Smash and Grab Genealogy, or Deciding Whether to Post an Online Tree

I have not posted a family tree online. I’m not hoarding ancestors. It would be great to share them with other descendants or collateral relations. Their positions on my family tree represent years of careful research and analysis, and in some cases, gobs of cash. There are blanks to fill in, and collaboration is important in family research. Why hesitate to share a few screens of ancestors with the world? Why have I not felt comfortable with the idea?

Smash and grab genealogists. You know the sort.

A smash and grab, in my old line of work, was when an offender smashed a vehicle’s window, grabbed visible items, and ran off with them. Never mind if those items were valuable, or worthless trinkets. They took what they saw, because that is less risky than standing at the scene of a crime mulling over which items are worth taking. Those smashers and grabbers discarded less valuable property once they had time to evaluate it. Discards ended up in nearby trash cans, or were tossed from car windows as the offenders fled the scene. Evaluation time? Perhaps the amount of time it took to roll down a car window and give a good heave-ho.

But there lies the difference between those smash and grab offenders, and the ones who do really weird things with online family trees. Smash and grab genealogists. Those who prefer to skip the research process and the evaluation process. They keep everything they grab, no matter the value. When information does not quite fit, they shove it into their trees with virtual shoehorns, and call it a productive day.

What’s the problem with that, you ask? After all, it makes them happy. No crime was committed. They simply lack the skills needed to properly evaluate evidence. We were all beginners once.

The trouble is, more smash and grab genealogists will come along and add the erroneous data to their own trees. No evaluation. Those who cite sources will cite Grabber Tree 1, and call it a good research day. Documents are not reviewed. Conflicting evidence is not explained, if even noticed. Just like that, new families are created. Impossible, messy, disastrous trees.

I’ll not leave valuables showing in my vehicle, believing that it will deter those looking for the easiest haul in the parking lot. The part of me that keeps the valuables out of sight in the parking lot has also kept the family tree out of virtual sight. Deterring the smash and grab set by giving them less to see, grab, and not evaluate.

All of our work deserves evaluation.

Lately I’m feeling the urge to emerge from my self-imposed exile and post an online tree.

There are very good trees online. Not everyone with an online tree composes it by grabbing flotsam and jetsam. There is so much good, with which so much bad can be done. What is the solution? Is it simply to stop worrying about what will become of my work?

My Ancestry DNA results have been in for weeks. Someone asked who I have in my circles.


Circles are created when a DNA test subject’s online tree is checked for matches in the online trees of his or her DNA matches. Circles suggest potential places where your DNA might match, although it is entirely possible that your DNA matches in a completely different location, one where you do not yet have a paper trail. Circles require having a public online tree. That is a circle of another sort, a vicious circle. Where I am today.

To post, or not to post?

Let me back up a hair. Because I did have an online tree associated with my Family Tree DNA account. Only my FTDNA matches could view it. When the company changed the way trees displayed online, entire family groups appeared, including people who I had never intended to show in an online pedigree. I set my tree to private. There were bits in that tree that were for my eyes only, because they are works in progress. If a match wants to see the tree, I can allow access. I hoped the company would change things. Make me more comfortable. I’m still waiting.

My guess is I’ll need to create a GEDCOM simply for DNA trees. Leave out the collaterals. People who never asked to have their nuclear families hashed out online. Never enter the names of living people, so I do not rely on a computer program to filter them out for me. Living family members wound up in an online tree once after I shared information with another genealogist. Oops just doesn’t cut it. The information was removed. But it should have never gone up.

I looked at a handful of online trees last night. They list the wrong parents for my great-grandmother. But they also have the right parents for her, or they would have had their authors evaluated what they grabbed, as far as census data is concerned. The combination of a third of her actual siblings and a large number of the children (presumably) belonging to the couple who were not her parents makes for a family of rather epic proportions. A good number of them should have been tossed from the window of the fleeing vehicle. Instead, the shoehorn system was used.

Part of my recent self-evaluation on the topic is due to finding it slightly frustrating when my DNA matches do not have online trees. How rude of me. I’m one of those annoying folks without a tree.

In my defense, I immediately recognized common lines in three posted trees. I have sent messages to the three matches, laying out how we are related. I’ve heard nothing back yet. For goodness’ sake, people, I have the family Bible!

I’m starting to wonder if an online tree is an indication of anything promising in the world of DNA for this genealogist. If folks with online trees and a match laid out for them don’t respond, will having an online tree make a difference in my own DNA experiment?

I tend to over-analyze. Genealogists should analyze. The problem comes in the paralysis induced by over-analysis.

Do you have an online tree? How do you deal with smashers and grabbers? Does the prospect not bother you? Is your tree set to public or private?

Do you wonder if your tree is your work product, handed willingly to a corporation to repackage and sell?

Has an online tree helped you to solve a family mystery? To add one more name to your pedigree?

Chime in. I’m all ears.

