When I started putting this article together it was with the intention of writing about a particular couple who were living in Waters Upton at the beginning of World War 2, and how I found out more about their lives, beginning with the information I had transcribed from the 1939 Register. However it turned into a much more detailed description of how I use of Ancestry for my one-place study research, so I now present a rather different article. It’s not a ‘masterclass’, just an insight (for whatever that’s worth) into my research modus operandi, with some personal opinions along the way. Is there method in my madness, or madness in my method? I’ll let you decide!
The Waters Upton ‘family forest’
My methods, I should make clear, avoid some of the cornerstones of ‘proper’ genealogical research. In particular, when working on the family histories of hundreds of people in a one-place study (as opposed to my own family tree), the purchase of birth, marriage and death certificates in any quantity is an expense which I can’t justify. People and their relatives may grow on (family) trees, but money doesn’t; my heart and soul are committed to the project, my wallet, not so much!
So, my favourite way of researching my own family tree, and the family trees of my Atcherley cousins (in my one-name or surname study) and my DNA matches, is to build their trees at Ancestry, attaching relevant records as I go and adding Tags, notes and details of records not held by Ancestry itself. That’s also what I am doing for my Waters Upton one-place study. The ‘tree’ is not a single family tree but a collection of them, a ‘family forest’ if you like, featuring people who lived in Waters Upton at any point in their lives, plus their families, and some of their ancestors and descendants.
If you have an Ancestry subscription you can visit A One-Place Study – Waters Upton at Ancestry.co.uk (or use these links for the .ca, .com, and .com.au iterations). If you don’t have an Ancestry subscription but have an interest in Waters Upton and its people, and would like to view the ever-growing ‘forest’, let me know and I can send you a link giving you access through Ancestry, by email.
Working with multiple trees in a single Ancestry ‘tree’ is an interesting experience. For example, Ancestry trees aren’t really geared up for the addition in a straightforward way of people who aren’t a parent, spouse or child of a person already in a tree – and to be fair, why would they be? You can find a record for the person you want to add, and from there you can add them to the tree as a new person, but that method doesn’t create an event based on the record. So I usually add my new person as a parent or child of an existing person, then quickly edit their relationship to leave them as an isolated leaf cut off from the rest of the forest.
Take a Hint – or maybe not
Once I’ve added a new person to the tree, perhaps with other family members, I check out any ‘Hints’ that Ancestry might suggest. These Hints – records selected by Ancestry’s algorithms as possibly relating to the person concerned – are very much a double-edged sword. They seem to be based partly on the information you have entered for the person, name first and foremost, and partly on the records which have been attached to people in other Ancestry trees who might be the same as the person you are working on; both of these have the capacity generate some spectacularly inaccurate hints. The results, at their best, have the potential to help you. At their worst, they can completely mislead you.
Ancestry Hints are an anathema to many experienced (and especially professional) genealogists, primarily because they are often inaccurate, and maybe also because using them is seen as laziness. To me, Hints are another search tool to be used, the results of which are to be evaluated carefully and either:
- discarded if they clearly don’t relate to the person being researched or would disrupt the space-time continuum (sorry about the Trek-speak, I will explain later, honest!),
- accepted (sometimes provisionally) if they look like a good fit with what I already know about the person, or
- neither discarded nor accepted initially, but left where they are until I can build up a more complete picture of the person (with other records) and make a better judgement as to whether or not they are relevant.
Over the years that I have been working with Ancestry trees, I have dismissed a huge number of Hints (often with an audible groan or even a curse), but I have also been pleasantly surprised on many occasions by the records they have accurately flagged up in collections or record sets which I would not have thought about looking in.
Other people’s trees
Among the Hints provided by Ancestry – at the top of the list in fact, if they exist – are other Ancestry members’ public family trees featuring the person you are working on. They vary hugely in quality, but because of the number of them built on the back of poor research and lack of critical thinking, Ancestry member trees are the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth within the wider genealogical community.
