Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

by Kerry Scott on 25 March 2014

Post image for Why Don’t People Post Public Family Trees?

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


Facebook Twitter Linkedin Stumbleupon Email

Other posts you might like:

{ 171 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill West March 25, 2014 at 10:20 am

I’m an advocate of public family trees. I have them up at 4 different genealogy websites and have made many cousin contacts because of them. Some examples are the West cousins I never knew about before who live in Illinois and Washington state, as well as some here in New England, and the Ellingwood cousins in California. We’ve exchanged family stories and pictures. I don’t regret going public with my trees, warts and all, and feel the public trees, like my blog, have greatly enriched my research.


Kerry Scott March 25, 2014 at 10:23 am

If you’d had a private tree (the kind Ancestry has, where the people can be found in search but you can’t view the whole tree), what would have been the difference? Those same cousins could have contacted you, and you could have had the same positive experiences, right? The only difference I’m seeing here is that you have no way of knowing which cousins you DIDN’T meet because the tree was public, so they didn’t have to communicate with you to get your stuff.


Crista Cowan March 26, 2014 at 1:46 pm

If EVERYONE had a private tree that might be the case. But, since so many have public trees, most people just look for those and pass right by the private trees. I’ve had both public (for 2 years now) and private (for 8 years previous) and have received FAR MORE contact with a public tree than I ever did with a private tree. Not only that but (on Ancestry.com) I can see each and every time someone copies something out of my tree. If I don’t hear from them I will usually review their tree (if public) and contact them.


Debbie Gahn March 26, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I agree with you. My problem with private trees is they can take off my public tree but I cant see who or what they attached my information to. I have had fantastic results from contacts on my public. I hsve had only 1 response from a private.
I have actually met face to face cousins brcause our trees were public.


Deborah Baxter Fink March 26, 2014 at 3:56 pm

I have a private tree, and since I do not have a subscription, I cannot even look at public trees, so the thought that I can see public trees is false. I used to have a Public tree and people would just take my over 35 years of research and never write to me. Since I have it private I get messages now inquiring about my tree because I have one of their family members in my tree. Hey didn’t they ever think I might be related to them too. Plus I have living relatives in my family that have asked if I could please make my tree private, especially the older relatives that are concerned with identity theft or for whatever reason. So I have respect for my family members and have honored their wishes. If someone wants to write me and ask questions and we find out we connect I would gladly give them access to my tree and would like the same in return. This seems to work pretty well for someone like me who at this time cannot afford a subscription to Ancestry. and with a shared tree I can look at one of my relatives trees and see if or how my info differs. The only way I can even contact someone is if they write to me first. So I never delete those messages and can write back whenever I want. I make folders for different surnames and move them to the folders for the surname they correspond with.

Brad Patrick March 25, 2014 at 10:20 am

I’ve had good experiences and bad. I lost (meaning gave up to someone else indirectly) the opportunity to claim a lost Civil War medal because I shared my information promiscuously and didn’t bother my ailing grandfather for a copy of his own birth certificate. So there are definitely those who take and move on. There are others who share in a mutually respectful fashion, and those have been great. Seeing a big pile of your research mirrored somewhere else, however, gives one pause. The other part of it has to do with your relationship to your areas of research, and what happens to your file cabinets and databases when you get hit by a truck. I’m a mess right now in terms of organization and, like you, I can only hope one of my kids will become interested when they are old enough to understand and be willing to take on my discombobulated legacy of data. If you keep your stuff private, at least leave bread crumbs at the institutions where good genealogists are likely to find them. The first thing they make you do at NEHGS is submit a family tree (in any state of disrepair) precisely because they don’t want you to die off without leaving a trail behind. I found one of the two greatest motherlodes of research in my family at NEHGS in the manuscript section. It was a letter from the past written to an unnamed me 50+ years later. So I think we have to look backwards and forwards as well as sideways at our cousins, known and unknown.


Jeanette March 25, 2014 at 9:50 pm

I agree with you Brad- both good and bad experiences. Hindsight for the losses. Sigh! I keep mine public, even if it has some mistakes or disagrees with someone elses- In-process of cleaning it up to reattach found docs and such, but… When I first started, I had very little data on family moms side and next to nothing on dads. I posted up family data, given to me by an uncle. I was so excited to get it out there for others like me who had next to nothing. Several years later I am contacted by another cousin off one of the branches, turns out the uncle gave me the cousins version without noting where he got the data from, complete with mistakes. Unintentional ouch on my part. I really don’t mind if I see my work done (since that time) out there and take joy in preserving history. Keeping it public has allowed for someone to prescreen my data, reach out to me and enrich my life, my daughters lives and my grandchildrens lives as they had SO much more than I ever would have had- photos and data for a couple generations back. I also had data they did not have, so between us… brick walls came down and we now enjoy contact with many branches across the states.
Thinking about the future of the data as you do- I place it out there where ever I can, leading back to me, with citations sources, if possible. I don’t ever want our families getting written out of history again, or worse yet as I have discovered in older genealogies, with wrong histories or data. I’ve also started training my granddaughter for the future time when I am no longer here, to deal with my “evergrowing discombobulation” of hastily scribbled scraps. The file cabs are pretty straight> LOL!


