reasons above. When I first went private, I opened my tree to …”could I just look briefly at your tree?” I did and so much was taken and posted by taken by screen shots. You can steal a lot of info in just a few hours. I struggle with the private vs public conversation, and feel uneasy either way. I spend about 6 hours a week, just adding citations from what I did not add as a beginner. Documents
from DC, the TN Archives, my small county research….I have more citations from personal research than I have seen on public trees. Most is copy and paste from Ancestry.com. I seldom see them. I would like to do a public basic tree with names and dates, but think it would take me forever to do that. If I could find an easy, less time consuming way, I would do that. If someone asks me a specific question, I always help. But I am much more cautious, and when you see 15 trees with your gg grandfather, who died in 1890, saying he died in Sangamon, afganistan, you see what copy and paste looks like. Take a look at your citations, how many have you created with work you have personally researched through microfilm, libraries, cemeteries…not just online? It makes a difference. This was a great post.


Ann Hinds March 26, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Please forgive me but I need to come back and add my thoughts. I have inaccurate trees. I have borrowed information. All of my trees are public. I setup extra trees for strangers to add pictures my mom left that are identifiable. Strangers to me, these people were my parents friends and I hope their families find the pictures. Although they have no meaning for me, someone might be delighted to have them.

Genealogy is not a hobby for me but a passion. I am not a flake. My tree on my dad’s side is pretty clean but it took two years of research to make it right. I have a clear understanding of my great grandparents and great great grandparents. It took a long time to get to know them as people.

My tree on my mom’s side is a mess and I know it. It’s a work in process and I don’t know these people yet. I make everything public because I hear from people that I’m doing it wrong or have the wrong person. To them, I say thanks. That’s just another little clue that will lead me to what I need to know. I hear from others who are related. We share letters and pictures and I post them for any other family member who might find them. The information does not belong just to me.

I did the Ancestry DNA and have had conversations with 3rd and 4th cousins who have trees that are public. Right now, I am not interested in private trees because those with public trees that I have contacted are still helping me find the right answers. I may get to the private trees but they are not a priority. This is an interesting discussion and I have a better understanding of both sides. When it’s time to contact those with private trees, I will be able to ask the right questions.


Jack March 26, 2014 at 10:53 pm

I have mostly private trees now! As I look around Ancestry I find that every fact, every photo and every family link has been copied. That’s not the problem, however! The thief became a thief when he/she failed to give me credit for the original research.


LINDA DAWN VATER LEWIS March 26, 2014 at 11:19 pm



Kathy Thompson March 26, 2014 at 11:43 pm

I chose to make my tree private for two reasons. FIRSTLY I realised I had incorrect details on my tree that others were blindly copying. I made an attempt to correct some of these but with no response from my messages. I admit I have also done this, early on, but as I have become more experienced I have improved the way I research. I still do have some info that may be incorrect and I don’t want others to see this work-in-progress. SECONDLY, I have spent countless hours collecting photos, certificates etc, and writing up a large number of stories. I would rather have contact with people who want to know what my story/photo etc is and am very happy to exchange info and stories etc in this way when asked.


amartin126 March 26, 2014 at 11:46 pm

My tree used to be public, until someone copied my entire tree and did not ask for permission. Also, someone copied a branch without permission and wanted to argue how I go the information.


adam staines March 27, 2014 at 12:15 am

I really have to take issue with the privitised trees brigade: Genealogy is a form of hstorical research. Research should be published, reviewed, and revised in light of the review. That way we learn and improve through the itteration. Imagine a world where a researcher had a cure for cancer, but didnt want to share it; or someone had new evidence of Henry VIII having had another child but the proof was only on their desk top computer.

So people would argue that their own research is personal and not in the catagory above. So reserch on you self might be personal, but what of you parents – your siblings aunts and uncles might have an interest too.
Once you go back a few generations there are thousands of people who have as much right to the information as you.

The other argument I here is that people take the information and use it on a tree with some “wrong” information. Yes this happens and is annoying but this happens in the world of research. How do you counter it, you publish your research with your evidence so people can see the quality of your claims and make up their own mind. Taking your tree off-line only helps propigate false information.

I can see an argument to want to privitise some information about a living person if they have requested the information is not revealed; many biographers make a similar arangement. But this is for personal private information; not data which could be calculated form birth certificates and newspapers with a little research.

Fundamentally I think people who dont share trees are selfish. They are making hundreds of other people waste time researching facts they have already discovered. This is time that could be spent on other bits of the tree where noone has yet done any research.

We are all relatted to each other, we are all one human race; lets embrace that and help our fellow man in his quest to discover their heritage.


Yvonne Law September 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

Wonderful commentary. My research started as I had loads of wonderful source information and I had to make a tree to make sense of all these people. I even discovered who wrote the letter which started “Dear Sister” and ended “sister”. Also who received the letter. That was very fulfilling and I was able to give this original to the granddaughter of the writer. This spurred me to find who these fine people descended from.