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89 Responses to Smash and Grab Genealogy, or Deciding Whether to Post an Online Tree

  1. Margaret Fortier says:

    Great post. I am struggling with the same issues in considering the online tree. I also think about the time to maintain the tree. Will be interested to read the responses.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I agree, Margaret. I’m interested in learning how it has worked for others. And maintaining an online tree? Wow. Yes, another consideration.

  2. Paul K. Graham says:

    I’ve never understood why people care this much about what other people are doing with their online trees. It’s really about whether you want to share your information with the world. It’s not about anyone else. These other people aren’t vandalizing your tree. Sharing information via a tree is exactly like sharing information via an article or book or lecture. The author has no control over the ways others might use the information. Imagine the author of a book contacting everyone who ever misquoted or misinterpreted them to correct them. Now imagine someone choosing not to publish their book simply because people might misquote or misinterpret them. It’s pretty absurd to think that way. Whether you publish any or all of your genealogy should depend on whether you think it’s worthy of publishing. It shouldn’t depend on the ways you think other people might use the information.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Good points, Paul. Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion. Perhaps you have hit at something that might be at the core of my conundrum. I might actually feel more comfortable with written proof arguments and case studies than a tree. Something with more meat to it than a branched stick filled with names. I suppose that writing up my conclusions doesn’t mean that they will be read.

      • Paul K. Graham says:

        I have done exactly that, going so far as publishing case studies and compiled genealogies about particular families. I consider the published material a “permanent record,” while the trees are a lot more ephemeral. One example is my article about John Warren Ellis that was published in The Genealogist. No one knew his father and there are a ton of online trees that have his name wrong and all kinds of other incorrect details about the family. I created trees at Ancestry and FamilySearch with the correct information and my article attached.

        Another example is the NGSQ article I wrote about my great-great-grandmother Florence (Crouse) Nelson, published last year. There are a lot of incomplete trees, and most of them don’t include my Florence in her parents’ family group. I *want* people to copy from my tree on that family because it’s more correct than any of the others out there.

        Trees are really for outlining families. It’s the proof arguments, case studies, and narratives that help people understand families.

        A big part of my philosophy is this: if novice genealogists are going to copy online trees, I would like to provide high-quality online trees for them to copy. It’s my job to do awesome genealogy. It’s not my job to police how other people use my work (except for copyright infringement). I’d much rather spend my time doing research and writing articles that are going to be lasting contributions to the field and the families. Be positive, enjoy doing the research, share as much as you can via traditional publishing or posting online, and focus on the people who recognize and learn from your good example.

        • debbiemieszala says:

          Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you, Paul, for sharing your method of providing your best work to establish a foundation for positive results.

  3. David McDonald says:

    My dad was an only child. As such, I have a very clear understanding of the family structures that are involved in his extended family. Though he’s been dead for 16 years, he’s “young” enough that he’s not shown in a number of places where former correspondents of a very distant kind posted complete information of my family’s details, though they ethically had no right to do so. I no longer share information in any full fashion for anything beyond my great-grandparents’ generation. I make a bit of an exception in one line because that great-grandfather was twice married and the oldest son was 33 years older than the youngest daughter.

    And don’t get me started on that “shaking leaf” stuff–I just saw the ad (don’t watch TV). My “favorite” online conversations relate to getting people to disconnect the blasted “suggestions” from those to whom they are incorrectly tied. Spent three months trying to get someone in Indiana to disconnect their tree from my mother’s brother. No, he didn’t have a secret family in Indiana. Really. No, honestly. He was on the USS Hornet in the Pacific at the time you say he was in Richmond….


    • debbiemieszala says:

      I learned to share my living folks with caution. My guess is most people who want to share are more interested in people generations beyond the living anyhow. Love the secret family. Now if they only had the secret records …

  4. Tom Pottenger says:

    Yes, I have an online tree. It is the very same tree that I have offline on my desktop computer at home. Because I use the product that ‘syncs’ them both. I bought the product because of that feature. I *want* to share my information with others in a collaborative effort.
    Do smash and grabbers bother me? Sometimes. The product I use shows me everyday where someone has “taken” items from my tree and added those items to their own tree. But isn’t that why I put it up there? To share? Well, I hope they would do their own research, but… I can’t be responsible for what others choose to do. I can only be responsible for what I choose to do. Those other trees are not my trees and I cannot allow myself to take responsibility for them.
    I’m dealing right now with information recorded in our family tree published (hard copy) by cousins “who have gone before me.” And it looks like they have added a very well-known living person to our tree, one who probably does not belong there. (And it’s not the first bit of erroneous info I’ve found in that published work.) But that’s OK. Because it’s a living tree. What I have posted online is NOT A FINISHED PRODUCT. It is a work in progress, and that’s why I have posted it online: to pursue collaboration and build a researched tree. I continue to research everyday. And if you have ‘borrowed’ from my tree (as I have ‘borrowed’ from others), you better evaluate it yourself. I like to hear from others. If you see something in my tree you think is wrong, please tell me. But you had better be prepared to SHOW me why you think it’s wrong with well-researched material. PROVE to me why my info is wrong. Give me a basis for your claim. Don’t just complain. I have heard from a number of people who claim I have wrong info in my tree, but when I respond and ask for proof positive, I rarely hear back from them. THAT is not collaboration or cooperation.

