Wednesday, July 12, 2017

6 Lessons from an Ancestry Message

She wasn't listening. A stranger, who contacted me through and incorrectly claimed a branch of my husband's family as her own, brushed aside my explanation of why his Jacob & Mary couldn't be her Jacob & Mary. I deleted my knee-jerk response before sending it and instead waited and thought about it a little longer.

My exchange of messages with this woman, who I'll call Kate, began as frustrating but ended on a very positive note. I strongly believe in the importance of learning from each other. In this instance, Kate reminded me about being kind and patient when interacting with others, and I hope she picked up some tips that she can use again when searching for ancestors.

Since the purpose of this post is to share lessons and not to shame anyone, I'm changing the names of the family at the center of the Ancestry messages.

Kate contacted me about a Jacob & Mary Fortman in her family tree who she insisted were the same Fortman couple in my husband's tree. I had recorded Mary with a different maiden name, and Kate wanted to know how I came to that conclusion and why I hadn't included one of the couple's daughters, Helen Lucille. She was desperate to find this daughter in the 1900 census, since she didn't have any information about Helen's life prior to her marriage around 1905.

After reviewing the Fortman branch and confirming my sources, I took a look at Kate's tree and saw that she and quite a few other Ancestry members had made some mental errors when they added Fortman records to their trees. When I replied to Kate that our Jacobs were two different men and gave my reasons (which I thought were clearly presented!), her response was "I do think they are the same Jacob, dob and dod both match."

Rather than provide all of the details of my research after receiving that response, I'll just say that I spent many hours digging into Kate's family to try to get her on the right track. It was very challenging, and I never did find Helen in 1900, but this story provides several lessons:

1.  Start with what you know - Helen's obituary provided parent names, place of birth, and the married names of two sisters. Absolutely none of that tied into my husband's Jacob & Mary Fortman. It said Fortman was Mary's maiden name, not her married name. It said Helen was born in a county that was different than (and rather far from) where my husband's Fortmans lived. Yes, obituaries can be wrong and it's good to question, but they are a good starting point. I think Kate fell into the trap of copying records from other Ancestry trees and then let that misinformation cloud her view of the obituary right in front of her.

2.  Don't ignore location - The obituary said Helen was born in 1887 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Census records from 1910 to 1940 show that she lived in Bedford and Indiana counties. My husband's Fortman family lived and died in Washington County. This should have been a red flag that prompted Kate to do more digging before assuming she had the right Jacob & Mary.

3.  Consider all household names, not just the parents - Kate was determined to find a Jacob & Mary Fortman in Pennsylvania and chose to ignore their children's names. The two sisters in Helen's obituary were the key in this research. They were difficult to find since one was listed with a nickname (Mrs. Sadie Ward) and the other using her husband's name (Mrs. Charles Conner), but I eventually tracked them down and learned that both their given and married names weren't even close to the daughters of my husband's Fortmans.

They were Helen's half-sisters. It appears that Mary was single when Helen was born in 1887. She was working as a servant when she married Peter Harper in 1891. Mary gave birth to the two girls in 1892 and 1895, and then unfortunately died in 1898 when she was only 30 years old. In 1900, the two young sisters were living in Bedford County with their widowed father, but Helen (who would have been 13 and not the man's biological daughter) was not living with them. The sisters were named at the end of a list of survivors in Helen's obituary, but they were at the top of my list in showing the two Fortman families didn't match.

4.  You may never find a census record - I'm not sure that Kate will ever find Helen's 1900 census record. I tried wildcard searches to account for possible misspellings of her name, looked for matches with her middle name and possible nicknames, searched the entire county for girls her same age, looked at nearby counties, and even scanned numerous pages of the handwritten census for any possible match. I looked at the households of her grandparents, aunts, and uncles to see if she was taken in by one of them. I looked at every household with the same surname as the father named in her obituary. All were dead ends.

5.  Don't respond right away - Take a deep breath and think before sending your response to a fellow researcher. At first, I wanted to tell her why she was so very wrong. She insisted our Jacobs were the same man because all of the vital dates matched. I wanted to point out that they matched because every single record she included in her tree was for the Jacob Fortman in Washington County. After some time to reflect, I decided to stay away from listing her mistakes and take the time to actually help her. I decided to never mention my husband's family again and just get her to focus on the facts I was able to find for her family.

6.  Taking time to help others is extremely satisfying - I didn't know how Kate would respond to my research. Would she say thanks but no thanks and insist that I was still wrong? I had no idea. Well, I'm happy to report that she was very grateful! She wrote back three times to thank me and give me updates. I must say that, while I spent a lot of time on this family that had zero connections to my own, I found the whole experience to be very rewarding. Kate's positive reaction and genuine appreciation had a lot to do with that.

If you don't have time to help a less experienced family researcher, I would say be kind when responding and then move on. But if you can't pass up a challenge and have time to take a short break from your own tree, you may be surprised at how wonderful it can be for both of you.


  1. An excellent explanation. Patience wins sometimes! So does good research.

    1. Randy, I know you're very busy, so thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment on my post. I've learned a lot from you!

  2. Thanks for the article. I have been on both ends of this story. Early in my researching I was lucky to have help from others more knowledgeable, and the odd cranky one with a "NO!" I have also take the time to help others where I can and have found it extremely rewarding and self satisfying. Pay it forward when you can. We were all beginners once!

    1. Well said! It's interesting that you can relate to both sides, and I'm sure your past experience shapes how you respond to those seeking help. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Right now I'm hoping someone who I believe has incorrectly connected himself to someone in my family tree will get in touch with me. I made sure to reach out with him in a very open manner, saying it's certainly *possible* that the connection he tried to make is correct and that I'm very curious about the information he found. I'm hoping that the way I came across was inquisitive and not curmudgeonly. We shall see if I ever hear a response! :)

    You make excellent points here. We need to all be patient and helpful with each other.

    1. Sounds like you were very aware of your approach so that you didn't offend him. Some people do get defensive or take it as a criticism no matter how delicately we try to word our message. I hope your end result is as positive as mine! Thanks for your comment, Wendy.

  4. Great post. Thank you for sharing. I have had some frustrating experiences as well. Patience and time are always best. The rewards are awesome. Like this one time I got several curt messages from someone asking me for photos from my private tree (that were in fact record images). I took deep breaths, swallowed my pride and responded as kindly as possible, several times before I finally figured out who she was and how we connected. In the end she was a granddaughter of an uncle (can't remember how many greats back) who disappeared. In my tree I had him listed only as Dan with no data - his name came from old family notes. She had pictures and stories that she was able to share, as well as dates and places to fill in some major holes. And I was able to help her clean up her tree. She had fallen victim to saving directly from other ancestry trees.


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