I am so grateful for public trees as I locate these past generations, sometimes not so many but sometimes several. I know genuine research has to be done to verify the people I have linked to my tree but as evidence seems strong i do add and realize errors are still posible.

My source information covers four generations and I hope it helps others who are related in their search.


K Beatty March 27, 2014 at 3:24 am

I began creating my family tree in Ancestry many years ago and In the early years I was very careless about what I added. As a result, the tree has many errors that are difficult to locate and correct. However, there are more than 16,000 people in the tree so I don’t want to destroy it. I keep it private to make sure others do not use the incorrect information. I have had many people contact me and always respond. I agree to give them access but warn them that there are significant mistakes. In this way, I make the information available to those who want it and also have the opportunity to interact. I appreciate what public trees can provide, so I recently started a public tree which includes only well-documented information on my direct ancestors.


RMcNair March 27, 2014 at 4:43 am

When I originally got started into documenting my family’s history.. at first I kept my tree private more so from the security side as not every one has honest intentions. Later I realize, the risk associated with a public tree are out weight by chance connection of a cousin I never met. Because of my change of philosophy, I have been in contact with family members who had been also look into our shared heritage. I also believe that this information in itself needs to be shared for the true fruits of it research are to be gained. Like art, what is to be gained if it is kept hidden and locked a way. Even and inaccurate tree as a reference is start when there is nothing else in place


DJ Hannig March 27, 2014 at 6:03 am

My view probably will not be popular but I compare private tree owners up their with those people that choose not to immunize their children – they essentially riding off the back of others good will. Harsh I know, but if we all decided to make our trees private – there goes Ancestry. I 100% agree there are trees that have way too much personal screwed up issued that should not be put out there, but (and this is the part that pee’s me off) there are private tree owners that are all too happy to take copies of photos and documents but not willing to share anything back or even respond to requests. I am really happy to put my public tree out there (warts and all) and I know I have helped so many other families and that gives me a buzz but I personally think that Ancestry should set up a system that if a private tree owner wants to copy something of your tree then they have to respectfully request it. So many times I have come so close to solving a dead end and I know that a private tree owner has copied a lot of the info and they must know something about that person – but they do not respond….. really annoying.


Donna Mierzejewski-McManus March 27, 2014 at 6:11 pm

DJ, I understand what you are saying. But how much data to put up there? I’ve had drive-bys scrape documents that I’ve paid a researcher to obtain for me in Europe. Much time and $$ spent writing to the researcher and translating those records. And not even a mention to me they’ve done it or a thank you. This is one of the drivers that made me decide to either make the tree private OR not put the data there. I think that kind of accessibility to information gives a number of starting genealogists think this information ought to be free… I made the decision to be private so that I can decide who to let have the information, to those it made sense and that I’ve vetted. Selfish? Not really. All it takes is an email to me explaining why you’re interested. A sentence or two. When I do use someone else’s photos or documents, I communicate with them, at least to say thank you, your generosity is very much appreciated. Sometimes, it’s driven a blog post as a kudos, too.


adam staines March 28, 2014 at 12:13 am

I have never understood the argument that if you pay for some research you should hide it. I think the opposite is true; if you pay for one bit of research and share it; then someone else can pay for a different bit of research rather than wasting money on something that has already been researched. Imagine every person having to pay for medical research for a condition they had? I accept some people who hide their trees say they are willing to share, but why should hundreds of people waste time writing emails asking to see some information which you could just put out there. Its not the fact they have to contact you, its the fact they have to contact you and hundreds of other people, just to find out if there is a match or any new data. Thts time better spent researching.


Donna Mierzejewski-McManus March 30, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Well, I would NOT say I am hiding it. Not at all. I do blog quite a bit with my more interesting findings or documents that do prove relationships. Not only that, I do a lot of research on my community I grew up in, particularly with a certain cemetery. If I know the relationships/have the documentation, I summarize that data in a state-based historical/genealogical site.

BUT, and it’s a big BUT…and maybe something I’ve only encountered. Because I have distinctly Polish names that I’m researching, I often get “oh, we ARE related” simply because the surnames might match. I guess a lot of Smiths or Joneses could be in this type of situation.

I keep my tree private, but issue invites. This makes it much easier for me to keep my sanity. You gotta do what works for you. I just managed over time to find a good working circle of people and stay within that circle along with a couple of very good genealogical societies geared to my interests. I’ve found a “groove” I guess to get connected and have real engagement. You want access to my tree? Not a problem, just email me and let me know how you think you’re connected or go to my blog. You’ll find information there and a link to the state website to the grave data I’ve researched. I actually enjoy sharing, but for me, this works well. And I will admit, it’s a time management issue for me. I work full time in another world, do this part-time, and I travel somewhat frequently.