    My biggest consideration in whether “to post or not to post” was: can someone else change my tree without my knowledge? Only if I let them, and I must actively give permission for that. As long as they cannot modify my tree, I’m OK with them doing the smash and grab.

    Oh yes, and analysis without the paralysis please. Your good friends will tell you when you’re overdoing it.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Tom, thank you for a well-reasoned reply! When I wrote my post I could not help but to think of published works, the good and the bad, and ask myself how publishing a tree online is any different. It’s just another format, with the level of accessibility one of the main differences. Your greatest consideration is a good one, and one I had not thought about. I would not want a tree that could be changed by others, but would be thrilled to collaborate with fellow researchers on family lines.

  5. LaDonna says:

    Nice post! You are not alone in your hesitation to post an online tree. My solution was to post just the skeletal necessities of a branch to reach out to distant and genetic cousins. I prefer to work “offline” with these cousins.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      LaDonna, thanks for your input. I would hope that people who connect would want to collaborate beyond the level of just adding someone to their trees and moving along. Because it is the bits that can’t possibly be recorded on a tree that make those family members human. Real, live people who had stories. The photos, the trinkets, the Bibles, and the conflicting evidence and how to resolve it.

  6. I have a stripped down basic tree online for DNA matching purposes because, as you’ve noted, you won’t get the DNA Circles on AncestryDNA without a public tree… and it is unimaginatively titled DNA Tree. But my main research site is on my own personal website and that’s where I work through my analysis. It isn’t as easily smashed-and-grabbed, although the risk is still there.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Judy, you again get to the heart of the matter. Part of what bugs me is that at a glance, those skeletal trees reveal no analysis. One of the reasons I began The Advancing Genealogist was so I could begin to hash out some of my research problems and conclusions. Force myself to bring those ancestors to the light of day, and perhaps the eyes of other descendants. And once again take a look at my own genealogy, which has been gathering dust.

  7. Polly Kimmitt says:

    I, too, have been hesitant to have an online tree just because it opens a can of worms. But now I export a gedcom specifically for my DNA purposes. I tell it to export data with privacy enforced, so it’s not up to the DNA companies to filter. I do the filtering. You can’t really do DNA research without a tree up there.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I think trees are immensely helpful in DNA research. My GEDCOM for FTDNA was filtered for privacy. Once their changes occurred, collaterals not previously shown in the online tree appeared to me by name (privatized to others). Those privatized living family groups still create patterns that make them identifiable. For example, a living couple with six living children, two males and four females, can be readily identified by name by any diligent researcher who analyzes the family’s pattern. They didn’t ask to be put online, and even though they are not named, they can be identified. I suspect creating a tree for DNA research is the answer, one that excludes living people.

  8. Marina Dececo says:

    I can understand your position, but I’ve chosen to ignore the fact that someone can “take my stuff” and misuse it. I would rather have my tree “out there” with all it’s mistakes and misspellings, than not share at all. I have always added the collateral people and “down” lines, in hopes of meeting cousins………who just might have that family bible or, perhaps, some photos.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thanks for sharing your take on it, Marina. I would love to connect with those missing cousins. I know they are out there!

  9. Ruth Sposili says:

    I have posted both my parent’s trees on Ancestry as public trees. THIS HAS HELPED ME TO CONNECT WITH MANY DISTANT COUSINS. However I have been smashed and grabbed by people who have no relation to me. I often find in their profiles that they are new to genealogy. I also find that they have trees with people counting in five figures or more ! If I contact them they seldom reply. I also am very cautious in obtaining info from such a tree. I can’t correct all the errors I see ! Particularly vexing is that two of my distant, but well known cousins appear as brothers in many trees even though they are very distantly related. Also another family has claimed my great-grandfather and all his decendants ! We are definately not related ! Still I will keep my tree public for now.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Ruth. Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this is to trust your own work, and be leery of all else without analysis. Back to that word! And indeed, we all started out in the same place, without training or experience enough to learn to thoroughly question information in a record. I feel the Internet allows for the sharing of errors in a faster and more public way than was formerly known. I especially like that you have connected with many distant cousins.

      • Ruth Sposili says:

        Yes I have met some of the newly discovered cousins in person.
        Thay have all been very nice. On the other hand I had visited two of my father’s cousins with my father in 1987. They have since all passed away and my father’s cousins’ decendants don’t want to know me, even though one of them has a tree on Ancestry ! Go figure !

        • debbiemieszala says:

          I’m glad that you made family connections, Ruth. As to the ones with trees who have no interest in family? It’s a conundrum.

