Five things to check before adding a family history match to your tree


19 August 2020
It’s always exciting to get a hint on your online family tree, pointing you to a record that appears to relate to your ancestor. But hang on! Before you click ‘add’, run through our handy checklist.

Online family trees on genealogy sites such as Ancestry, Family Search and FindMyPast usually offer the useful facility of tree hints, whereby the system automatically alerts you to records that may relate to one or more of your ancestors. Whilst these can be invaluable, there is a danger that you can inadvertently take your tree down the wrong path by adding a life event or even an ancestor that looks correct but doesn’t actually belong to your tree.

Take a look at our handy checklist for pointers on how to make sure the hint relates to your tree so you can accept the information with confidence.

1. Your ancestor… or not?

Make the most obvious checks first. Does the record really relate to your ancestor or someone with the same/similar name and dates? If the record mentions other names you can cross reference these against your own tree, and do the same with relevant dates. 

Records such as census hints can be easy to cross reference if several people from one family lived in the same house; baptism, marriage and death records could be trickier but again, should give enough information for you to check against your own family records.

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2. If it feels wrong it probably is…

No matter how enticing the clue, look at your own evidence before you click ‘accept’. Look for obvious geographical and date mismatches or similarities. Did your ancestor really move 200 miles between being born and baptised? Have they suddenly become an ag lab on the census after decades of seeing them as a doctor? These type of mismatches usually hint that something doesn’t quite add up and further investigation is needed.

3. Go back to the source

If you’re still undecided, take a good look at the source of the hint. Ask yourself what is the record, why was it created and what is it telling me? Does the record contradict what you’ve already proved? Try to keep an open mind – it could be that this hint is actually correct and the mistake actually lies in your own research. This has happened to most of us and whilst it can be disappointing, it’s better to find out now than waste time following the wrong ancestral path.

If you do strike gold and find that the hint relates to your ancestor, you’ll be able to cite the source and add it to your tree with confidence. 

4. Don’t be afraid of a ‘maybe’

If you think the hint possibly relates to your ancestor, there’s nothing wrong with categorising it as a ‘maybe’ and filing it until you can research it further. Most of the big family history websites have the facility for you to store a hint without adding it to your tree. A few months down the line, perhaps when you’ve found further ancestors or discovered more about an ancestor’s life, the hint could fit nicely into your findings.

5. Look at the record type

If the hint relates to a record type that’s unfamiliar to you, or one that you haven’t used much in your investigations, take the opportunity to find out more. Check the category for that particular record on the website and that should give you more information. Even if it turns out that the hint doesn’t relate to you, that particular record set could still be of use when exploring the lives of your ancestors.

For lots more family history tips & advice, try a copy of Family Tree magazine, helping family historians for 30 years!