Alice March 25, 2014 at 10:49 am

My trees were private from 2009 until a few weeks ago. I made the change because:

1) I became reasonably confident in the quality of my trees, but would still welcome a heads up as to any errors; and

2) I became disgusted with the slapdash nature of public trees containing many of my deceased relatives. Rather than contacting each and every owner in a Sisyphean attempt to correct things, I decided I’d be better off just putting my own version out there.

I don’t add living people on my trees, which is why I have several. Each starts with dead people.

I’ve never taken a DNA test, and you’re making it considerably less likely that I’ll do so! It seems like a lot of effort, little-to-no payoff, and a whole lot of drama.


Kerry Scott March 25, 2014 at 10:54 am

DNA can bring drama if you have unexpected non-paternity events. For the most part, though, they’re awesome. I’ve been able to connect with lines it would have taken 20 years to find, and I’ve met cousins who have become friends. I’ve also had the opportunity to help cousins who are adoptees figure out who their bio parents were, and being able to offer assistance under those circumstances has been very fulfilling. The drama seems outsized because that tends to be the sort of thing that gets blogged about, but the good FAR outweighs the bad (at least in my experience).

As a side note, I think DNA is the thing that will drive a massive cleanup of sloppy trees. I’ve seen people who were putting crappy junk out there for years suddenly realize that maybe they should slow down and stop sucking, because they can’t figure out how any of their DNA cousins are related. Folks who refused years-ago nudges to re-look at their bad conclusions are now motivated to do so because their DNA results tell them they’re wrong. It’s a good thing.


Alice March 25, 2014 at 11:08 am

Hmm. Now you’re tempting me!

I guess this means I’ll have to educate myself on what’s really being tested, how accurate the results are, etc.

I have zero interest in Ancestry’s vague “ethnicity” pie chart thing. But if there’s value in cleaning up trees – my own or anyone else’s – I’ll take a look.


Yvette Porter Moore March 25, 2014 at 10:58 am

This was a very thoughtful post. I have a tree online, but hidden. I have been thinking more and more of doing one on my computer. I too have had contact with cousins because they want to know what’s in my tree.


Alice March 25, 2014 at 11:43 am

There are also some public tree folks who don’t contact private tree folks because the former assume the latter don’t want to share.

I’d say the jury’s out on which type of tree gets more messages from curious cousins. But either way, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to the public/private debate. It’s a personal choice, plain and simple.

I really like Kerry’s statement: “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.” I would add… and just because you think there should be a good reason doesn’t mean that any justification at all is required.


Kerry Scott March 25, 2014 at 11:49 am

I’ve actually had a slightly better response rate from private tree holders than from public ones. There’s a guy with a public tree who has tons of photos of my ancestors. I have tons of documents to share (which he needs, because a lot of his info is wrong). I can see that he’s been on Ancestry because he keeps adding new stuff…but he won’t respond to messages. I don’t know what his deal is, but it’s his deal, so whatever.


Alice March 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

There definitely seems to be a high correlation between folks with big tree errors and folks who just don’t want to listen!


Jeff Jahn March 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm

One reason that could be is that non members cant contact public tree owners where they can contact private tree owners. Coarse that only applies to non members of ancestry where members can contact any. I think one reason some don’t contact public tree owners is because a lot of the time you get no reply back. That person might not check ancestry or get the email message about it.


Lessie November 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm

I am in that situation right now. I use the Library Edition and found a tree that is definitely a branch of mine and a brick wall. Unfortunately, even though I have the user name, I cannot contact the person because I only have a “guest” membership. Can’t afford the prices. When I contacted ancestry about it, they said that it was a privilege of being a paid member. Although I can’t find it listed anywhere. It works both ways, I have information that can help someone, but can’t contact them. I have a private tree because ancestry screwed up and showed all the living people on my tree withal their info.

Rox March 25, 2014 at 11:26 am

I have a public tree. It’s clear from my tree that I have done a lot of work collecting documents available through Ancestry and attached them to my tree. Usually, that’s not the only information I have on those people.

People with good trees tend to have other great information that they haven’t posted. Sometimes it’s photos, sometimes it’s letters, sometimes it’s other sorts of documents. I certainly have a lot more information to share with people when they contact me.

In my experience, people with good public trees tend to be open to sharing what they have far more than people with private trees. I would almost prefer that I not get any hits at all on private trees, because 95% of the time, they don’t respond when I initiate contact. And the thing is, because I can’t see what’s on those private trees, I don’t know if those people are even worth contacting. I might be trying to contact someone who has done no original research, has no clue about distinguishing good information from bad, and who maybe hasn’t even worked on their tree in five years.

With a public tree, I can assess whether or not someone seems like they have a clue about what they’re doing, and whether a particular person on their tree is in their direct line, or in a collateral line, which might be of far less interest to them. I once found a really terrible public tree that contained an invaluable hint about my g2grandmother. It was the only tree anywhere on which she appeared where the name of her fourth husband also appeared (and it was clear there was no knowledge about her previous husbands on that tree). I absolutely would not have figured out what happened to her (for the next 40 years!) after her third husband died without that public tree, because she had moved from Spokane, WA to east Texas. I found the marriage record to that fourth husband, the four census records after that marriage, her death record, and this year, on New Year’s Day, I happened to be in the city where she was buried and I got to visit her grave.