CMFilipiak March 27, 2014 at 6:03 am

Do you know that public trees look private to non-paying subscribers? Anyone can create a tree on Ancestry.com but only paid subscribers can see all the public trees. Non-paying members will need to be invited to view a public tree. So you might thik by making your tree public that everyone can see it. However, this is not true. So how does it help making your tree public when it really isn’t totally public?


DJ Hannig March 28, 2014 at 5:23 pm

That seems quite fair to me……. if you wish to see public trees you need to subscribe…


Cindy Stirmel March 27, 2014 at 7:40 am

On Ancestry all living people are listed as private with no names attached. So I guess I am confused as to how people who are still living and reasons to hide things are being shown in public trees. There wouldn’t be any identifying information there for people to “put the pieces together” as they say. They would need to contact the owner of the tree. Am I missing something here?


Kerry Scott March 27, 2014 at 7:56 am

Yes. You can find living descendants by researching the most recent dead people. They’re in the obits, on the death cert, in the probate file, on the memorial page on the internet…all over. Any competent genealogist can find them.


Carolynn March 27, 2014 at 10:14 am

In addition, folks attach documents to living people in their public or private trees, assuming because they’re living that the info will be hidden. Even though those people aren’t publicly identified, if another researcher has that living person in their tree (even just a last name and an estimated year of birth), Ancestry suggests public records for that “hidden” living person to the new researcher, making it easy to figure out who the person is.


Chris D May 19, 2014 at 8:21 am

Guys, let me just say to be VERY CAREFUL about the “living people” in your tree. The first tree I created on Ancestry was public, and it included living people. I was very careful to mark these people as Private, Living, etc. The Ancestry setup information [at least at that time] also indicated that their software automatically hid the privacy of living people. NOT TRUE! When I viewed my tree, and even when I signed in as a stranger, etc. – all of my living relatives were there for the world to see. Ancestry said it was a “software glitch” and they would fix it. That was four years ago. Over the course of three months, numerous people copied my public tree and included the names of the living. Ancestry NEVER made the changes that they said only they could make. I ultimately had to delete the tree in its entirety in order to protect the security of the living. Things may have changed since then … but what a nightmare at the time.


CathyB June 18, 2014 at 9:28 am

Things have changed since 4 years ago. Living people are PRIVATE. They’ve taken away even the last name (which a while ago they still had.) You can, however, still see if a couple had 3 children, and those 3 children are 2 boys, 1 girl, or maybe 3 boys.

However, any competent genealogist can determine the names and dates of those children via online obits, other public records, FB posts, and so on. So, in the end, nothing is really private any more.

Lessie December 16, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Ancestry turned all my living relatives public. All their information was shown. I went thru and deleted the living people from my tree, not easy to do. I then made my tree private. I welcome all inquiries and know there are many errors made when I upgraded to FTM 2012 and ask people to notify me with errors. Unfortunately, I am not secure enough to make my tree public.


Kerry Scott December 16, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Yikes! I can definitely see why that would be upsetting. How long ago did this happen? When you contacted customer service, did they give any explanation for why those living people were shown?

Polly March 27, 2014 at 9:18 am

All my trees are private to ensure if I make a mistake it will remain on my tree and not spread like a virus from tree to tree and effect the family history of all those who copy without doing the research.


Kathy Thompson March 28, 2014 at 3:02 pm

“spread like a virus” – yes, that’s a good term Polly. If we all researched with ethical guidelines the public/private thing might not be such a hot issue. But probably 99% of us start off as novices and haven’t a clue how to research properly. Although many of us learn in time how to research appropriately, not many of us start at this level.


Jane March 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm

My tree was public. I posted because I knew there were mistakes in it and wanted input from others. I did get some emails and have taken it down until I get it correct. I let those people who contacted me that I appreciated their input. I also made some new “friendly cousins”


Cathy March 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm

I have my tree on public. I enjoy sharing with others. I’m sure my tree has errors as I have many myself. It takes a team to keep of helping cousins to get a tree in good shape.

Everyone has skeletons in the closet. Sometimes it’s better to just get them and clean the dust off and ignore rude people.

If we all put our trees, facts, documents, and DNA on private it would be like putting a clamp on genealogy.

Even if a person chooses not to get too close to living people they can always start a tree with a great grandparent or even a great great grandparent. Sometimes that is very useful to those with brickwalls. Most brickwalls are far enough back in time that a tree does not have to begin with a living person.