  10. Cathy says:

    I used to have my family tree online, but took it down. I still find it on different websites submitted by several people and I have to laugh because I defintitely know it is my old research because of certain grammar marks which I put in to for a specific purpose.
    The thing I find the most frustrating with “smash and grab” is that the people I contact do not seem to be interested in conducting research with me. I am trying to find someone with whom I may share and compare finds, yet everytime I contact a submitter of a “smash and grab” they politely tell me they did not do the research and cannot help me. It is rare that I find a person wanting to conduct research with me. So, on I go alone.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Hi Cathy. I have contacted people with online trees several times. Many of them have told me they do not know why they have the information, and said they did not do the research. They were not interested in sharing information. I’ve not understood why they create huge trees yet have no interest in who the people on the trees really were. If I posted one, it would be to establish connections with which to collaborate.

  11. Brad Watkins says:

    The issue is not “smash and grab.” The issue is do I have the freedom to post or not to post online trees?

    Some bloggers mock genealogical researchers: “You are selfish; you aren’t sharing; the information is public, and it doesn’t belong to you.”

    Let the people who want to post online trees do so, but let me keep my genealogy private, if I so desire. I should not be criticized for keeping my precious genealogy within the realms of my own precious family.

    If I have a beautiful young spruce tree in my yard, should I allow my neighbor to chop it, poison it, prune it, or graft in branches from his tree? It’s called “trespassing.”

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I appreciate that sentiment, Brad. My post sat stewing all day long before I hit publish. Why? I worried that my concerns would offend some people and make others come out fighting. Fortunately, the discussion has remained civil so far!

  12. Leslee Pohle says:

    My tree is public on Ancestry because I have a DNA test on file so I’m hoping to make some connections that way. I’ve noticed that some people have taken stuff from my tree, but it doesn’t bother me. There will always be people who take the lazy way out. I don’t consider them serious genealogists. As long as they don’t make changes to my tree. I look at other peoples’ trees but seldom add their information to mine unless I absolutely know it is accurate. Even then, I still check out their sources. I would rather do the researching and find the information on my own. That way, the mistakes are mine and I can resolve those conflicts myself. So far, my experiences have been good and I’ve connected with several “cousins” who I exchange information with regularly.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Leslee, thanks for your input. It does sounds like you have found your tree to be beneficial. That’s encouraging.

  13. Susan Bleimehl says:

    I have only been doing genealogy for a few years. I put my tree on Ancestry and started slowly. I was very fortunate to find Dear Myrtle’s and Judy Russell’s blogs early on, so I’ve always approached other family trees as only hints and to never rely on just a single document as proof of a relationship. But what I wanted to mention was that fairly early in the process I was contacted by someone who also had a tree on Ancestry who was interested in the same surname I was researching. She thought it was possible that my grandfather might be a brother of her grandfather. I never knew if my grandfather had any siblings and that question was one of my first research goals. After two years of digging into immigration and other records of various folks, many of the names provided by this other researcher, I found that my grandfather and her grandfather and her great-grandfather all were from the same town in Germany. I’ve also found German records for that family for baptism, confirmation and death in that same city and indeed they are of the same family. Without her help I think that information would have taken me much longer to find. I believe that the collaboration factors far outweigh the downside of the smash and grabbers. I know my tree is as solid as I know how to make it at this early stage of my genealogy pursuits and it can only be improved by my continuing job of more learning and colaboration with folks who have the same philosophy that I have.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      What a great story! I would love to find the German town of origin for my great-grandfather’s side of the family. Thanks for another voice, and for sharing your experience.

  14. MelissaWard says:

    I would like to chime in and say I have been doing amateur Genealogy for 20 years, while I never did have the money to travel, I had gads of information from great great great aunt (she was born in 1898 and died in 2004). When I began posting my tree with the information she provided, I learned so much from the mailing lists (rootsweb) I joined and learned to prove all of my research with hard evidence versus speculation. Later I got onto and did fall for the shaking leaf at first, then I went back and fixed all the issues they had created.

    If I had never posted my tree online I would never have learned to fix my mistakes, correct the family hearsay, or ask the questions “Well what is your source for that?”

    To this day I refuse to ask someone who does not have a public tree because I assume they do not want to be bothered. Am I angry with them for not sharing? No. The information is out there, they got it, so can I.

    I currently have a sourced tree on, My husbands French lineage on, and currently putting both (with sources) On And keep hard copy documents and a gedcom in Dropbox and my computer.

    So it all boils down to its your family, your research, your time. Share if you want, Don’t if you aren’t comfortable with it.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thank you, Melissa. You were fortunate to have such a great resource in your family member. I would encourage you to reconsider contacting some of the private tree people. I have reached out to several, and most have been happy to share. One felt like she had too many tenuous lines in her tree, which is one reason she did not make the tree public. She preferred explaining that certain relationships needed more evidence.

  15. Hi Debbie,

    Enjoyed reading the post. I have elected to keep my tree private. It’s not that I don’t want to share…I’m perfectly willing to share with anyone who has a connection. I keep it private so they have to contact me to get the information and I can start a conversation. I have connected to new cousins and received pictures of family members. I also appreciate those who do make their trees public, and use the information as hints to further research. I will contact the tree owner prior to using any information or pictures from their tree. It’s not a perfect world out there and I’m still trying to find the cousin who got the Family Bible. You never know.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Hi Donna. That is a great idea. I like that it fosters communication, because we do want to know those family members who we connect with. It is more satisfying to be able to share what we have and know with people who can appreciate it, not just now, but for generations to come.

