Sunday, November 30, 2008 review

(See update at bottom) For the past three months, I've been using physical records (paper documents and audio files containing interviews with relatives), Reunion for Macand some free online genealogy services to build out my family tree. I did pretty well with what's available, and managed to create a tree with more than 200 names and lots of very specific information relating to dates and places of birth. However, I eventually reached a point where I could go no further.

So, this weekend I decided to give the subscription-based a more thorough workout. I knew quite a bit about the service from my interview with its CEO earlier this year, and was particularly impressed by the amount of federal census data that the company and its partners have scanned and indexed. It includes all of the results from 1790 to 1930, which amounts to hundreds of millions of names. The site was offering a two-week trial for free, so I went for it.

The amount of information available through the service really is incredible. In the course of about six hours of online research, I was able to find census returns for two or three branches of my tree, obtained the names of about ten siblings of direct ancestors, and verified the states and countries of birth for many others. I even found the WWI draft card for my paternal great-grandfather, a person who had previously been just a name with some rough biographical information. The digital image of the card on included his exact date of birth and his occupation in 1918 -- a rail road freight handler.

But has limitations, too, some relating to the tool itself, and others relating to nature of the records.

I'll start with the search interface. It is not for the faint of heart; a search for a single name can generate hundreds or even thousands of results. The options for refining them do not include an easy way to exclude certain types of records, such as federal censuses from after a certain date. Fortunately, the interface includes a useful "save to shoebox" function which allows users to quickly save a record to a front-page location for more thorough investigation later, which is useful for plowing through multiple pages of search results without getting hung up on transcribing or saving image files. You can also search individual data sets, such as the census from a certain year through the "card catalog" section of the website.

One other interface issue involves uploading GEDCOM files (family tree data files that use the LDS Church's industry standard data interchange format). You have to start a tree before you can upload a GEDCOM, which is frustrating, but I was a little disturbed by the way treats the file. Once you upload a GEDCOM file, the information on it is made public by default. This was not made clear during the upload process unless you click off to the EULA; I only found out after I checked through the "Manage my tree" link.

In addition, there's no easy way of telling what sorts of notes are included in the uploaded GEDCOM data that's made public -- is it just name, date of birth, place of birth, and family connections? Or does it include all of the personal notes that I added in Reunion for Mac, including sensitive pieces of data such as cause of death?

I made my tree "private," but I am thinking of pulling it down. This is not just because of privacy concerns but also because I would rather maintain the "master" tree with attached photos and audio files on my home computer.

The records themselves have some flaws as well. For two branches of my family, I have encountered instances of surnames being incorrectly transcribed and indexed. It's east to spot, if you look, because the indexed text doesn't match up with the scanned image of the original government document. However, it's a significant problem in that it has a major impact on how search results are presented, and also how users rank them in terms of usefulness -- if I'm looking for "Walsh," I am more likely to skip over the results that are listed as "Welsh" or "Walch" because I can't be bothered to check the original. is sensitive to this; there is a link next to all records in the database which allow users to notify the company of typos and other mistakes.

Still, I found the error rate is high. Part of this relates to the fact that outsources its data-entry tasks to Chinese companies, but I believe another issue is American handwriting standards -- I have observed that the quality of the cursive used by census enumerators and clerks seemed to decline after 1900. Add to the mix damaged paper records (such as water stains in the attached image, below) and darkened and blurred scans, and it's no wonder that the transcriptions have a high error rate.

The original records sometimes have other errors. I've noticed that the census records often contradict the information that I've obtained via interviews and other documents. Sometimes, census returns even contradict each other. One example I saw tonight involved the 1870 and 1880 federal census returns for my maternal great-grandmother. In the earlier version, all of her siblings are listed as being born in Rhode Island. In the 1880 scan, the older children are listed as being born in New Jersey.

There are many reasons why this could have happened -- a simple miscommunication, a deliberate attempt to mislead the enumerator, a lazy or harried enumerator, or something else. I'll never find out why one of them was wrong, but it forces me to find another record to determine which one is right. It also raises the specter of many errors never even being detected, because there is no second source to check them against.