JeanND March 27, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Try as I might, I just don’t see the purpose of private trees – exception…big family secrets that could hurt people still living. So what if someone uses your information incorrectly? That’s on them & it’s up to you to source your own Tree….IF you can afford it. Worldwide Ancestry is expensive and I am only 3rd & 4th generation American. So I am aggressive in pursuing relationships with ‘cousins’ who have public Trees – I watch who is taking information from my Tree & follow up. If it weren’t for that, I would not only have missed out on so much information, but in having contacts in 5 countries and dozens of friendships with cousins I would have never met. I solved the mystery of my great grandmother after 30 years because someone had seen my Tree & contacted me – her grandmother was my great grandmother’s 1st cousin. I’ve also learned about so many different sites & how to search correctly. Hard to do without a network.
When I ‘use’ information from other Trees, I always assume their information could be incorrect until I see how it’s sourced. I assume my own information could be incorrect while working on it if I myself haven’t sourced it. One thing I wish Ancestry would do is show you which people you have ‘Notes’ on.
I don’t care if people take information I’ve spent a fortune in obtaining…better that than having it become completely obsolete after I die – then it really IS a waste of money. Time is more valuable than money anyway. Any genealogist should be able to come to that conclusion after all the stories, obituaries, headstones, etc. in their Tree. I don’t care if I’m not thanked. I get my sense of accomplishment in just knowing that what I’m doing will live on.
Having said that, I respect the people who keep their Trees private. BUT I am far less likely to contact them. And those that contact me….well, they usually seem willing to share – but if I can’t see how we’re connected, I don’t even know what to ask for. To each their own, I guess.


Alice March 28, 2014 at 4:03 am

Jean, you wrote: “Try as I might, I just don’t see the purpose of private trees – exception…big family secrets that could hurt people still living.”

As someone who had a private tree for five years, I’ll note that an Ancestry tree facilitates the search for records in the Ancestry database. That’s the primary purpose, the main reason why I’ve had one since my first day with a subscription.

For me, the public/private issue is a separate question. Not: “What’s the purpose of my tree?” but: “How much of my research do I want to share with other people, and how do I want to share it?”


JeanND March 28, 2014 at 11:24 am

Again Alice, I totally respect people who want to keep their Trees private.:-) But I still don’t understand why people don’t want to share research or even care how they share it unless it hurts people. The answers I see are – I’ve spent a lot of money or time so why should I give it away, I don’t get recognition or a ‘thank you’, the information is used incorrectly, etc.. I really don’t care about any of those things….only that my Tree is as accurate as I can possibly make it.

What genealogy has taught me personally is that time is fleeting, money is irrelevant (at least if you can afford a subscription on Ancestry), and I am but a speck trying to put together the story of my family. I don’t want them to be forgotten, or my old pictures & research papers to end up in a garbage can some day benefiting no one. I feel the best way to protect their legacy is to share with as many people as possible. For every one person who gets it wrong on their Tree, there are probably ten who get it right. You don’t have to be a seasoned genealogist to tell if an ancestor discovered in another Tree is well sourced – and I doubt if anyone has a Tree of any size that is completely without mistakes. It is always a work in progress. For instance, I have a distant cousin who is a professional genealogist & has written several books. I found a big mistake on her Tree. Had she not had a public Tree, I would never been able to send her the correction. I always do this. Whether they take the time to make the correction is on them. I also discovered that I had a half-aunt in Norway that no one knew about. Her niece saw my Tree & I was contacted. That aunt now has her rightful place on my Tree – but only after I made sure I was hurting no one. Giving as much as I am taking is important to me.

Not trying to change your mind – just explaining my position. It doesn’t make me right, or you wrong. Genealogists think differently & I believe everyone should do what they are most comfortable with.


Alice March 28, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Not trying to change your mind either, Jean. Just explaining. :)

I can’t relate to the “Hey, I spent money and it’s MY research!” folks either. And I’d say they are forgetting just how much anonymous time & money has facilitated their own work. Think of how much we’ve all benefited from findagrave volunteers, unpaid indexers of documents, the incredible largesse of the LDS Church, etc.!

I’ve always shared freely with those who ask, though it took five years for me to be confident enough in my own work to share my trees entirely by making them public.

Actually, I would have done it about a year earlier, but for the fact that I was procrastinating on the tedious task of deleting media items. I had been using my Ancestry tree as an emergency backup for all kinds of records that can’t be posted openly without committing various copyright and terms of use violations.


Dennis Turner March 28, 2014 at 11:38 am

Well if you don’t share your research, what is the point of doing it in the first place?


Kerry Scott March 28, 2014 at 11:48 am

For some people, it’s akin to an autopsy. If you come from a really screwed up family (like, the hardcore abuse kind, not the charmingly wacky kind), you might want to know what went wrong. You might also want to know whether there were some non-horrible people in your family tree.


Alice March 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Dennis, that’s like asking: “What’s the point of reading a book, if you don’t belong to a book club?”

Some folks just want to know. Putting your forebears in historical context can be very educational and highly entertaining.

Sharing what you’ve learned is great, if you’re moved to do so. Not sharing is ok too.


