Do I share all of my Family Tree online?

the pros and cons

As a bit of background, I have decided not to. As yet. I ummed and aarghed. A little. And at first, there was not a lot to show, so I shared it. And then a couple of strange people contacted me. So now I don’t share it.

I still don’t know whether I will share more in the long term. Certainly I will keep all living relatives secret, for their own protection. Dates of birth in the wrong hands are personal data which could be used by the unscrupulous.

The main reason is I have had a couple of quite negative experiences from nosy people. I know that sounds rather harsh, but living relatives who don’t have the best of intentions. Were quite rude or just a bit odd in their questioning. It’s not something I had considered before I began, I just assumed it would all be public.

The pros with sharing are that it inspires others to build around your information. It allows them to cross reference information they already have, and might assist you in the future in terms of filling in the gaps. has useful hints from other trees.

In addition, and in contrast to my later points, there are some wonderful people online who will help you and point out information that you are not aware of: sometimes you can only find this out by sharing a little. If your family tree is completely private, they have nothing to work on.

The green leaf on ancestry depicts a hint from a record: it might be related to one of yours…

The cons are very closely linked to the pros. Information on other trees can be incorrect, misguided, or just copied from an unverified source. You can see it quite clearly on many sites, where a mistake has been copied again and again because no one has checked the information.

There are those looking at family trees who just want to find the quickest and easiest route to proving the family legend, that they were related to Cromwell, or Charlemaigne. Or Charlie Chaplin.

It therefore depends on your motivation. I genuinely only want the truth. I don’t want 15,000 people in my tree and proof that one of my relatives invented spam. I want to know who they were, what they did, when they lived and when they died. The hardships they went through, and any successes they had. I want my legacy documented, and the legacy of my ancestors, however positive or negative that might be.

I suppose it’s a bit like a sudoku game I play. I sometimes get tempted to get hints when I am stuck. But I don’t get them (on a point of principle) because it wouldn’t then be me working it out for myself. It’s a bit like that with the FT hunting. I need to do it my way, and honestly. No short cuts.

There are also some very strange people on line. I don’t want to sound rude, and tell you that you shouldn’t share your personal information with strangers but… be careful.

Overall, I think that there is a balance. I don’t share all of my tree but some of it, especially the distant parts, are viewable by others. This gives the least likely parts of my FT to be commented on by those who are perhaps, closely related to the ancestors in question. In areas which won’t adversely affect me and mine.

Happy Hunting people.


Brick Walls

What can you do about them?

So the answer is sometimes nothing. When you are researching a family tree there are lots of angles and lots of enquiries that can be made. I am also finding that over time, new information is either being digitalised in an easier format, or being made available.

I had a couple of examples which have been broken down.

I have mentioned in a previous blog about spelling and accuracy of years. I had a distant relative who wasn’t key to my research but in whom I was fascinated. My attention was taken to him as he actually sounded a bit like me. In a much younger universe. So for whatever reason I tried to find out as much as I possibly could

I just kept hitting the stumbling block of his mother. I couldnt find her record. There were 5 different possibilities and I couldn’t narrow it down further.

And then it hit me. I acccidentally found his brother, not listed on the census. But it was definitely him, there was a bit of extra information on the birth certificate about his father, which made him distinguishable. Lots of searching and nothing, and then just found the information by accident. I found it when I wasn’t looking for it directly, which is sometimes the case.

The second breakthrough came with my own family when speaking to an elderly relative. I had made one assumption following the family tree of a closer cousin, and it had led me down the wrong track. Which led to me not being able to put it all together. The reason I couldn’t connect the family was that I had the wrong name of a mother of one of my second cousins. A two minute conversation with the relative completely changed my tree. I lost 35 people and gained another thread to chase. Which has led my to discover that one of my cousins married into the family of a person in the US with Choctaw origins. Fascinating stuff, it really is. It led me to read up a lot of the history around the area and the particular distant relative, and the incredible story of a Choctaw senior who lost his wife tragically, had an extramarital affair which resulted in an illegitamate child, and ended up in prison for assault. A tragic tale, but one which ended positively with his son buying their property and thriving sometime later.

The answer then is patience, and perseverance. I have to work on the patience bit personally! I generally want to know now! Using other sources where they are available. If you are hitting brick walls one way then trying new sources or new approaches. I also find talking to friends or acquaintances who have researched trees incredibly helpful. They can point out the obvious. The main family tree board also have forums attached to them in which you can ask questions, no matter how silly. There are people on there who will happily help you out.

Sensitivity to living relatives

So when I started, I little thought I would discover anything interesting or controversial. I did though, at least, what others might consider controversial about their family past.

I received a request from a close relative to make parts of my family tree secret. There were still some distant relatives alive who could remember certain events within their lives, some of them still hurt to recall.

