I’m going to channel my inner Sophia Petrillo here for a moment.  Picture this:  you’re researching your family tree on one of the “big name” sites.  You don’t know much about your family to begin with so you can’t really decide if the records you see are for your family or not. You decide to check out other family trees on the site to see what information they have.  You like what you see, and it sort of matches what vague information you know about your family, so you copy their tree and the info to yours.  However, what you don’t know is that the person who built that tree didn’t properly research or verify those records either, so you’ve just copied bad (i.e. wrong) info.

Bad trees are nothing new to the seasoned researcher. They’re everywhere online and sometimes even in genealogical societies or a local history room’s family files.  Even the well-meaning person who really tried but didn’t research properly or know how to resolve conflicts in information/records will donate their dirty tree/information to a society and there you go – bad paper trees in the file for the next unsuspecting researcher to find!  So see, the scourge of bad trees isn’t limited to just online – they can be anywhere family genealogies are compiled and saved.

As I see it, the problem with bad trees is multi-faceted:

  1. They keep repopulating over and over again.
  2. Those trees tend to be owned by people who won’t accept the *right* information without a monumental argument.
  3. Instant gratification – because they see a date or information they want immediately, that means no one is actively looking for the correct info.
  4. Copying blindly – since it’s already been done for them, people are not examining the copied info/documents fully to extract clues and key elements that could lead them in the right direction to the correct information.

This recently happened to me.  My dad’s family is all from Kentucky and the records, as I’ve talked about before, are scant.  Literally, when someone died, they just took them out back and buried them up on the hill behind the house.  (I’m not lying – I have pictures and first-hand accounts.)  When I’ve sent away record requests from the county or state, they frequently come back ‘not found,’ which isn’t surprising in the least to me.  Needless to say, I’ve had many, many brick walls on his side of the family and I’ve been reluctant to really dive into it.

Alfred Arbie Cordle and Ann Lykins on what we *believe* is their wedding day.

One of my personal goals, though, has been to have a documented Revolutionary War patriot on both sides of my family.  I have multiples on my mom’s side already documented and while dad’s side does have many as well, I just can’t get the records to prove it!  So frustrating!  However, the other day I decided I was going to start chipping away at it again.  I have the records for my dad’s parents as they were modern and easy to get but the great-grandparents start to get into that funky monkey time period of whether the records exist or not but I was determined to keep on trying.

I began with my dad’s maternal grandparents, Alfred Arbie Cordial and Ann Lykins.  Alfred died in 1967 and Ann died in 1977 so those records were readily available with no problems.  Alfred was born in 1898 in Johnson County and Ann was born in 1899 in Morgan County – both of those which I will say ‘supposedly’ as records for this date are extremely spotty at best.  So, I decided to look at other trees to see if anyone else had luck finding documents to confirm their births.  While doing so, I noted that nearly every tree had a marriage date for them of May 1920.  I didn’t have a marriage date for them yet, so I wrote it down to research later.

The WWI draft card for Arbie Alfred Cordial dated 12 Sep 1918 with Annie Cordial listed as his nearest relative.

Looking at Alfred’s records that were readily available online, I found a WWI draft card when he registered dated 12 September 1918.  Interestingly, he named his nearest relative as ‘Annie Cordial.’  I say it was interesting because he had no sisters named Annie and his mother was named Cora.  That made it logically seem that it could only be his wife, Ann.  But why would she be named as a relative in a 1918 record if they hadn’t married until 1920 as other people had noted in their trees?  I mean, the 1920 date seemed logical at first.  Their first son, Homer, was born in May 1921 so he could have been a honeymoon baby.  Then again, could that Annie person have been another relative I didn’t know about?  Possibly.. but if I were a betting person, I’d have bet that Ann and Alfred married prior to September 1918.

I searched high and low for a 1920 marriage record for them only to come back emptyhanded.  I plugged in the 1918 date and again, nothing.  I plugged in their just names and searched for Kentucky marriages – nada.  I even checked to see if they’d crossed the border into Ohio and got married there.  Nope.  I searched all variations of Cordle as there are MANY (My own grandmother had her name legally changed to show a different Cordial spelling than she was born with).  Still drawing blanks. That draft card kept lingering in the back of my mind though, buzzing away like an annoying mosquito that won’t go away. Since the indexed records were pulling up nothing, I dove into the card catalog for Kentucky marriages.  Alfred was supposedly born in Johnson County but in the 1910 census, he was in his father’s house in Lawrence County.  Ann was supposedly born in Morgan County and she was living in her father’s house in the 1910 census in Morgan County still, so I was going to check those three counties to see if there were unindexed images of marriage records for those counties.

A clipping from the Big Sandy News, 7 Nov 1902, for Louis Borders and Laura Grim.

I wanted to start with Morgan County because, in a weird twist from my previous record searches for Kentucky, it always seemed that the couple married in the county where the bride was living. Not exactly sure WHY that is but it has happened a lot in my KY lines.  When my great-grandmother Laura Grim married her first husband, the newspaper blurb said, “Louis Borders went to Catlettsburg and brought back a wife.”  Louis lived in Lawrence and brought her back there from Boyd County where she lived.  Call it a hunch, a gut-feeling, or instinct but I just wanted to check Morgan first. My hunch paid off immediately. In Volume 9 of the Morgan County Marriage Records, Alfred Cordial was listed in

Alfred Cordial listing in the index to Morgan County Marriage Book/Vol 9.

the index.  Flipping to record 194, I found Alfred marrying Annie Lykins on 19 May 1917.  Did you catch that?  1917.  Not 1920 or even 1918 but 1917.  That means every tree I found on the “big name” site was wrong and that she *was* his nearest living relative on his draft card!  Now had I just been a rampant tree copier, my tree would have been wrong too.  I averted perpetuating a bad tree with wrong info because I paid attention to the WWI draft card and was able to use that hint that they were married by 1918 to find the actual document to show their real marriage date.

The 19 May 1917 marriage record for Alfred Arbie Cordle and Ann Lykins from the Morgan County Marriage Book/Vol 9.

So, the lessons learned here?  Check every document front and back for clues.  Don’t blindly copy dates because it’s easier and faster.  “Dirty” or research trees are fine but it’s best to keep them private so people can’t keep copying potentially wrong info that you’re working on verifying.  As a registrar with the DAR, I used to frequently make working trees for my prospective members but I marked them as such like “Gray NSDAR Research Tree” to let people know, this isn’t a properly checked tree with all verified dates and records.  A few months ago, though, I switched that policy completely and have been making them private trees, so I don’t have to worry about people taking unverified information and running rampant with it.  I was afraid they would see the NSDAR moniker and assume everything was properly researched so they’d copy everything and not even bother researching on their own.

But just think about that next time you go to copy a record or date over to your own tree.  Where’s the record?  No record, where’s your proof it’s true?  Is it from a credible source?  Does it make sense for the time period you’re looking at?  Does it fit into the known information for the people you’re researching?  If it doesn’t, you need to dig deeper and quit planting dirty trees in the genealogy forest.

The Scourge of Bad, Dirty Trees
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