Polly March 28, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Dennis, I don’t do this to share but to leave this for my children, grandchildren and the ones to come. If someone ask me about a person I will share anything I have a source for but I refuse to pass on the couldbes, the maybes or I got it from another family tree. I don’t spend my time and money on here to make friends or find relatives. I”m looking for facts and sources.

Pam March 28, 2014 at 6:43 am

I have communicated and met with distant cousins BECAUSE my tree is public. It gives people a chance to see if there are common ancestors before sending that email. So far I have had no issues with the fact that my tree is public. And I do have to admit being disappointed when a notification is made on my home page of someone ‘taking’ a photo from my tree and when I want to see how it is used their tree is private….seems to be not fair!


Lisa March 28, 2014 at 11:48 am

I’m all for sharing my research! But in the same respect, I want to share… meaning I email / talk with an actual person – I don’t want to just post my work for the drive by genealogist. My trees are public but extremely vague. I have a lot to share, and I post that, I just won’t do it on Ancestry. If they want to know more information than they will contact me. I have had much more luck with my blogs and on Facebook in meeting new cousins than I have on Ancestry.


Susan Jaber March 28, 2014 at 1:24 pm

As a follow-up to my previous post, in the beginning I was quite upset when someone took information from my tree and added it to their tree without my permission and/or citing me. But then I realized that if people in Canada had kept their trees private, I would never had located so my ancestors, nor been able to go back so many (up to 10) generations in my research. I now know that I am 59 1/2% French Canadian. Yes I spent long hours researching, quite a bit of money and traveled all over New England chasing down my ancestors, but so do a lot of other people in their research. If they were generous enough to share what they uncovered, how could I do any less. I think what is bothering me about a number of posts, is the labels that are being used to describe other people. Ex. “drive by genealogist” “not serious” “non-professional” etc. That is so sad. We all have our reasons and methods for researching our ancestors, and we should all show respect to one another. My biggest question is “Will the world come to an end because someone added a member of your tree to their tree in error or added your information with-out your permission?” I don’t think so. My motto is “Less drama, more co-operation”.


JeanND March 28, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Great post! That’s exactly how I feel, too!


DJ Hannig March 28, 2014 at 3:13 pm

When I first started doing my tree – so many in the family said, “don’t worry its already been done” – the thing is the person that did it never shared one thing with the rest of the family and would not really help me. What is the point when that person dies? I have paid probably nearly $3000 in total in getting professional researchers to help me with Germany ancestry and all the hundreds of BDM certificates and have put most of it or snipets of the informatoin on my public tree for whoever wants to copy. I don’t worry who takes credit for them or if they use them inaccurately (but I do get a buzz knowing I have helped others)- my only concern is my own tree and ensuring it is accurate for any family that may wish to see it. I think too many people get caught up worrying about getting credit for themselves, I don’t think genealogy is about brownie points and if you hide it all away then what is the point? My now deceased relative who had done our family history, kept it all to himself and then another step family member had it all burnt (including photo albums) when he died. At least when I die – all of my work it out there and hopefully helping many other families for a very long time.


Larry March 28, 2014 at 10:04 pm

My trees are public and they’re going to stay that way. Yes, I’ve done a huge amount of research and I’d like to think that most of my facts are valid. Even though I know that everything on my trees is not perfect, I am nonetheless proud of what I have accomplished and am more than happy to share it with the world. I have posted my own graveyard photos as well as family pictures, which I’ve spent time and effort restoring with Photoshop, and then seen them taken without a word of thanks. BIG DEAL! I’m not doing genealogy to become rich and famous; I am doing it out of love and commitment. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that I have contributed to the my extended family and to the genealogy community at large.
At least once a month, I receive a message from some distant cousin seeking info on their family and I just love giving them a hand. When I see someone with incorrect info on their public tree, I always comment on it to help them out(whether they acknowledge me or not). In return, I have been corrected many times by other researchers.(I always try to thank them.) But I believe what goes around comes around. And ultimately the whole genealogy community profits through this kind of exchange.
Finally, I have come across private trees and several times tried to contact them, only to be ignored. Now, if the tree is private, I just don’t bother with it. I’m willing to bet a lot of people feel the same way. You guys with the private trees, in your selfishness, just don’t know what you may be missing.


DJ Hannig March 29, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Responding to Larry – Love how you expressed your views and I totally agree with everything you have said. People that are hiding things away for themselves are the ones missing out.