I have three different circles of 3rd/4th cousins who I collaborate with on different groups of ancestors. Without them, I’d know far less about those groups of people, and they’d know far less without me. Finding each other was facilitated, in large part, because of our public trees.


Alice March 25, 2014 at 11:50 am

“In my experience, people with good public trees tend to be open to sharing what they have far more than people with private trees.”

I had a private tree for five years, and have shared way more than I’ve gotten back from Ancestry members.

However, as a general rule, I actually agree with you. This post is very well written.


Lynn March 25, 2014 at 11:28 am

I have a private tree for the very reasons you express Kerry. It used to be public but others would snatch their candy, and it was some expensive candy, not suckers but those big chocolate bars because I paid hundreds of dollars to a professional genealogist in another country for my candy. I set out my expensive candy hoping it would draw out some distant cousins, instead nothing. Oh plenty of people came and took their big-ass chocolate bar but not even a thank you. So private I went. Like you, I want to engage with these people. Now people contact me and often times through a series of questions and answers we discover they don’t have the right people or they do and than I am more than happy to share my candy.


Annette March 26, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I too have made my tree Private for the same exact reason as Lynn. I have spent a lot of money and why give it away for free only to have someone copy to their tree and share it. I will gladly exchange information with anyone who asks.


gjohns March 25, 2014 at 12:39 pm

I am careful to list a family tree, due to the above listed reasons. I do list a simple DNA for that research. If you have researched your family, then the names will be apparent to you. I do not like the copy/paste researchers – and they do not ask or connect with you before applying/adding to their tree. New found family is wonderful, but taking your hard found work (eg hours, visiting court houses, requesting vital records $$, travel) and not validating where these came from – is right out.


Betsy March 26, 2014 at 3:14 pm

The “Copy & Paste” researchers were the exact reason I switched to Private. Several people, in error, latched on to my paternal grandmother’s information, including pictures, as a famous person’s wife. They obviously did no research, as there were many discrepancies…2 years age difference, born in different country, etc. It was a huge hassle having to post comments on several documents stating she was not connected to this famous person. And I had to contact the ones who linked to my pics, to un-link. I figured private was the easiest solution to this problem.


LMarker March 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm

I don’t post family trees, public or private. I share information willingly with other researchers, but I have had that shared information posted on the web, without a citation leading back to me. This is not an ego thing, it’s a citation thing – if someone sees something in that info that they want to follow up on, I’d like to think they could trace it back to me, if they chose to contact me.
I will not post my information on Ancestry.com, although I fully subscribe and like to use what is there. Read their Terms and Conditions. Basically, once you post there, they can do what they wish with your information. I choose not to do this, particularly with information that does not belong to me, such as photos that I obtained from other relatives.
I will post my information when I have a chance to create my own website, over which I have control. Then, if someone wants to point out errors or ask me where I got certain information, I would be very willing and open to a dialogue and the trading of information and theories.
Thank you Kerry, for a well-written piece on this subject!


Tina Micheal Ruse March 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm

I tried contacting several private tree owners on Ancestry and not one has ever answered me back.I don’t bother trying anymore.I have contacted several dozen public trees and think only 2 have failed to make any response. I had my DNA done last year and have several people who have yet to respond.I am always polite and offer to share research and photos.Why even spend the money if your not going to pursue the connections?


Debi Austen March 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm

“Why even spend the money if your not going to pursue the connections?”

I can’t figure this out. I just recently received my DNA results and I’ve contacted many people (both public and private trees) and more don’t respond than do. And when they do respond, I’ve had comments like “what would you like to share?”. Dude, I don’t know, let’s figure out how we connect first.


Celia Lewis March 25, 2014 at 1:46 pm

Excellent post, Kerry. My online tree(s) are always “private” but able to be searched, and I have had some excellent interactions with some 3rd, 4th, and even 5th cousins through tree searches.
And the ones who aren’t actually related? I respond to all requests as quickly as possible, so they can move on to researching somewhere else.
Small caveat – if a private tree shows no sources at all, I simply won’t even bother looking at it. On the other hand, a public tree with lots of sources which are mostly other people’s trees are useless to me. It’s a challenge.
Thanks for posting a great topic!


Jeff Sigsworth March 25, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Simple solution… begin your public trees with your grandparents (or great-grandparents); anyone searching for a connection should be able to make that leap back a couple generations, and use your tree(s) for research, or share their own material. Just leap-frog over the living generations, and concentrate on the other 75-95 percent!


Kerry Scott March 25, 2014 at 3:24 pm

But wouldn’t, say, the uncle who raped the four-year-old say, “Hey! Those are my great-grandparents! And this here person born in 1871 is the same and the maiden name of her other side of the family! That must be my niece!”

And even aside from that, how would that help? You’re still missing the opportunity to talk with every single person who wants to look at your stuff. Are there that many people out there who want to share but don’t want contact with the people they’re sharing with?


Bec March 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Kerry I think that there are a lot of people that don’t do Genealogy for social reasons and are not doing it to build a relationship with their 10th cousin. My motivations are not social, I do share with people but I already know all my close relatives outside of genealogy and those are the ones that I spend my time socializing with.


Debi Austen March 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

My tree is private and probably always will be just for the reasons you mention. I’m happy to share information with people – in fact, I LOVE sharing information with people – but I want to “talk” with them and make the sharing a two way street. Don’t just take what you want and run.