  16. Mary Benedict Grindol says:

    I have and continue to post the same GEDCOMs to both and (WorldConnect) on both my mother’s family and my father’s family. Both trees at each site are public. My research, for the most part, is well documented, though I find that at, the sources do not show up as well as they do at RootsWeb. My trees have been copied, it’s true, often without the documentation and comments I have posted, but on the positive side, many distant cousins have contacted me to add, correct, or discuss our mutual relatives.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thanks, Mary. Interesting about the sources not coming out as well on one site. The contacts you have made sound valuable.

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  18. Gayle Shumaker says:

    I admit I’m one of the “smash & grabbers”, I didn’t know it was something I shouldn’t do. As you can guess I am a novice at genealogy. I “fell” into it by chance one day when I saw an advertisement for Ancestry’s free site I typed in my paternal grandfather’s name and up pops ancestors back to 900AD all put together by a genealogist for Clan Monroe. I was hooked. I have learned a lot and am going back through the lines of each of my grandparents and re-evaluating everything. I was so excited about what I had found that I shared it with my oldest grandson, his response “that’s great grandma but I’m a Shumaker”. Yep I started a tree for my husband’s grandparents. All of our trees are public on Ancestry and all but one contact have all been positive. I’ve connected with my grandfather’s first family, a family my father was never aware of until both his parents had died and also 2 several times removed cousins on my husbands side. I encourage those of you with the genealogy experience to share it, how else are others like me to learn? I am disabled and live in a small village, other than what I have found on the internet my resources are limited. Every shred of info I have found had been greatly appreciated.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      You will definitely have plenty of work ahead checking your finds! I’m glad you have had positive experiences, and are actively sharing your work. Thanks for commenting.

  19. Melissa says:

    I have an online tree. It used to be public until one particular person forced my hand. I started the online tree so that I would have a working draft to look at wherever I went. It was public because I thought maybe others could help me and I could help them. One of my ancestors has a different name on six of the seven different records I have for her. I picked the one that appeared on two documents to use as a “working” name. One person messaged me asking about my Salisbury ancestor. I replied with all of the woman’s aliases, her husband’s name, her children’s names, and that I did not have any information on her parents or the exact circumstances of her birth. Two months later, the same person sent me the same message. I copied and pasted my previous reply and sent it again. A month later, the same person with the same message. So, I set my tree to private. I don’t have the time to keep answering the same question for the same person over and over again. The time I spend doing that could be used to find out who my Salisbury ancestor really is. Now, I have software on my computer that syncs with my phone and my iPad, so I’m thinking of removing my tree altogether.

  20. I exported a gedcom that has only my absolute direct line, no collateral lines at all (pedigree chart if you will) and nothing more. I stripped it of everything except for names, dates and locations. That is what I uploaded to the DNA sites.

  21. Nathan W. Murphy says:

    It’s kind of funny, now that I work in FamilySearch Family Tree so much, I find myself getting irritated that I can’t edit other people’s trees on sites like Ancestry, etc.

    • Nathan W. Murphy says:

      I would have many more AncestryDNA circles if I was allowed to edit the Trees of unresponsive matches.

      • debbiemieszala says:

        Oh, boy. I’m starting to get the impression that circles only appear if the common ancestors have perfectly matching information. Is that the case?

        • Jason Lee says:

          The information doesn’t have to match exactly, but it needs to be very close. And you can be excluded from a DNA Circle if your accurate information doesn’t match the inaccurate consensus.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      That is funny, Nathan! Almost akin to finding it frustrating that you can’t click “Like” on articles and emails, those non-Facebook things.

      • Nathan W. Murphy says:

        For many of them, the testees have only added two or three generations of their ancestors to their Ancestry Tree. I have the data to help them extend their ancestry back several more generations, but I can’t get them to add it to their Tree. (They have to do it themselves) Otherwise the Circle isn’t generated because the common ancestor is missing from their Tree. I love AncestryDNA’s Circles — they’re great for beginners. It’s all about getting as many Circles as you can! 🙂

  22. Rosario says:

    I love this post!

    Some of the biggest issues that we are confronted with as a community is what I term “faith based genealogy”. I willfully look at your goobledy gunk, and have faith that you’ve done the right work for me, and assume that it is correct. Then I proceed to alter history forever.

    I make my trees at Ancestry, “private”- why? Because I come from two foster parents, and my tree is a mess. I could never, ever, make it public. When I do share it with someone, it comes with the caveat, “enter at your own risk”. The one line that I was able to verify had so many errors in it initially, and this was due to the reckless researching and bootstrapping by others. I had to undue so much poor work, and when I finally had fixed it, the iron wall of genealogical injustice went up, and the records ceased. (I actually think this person was a child on the orphan trains).