Ultimately, family tree research will unearth some queries you can’t resolve. You may discover children born out or wedlock or relatives were kept in institutions, either because of crimes they committed, or because they were rightly or wrongly diagnosed with something which required residential care. The word assylum is so difficult, the phrase lunatic assylum even worse. The way in which people associate mental illness has always been tinged with fear and ignorance, and it is still the same, for the most part today.

It is incredibly sad to read stories of those who were sectioned effectively with conditions which would be treatable with drugs and medicines, today, epilepsy or low mood being two which spring up frequently.

So it is easy to be sensitive. As you read about these lives you can see people battling to overcome these obstacles, sometimes losing the battle due to their own health, or lack of hygiene, or lack of medical knowledge. As you watch programmes on the TV such as “Who do you think you are?” and you see the celebrity hoping against hope that things turn out the best for an individual. Often they are disappointed.

So when a relative approaches you to make part of your tree private and not available on the net. Think carefully. And also understand that in a world of data protection and GDPR, we should not be posting anything online about the living which could be considered defamatory or hurtful. That’s even before you start to look at ethical concerns. It is sometimes Ok to know something but keep to yourself.

Census stuff

You could devote pages and pages to the stuff you find, but there were some essential discoveries about looking at census returns for Ireland. I think most of them are true of ALL census entries and searches…

1.People lie about their age. Some people don’t know their age or believe what someone else told them about their date of birth. I discovered that my great aunt was not in fact 98 when she died, as we all thought. She had made it to the big 100! By just 7 days. It was like she knew!

2. Sometimes the difference in age for the same people in census taken 10 years apart is massive. Over 10 years in some cases. If you think that when taking a census they would ask someone in the household. If that person had memory issues or even dementia, then the numbers could be quite considerably different to the actual ages of the people involved. Start searching wide! And then gradually decrease the years you are searching.

3. Use a number of documents and sources. It is important to try and find the actual document to prove a date of birth. One of the main reasons is that it will often contain information invaluable which cannot be found elsewhere. In Ireland, the main source was an absolutely brilliant free website. The only issue is that it isn’t complete..

You can find the Irish Census records for 1901 and 1911 at

4. In Ireland the census records before 1900 were destroyed in a fire at the records office in the early twentieth century. Only partial records remain of 1821 – 1851 and none at all 0f 1861-1891. This makes life difficult! But not impossible. You can use other sources…

5. The 1911 Irish census is better than the 1901 census. They got better at the records malarkey. So by 1911 they have added things related to how many children a mother had. So you know that perhaps a child has grown up and left home or maybe died. Or is staying with a relative. This last one I only discovered properly recently, but depending on the family a niece, nephew or granchild might stay with a relative who needed help or maybe e just had a bit more room. Families in Ireland were often big, but the dwellings could be quite small (rates were high, based on size of dwelling, or in some cases, the number of windows a property had).

6. When I first started looking at records on ancestry or other sites you would often see a date as BEF. 1911 or AFTER 1901 as examples. Often for death dates. This would be related to another document. You could pinpoint someone as dying sometimes if there were on the 1901 census but not the 1911 (But you couldnt rule out emigration!!). You would also see non census years in these figures. This was because the person, often a parent, would be on a marriage certificate. If John Smith was the father of Anne Smith, and he was listed as “alive” on her wedding cert in 1879, then we knew that he died AFTER 1879.

7. When looking at international census records the rules are different. The UK census seems to be about as detailed as they get. In the US, the level of detail and accuracy is mixed. Some states, like Massuchusetts, have very detailed census. Others, like New York, is mixed, in terms of success. It is also the case with New York birth records they often don’t have the name of a parent, so it is like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially with the more common names.

8. As time goes on in census collections, people are more likely to have better spelling. In some of the early incidences, you might have to search a phonetically similar name to get the result. Also, names including surnames develop over time. Magauran is very common in the 18th century in Ireland. It becomes McGovern almost universally over time. It is the same with first names. I had to work out Bridey or Biddy, Bessy, Aggy, Sonny and May Maggie. Some are obvious. May Maggie, I searched for Mary, as second names were not searchable. But again, I had to be careful. Many of my family actually used their second name (sometimes because their father or mother had the same name). By he way, Biddy / Bridey was Bridget or in some cases, Brigid. Bessie was Elizabeth. Aggy was Agnes in this case. Sonny was Edward, but I also understand it can also be a generic term for son of the father, as “Junior” is used in the US.

9. When using the 1939 UK census, there were a few new things I came across. You could only view those on the census who were deceased. Those that were known to be living were blacked out. There are good reasons why authorities do not want to put too much information online about the living. In the same way, you can find State Security ID for those who have passed away in the states, but not for the living.