I’m considering putting up a basic public tree just to make more connections based on my DNA results. Parents, grandparents, and back a few generations (all are deceased). Maybe I can reel a few in that way.


Denise B. Olson March 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Great topic!

We all have different experiences, goals and expectations for our research. It is, after all, my genealogy . . . my research. If I want to share, that’s great. If I prefer to go it alone, that’s fine too. The beauty is, I get to make that choice.

I, personally, prefer to share and have enjoyed some amazing connections as a result, but I do appreciate that not everyone feels the way I do, and that’s fine too.


Elyse March 25, 2014 at 4:44 pm

I don’t really care if people want a public or private tree. To me, it’s all about personal preference and that’s cool.

I am all about public trees when it can be but I also never post EVERYTHING I have online because that is just too much trouble. So I always try to put notes in my tree that say to contact me for pictures or more analysis or whatever. And so far, people do contact me. How many aren’t, I really don’t know. But I figure I have lots of good interactions.

But yeah, to me, I don’t really care. It’s like on Halloween – either way, I get candy. :)


Sue March 25, 2014 at 6:28 pm

this is just my opinion, I am not militant in these debates… but I kinda agree with those who say, before I approach someone about exchanging information, I want to have some idea if its worth my time. I cannot assess that if the basic info is hidden, as a result I don’t bother with most private trees.


Pat March 26, 2014 at 4:52 am

I have a public family tree. I have “met” many wonderful people because of this. I do have some disfunctional ancestors in my tree, including criminals. I have also found heros who served in both world wars as well as political leaders and church leaders. The only irritating thing I find is that people “borrow” photos and information from my tree without checking whether or not they have the correct person. Unfortunately, others in their tree believe this is factual and add this information to their tree. Luckily, for the most part, it just needs a note from me for these persons to remove this misinformation from their tree.


Ann Hinds March 26, 2014 at 9:02 am

My husband comes from a messed up family. I purposely did a public tree to see if we could ferret out his missing siblings. God has been very good to us and we have found 7 of the 13. It has all been positive. The reason we didn’t keep it private is that there have already been too many lies and secrets which prevented these children from finding the answers they looked for 50 years. The choice between public and private depends on the family but I am glad I made the choice I did.


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 9:19 am

It sounds like you made the right choice based on the outcome. It’s nice to hear about positive results with situations like this.


Salee March 26, 2014 at 10:16 am

While I am more than happy to connect, help, offer suggestions and share information with other family members, I do not make my tree public for these reasons: I’ve spent a lot of years, time and money making sure I’ve documented and verified my lines and don’t want the information corrupted. I’ve seen too many instances of data being incorrectly added into someone’s tree without proper research being done. At the very least, this is confusing and time-wasting for someone who is beginning a search and has to unravel someone else’s mistakes trying to find the correct line. This may sound harsh to people who would rather someone else do the hard work, but the promotion of the “click, find and publish” method of research is not research at all and lowers the bar of integrity to it’s lowest denominator. To me, genealogy research should not be about collecting names, but discovering and preserving history – getting to know your ancestors in the context of time and place and faithfully recording the results.


Jaime March 26, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I cannot agree more with Salee. I have a private tree because I have spent many years, dollars, and frustrations on my research and don’t want someone to just come along and take these hard to find documents and place them just anywhere. I’ve seen many trees with my family members that are so wrong it’s funny and obvious. I love conversing with cousins and have allowed some to view my tree, but not until I know I can trust them and they have never disappointed me.


smc March 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

I agree. I have had the same experiences.


Karin Hadden March 26, 2014 at 11:16 am

As always, I enjoyed your post. I have a private tree not because I have an axe murderer in my closet but because my tree is very much a work in progress. I am happy to share links to my tree when requested or, alternatively, exchange relevant information.


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 11:49 am

You’d be welcome even if you DID have an axe murderer. :)


JL Beeken March 26, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Your question is, Why don’t people post public trees?

Well, they do. FamilySearch, for instance. What I just love (NOT) is that people make changes to things I’ve posted there and don’t leave reasons. Neither have they bothered to leave a contact email address in their profile.

So, every few days I get a list of things that have been updated on my Watch List and most of it is useless.


Carolynn March 26, 2014 at 2:24 pm

I love the original blog. Among the many great comments, for me, Salee’s reasoning resonates most, and this one line said it best: “[G]enealogy research should not be about collecting names, but discovering and preserving history – getting to know your ancestors in the context of time and place and faithfully recording the results.” I don’t understand the person who bothers to spend valuable time doing what is by its very nature fact-based research, yet who disregards obvious facts in his or her pursuit. (For example, having an ancestral woman give birth and live simultaneously on two different continents. Trees that are “works in progress” may account for some of this, but there are far too many public trees that are put forth as “final” that contain such bogus discrepancies without any possible support or defense.) I guess the point is that such researchers reveal that, in fact, they don’t spend much of their own valuable time on their own research!