    I do not post trees anywhere else because it would be irresponsible of me to do so. I wish that most others would do the same. But I also wish that all of my potential connections/matches would respond to me emails. DNA testing with unresponsive matches is like a cell phone without a service provider.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I’m still waiting to hear from any of the DNA matches that I sent messages to recently. Exactly zero have contacted me since my Ancestry results went up. Perhaps it is because I have not put a tree online.

  23. Debra says:

    I do have several tree’s on line. I know exactly what you mean about the Smash and grabbers. I do my best to check on anything I might consider from someone elses tree. When anyone takes any pic’s or doc’s from my tree I always go investigate their tree, if they are a smash and grabber then I make my tree private for awhile. But not for long because I do want to share what I have. I send them a message and try to get them to correct their errors most people are receptive to this. I think everything is a give and take. We may not agree with the smash and grab system but at least if our tree is on there and we are pretty confident that our tree is for the most part correct then at least they are better off copying from us.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      We definitely want to put the best work forward, so that if things do migrate, they hopefully do so in the least inaccurate manner. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Mary E Hall says:

    Good discussion. I look at each genetic genealogy company’s tree offering and make an independent decision whether or not to provide a tree. With AncestryDNA, it seems pretty obvious that in order to get any value from the test — and their limited tools — you must do a “barebones” tree. I do, and I chose to make it public, with no sources, just names, dates and locations of direct ancestors.

    But here’s the really tricky question…in order to get the most from AncestryDNA’s circles or hints, you must also take a huge backward step and really dumb down your tree. If 90% of the people who have your 2g-grandfather in their tree have his birth date wrong — AND it’s a line you are really interested in – you will “catch more fish” (or at least catch them easier) if you also have the wrong birth date in your DNA tree. Same with having incorrect birth locations…you’re better off using Ancestry’s “hints” for place locations rather than your correctly researched location that shows the locale was in a different county when the date/record was created or wasn’t yet the “USA”).

    Perhaps the thinking should be that these public online trees for DNA are just means to an end, and they are not “proof” but just a means to gather clues. Still, putting dumb trees to DNA tests goes against everything you’ve done to make sure your research is sound, backed with multiple sources, analyzed and reconciled….not to mention it is in direct contradiction to genealogical standards and ethics!


    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thank you for your input. You have brought up an interesting problem, and that it sounds as if there is not a system to connect people with close but slightly different ancestral data. Are they looking at names? Names of couples? Exact years of birth and death?

  25. Brent Jackson says:

    Hi, great big post and a definite conundrum. I have only been doing genealogy for a short time, and my first tree was a disaster. But it was really only for my maternal line. You see, I am using DNA to try to identify an unknown father. I have since corrected my maternal tree with my own research after I found how many errors I had perpetuated in it. It is frustrating to me to have DNA matches who I know are paternal, yet either do not have a tree, or their tree is private, and they do not respond to communication attempts. I wanted my maternal tree to at least be something I could offer for the genealogy community to use, even if it could not be useful to my paternal relatives. A side note: in testing, I wanted a close maternal relative to test so that I could phase my matches. My mother is deceased, but her sister is not. She agreed to test for me. We both got a surprise. It turned out that she was my half-aunt; we only shared 12.5 instead of the expected 25%. This was news to both of us. Since my maternal grandmother is also dead, we could not ask her. But my aunt asked one of my grandmother’s surviving sisters who indeed confirmed that my grandmother had had an affair which led to my mother. She had the name of the man in question. I found him in Ancestry’s City Directories. I searched the public trees and found a tree with him. The tree owner was his niece. She fortunately was very open to communication. I paid for her to DNA test and we indeed share DNA consistent with a 1C1R relationship. Had her tree been private, I may still never know the answer to this unexpected puzzle piece that presented itself. I fully admit that my problems are not the problems of others. But depending upon your feelings on the matter, your tree just may hold that puzzle piece that someone has been looking for to identify a fairly close unidentified relative. Just a thought.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thank you for sharing your mystery and resolution! My guess is there are many more out there, but will might not show up in a paper trail. DNA will uncover them. Absolutely, our DNA and our corresponding paper trails could help someone to solve an identity problem in their own tree. I am all for helping with that.

  26. Anastasia says:

    I will admit that reading posts by those who feel threatened by posting an online tree saddens me. I do as much of my own research as I can within my finances and time. I can’t afford to travel to the places of my ancestors’ birth and can only afford to get official documents when I have extra money for that purpose. In the last twenty years, I have slowly been able to verify or dismiss potential ancestors that mainly go all the way back to the mid-1800s. I am always willing to collaborate online. With that said, I have used information (not photos) from other’s trees. I corroborate the information as soon as I can, which may take years. I do not own my ancestors and welcome any and everyone to take from my tree at their own discretion. I don’t mind having to place in the money and time first–if that is partly the issue some have–because I get that this “hobby” is expensive, but everyone deserves to know where and from whom they come from regardless on whether they can afford to do their own research.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thanks, Anastasia. Collaboration is important. I feel that part of what we lose when people take and don’t drop in to say hello is the chance to share even more with those extended family members. There is a lot of value that doesn’t fit on a pedigree chart. What a great opportunity to share it with those who care.