And I am there wailing and gnashing with the best of them when I see trees featuring people with records attached for events which happened after the person allegedly died, or before they were born, or in two widely separated places at the same time. Children born to ‘parents’ who were under 10 or not even alive at the time can be found (one tree I’ve seen, containing over 48,000 people, has a mother and child of the same age), along with mothers giving birth to two children well within 9 months of each other, sometimes on different continents. In one Ancestry tree I have seen a man who was his own father (or his own son, depending on which way you look at it).
Wail. Gnash. See what I mean about disrupting the space-time continuum? Some people’s enthusiasm runs far ahead of their logic, and in my head right now I can see Spock raising a Vulcan eyebrow at the very thought of it.
Part of the problem is that many people accept the aforementioned Hints without evaluating them. Many also copy the contents of other trees (either directly, or through accepting Hints based on those trees) without questioning their accuracy. At the end of the day though, while these practices are frustrating to people who undertake more meticulous genealogical research, in the grand scheme of things what actual harm is being done? There are after all far worse things that people could be up to instead, like axe-murdering or drug dealing, although having said that, when I look at some of the dodgier Ancestry trees I do sometimes wonder whether mind-altering drugs might have been involved.
Dragging myself back to the subject and looking at the positives, there are some well-researched trees on Ancestry. Even the trees which become increasingly questionable as they go further back in time, as people make best guesses based on incomplete evidence (see Beyond Ancestry below), can contain useful and accurate information on the generations closest to the tree builder (typically because they knew them, or have family members who did).
So yes, I look at the trees of others to see what records and family members they have attached to the people I’m researching. And I look at their conclusions to see whether they stand up to scrutiny, often carrying out my own research to see if the evidence I can find supports or contradicts those conclusions. I do the same with the pedigrees compiled and published by people like the Burkes in the 1800s, because they too got things wrong sometimes.
One more thing about Ancestry trees, and it’s another positive. Many people attach photos of their ancestors to their Ancestry tree profiles – and those ancestors can include people you too are descended from, or people in your one-place study. Yes, people also upload images of flags, buildings and other things which can clutter up Hints and search results but hey, Ancestry subscribers have paid good money and can put what they like in their own trees!
For the record, I don’t claim that any of my family trees (on Ancestry or elsewhere) are perfect. My advice is you should always treat with caution, and double check with your own research, other people’s trees – including mine.
Just click Search
There’s another way to get Ancestry to do some of the heavy lifting, and that’s by clicking on the Search button near the top right corner of the profile page of any person in an Ancestry tree. It’s not laziness I tell you, it’s a tool, one that I’m paying for and which you can be sure I make full use of!
The long and complicated URL in the web address bar of the search results page this generates shows that this search is based on pretty much all of the information held on that person and their immediate family in their profile (whether input directly or pulled in with attached records). That info includes their forename(s), their surname (or surnames if they had more than one, e.g. women who married), their parents’ names, their spouse’s name, their children’s names, their sex, their birth and death dates and places, the places of other events attached to them (censuses), and the default ‘collection focus’ (e.g. All Collections, or UK and Ireland, etc).
This search usually generates a much longer list of results than is seen in Hints (the latter only return results from a limited proportion of Ancestry’s record sets), with the most relevant tending to be at or near the top of the list. But those results depend on the data (including the spellings) submitted, and the data (again including the spellings) in the records indexed by Ancestry. Badly mistranscribed records will usually be missed, unless another Ancestry user has managed to find them and has kindly submitted corrections.
Once I have that results page I examine it for records which look relevant, often looking at associated record images (where they exist) to check that the names (of people and places) match what’s been indexed, and to see what other information is there. If the record looks like it relates to my person, I attach it, and usually I then run the search again to see how the new information affects the results.
If the results don’t at first contain records which appear to relate to my person, I will most likely change the parameters and have another go. I tend not to modify the Search Filters (the Broad to Exact sliders), but I do click on Edit Search and add, remove or modify things in an attempt to improve the accuracy of the search. Sometimes I bypass the Edit Search feature and monkey around with the URL, modifying or deleting parts of it to suit before hitting Enter to rerun the search. In the case of women who married, if the search isn’t picking up records from the years before their marriage removing their husband’s (and children’s) details can help. In the case of a woman who ‘disappears’ after a certain point in time, where I haven’t identified a potential marriage (or have identified several!), deleting her surname altogether and running the search might bring up records showing her under her married name.
