The helps and hazards of speculative Ancestry tree climbing

Speculative Tree Climbing in Genealogy -- A Kitten Up a Tree

Remember when we  Golden Egg Genealogists (GEGs) were innocent kittens? We could extend a family line back to the Mayflower over a weekend, thanks to those oh-so-helpful “Ancestry Member Trees” on Many of us built our early trees on those shaky branches. Here and there we might have speculated on possible family connections, adding them to the tree in an effort to chip away at a brick wall. Helpful! Then we grew into GEGs and started doing genealogy right, swearing we’d go back eventually and clean up that old mess. One day, though, we realized that a new batch of kittens were copying our oh-so-helpful and oh-so-public “Ancestry Member Trees.”  Uh-oh.

I’ll just make my tree private then, you say

Of course you can just “Manage Tree” and change your Privacy Settings to “Private Tree.” Make sure you mark it to “prevent your tree from being found in searches.” You have swept your mess  into a drawer before any more kittens cut their little paws on it. The GEG has done her duty.

As short-term solutions go, you’ve probably done the right thing. But, when it comes to the long-term duty to “care about the legacy you leave,” I think we must consider other options.

Surely, if GEGs want to elevate the work being done on and other online tree sites — and many of us do — we should display quality work. Surely, we want our descendants and fellow genealogists to benefit from the work we are doing.

I get it that some people are doing their genealogy with an ambition to write a family history they will sell, and so no one is allowed to “steal their stuff.” I embargoed my PhD dissertation for the same reason, so I can’t judge. Just so long as you do get your work out there in some form eventually.

I also get it that some things are private. And as GEGs, it is our duty also to exhibit “an honorable code of ethics” in our work. So protect private things, by all means. But surely, there comes a moment when a deceased person’s story becomes history and can be told. So publish trees with that criteria in mind.

Publish worthy trees.

Surely experimentation and speculation  aids in ancestral tree climbing?

You bet it does. We’ve all done it. You see that a man in your tree has a middle name that is likely the maiden name of one of his female ancestors. And, what do you know? They have neighbors with that last name. So you use the tools offers, rapidly and without tedious proof, to see if the two families appear to connect. If you find the link, then you go back for proper evidence and citations.

Let’s confess it, GEGs! We do use those suspicious “Ancestry Member Trees” heavily in speculative tree climbing. While they will never be evidence, they most certainly offer leads. A researcher who refuses to follow up on leads needs a talking to.

But here’s the problem. If you are doing this speculative tree climbing in your public tree, fully intending to go back to document everything once you feel you have connected the right branch, your speculations are sitting out there for the kittens to climb on. They will create a tree from it, then end their free trial membership, leaving this copy of your speculation floating in the Ancestry ether for all time.

Eternal and global consequences.

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So how can I publish my work and speculate without hurting the kittens and polluting the Ancestry ether?

Simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple. You will create two trees, maybe three.

First, you will have a speculative tree. It is likely the one you are using now — the one you keep meaning to go back and clean up. You mark it private. Consider it your rough draft tree from this day forward.

You rename it with words like mine: “Cox-Harrell Family Tree (Preliminary Tree–Do Not Use).” Even though it’s private, you make sure that anyone who happens upon it due to some technology glitch will know it is not solid. Not to be climbed on by kittens.

Then, you will make available to the public your rock-solid, GEG-worthy family tree. Every fact is documented with proper sources. Every parental relationship is proven. No helpless kitten will fall from these branches. And the ether is purified and elevated by your excellence. Kittens will sit beneath your tree in awe, learning how to become GEGs.

Wait a minute, you’re saying. The second tree does not exist.

Where is the GEG-worthy, awe-inspiring tree?

You will create it brand new. I told you: simple,  not easy. It’s why my rough draft tree has 5,260 people in it as of this moment, and my GEG-worthy tree has 16. I’m starting over!