Long ago, I had a public tree, and was eager to share and reach out to others. Then, someone “kin-napped” one of my favorite, very-well-known-to-me aunts (who happened to have the same common name as the kin-napper’s grandmother and been born in the same year and large city). The kin-napper simply erased my aunt’s personal information (husband, children, grandchildren), substituted her grandmother and grandfather and their descendants, and kept the rest of my tree (including my own father–and me and my siblings–and all of our ancestors). When I contacted her to advise her that my aunt was not her grandmother and to offer help to find her real granny and ancestors, she dismissed my offer, said she liked my tree because it went back so many generations in the old country, and besides, how could I be sure I was right, because “they didn’t keep very good records back then [1922! in Philadelphia!].” Aside from her underlying assumption that genealogy is just about accumulating names, her kin-napping had real, time-consuming pain-in-the-tuchas consequences–I spent (read: wasted) so much precious time tracking down and refuting many false hints from the many people who had found her bad tree (and who unfortunately, for the most part, seemed similarly inclined to not let facts interfere with their allegedly historical research).

As a result, since then, while I am still eager to share and reach out, all of the trees I have are private (unless a person wants the tree public, which I strongly advise against). My connections have flourished nonetheless. In fact, I think I have experienced more, because people can’t just do “drive-by” genealogy if they’re interested in my people–they have to ask. I have still met many cousins, and even many who turned out not to be. In both categories, at a minimum, I have been able to share information or research ideas, and in the most fruitful of circumstances, we’ve kept in touch. Of course, since we most likely “found” each other due to inquiries based on names and places we have in common, it has not been unusual for one of us to have information on leads that, for example, I had followed that turned out to be wrong for me, but was right for the other person’s kin. And, we’ve kept that mutual research and idea exchange on-going.

I started doing (living!) genealogy in order to learn about my roots and expand my world and make connections, and having a private tree hasn’t hindered my search.


Angela Little March 26, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I have both Public and Private trees. I prefer the public tree experience much more. I get the most interaction from people from those. My private trees are necessary. They are my start up/test trees. They usually have unchecked and/or incorrect information in them yet. I do not share them because it could really mess up someone’s tree. Also,(on Ancestry) I sometimes start a second tree to deeply research a family mystery. One branch had an early dead end, but the surname was not too common. I grouped an entire county of people by that surname to try to figure out who was related to who. There was a ton of wrong information on that tree. It was not safe to share but it was extremely helpful in sorting that branch out. There are many really good and diverse reasons for having a private tree.


Jimmy Boone March 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm

A couple of points….
1) similar to something you said….what do you think when you see the couple got married in June, and the first baby was born in November….hmmmm
2) Some do not post publicly because of fear of the Mormon Church…who baptizes even AFTER someone has died…I am not sure how accurate that is, but I have met more than one researcher who has said this.


Lori March 26, 2014 at 3:21 pm

I have a private tree. I chose to manually add my tree and use it as an opportunity to review my own work. I’m also trying to take each line forward as far as I can to make it easier to find those cousins who match me (or Dad). It is slow going, but then I’m adding and sourcing data in my “real” database as well as the online one. I do eventually plan to make it public, but not until I am back a few more generations in building it.

I have contacted some private tree owners and asked if they would like to try to figure out our match, particularly if the person shows up as 3rd or 4th cousin. Some reply; others don’t. Some take awhile replying.


Susan Jaber March 26, 2014 at 3:28 pm

My tree has always been public. On Ancestry.com, you are not able to show information on anyone who is living and was born after 1930. Because my tree is public, I have connected with first, second, third, fourth and even seventh cousins once removed. If everyone kept their tree private, it would have slowed down my research over the last 12 years. Within my first year of researching, I found someone who had my 2x’s GreatGrandparents in his tree on Ancestry.com. I contacted him to see how we were related. He replied that he was a very distant cousin, but that he had been contacted two years previously with another woman who was the 2x’s Great Granddaughter of the couple in question. He contacted her on my behalf and we then were able to make a connection. From her, I not only received pictures of the couple, but also some of their children, and some of the grandchildren. She also had done all the genealogy of the couple from the USA back to Canada and then back to France in the early 1600′s. Because she had never posted a public tree or a private tree, I would never have obtained all the valuable and for me priceless information.


Ros March 26, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Very interesting reading. I am one of those Family Tree Addicts who has passed over the private trees because I just assumed they didn’t wish to share. I may have to relook at things and perhaps approach some of them to solve some puzzles.


Karen March 26, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I have a public tree, and I share openly. The reason for me is simply that I do not consider it is MY tree, or that it contains MY information. I feel I have no exclusive right to the information of any of my ancestors, even if I hold the original documents. This knowledge is for the benefit of all the family, not just for me. I’ve spent over 20 years , adn many mnay dollars on some of the documents, and have no problem with others taking my “candy”…it’s a hobby for me and therefore I see the effort as a sunk cost, that gives me pleasure if i can help to inform others of their own history.
However, I also realise a lot of others don’t feel the same way that I do about their trees, and that is fine. I have a public tree, so people can see who the entered or created the data originally, and if the information isn’t from another tree I will acknowledge the source. I think that is the least one can do. Not because they are using my data, but so that if anyone has questions about the data, they can go to the source point and find out more. I wish more people did this. I’ve been contacted by many many cousins, most are polite, some are just very rude…just because you are my 8th cousin twice removed doesn’t give you a right to berate me for incorrect data or to demand all my knowledge on your Aunt Twiggly….I have received more information through emailed contact than I have via ‘snatching others candy’, and agree it is the main reason for carrying on- to interact and share knowledge by phone or email from people I’m connected to, of all nations!