Search results can also be narrowed down by Category, which can bring to the fore records which otherwise don’t show up on the first page or two of results. If I’m thinking a man might have served in WW1 for example, I click on Military in the list of Category filters and see what comes up. Might they have left a will? Click on Court, Land, Wills & Financial. Did they maybe emigrate, or take trips overseas for business or pleasure? Click on Immigration & Emigration. Birth, marriage or death records not looking they relate? Click on Birth, Marriage & Death (and then filter further, down to an individual record set if need be) to see if a more focused search yields a more likely set of results.
A frequent (and accurate) refrain amongst genealogists who know the value of archives is “Not everything is online.” To which I must add, having looked so far entirely at one provider, “Not everything that is online is on Ancestry.” Even those records which Ancestry does have aren’t always easy to find, typically due to transcription errors. Some of the record sets on Ancestry are on other sites too, with different ways to search them, or more detailed indexing.
Because of this, while I’m working on a tree at Ancestry I usually have numerous other tabs open so that I can use other sites in parallel. FreeBMD continues to stand the test of time when it comes to searching English and Welsh BMD records up to 1984. Because of its inclusion of mother’s maiden names in birth records and reported ages at death on death records right the way back to 1837, the GRO birth and death register indexes are also indispensable. Shropshire BMD is growing all the time and can help with finding the exact location of a marriage for which the two previous sites only give a registration district (and the same goes for the Staffordshire and Cheshire BMD websites).
Parish registers for Shropshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and Wales – all of which are vital when researching the people who made their way to and from a north Shropshire parish – are online at Findmypast, a site which often enables me to find people on the census in a year in which I can’t locate them at Ancestry. (Once I’ve done that, I use the Piece, Folio and Page numbers to search the relevant census collection at Ancestry, and look for the mistranscribed name in the results – then I can at last attach the record to the relevant person’s profile.) FamilySearch, the Shropshire Archives collections catalogue, the British Newspaper Archive, Streetmap.co.uk, National Library of Scotland maps, Google and Google Books, the list goes on, and on (and it includes pages from this website!).
Other websites are available!
As I follow the above processes I’m usually working not just on one person but the rest of their family too, adding them to the tree as I go. Some family members I add manually (perhaps after searching for relevant birth or baptism records), others are added automatically when census records (for example) are attached to an individual. Caution is needed with the latter approach. Post-1841 censuses recorded how people in a household were related to its Head – those described as sons and daughters of a male Head of a household were not necessarily all children of his then wife. Former wives (and their role as mothers) can all too easily be missed. There are many other pitfalls which can beset attempts to accurately reconstruct of families, but they are beyond the scope of this article. I hope to illustrate some of them with examples in later stories.
A line has to be drawn somewhere in adding people to a tree within the one-place forest, but I have no hard and fast rules about where I draw it. Ultimately I want to know about the connections within and between the families of those who were born in the parish or came to live there at some point, and what happened to those who left (as so many did), in order to better understand the influence of the family on these movements. I also want to pursue interesting stories when I see them. So for example when I found a Waters Upton family which had twins in two successive generations, I followed them a further generation back, before they lived in the parish, and found twins in that generation too (plus a family member who briefly worked as a servant in the village and so appeared there on a census!).
To conclude, although Ancestry is much maligned (sometimes by myself, and often with good reason), for working on family trees and finding records which help to map out and understand the lives of the people within them – including those in my Waters Upton one-place study – I wouldn’t be without it.
Picture credits.Screen grabs from Ancestry: Used for illustrative purposes only, all rights remain with Ancestry.com. FreeBMD, Findmypast, National Library of Scotland, FamilySearch and The British Newspaper Archive logos: Composite image made from screen grabs from the respective websites, used for illustrative purposes only, all rights remain with the companies and organisations which own the logos.