Dan March 29, 2014 at 8:04 am

Thank you for finally addressing this issue. One thing you did not mention in your post was the fact that many public trees (not just on ancestry, but elsewhere on the Internet) are unsourced — and for that reason, essentially worthless. An unsourced public tree cannot claim any higher moral purity than an private tree. Companies like Ancestry and MyHeritage are in the business of making money from unsourced public trees. The more the merrier for them. There are many clueless people doing genealogy research nowadays. As for whether you should make a well-researched and well-sourced tree public for the world to see and use, that is a personal question. There is no right answer: it is a matter of personal preference. Some people like to hand out free candy on Halloween. Some people are proud of their ancestors and their trees and the work that went into them, and want them to be seen. Not everyone feels this way, however. So yes, if you are ashamed of your ancestors, or you are somewhat of a curmudgeon and don’t want to share the fruit of your labors, by all means keep it to yourself.


adam staines March 29, 2014 at 9:55 am

Dan you say online trees are unsorced, but the tree itself is a source, allbeit a single one. Some of the data on “unsourced” trees comes from the fact people upload gedcoms without the sources attached; they may have very well sourced trees at home on paper. Also I tend to view someone who has added the name of their parents as a better source and most paper sources. Maybe they added the data from a family bible or will but dont know, or cant be bothered adding the source. At least if you have a name you can explore it for yourself, email them to ask where they got the data; or ignore it if its over enthusiastic use of IGI.

I would prefer a name to no name at all.


DJ Hannig March 29, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Reply to Dan – so what if many family trees on Ancestry or anywhere else are unsourced? Sorry for being blunt, but each and every single one of them may have that little clue that we may have been looking for or they are that distant cousin you have been trying to locate. Ancestry and MyHeritage are simply providing a platform for all of us to put our work on. Those that are public – are simply displaying their own work and some do not care if sourced or not. We all have to realize not to go around stressing about other peoples work. Yes I always try and contact tree owners with corrections but if they do not fix it – I don’t worry about it. It does not take long to look at someone’s tree to work out how much fact or fiction is in it – so move on and maybe the next tree will be gold. That is what is so wonderful about public trees.


DJ Hannig March 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Whoops I meant to say reply to Adam, not Dan (sorry)


Dan March 30, 2014 at 6:32 am

Perhaps I overstated in saying that unsourced public trees are “worthless”, but many, many of them are, and the big genealogy websites don’t really care; they want as many public trees as possible, regardless of how trustworthy they are. Untrustworthy and unsourced data is widely replicated through the so-called hints system. You really have to adopt a skeptical attitude about unsourced family trees. Perhaps there will be a hint worth following that you can pick up on, but you still need to take a skeptical view.


Annette March 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

I agree with Adam. If I look at a Public Tree without sources I will use their name/dates to do my own research. I view their information as a hint.


Heather Collins March 29, 2014 at 8:57 pm

My trees are public. And frankly, I don’t see why someone who wants to keep secrets would put them on a family tree, public or private. If you’re writing down what happened, it means you’ve moved on enough that you’re ready to face reality instead of hiding from it. At that point, you need to be fully committed. Put that train wreck out there. Trust me. It’s a part of the healing process.

My parents had issues they inherited a dozen times over from all the previous generations in my family. Violence against women, over the top alcoholism, infidelity, abandonment, prison, public corporeal punishment, police chases, suicide, and even murder all play a major part in my family tree. All within the last 4 generations. The effects of these have trickled down directly into the events that made up my childhood.

I can’t look at any generation of my family and not find something extremely unpleasant. And the long range look has helped me realize that nothing that happened to me is my fault, and it’s OK for me to be OK. It’s OK for me not to be bothered. It’s OK for me to talk about these things, because every time I talk about them I take some of their power away. When I take away the secrecy, I take away anybody’s ability to make me feel ashamed. I allow other people to be comforting and supportive. I become stronger than my experience by being open and honest about my family’s past.

Not everyone is like me now, this is true. Healing takes time. But eventually, everyone with bones in the closet has to decide whether to keep them there. And nothing good is gained long term by keeping them a secret.


DJ Hannig March 29, 2014 at 9:36 pm

In reply to Heather Collins – what a wonderful powerful message.
Thank you for sharing as very inspirational!


Dan March 30, 2014 at 6:19 am

This is so beautifully expressed. I totally agree with you. An important part of growing up is learning not to be ashamed of our families. They did the best they could. There is a cycle of abuse; the abused often becomes an abuser. The victim often perpetuates a victim mentality on his or her children. And so it goes. Putting this story out there takes a lot of bravery not all of us have. The important thing is to be honest.


Olya April 29, 2014 at 11:24 am

I found a perfect solution for all of you. Basically, with my trees you include
who you think it deserves to be there, but you still can leave info and documentation that you have about your family, so even though a very pleasant on the eye, my trees are “documented family history”. If you do not want that “mean uncle of yours” there, no problem! Simply ,do not include him. But there are family members that you want to see there and that deserve the place. Go for it!
I call them family trees with a twist!


Annie April 29, 2014 at 3:36 pm

This was a very interesting topic for me to read right now. I do think that whether to post or not is a personal decision, and no one’s business to judge. My daughter and I are genealogical partners with different perspectives on a lot of things, but we spoke at length about public posting, and we agree on the approach we decided to take, based on some ethical principles. One is that we will not post until we have solidly documented a branch. That means we look at all possible sources, and feel that the information is reliable. Two is that we will hide not only living people, but those dead who might serve as identifiers to the living. Three is that we keep any one, related or not, close enough to be affected is kept informed. Often they get interested enough to tell us their own stories!