10. Couple didn’t generally divorce in Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Divorce was actually illegal between 1937 and 1997 in Ireland. Most of my ancestors were Catholic (again remarriage not an option after separation) so to be honest, the first time I came across divorce was when I starting looking at records from other countries such as the US. Before that, looking at Irish records, if half a couple was missing on a census it generally meant something bad had happened to them.

I could go on all day but I will stop there for now. Happy Family tree hunting…

The beginning… well I’ve already started

Apologies this first log is going to be about as dry as it gets…

So some time ago I decided to put together everything I knew on my family tree. My sister had started as a school project some years ago, to put together everything we knew of the immediate relations, and we had some but not all of the grandparents. So I had some pretty useful bits and pieces. But as we get older we think more about where we come from, why are we the way we are, and where did it all start. So I had many conversations with my father on this, and my mother’s brother. And it started me thinking…

So where to begin. Difficult for a novice. Easy to purchase and expensive subscriptions to sites that would not yield the right results. They are everywhere. And you don’t know what you don’t know, right? Right. So you make a few mistakes. So you spend money on things that you don’t need to…

Family tree hunting can be very expensive. If you decide to print out birth and death certs that you believe are your family’s and then discover you got the wrong one. It’s starting at the wrong end. It was better for me to establish that I was almost certain before spending that kind of money. Or better still, not spend the money! Well for me, most of my relations are Irish or American, so I was advised by a friend to try It’s what site is right for you?

an excerpt from a famine letter from Drumkeeran, Co. Leitrim: you find all kinds of interesting material, not all related directly to your family

If you make the wrong choice, it isn’t too late to change. I would recommend using the monthly subscriptions (as opposed to the annual subscriptions) until you are sure you have the right site for you.

I also tried findmypast which is a great site also. It just didn’t… let’s just say the layout wasn’t my favourite, and once you start using one site, eventually you begin to think intuitively the way the site designers think. You could end up spending a lot of time on the site in the future. I did (and still do). Also, you will build on the site in a certain way, and although you can later shift it all to another family tree website (through creating a gedcom file, tell you later!) it is a bit of a pain. And no matter how well you do it, you always lose something!

So you have a site? How do I fill it? The first bit is easy. You talk to you parents, grandparents, anyone in the family or who knows the family history, and you get a pencil sketch of who fits where. And the best advice I had early on. Even with the stuff you know to be correct, try and prove it wrong. There is usually an alternative. Especially with the popular names. And you make a lot of incorrect assumptions. And people: their memories? Unless you are Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, you often get some “approximate” dates and sometimes some approximate names.

The next piece of advice I received was “get to know placenames”, especially if those place are far away, in a different language or completely unfamiliar to me. My first challenge was Ireland. Ireland is made up of “townlands”. A townland is a small stretch of land, usually less than a few hundred acres or so, but can be larger in less populated areas. It’s an area in which the families are registered on official documents. So unlike the UK, where I am based, the country is first of all split into regions, you may have heard of the obvious ones, like Ulster or Connaught. These are not relevant when you are searching. They are not listed. Instead, you are firstly looking at counties. Like County Cavan or County Sligo. Then there are baronies, civil parishes (not based on RC or Church of Ireland parishes) which are all made up of townlands. All of these can be found on the brilliant website, It is a good idea to have a play around with these. You can pick an area your relatives were born in and the REALLY top thing about it, is that you can see the bordering townlands, and there are links to the census of 1901 and 1911. Another good free website, the Irish census:

Some of the detail on the maps you are looking for might not be there, so you may have to get better at playing detective

One of the interesting things about counties in Ireland that took me a while… When you are looking for a birth and it is near the border, it may be registered in the adjoining county. For instance, my mother was born in County Leitrim, near the border with Co. Cavan; many of her relatives were born in County Cavan but registered at the large adminstrative town of Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. To add to the difficulty, Fermanagh is in the region of Ulster, most of which became part of Northern Ireland in the early twentieth century. Which means I have to check the records of a country whose borders have shifted, or at least the counties have changed. So understanding the background and the history of the area you have investigated, is really important.

The detail is important. The small red lines depict the boundaries in townlands. These townlands have slightly different names, for instance, so Ross More can be Rossmore in certain searches. This becomes important when typing into searches.

Next, you have a basic background of the areas in which you are looking. You have some oral history to base your searches. I was told to start with you. You, your siblings and your immediate family, your children, your aunts and uncles firstly. It helps because you may know their dates, but you can also search for them online. This also gives you an important dose of realism. A lot of what should be there, so you think, is not there. Why can’t I find so and so? This is the reality of online family tree hunting. It can be stark, frustrating and lead to dead ends or many, many unanswered questions. You may find more questions than answers *and more sterotypical phrases of this nature.

So why carry on? Because it is tremendously rewarding. Not just for you. For everyone you know in your family. For future family not even born yet. We are the first few generations who can search online, and we can leave a lasting lagacy as well as find some amazing and sometimes tragic stories about our ancestors.