Private trees I have no problem requesting information from, but like others have stated, these unfortunately are rarely replied to.


Ros March 26, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Totally agree with you Karen. I don’t feel my ancestors information is mine exclusively to keep hidden. It belongs to all family members.


Debbie Stuart March 26, 2014 at 3:54 pm

In the early days of the Internet (and before, when we did stuff on paper), I shared too much with too many. I tended to get peeved to run into my own information spreaded willy-nilly across the universe. I finally got over it. After all, the people who were sharing it were descendants of the people whose information they were sharing. It’s not MY genealogy – it’s OURS. I stopped providing easy access to download my entire GEDCOM file straight into your own database, but my information is readily available, warts and all. I like public databases on Ancestry.com, primarily because it helps me with DNA analysis. It’s easy to determine who has a common ancestor with me. I make a note and keep on trucking, unless they have significant information that I want to discuss with them. Nine times out of ten, their info came from me.

What I’ve found with the “private” trees is that most of them never respond to an inquiry, even when you have a fairly close cousin relationship. I opened my tree up on Ancestry so people could see at least from their side how we’re related – most don’t even bother to reply. This is disappointing as I am working on brick walls and would love to hear from these people.

On other DNA sites, such as FamilyTreeDNA, relatively few people post charts or even surnames. I am sure that valuable contacts are missed because so few share. Surely some of these folks are interested in genealogy – all of them couldn’t be checking paternity!

And finally – I am sure that there are “non-parent” events on everyone’s family tree. In several hundred years of pedigree charts, surely there was a cheating spouse SOMEWHERE. It’s actually sort of gratifying to do DNA research and find out that your great-grandfather was really who you thought he was through the generosity of someone else who chose to let you see how you matched. Otherwise, it’s like trying to look for a needle in a bunch of anonymous pieces of hay.


Doyle March 26, 2014 at 3:54 pm

I’ve had my tree both private and public. I think a few people have contacted me when it was private. Yes some people have borrowed stuff from my tree, but when I consider the missed up trees involving my ancestors, I would rather they get it right from me. And yes I’ve spent some $$$, but a lot of people have freely given me info along my journey, on and off Ancestry that I feel obligated to give back to others on the hunt. I sometimes am on the fence on this subject, so?? I have probably contacted more people than they have me, and I always ask permission to use stuff they have contributed, and I cite that it came from them.


smc March 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

I do not have a public tree and I find that approaching those that have private trees have been positive and have met cousins that I knew I had, had lost contact and found they are searching as well. Also, most of the public trees I have seen are cut and paste with no sourcing and errors that are continually duplicated. I prefer to share with actual cousins and while I do not mind sharing with the public, I find that many take the information, give no credit to those that did the actual research, and share the information as if they did it themselves and often wrongly, by using source information to connect my family members to the wrong families.I find family members of mine attached to wrong families on public trees often. I have heard many people complain about this part of public sharing. In addition, some do not share in return. Private trees guarantee serious researchers and family that are willing to collaborate. I think all trees should be private to insure against convoluted information and as someone posted earlier, drive by genealogists.


Donna Mierzejewski-McManus March 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I’ve gone both ways. I have made my public tree private and back again a few times. You’ve made highly valid points about interaction, and interaction in genealogy is important. I’ve since kept my tree private for the past few years for a few reasons.

First, it’s easy enough for others to ask to see the tree. If asked, I’m almost always happy to give them the ability to view/work with my tree. I’ve got a group of 15 or so individuals who can view and provide suggestions or information about my tree on ancestry.com. Keeping the group who has input or interest in my tree limited helps all of us evaluate the information a bit more clearly. I’ve ignored almost anyone who’s used my data while my tree was public and didn’t bother to contact me. If I’ve helped them, great. But public trees often seem to be there for picking and not real sharing–at least that’s been my experience.

Secondly, mistakes ARE perpetrated, including MINE. I’d rather have a small group that I know collaborating rather than then entire world. Yes, there is a selfish component in this. I’d rather share and discuss data before putting on my tree and have the data verified–did G-Grandfather Andrew come here in 1880 or before? If I can narrow down the date, great! And because there are areas of my family tree that I am not quite certain of, why make that public if I very well might be perpetrating inaccurate information? If someone copies data from my tree that says G-Grandfather Andrew came here in 1870 and I later find out that’s wrong, how many times was that replicated? Admittedly, a minor example, but you can see how that can replicate quickly for any error, especially when you have as large of a family as I have (both maternal sets of my g-grandparents had at least 10 children who survived to adulthood).

I’m not trying so much to complain but to provide reason why public data can be tricky if used without cooperation of the person you’ve obtained it from. Also keep in mind that using another person’s creative works (photos, writing, etc.) might be breaking copyright laws if you use them, especially for your profit. (Likely not a problem if you use them for your own personal use and not for money.)

Public trees can become a hot mess if you have what seems to be an unusual surname–as I have. Some folks with my family name assume we’re related, and we may not be. My family surname is relatively common in Poland. So if someone sees John Mierzejewski in my tree and that person isn’t interested investigating if that is THE John Mierzejewski they are seeking–he or she thinks “Hey–that’s MY relative” because that name is uncommon in the United States, so John gets plopped into a tree although the dates don’t fit or the relationships don’t work in their tree. Then I am emailed “hey, can you figure this out?” I’m very interested in my family history, but I really don’t care to do someone’s homework, either!