  27. Jason Lee says:

    “Do you wonder if your tree is your work product, handed willingly to a corporation to repackage and sell?”

    That’s a good question. We should be asking a similar question about our DNA. If you participate in AncestryDNA, you’re handing your DNA willingly to a corporation to repackage and sell.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Very interesting observation, Jason! Thank you for voicing it.

      • Jason Lee says:

        I am especially concerned about Ancestry’s DNA Circles product in this regard. Ancestry repackages their customers’ DNA to create and sell DNA Circles. And unfortunately, the shoehorn analogy works well for DNA Circles. DNA Circles are not based upon triangulated segments of DNA, but on a shoehorn system of loosely associated matching segments. These loose associations then form the basis of false assumptions and unsubstantiated claims.

        • debbiemieszala says:

          I hope that people are confirming DNA matches with documentation. A chromosome browser would be a nice feature. Wouldn’t it be a fright if deciding which bits of DNA came from an ancestral line was based on nothing more than “matching” yet erroneous trees?

  28. Judy says:

    I started using long ago and never posted a tree, but now I am considering putting up partial ones only because I am getting into DNA. I agree with MelissaWard above that mailing lists are a great way to find other serious researchers.

    Another method that has not been mentioned to use on Ancestry is to take time to post alternate information if the indexing is incorrect. Right now I am happily working with someone who noticed my correction and contacted me.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Hi Judy. I have long taken advantage of the option to add alternate information on Ancestry. It is just the right thing to do when we see an error, or know of alternate information.

  29. Regina Mize says:

    While I can certainly understand and respect the point of view of those who wish to keep their genealogical research private, I would like to point out that as much of a connection and a sense of possession we may have to “our” ancestors and “our” family tree, there are other relatives who also have a biological connection to that same family, and who are desperately trying to make that genealogical connection as well.

    There are more records and databases available online today than ever before to assist in genealogical research, but those are still only a small percentage of all available genealogical records. Not everyone can take several days off during the week to visit state archives, public libraries, and local government repositories in every county in their tree to search for those records; nor do they necessarily have the genealogical research experience to find the records once they get there. Many people also can not afford to fire a professional genealogist to assist them.

    Can people take the information you provide and use it incorrectly? Of course. There are always those who either lack the experience or the dedication to do thorough research and will inevitably trace the wrong lineage and connect people who are not related. However, there are also those people who are trying to do diligent research, and you may have physical documentation that you have collected and shared that may not be readily available to them, that could be the hammer that breaks through their brick wall.

    I’m sure that each of us has at least one elusive ancestor (ie:brick wall). What if there is someone out there has personal knowledge of that ancestor and their story, or possesses a hard to find record, article, newspaper clipping, or piece of memorabilia (like a family bible or handwritten letter), that could be your hammer that breaks down that wall and opens up an entire new world of genealogical possibilities to you. Wouldn’t you want them to share that information and make knowledge of that item available online so you and others could find it or at least find out how to get a copy or photo of it?

    I choose to share my research for that very reason. In the last decade, due to diligent research of my own as well as that of others that was made available online, I have connected and reconnected with many cousins, some I never even knew about, as well as with grand and great aunts and uncles, who, for various reasons, lost touch with “my” side of the family over the years. Some of those connections would have never been made if the other person hadn’t posted a tree or documented their research online.

    I share because I want to provide as in depth of a picture of my family as possible. I share because I want to connect with other family members, and help them satisfy their longing to know where and who they come from. I share because I want others to know about my ancestors struggles and triumphs, so that they are more than just a dilapidated headstone in some cemetery. I share because I want my family to be remembered and commemorated long after I, and my research, are gone.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thanks, Regina. If we share nothing, all of our work will one day be lost. We owe it to our ancestors to do better than that.

  30. Don Worth says:

    I could go on at length about why I post my tree publicly – actually I put my data out everywhere I can – not just – because that’s the heart of my strategy for making sure my many years of hard work doesn’t go poof when I die. But the real issue here may be not whether to publish, but how. Ancestry’s interface makes it very easy to copy data from someone else, but it makes it difficult to copy the sources along with it and to provide credit for the person from whom you copied it. And, like a trail of ants, the “smash and grabbers” will always take the path of least resistance. (Oddly, you can use that to advantage. I have put my name and web site address at the bottom of each of my Ancestry stories and people who copy them never bother to remove that.) At the end of the day I want other people to have what I have – why did I collect it if not to share it with all my relatives? I would like some credit for the work I did but I go with the belief that quality will persist over junk and if I put my data out there in as many places as I can with quality sources attached future family historians will be able to figure out what my contribution was. Certainly I know precisely which genealogists from many decades ago were the major contributors to what I have “smashed and grabbed” over the years.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Thanks for the input, Don. Clever way to keep your name in the work as a source. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t an easy way for source citations to transfer. On the other hand, if they did not see those sources, they should not cite them. They should cite you tree. Hopefully, they do that. Sounds tenuous.

