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A Serious Look at Those Shaky Leaf Hints

The Basics:

I’ve been an Ancestry subscriber on and off for more than 20 years. Since starting my work with DNA in 2014, I’ve login to Ancestry almost daily to determine who my matches are and which branches they belong on my tree. It’s also where I do most of my research for clients searching for their biological families, because I can build those Q&D trees

Being so familiar with how it works presents me with a great challenge, in terms of breaking it down for those of you who may be new to Ancestry or may have not used it as much.

Before you dig into this post, I recommend you read (or revisit) the following previous posts, which explain how DNA is inherited and how testing can work to enhance your genealogy research:

"DNA Basics," and

Many professional genealogists see “cons” in terms of relying on Ancestry, which has worked hard to distill genealogy research into a program that almost does the work for you. It is unlikely this is a realistic goal; one always has to know how to examine and analyze documents that show up in these “shaky leaf” hints, Thru-Lines and other features.

And that is why some genealogists believe they are not worthwhile. The accuracy of these hints come up through Ancestry’s algorithms, which are based primarily on the information in the trees you build and the trees others have built. The algorithms look for similar or identical information in other trees, which means the hints are only as good as the accuracy of the trees it finds.

Online family trees at Ancestry and elsewhere are notoriously flawed, because, newbies especially, take information at face value and simply add it without making sure that it really belongs to that individual on the tree. I’ve found countless trees that include my people, but are partially – and sometimes completely – wrong.

Knowing this going in, however, transforms hints into clues that can lead to documents you might not otherwise find – particularly, documents that have been scanned and uploaded by the owner of a tree and are not digitized or indexed in an online collection.

So, let’s look at an example from my own family tree. Below is a screen shot of my mother's sister and her husband, who both have that little green leaf icon indicating that Ancestry has found some hints for me to look at.

When I click on her photo, the photo below pops up.

The first thing that jumps out at me here is that, clearly, I haven’t updated her information. Aunt Max passed away a few years ago, but my tree still shows her as “living.” My bad.

When I click on the “7 ANCESTRY HINTS” at the top of her profile, I will see a page that looks like the first screen shot below, and when I click on the marriage hint, I see the next screen shot:

Because I know Aunt Max was born and raised in the town given in Ohio, and that she and Uncle Jerry were married there – and the parents listed are, indeed, my maternal grandparents – I know that this is a source I can add to my tree. The others also are eligible documents to add, as well.

Conversely, this next photo is an Ancestry “hint” that showed up for my sister:

I know for sure this information is not my sister, even though her married name was the same: First, my sister has never lived in California; second, and more blatantly obvious, is she couldn’t have lived there in 1926-1928, because she wasn’t born until decades later.

So, if you are looking at hints for someone in your tree that you may never have known, it’s imperative to thoroughly analyze the information shown to you in these hints. If Patti was not my sister, but instead a distant cousin, I would have to make sure when she was born and where she lived to determine whether or not this is information I should keep.

The same is true when searches or hints bring you to information that has been saved in someone else’s tree for someone you are researching. For example, searches and hints both can lead you to a list of “Family Trees” that may appear to match the subject of your search.

As I mentioned earlier, these must be inspected with a very critical eye. The information about the tree below shows that there are 13 records and 14 sources for the information about Clara. That’s definitely worth taking a look.

But if you go to a specific person in someone else’s tree and find this (at left) as their list of sources, consider it a huge red flag. This person is clearly relying on information found on other trees, and hasn’t done (or recorded) his or her own research.

That’s not to say it isn’t worth a look at those other trees that the person has tacked on as sources. When you click on the “Ancestry Family Trees” link, it may breing you to a page that looks like this, where you can click on and view the tree that this person cites as their source. This sometimes leads you to well-documented trees that can provide more clues.

However, in a case like this, it certainly would be worthwhile to look elsewhere for information on your research subject:


A CASE STUDY: In the next blog post, I'm will start putting all of these pieces together to demonstrate how I have used DNA and research on Ancestry and other websites to find the parents of one of my recently discovered second cousins.

Until then, Happy Hunting!

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