I’m not so much against public trees as I am more for controlling those who can contribute and work with your data. Public trees do have their benefits–you might find new leads but I wouldn’t immediately consider the data available to be accurate or even useful to you until you evaluate it. Private trees can be useful, if you take the time to review them and contact their owner. Who knows? You might find a helpful person who had more data that is valuable to you and can be your ally. Researching your family is much more than superficial internet scraping!


Jim Becker March 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

To me, it’s a very simple matter.

If you want a public tree, go ahead.

If you want a private tree, go ahead.

Your call. You don’t owe me your data either way.


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 4:01 pm

You are absolutely right. We can just respect each other’s individual needs/choices, and then everything’s cool.


Lisa March 26, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I have a public tree on Ancestry, but I just post names and a year with a disclaimer to contact me as I have more information. Someone who is a serious researcher will recognize the names in the family and hopefully contact me. Like you, I WANT to talk with them! They just might be the person who has all the family pictures! I have spent too much time and money on acquiring information only to have someone come by, take what they need and never contact me – and there went my opportunity at acquiring a copy of a much coveted family photograph that was taken 150 years ago! I don’t believe that it is only MY tree, but I am interested in who else is interested in my family names, and I believe a serious researcher will contact me. I make it a point to contact anyone I visit with a public tree and thank them for their efforts, and share how they helped me.


Margaret Pitka March 26, 2014 at 4:15 pm

I did have a public tree. The problem was certain people were taking my photos and changing what I wrote and calling them their own. It’s to bad they have to ruin it for everyone else. But if I am asked to share I have no problem.


Leslie March 26, 2014 at 4:17 pm

I have gone from having a public tree to a private tree, and back again to a public tree, and over the years I have received numerous requests for information. I’ve responded to them all, providing as much information as I can. I love to share. But the reason I returned to public tree was that it saved my having to write really long emails in response to questions. The contacts could see all the family members and documentation I had in my tree, and I only had to provide any additional information I had in paper form at home. Usually, once I received an inquiry, I would scan and add those paper documents to my tree because I then knew someone was interested.

As for others’ private and public trees, each to his own for whatever reason. I get emails telling me of DNA matches. I ignore those too, because most have no tree, or a private tree, and don’t respond to inquiries. Of all my matches, only one tree actually had a matching person to one in my tree, and I already knew the tree owner!


JL Beeken March 26, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Having a public tree has certainly not worked out the way I originally hoped – i.e. being cousin bait. Nobody writes, nobody calls.

But I keep working away at my own research and constantly update my public offerings. Those who take but don’t give get exactly what they, apparently, want – whatever is there. And not a drop more. And for all they know the water might be poisoned.


Sherry March 26, 2014 at 4:30 pm

I’m in favor of public trees. My experience with contacting those with private trees has been very disappointing. We all have facts that we are proud of and those we are not. I suggest you get over it. If you don’t identify those who are alive then what is the issue. Chances are the family infidelities have already gotten out inn some manner. Just sayin’.


Lucile Leary March 26, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I have a public tree, when ever I see someone grabbing a photo or a record of a family member I go on and contact them. Public or private I have gotten responses from both. I am always looking for that person who has the family jewels. I am the one with access to my family and some of my husbands through my mother in law. I have met distant relatives who helped with names on photos, and continued the family one or two more generations. What really irritates me is when someone goes and does a free weekend and loads everything on the tree and never goes back to clean it up. I know in my tree I have had one individual in two census reports in the same year, visiting her grandparents one month and home the next, but to find two complete families mixed into one living in two different places at the same time. When you contact them to tell them they have the wrong info in their tree you never hear back. So I leave a note under their comments to verify sources. My husband’s uncle also has the family info and I haven’t been able to get it from him, I have found things without it but would like to continue one line, he also has the only photo of his grandparents together, which is the brick wall that I can’t continue, I am hoping the book has some information on other family members of his grandfather. I only have a name of the parents but can’t go any further. I have told his son I would like to scan it if they find it after his time on earth is no longer, he is 91 this year.


Laurie Velett March 26, 2014 at 4:42 pm

I have had good luck connecting with cousins both with public and private trees. I agree with one of the other posters…I often won’t bother contacting a private tree holder, because response rate is slim, but as I said, sometimes it has worked well. My position is that, even though I have worked hard on my tree, the story is not mine…it belongs to the whole family. Also, I have no children to carry this on, so when I’m gone, it pleases me to think somebody years down the road might benefit from my research.


Daryl Close March 26, 2014 at 4:49 pm

I agree with Debi. I have three generations listed starting with my great grandparents just to let people know which line I’m from. I have done years and years of work and shared with many of my cousins but I am really offended by the distant cousin that just stopped by for a second to steal from me.

As far as Ancestry, I’ve used it but mostly for census reports and the message boards. Why should I donate my research to be sold for Ancestry’s bottom line? I paid my fee to get what I needed.

I don’t think I could call myself a Genealogist if I was copying off of others. For me, the thrill is walking thru the cemeteries or holding original documents in my hands in the basement of an old courthouse!