At this point we have not yet published the tree; we are nowhere close to ready. But we do use collaboration for individuals whose provenance we know well enough to expand what we know and find leads to explore. I think that genealogy at its best and strongest is a collaborative process if done with respect and allowance for differences of interpretation. I have learned a lot from reading the posts here about how to engage in this process productively. I have also learned to stick with my own interpretations when they differ from others when I have good evidence for it. I freely share why I make the choices I do. (I used to do a lot of research for policy-making purposes, and so this process comes naturally to me.)

A lot of bad genealogy has always been done. When I first started, I found seven different family trees on the LDS site for one of my grandmothers, some so badly done it was embarrassing. It was even worse on the other side. Wishful thinking, laziness, human error… welcome to the human race. I think it is better now. Sure, people “borrow”. So what? We share, and that makes our work stronger.

My goal is to capture the missing stories that used to be passed down from generation to generation. Yes, there are “scandals”. Keep them hidden from the public, but I’m telling you, that back-door child really wants to know the truth. I see anguished requests for information all the time on boards by people who are not genealogists but really want to know who they are. That part doesn’t have to be published to make it discreetly available to them. And, in time, it can be made available to future generations to build on.

And even where there are scandals (yes, there is a fair share of those in my tree, too) there are treasures, and a sense of “this is my community”. My tree includes not only my blood relatives but cherished “side relatives” and special people who pop up in every generation. Not many yet, but it’s growing. The who of me, and the who I pass along to my children isn’t just the DNA: it’s the stories, the relationships, the community and events that shape us and that we pass along. To me, that’s what genealogy is all about. It’s what we do now that takes the place of the stories we use to tell us where we belong in the world.

A final word about those uncomfortable truths that sometimes show up. Exploring some of them has helped me to understand the lives of the people involved, and it has enlarged my capacity for compassion. In a couple of cases, it has led me to foregiveness. That alone has made my journey in genealogy worthwhile.


Carolynn April 29, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Beautifully put, Annie. Thank you. To me, genealogy is all about finding where we belong.


Fran May 2, 2014 at 6:20 pm

I have a private tree for my main work. The reasons are similar to most other with private trees. I have stuff I do not want to share. I have unproven details in my tree. I get totally annoyed when I check out a tree and it has mistakes so do not want to do this to others. My sourcing questionable. However I recently started a public tree for my DNA results. I planned to put limited set of relationships, year of birth and death and no sources. If people contact me I can decide what I want to share. Finding time to start another tree has been difficult. I forgot about the no sources concept so some now need to be removed. I think this is a happy medium that will keep my tree basically private however give the basics to the “cousins” with matching DNA. Fran @ travelgenee


amy May 3, 2014 at 4:04 am

I have two family trees — my mom’s side, which is public, where I am actively interested in connecting with anyone who may be any sort of distant relationship. My father’s side is a private tree as I have no wish whatsoever for anyone from that tree to ever contact me.


Annie May 3, 2014 at 5:04 am

Amy, that makes perfect sense to me. There is a branch attached to my tree that will remain private for as long as I am responsible for it. At some point I will give a copy of what I have done to the relative who is affected by that branch (which I have also chosen not to explore further than the point of contact). It will be up to that person to choose how to proceed with it– or not, as the case may be.


Chris D May 11, 2014 at 8:09 am

I have a “test” tree that’s public. My main tree is private. The test tree has one or two photos that I’ve taken and posted to findagrave. One of the headstones has a typo in it – and I’ve clearly marked that the headstone is incorrect. Naturally, no one reads that stuff. Pretty soon, the incorrect info is replicated over the web faster than a speeding bullet. Even LDS Family Search has the incorrect info! I see both sides of wanting to collaborate with others and share media – as well was wanting to keep some things private. My family is REALLY dysfunctional, and there are some things that would be beyond hurtful if they were posted publicly. That said, 100 years from now, there will be someone (like me) who will want to know the true story of what happened, and why, and there will be little (if no) documentation. I’m conflicted – but lean more toward keeping things private, citing reputable sources, and hoping to leave it all to a trusted descendant and/or historical society.


Carrie May 14, 2014 at 4:26 pm

My problem with a public tree? Well, I’ve got TWO beefs, but they tie together. First one: Inaccurate trees. I cannot EVEN begin to tell you how many public trees I find are completely incorrect. They are incorrect because people make stupid assumptions, are not careful about what they are choosing for records, etc. That leads me to beef number 2: there are LAZY people that choose not to do their own research and copy directly from the inaccurate trees. It’s SOOO easy to see they are copies by the way things are typed (typos, all caps, all lower case, etc). It just manifests FALSE information. With that being said, I’ve utilized public trees when I’ve hit a wall to get a “hint”, BUT..I take that hint and go and VERIFY the information. If I cannot verify it, I don’t use it. PERIOD. My things are PRIVATE. I’ve had many people swipe my stuff instead of doing their own work.