And this brings me to my final point: and other online sources bring a lot of new information to the genealogical treasure hunt, but there are many holes in the online records. Using's supposedly complete database of federal census returns from 1790 to 1930, I have been unable to find any records of certain people who I know existed. Others show up for a specific census, but cannot be found in any other census or online document. An example is my great grandfather, the rail road freight handler -- I found his military record, and he showed up for the 1920 census along with his family, but there is no record of him in the 1910 or 1930 censuses, even though I know he was alive and living in the same state. I have a possible hit on the 1900 census, but it's also possible it was someone else with the same name and roughly the same age living in the same area. Most of the federal 1890 census was destroyed in a fire, and the online data for the 1880 census doesn't have any results either. So, while was the source for his date of birth and occupation, I still don't know the names of his father or mother -- only that they were born in the same state (a fact which I gleaned from the 1920 census results).

This points to a very basic fact about genealogical research in the 21st century -- despite the availability of wonderful online research tools and mechanisms to share findings with others, some of the most useful primary sources and sources of data remain in paper format ... or in people's heads. This is the way it's been for centuries, since people started doing genealogical research. I've done a lot of work in terms of interviewing relatives and gathering documents from family members, and I've gotten a lot of new information from the World Wide Web, but it's still not enough. One of these days I am going to have to make a trip out to my great-grandfather's hometown and spend a few hours in the county clerk's office, tracking down the all-important vital records that can really fill in the blanks on that branch of my family tree. It may seem like an old-fashioned way of conducting research, but it will probably bring some of the most rewarding results.


Image: An online scan of a page from the United States census of 1880. It's legible, but the original document had some water damage.


  1. I have a big family tree file on and want to down load it onto my computer but there doesn't seem to be a way to do this. Do you know of anyway to do it or change it to a GEDCOM file? There's about 1500 years worth of info on it and I want to be able to print oi out.

  2. Anonymous: There should be a download or export option somewhere in the interface -- I can't tell you where, but it should be clearly labeled or described in Ancestry's "Help" section.

    1500 years? That's really good. I have trouble going back 150 years!


  3. is great for getting started and searching for info, but if the only recourse I have is paying them to print and get only a 5 generation tree print out for beaucoups bucks, the program is worthless. It's the subscribers that enter most of their documents and family tree into their system. We should somehow have the option to D/L a copy to our own computers. Otherwise, we are paying $30-$40 per month to give THEM a product to sell.

    I have found no way to do a decent print for their site or a file D/L. Their "help" department isn't helpful in this either.

  4. Anon: You may want to consider getting a high-powered family tree program for your home computer, that lets you manage, display, and print genealogical data the way you want. I use Reunion for Mac. It cost $100. That may seem pricey, until you consider that it's far less than a yearly subscription to and contains many features that does not have, including advanced reporting features and even integration with an iPhone app.

    Of course, one of the most useful features of is being able to share your tree and find connections based on other peoples' research, but you don't need a subscription for that, and most PC and Mac programs have GEDCOM exports which makes sharing a lot easier.

  5. Anon and Ian,

    If you go to your Family Tree on, (use the "Family Trees" tab on the home page) and find the "Tree Settings" link hiding on the page (for me, it's in the line just below the title of my family tree database). Click on "Tree Settings" and your "Tree Info" page should open. Over on the right side is an orange "Export Tree" button where you can download your family tree in GEDCOM format.

    You can then import that GEDCOM file into genealogy software (or another online family tree). If you are using a Windows PC, RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree have FREE versions of their programs available with some features crippled (retail they run $30).

    There are no online fmaily tree sites that create good narrative reports and charts - they all suck. You have to use software to generate good reports and charts.

    Ian - you wondered in your post about your personal notes in family trees. They are only visible to you (or to anyone else who can edit your tree) - the link is on the Profile View of each person - in "View note."

    Cheers -- Randy

  6. Thanks for the comment, Randy, and for the info about trial versions of PC software. Reunion for Mac also has a free trial version, but I think the restrictions are too much for most people -- only 50 names can be entered, exports and imports of GEDCOM data aren't allowed, and charts can't be saved.

    One other note from my own experience: One of the challenges that I've discovered working with Reunion for Mac and a few online genealogy programs is they handle GEDCOM and certain other software functions in separate, not always compatible ways. If you are working with multiple programs on a regular basis, that can be a challenge keeping track of the ways certain important data is handled.


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