Starting over? Don’t despair. If much of your draft tree had good research, you might be able to move huge sections over at a time. (You can do this in Family Tree Maker. I haven’t tested it in other products.)

You are going to find new material and hints coming your way on ancestors that are in your old tree, but don’t yet exist in your new tree. No worries. Keep adding to your draft tree, doing it right this time. As you build your GEG tree, you will be pulling things from the draft tree. This isn’t going to stop your research cold while you spend years building the GEG tree.

Also, if you have done AncestryDNA or have other requests from people to see your tree, you can give them access to your draft tree with strong language about why they are never to share it and should beware of any undocumented facts. Kittens beware!

What about wild, “out-there” speculation?

Long ago, I built an tree for speculation at a high degree. I strongly recommend it. Private from day one. Never to be seen by anyone.

You have a brick wall. You know your 2nd-great-grandmother married a man named Smith in Heard County, Georgia. Given the children’s ages, he had to have died just before the blessed 1850 census was taken, but was probably an unnamed “Free White Male, 15 to 20” in his father’s household in 1840. But what household was that?

So, you have to work through every Smith man in the county, thirteen of them, ruling them out one by one until your missing 2nd-great-grandfather emerges. And if he doesn’t, you process thirty-eight in Troup County, then twenty-two across the Alabama state line in Randolph County. You build many trees and many branches rapidly — just to see where they go.

Using the “Ancestry Member Trees” like a kitten again, you build something that only needs to hold up long enough for you to say, “This family line has potential” or to say “this is not my guy.” When you find the golden family line, you process it like a GEG in your public tree.

You have so many solid sources, your tree rises to the top of the “Ancestry Member Trees” list every time. It is the tree of choice for all those who use other people’s trees as their #1 evidence source in their feverish run for the Mayflower before their two-week free subscription runs out.

All that to say . . .

I believe in speculative tree-climbing, if done wisely. Cordon off the danger zone from kittens. Recognize that you are merely sketching possible family connections that will never be real until your evidence proves it. When it’s real, post it to your awe-inspiring GEG-worthy tree and make us proud.

And now, a word to the precious kittens

You’re our future, dear baby genealogists. We want you to keep at it for the long haul. We want to keep you and your tree safe from harm. Tread carefully and get quality training.

In the end, the real joy of genealogy comes when you find what the slap-dash two-week genealogists never had the skill to find. It comes in knowing that the people in your tree are really your people. It comes in creating something your children and grandchildren can value.

So let the GEGs help you. It’s what we do.

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7 thoughts on “The helps and hazards of speculative Ancestry tree climbing”

  1. Thanks—–When I started on Ancestry, I did just that, kept everything private because I wasn’t sure. Shared with a few friends to have them help with my info. Left Ancestry over a year ago and still left the private……never started the good public tree…that’s a good idea. I have noticed my sister put a tree up that was public will go back and start cleaning up what is out there that is public..

    1. Connie, I am so sorry I only just now found your comment, waiting now for months to be approved. My system had put it into a Spam folder I never even knew I had until today. Thanks so much for weighing in. I hope you’ve been able to get the new tree going. –Donna

  2. HA – this post was meant for me 🙂 Actually, I’m sure that I’m not alone – starting off with family trees Gram wrote out for the DAR, and trees held and made available by various great-aunts and such. Colonial ancestry in particular seems to be overrun with enthusiasts of all levels of talent who haven’t noticed that their 5-times great grandmother happens to be 143 when she supposedly passed away 🙂 That said, from the beginning I’ve tried to be careful about using the best-sourced Ancestry Member Trees, and bypass speculative stuff as much as possible. Nonetheless, I’m surely guilty of “polluting the past pot” too – time to start working on that. I guarantee some of my colonial ancestry is a mess. Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Andrew, an apology to you, as I just sent to Connie above. Both of your comments were dumped in a Spam folder, for reasons unknown. Good luck with the clean up! And thanks for taking the time to respond. From now on, I know to look at the Spam folder. –Donna

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