Julie Goucher @ Anglers Rest May 16, 2014 at 12:14 am

My tree on Ancestry is private and I have no plans to change it anytime soon. The tree is private because it is there for my benefit really for when I am out and about and I want access to it. There are also no sources on the tree that is on Ancestry that way if someone does gain access they have a completely source free tree. I have had people contact me, and I have also contacted others both with private and accessible trees. I do get responses but there is no patten that private tree researchers do not respond.

My plan for this year (and It will probably roll over to next now) is that I plan to create a new database and add individuals starting with me and then add everything to the database from notebooks, evidences etc that way my paper files and computer database will be a replica of each other.

The bottom line is use trees online to explore hunches, to contact others, but check the data yourself.


Chris D May 19, 2014 at 8:46 am

Many of the comments regarding this subject have definitely hit home. The numerous skeletons in my extremely dysfunctional family; multiple adoptions; alcoholism, etc. When I first started, I didn’t source as well as I could/should have. When I hit a brick wall, I’d try to find a public or private tree to help me with a “hint” – as others above have mentioned. Then I’d try to find a source to back up the hint.

MY QUESTIONS: – Admittedly it’s been awhile since I posted on Ancestry itself. (1) how does one “give credit” to another person’s research, if one chooses to borrow from them; (2) where on Ancestry does one post the back-stories, notes, etc. if one should decide to reveal the flaws; and (3) how does one go about correcting totally incorrect information on the biggies such as the LDS church itself? My step-mother’s surname is incorrect. My grandmother’s first name, incorrectly spelled on her tombstone, was borrowed from findagrave – and the mistake has mushroomed itself back to LDS.

A side-bar to the private tree matter … I recently contacted a private tree researcher only to find a direct-bloodline cousin I never knew existed. It will be touchy going as we explore some of the painful back stories, but we’ve both agreed to be transparent.

Like so many others have beautifully stated, our back stories are vital to knowing who we are. In the ultimate scheme of things, I want to know the “color commentary”. Like the Bible says, our sins pass down 7 times 7 times 7. 100 years from now, our progeny will want to know more about the REAL lives we lived; just as we are currently exploring the same with our ancestors.


CathyB June 18, 2014 at 9:47 am

I am interested in hearing from others about their answers to your questions 1) and 2)…. from my experience, “giving credit” happens by default in Ancestry.

as an example, my recent testing of my DNA on all 3 major sites helped me to bust through a “brick wall”, and I’ve discovered I have a Rev War ancestor. Even better, there are a few people on Ancestry with public trees for that same family line who have done a great deal of documented research, and pointed out where they are making “best case for now until better evidence turns up” connections in their trees. They post all that as photos, or Word docs, typically, to their tree, which is then available for others to copy to their own tree.

Where the credit comes in is that Ancestry identifies exactly which user originally posted the information and when (as well as their tree), as well as all the other trees that have the same source copied. I’ve actually messaged that person saying thank-you for their research.

Anyone else coming across MY tree will see — if they just look — that the source of my information is NOT ME, but REALLY that diligent distant cousin of mine!

Comments are also another good place to put back-up info, to note doubts and reservations, to clarify and supplement info, say thank-you to other researchers, give credit, etc. — I tend to use comments extensively myself.


Christine Blythe June 15, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Bottom line is, I don’t judge others for what they choose to do with their genealogy research. It is, after all, the fruit of their labor.

I do thank those that choose to share – as I do. You won’t find me on Ancestry.com family trees though. I do take issue with the proprietary nature of their setup and use of the information in these trees produced by hard-working genealogy fans. My entire tree and all it’s branches (except excluded private info, of course) are available and searchable on my site.

As for the accuracy and value of the information taken from another family tree – isn’t that what sources and citations are for? If the sources are there to support it, great. If the sources are not of a high enough standard, at least we have the information as a clue to find better sources ourselves.

I feel the most important thing is to be as thorough as possible when documenting the sources you do have – including copies of documents, images, transcriptions, etc. being careful to credit the original researcher, repository, etc.


AdrianR October 19, 2014 at 11:35 am

I would suggest two versions of your family tree.
Public: Names and birth dates only. This would allow two people with the same surname who meet in the real world and check to see if they might be related using a cellphone App.
Private: All of your family data that you wish to include.


Rob October 26, 2014 at 11:30 pm

If you research genealogy to gain recognition for your work then you are in it for the wrong reasons. Research to know where you came from and share with others so they know where they come from too. My tree is public.


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