      • Don Worth says:

        They almost never cite my tree. But at least I have the satisfaction that I have more sources on my tree than the other people do. 🙂 Hopefully people will be more likely to use my data because of that. Also, when I see something incorrect in another tree I always put a comment on it (politely worded of course). Usually they don’t fix it – but they don’t remove the comment either.

        • debbiemieszala says:

          Hopefully they look at your sources! The most important thing is that you have checked them, analyzed what you found, and cited them.

  31. Thanks … Timely post and I agree completely!
    I would add another aspect which is the alteration, rewrite of history. With the many thousands of copied, unsourced, not to mention un-analyzed family trees out there, history on many levels runs amok. Not just people, but events, the very way of things….and all will be grabbed again, cycle drones on.
    So what to do? Those of us who do our research with diligence and learned skills need to speak out as you have done here, Debbie. Share the importance of process, but more what is the process. Sadly, writing, research, analysis is not taught to any depth in American schools of today. We should not apologize for not “going public” with our research online, but carefully choose appropriate outlets.

  32. Nathan W. Murphy says:

    The Genealogue profiles stereotypical smash ‘n grabber. ROFL. This has always been one of my favorites.

  33. Mary Mettler says:

    For years, I kept my tree private, safe from the “Smash and Grabbers,” but one day I decided to look for well-sourced trees to help with a brick wall I had been working on for years. One of those well-sourced public trees included a key document available only at the county courthouse and not on the microfilm at FHL. The tree owner and I are cousins and now work together on several lines. THAT convinced me to make my tree public! It still has errors, mostly typos, that need to be corrected. Maybe someone will proofread it for me someday! What I didn’t make public were all my notes in Family Tree Maker, as this is what I don’t want the “Smash and Grabbers” to get. I do not plan to convert them to Stories which others can see. I happily make information in the notes available to the serious researchers who contact me; and yes, some of that hard work occasionally does end up in someone else’s public tree. It is only a small part of my work, however.
    I see very little difference in a published book and a public tree. Would you not publish a book because a “Smash and Grabber” will “lift” information from it? Yes, there are copyright laws, but I doubt that has slowed down the “Smash and Grabber” folks. I’d rather they copy good info rather than bad info.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I definitely don’t care to transfer my notes area. That is what it is used as, a place to store bits and ideas, and stories that might not be best to share.

  34. Marian K says:

    The trees that I have posted at WorldConnect, FamilySearch Family Tree, and Ancestry are portions of the family that were not generally well known to “my” part of the family… children who moved to another state and lost touch in the 1800s, for example. The trees are posted primarily as cousin bait, so I’m happy to have others find and take from them, if they reach real relatives.

    I do worry about people who pull people from my tree into their own trees and add children who were born after the mother died, etc. I trust that others who find such grafts will spot them for what they are, particularly by the lack of sources. On FSFT, I have separated the trees when possible and posted documents such as newspaper clippings and vital records about THEIR relatives that show the correct connections, hoping they’ll be satisfied with those.

    The question of a corporation packaging my work and reselling it (as shaky leaves, often inappropriately placed) does trouble me at times, especially when I can’t get the corporation to provide more convenient ways of citing a source that is not part of their collection. They’re persuading new customers to pay subscription fees in order to see OUR work, with the promise of those shaky leaves.

    What would happen to the data if the corporation decides to get out of the “tree” business and sells our data, or loses it in bankruptcy proceedings?

    • debbiemieszala says:

      Good question. The user agreement likely answers the question on who owns the trees. I have not read it to find out. I have not looked at the FamilySearch tree yet. Will head over to peek, if it is allowed. Thanks for sharing.

  35. Paula Solar says:

    Debbie, great article! I choose not to post my tree and information because until I recently retired, I didn’t always have time to properly analyze the information that came my way. Whether I collected the information myself through courthouse visits, or found the information from others on-line, I am a hardcore believer in first analyzing, teaching myself about those early census records, the language, laws, and customs, of the times I am researching and so forth. I used my collection base as a “dumping ground” for all the information I collected. At some point down the road I would eventually analyze what I have and I have finally reached that point. Years ago I mistakenly shared some of my information via copy and pasting to a person who neglected to let me know he was going to submit it to a genealogy forum. My notes were a mess and so much information was not correct or in any semblance of order. It is embarrassing to know that it is now floating out there for others to see. I have always shared anything I have with anyone who wants it but only after I have verified as much of the content as I can. What I can’t verify I make it very clear that it has not been. I do not want to be part of perpetuating wrong information or poor research. I absolutely do not mean to malign or criticize anyone’s research or methods of obtaining their information. I just want to know the true facts and as much about each ancestor as possible. I have actually co-authored a family history about two ancestors and spent six years researching it before publication. It taught me the importance of sorting out the good information from the bad. I have found out through this venture that there are two types of researchers. Those who want to know about their ancestors and those who want to accumulate as many names and dates as possible. I personally want to know about each of the individual ancestors I am researching.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      I agree with not wanting to perpetuate wrong information. I use my notes area in a similar way, a dumping ground for things I am still sorting out. The messes that could be made from those notes. Thank you for sharing.

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