Monday, December 14, 2015

Fake Pedigrees and Online Genealogy

At last count, as many as seven subscribers to Ancestry​.com have now misappropriated my 6th-great-grandfather, Andreas Dippel of Leusel (1681-1743), as their own ancestor. And to add further insult, Ancestry keeps sending me “hints” linking my ancestor to these sloppy excuses for family trees.

I have serious concerns about the growing unreliability of the burgeoning member-generated family trees at Ancestry and other online genealogy sites, as stupid and careless “researchers” scavenge these platforms making specious connections to serious researchers’ work. Ancestry’s access to digitized versions of original records has been a wonderful boon to genealogy, but too many of the member-generated family trees are increasingly just rubbish. Fake pedigrees are on the rise.

I have found that, in my family’s case, most of the ancestor pilfering has involved the German branch of the family. Beyond laziness and sloppiness on the part of dilettantes, several other factors seem to influence why my German line seems more vulnerable than others. The sheer number of North Americans with German ancestry means that there are large numbers of people looking for connections, most with little or no knowledge of German history, geography, or language. German vital records have been historically more localized than other Western European countries, which has meant that it’s important to know exact villages and the religious profession of one’s ancestors to access primary records. German naming customs, where a person’s “call name” was often not the same as their first name, leads to confusion and the anglicization of names only adds to that confusion. And the tenacity of family myths about “what happened at Ellis Island” (or other ports of entry) frequently sets people off on the wrong foot at the very beginning of their search.

Ancestry’s television advertising only adds to the problem by making genealogical research seem easy and magical, rather than the serious, careful, and oftentimes difficult work that it really is. Like any area of study, dilettantism spoils the result.

The back of the Reformed (now Evangelical) Church at Leusel, Hessen, the birthplace of Andreas Dippel (1681-1743).