Less March 26, 2014 at 4:55 pm

I changed my tree to private when ancestry showed all information that should have been private. It took them a few weeks to make my tree private. I am willing to share with anyone who asks, but I do have a note on my tree that there are errors due to the last upgrade from FTM. I have also asked for people to notify me when they find these mistakes.


Peggy F Gregory March 26, 2014 at 4:58 pm

My tree remains private as it is a work in progress. I am not certain that all ofit is accurate. I view many public trees that have glaring and obivious errrors. These trees lead novice tree makers down the wrong path.


Kerry Scott March 26, 2014 at 5:00 pm

I’m kind of astonished to see that so many people say they don’t contact others because they never hear back. On the one hand, I totally get that frustration, because I don’t always get a response either. It’s kind of boggling.

On the other hand…I mean, one of the cornerstones of good genealogical research is never giving up. If you don’t find what you need in one place, you look in another, and another, and another, until you either find it or you’re out of time because you’re dead. Doesn’t that same stick-to-it-ness apply to contacting living people? If the 50th cousin in a row doesn’t respond, that doesn’t mean that the 51st won’t email you back with a family Bible and a CD full of photos you’ve never seen.


Toni March 26, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Okay. I totally understand people keeping their trees private because of screwed up family drama. That’s a legit reason to keep the tree private. Though I feel like most of the argument I’ve seen for private vs public from private tree people is “people are taking my information and putting it on wrong trees! They’re defiling my ancestors! Ancestry.com sucks!”. So instead of trying to help novice genealogists they just squirrel away their information in private trees. Because of this, I’m super hesitant to contact anybody with a private tree. I think I’ve done it maybe once. It wasn’t a bad experience, I just feel like I’m bothering these people and that the chance I’m contacting one of these cantankerous genealogy hoarders is high. Maybe I’m just lurking the wrong genealogy blogs and forums.

I re-started my tree a couple months ago and opted to make it public (my first tree is now private because it’s a damn mess – I was a newb who copied everything. It’s full of wrong info). I’m slowly re-building it with only things I can document and I’m throwing lots of photos and other delicious bits of candy for the world to see. So far, 1 person has copied one document and 0 people have contacted me.


Billy D March 26, 2014 at 5:45 pm

I struggle with this one. Objectively, I get they have every right for whatever reason to have private trees and not share. I have some big brick walls though. Subjectively, I get really mad in the moment when they won’t. I don’t take that out on them, but I won’t lie and say I’m happy when it happens.


RickK March 26, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Some people are givers and some are takers.


Anna Cooper March 26, 2014 at 5:56 pm

I personally do not publish my tree because I know it contains errors. It is a work in progress and as I continue to work on it, I find the more I do, the more there is to do. At this point I don’t think it will ever get published! However, in my early research days, I did a lot of posting on message boards. This led to to finding several cousins, some of whom I was able to help by furthering their own research (which only helped me in the long run) but, one cousin who I shared my tree with published it as her own, mistakes included. Some of those mistakes I have since corrected, but every now and then, I see a tree with that one particular name in it and I know exactly where it originated and it just makes me mad that I now have to wade through all of the misinformation to get what I need. Therefore, I’m not in any hurry to publish anytime soon. Or ever.


Dennis Turner March 26, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Nonsense. If you have sensitive relatives or hidden dark secrets, dont put those people on a public tree. Problem Solved. Drives me nuts when i get a dna match, and find the selfish jerk has the tree private. There is just no good excuse for such rude behavior.


Debi Austen March 26, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Whoa! Rude? I would say that’s a complete generalization. Do you know how many people I have contacted with public trees about a DNA match only to be ignored or just a quick reply of “send me your tree”? I’ll pass on those people, thank you. I’m interested in collaborating but I don’t want to be ignored or ordered around. Next.


Greta Koehl March 26, 2014 at 5:57 pm

I strongly agree with the comment “People with good trees tend to have other great information that they haven’t posted.” For many of the reasons listed above, I have mostly public trees and one private tree – that is the one which includes a great deal of my personal research. On the public Ancestry trees, I use my own particular method for formatting place names, so I can always tell when someone else has simply “clicked and claimed” from my tree. As for the private tree, a lot of the information can be found on my blog and website, but the people will have to input it themselves. There is always more information where that came from, but people will have to contact me to get it. I actually get more contacts through my blog and website than I do from my Ancestry trees, and they are generally the more serious researchers.


Donna Mierzejewski-McManus March 26, 2014 at 6:32 pm

This is the same experience I’ve had, Greta. I get more *qualified* contacts through my blog and through my cemetery research than I do through ancestry.com. I think that’s because it’s easy to pick the low-hanging fruit off of a public tree on ancestry.com. Research is actually long, hard work. It’s not easy. I think many on ancestry.com are hooked by the commercials and probably get what they put into it–they get immediate information (find grandparents, some high-level information, maybe a photo or two), and that satisfies them. Not everyone on ancestry.com may care to do the in-depth research.


Su Lynn Hanson March 26, 2014 at 6:10 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 taken by screen shots. You can steal a lot of info in just a few hours. I struggle with the conversation, and my choice either way. I spend about 6 hours a week, just adding citations from what I did not add as a beginner. Docs 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.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: