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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Can Ancestry.com go further than I can with my file?

The thought occurred to me to see if Ancestry.com's automatic look-up features could extend any one of the end-of-line ancestors in my genealogy file? In short, could I find anyone further back than the current end-of-line individuals I have been stuck on for years? I realize that several user generated family trees claim to go back further, but the none of those extensions were at all supported by sources and therefore were likely pure fabrication. In my file, I am not talking about people who are at all easy to find, many of the end-of-line individuals lived far enough in the past that there was virtually no chance of finding more records.

So here I go. The first step was to identify an end-of-line (EOL) individual who should be the first candidate. My earliest EOL was in England at six to seven generations back. I know that there has been a huge effort made over years to try and find more information about his family. So, I decided I would look elsewhere. I found that my sixth-great grandfather's wife's line ended with her parents, seven generations back. This was a good candidate for an extension because the information I had showed that the family came from New York. So how to best proceed? I decided that since I had the file in Family Tree Maker for the Mac, I could use that program to do the "research" in Ancestry.com. Hmm. I should have thought about this before I started, I only had four generations in Family Tree Maker. So I decided that I would use the resources of the program to extend the line to the target ancestor and see what happened.

My, sixth Great-grandmother was Lydia Stewart, wife of John Tanner. In my file, I had her parents identified as William Stewart (abt 1751) and Amy Hulton or Hutton (abt 1766). I decided at the onset that I probably had neglected this line and could probably have found more information had I spent some time at the Family History Library or searching online. As a check, I looked at the book, Tanner, Maurice. Descendants of John Tanner. 1942. I had already entered all of the information from this book into my file. No, I do not just copy information from surname books. In this case, the information in the Tanner book was used years ago as the starting point for some of my Tanner research. I spent time finding the original birth records for John Tanner, for example, which I had never found cited previously. 

Task No. 1: Using just Ancesrty.com's Family Tree Maker, extend the family line step-by-step from my Great-grandfather back to my target seventh Great-grandfather. This turns out to be more difficult than I expected. Just to establish a base line here, I already have all of these individuals back to William Stewart documented with sources. This exercise is to test what information might actually be available in Ancestry.com that I have already run across in my research so far, i.e. can I use Ancestry.com to do line extending research? What happens with my Great-grandfather? I can't find any records in Ancestry.com showing his parents. I decide at this point, to take a different path. It is relatively easy just to copy user submitted family trees, but this is information I already have and few, if any of these trees have any sources attached.

I decide to try and use the online Family Trees in Ancestry.com directly rather than use the Family Tree Maker program. My online tree already had my 2nd Great-grandfather so I was on my way to searching for more information. Although I had only a few members of my line in Ancestry.com's online family tree, several of the individuals have the little green leaf showing hints from Ancestry.com. Hmm, my 2nd Great-grandfather, Sidney Tanner, doesn't have any hints. So now what? Interestingly, I have 8 source citations for Sidney listed but in looking at them, most are duplicative.

At this point a little disclosure is necessary. John Tanner, my sixth great-grandfather is a semi-famous historical figure who has a prominent place the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, a very popular movie was made recently about some of his life experiences. So researching John Tanner's in-laws seems like a no brainer, right? Wrong. Very little about him or his life has been actually documented. Almost all of the information about the Tanner family has been passed down in narrative form and very few documentary sources have ever been cited. 

So what does Ancestry.com really have for Sidney Tanner? Remember, my goal was to find information on Sidney's maternal grandparents. Although, the Ancestry.com timeline shows 8 sources, in reality, there are only 4 records:
  • 1880 U.S. Federal Census
  • Ancestry Family Trees
  • Pioneer Immigrants to Utah Territory (a compiled database)
  • Utah Cemetery Inventory
At this point, I am going to entirely discount the Family Trees. But, I will come back to them later. The only record that lists Sidney Tanner's parents is the Pioneer Immigrants to Utah Territory. Here is what Ancestry.com has to say about that database:
An excellent collection of more than 1,700 migration records for Utah, Pioneer Immigrants to Utah Territory is an index of six maroon binders that contain questionnaires completed by members of the National Society of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers (SUP). These binders are housed at the Sons of the Utah Pioneers Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Forms contain 32 questions that provide vital information and other data of interest about specific Utah pioneers. For additional information, visit the Sons of the Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City at 3301 East 2920 South.
 This is obviously a secondary source and would have to be investigated further. So I decided to take a detour and see what I can find about Sidney's parents and this questionnaire. The first thing I find is that online references to the Pioneer Immigrants to Utah Territory are mostly circular. That is, the reference goes right back to Ancestry.com. Limiting a Google search to "Pioneer Immigrants to Utah Territory" there are 13,500 results! I am not going to look at over 13,000 references, but looking through the list for a ways, shows that almost all (all?) of the entries are merely citations to the Ancestry.com source. I wonder if anyone has actually looked at this record in its six maroon binders?

Who asked the questions? Who wrote them down? Who compiled the binders? Where did the information on Sidney Tanner come from?

I never imagined that this rather simple idea of looking to Ancestry.com could become so complicated. (Actually, that is not correct, I am being sarcastic, I had a pretty good idea that Ancestry.com did not have any original source material about the Tanners). So do I have to go to the Family Trees to get past Sidney Tanner? Tune in for the next exciting installment. Using Ancestry.com can I get genealogical information past Sidney Tanner, a well known Utah pioneer?

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