Online Family Trees: Uncovering the Resource

Have you ever seen a complete date and place for an ancestor’s birth, death, or marriage, but no source is attached as proof? Have you wondered where that information originated? With the proliferation of online trees and copying of data, tracing a genealogy fact back to an original posting can help verify or disprove it. Two websites can be explored to find complete family tree submissions:  Rootsweb  and FamilySearch Genealogies.


When Nicole and I first began our research journey in 2003, we built our family tree in Personal Ancestral File (PAF), a computer database that let us add source citations (although not very complete) and notes. We exported our tree as a GEDCOM file, then uploaded it to Rootsweb, the website of choice during that time for sharing a family tree online.

What is a GEDCOM file? When computers began to be used for genealogy, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints created a file structure so genealogical information could be exchanged easily. GEDCOM stands for GEnealogical Data COMmunications and is identified by the file type “.ged.”

The screenshot below of my Rootsweb tree shows my grandfather’s record. I have included complete birth and death information and listed sources such as his delayed birth certificate, death certificate, census records and a letter from his daughter (not shown.)  Other researchers have since added Charles Leslie Shults to their database with these dates and places, but no source information. By clicking on each of the seven entries in Rootsweb, you would eventually find my posting with sources and be able to view my entire tree. Although not perfect, having sourced one individual, there’s a good chance that I might have sourced more.


How can this help our research? Doing a search of established genealogies both in print and online should be our first step in evaluating an individual’s record. Often other researchers have a piece of the puzzle that has been eluding us. Tracking down original research can lead us to important findings such as Bible records, letters, and other certificates that might be held by only one individual.

FamilySearch Genealogies

Another little-used tool is the “Genealogies” feature on FamilySearch that contains submissions from a variety of sources: the International Genealogical Index (IGI), Ancestral File, Partner Trees, Pedigree Resource File, Community Trees, Oral Genealogies, and the Guild of One-Name Studies.

Access “Genealogies” from the main page of FamilySearch, under “Search” shown in the screenshot below.

The screenshot below shows the top portion of the search page that allows you to search for your ancestor among the various family trees that appear on the right of the page. Like all the searches on FamilySearch, you can add parent and spouse names, and life events. Because my grandfather’s name is fairly unique, I put in only “Charles Leslie Shults.”

Entering my grandfather’s name into the search field brought up several entries. The top hits were from the IGI and submissions by my father, Bobby Gene Shults, identified as “bshults77002” and shown in the screenshot below. No date of submission is given, but  my grandfather’s death date of 19 January 1996 is listed, so it was definitely after that date. Knowing that my father would have known his parents and grandparents information lends validity to the dates and places.

Using Online Trees in your Genealogy

Initial Survey

When working on a client project, I like to do a survey of online trees to get a feel for what is known about the ancestor. Besides checking Ancestry trees and collaborative trees such as the FamilySearch family tree or Wiki tree, exploring trees in Rootsweb and FamilySearch Genealogies can give additional insight into research and researchers. Each tree must be evaluated for accuracy, but the clue that you need just might be hiding within.

Sorting Out Relationships

The FamilySearch Family Tree can become convoluted when an incorrect merge is done between people of the same name. Checking Rootsweb or the Genealogies page can show original submitted relationships. From there you can do additional research to prove or disprove the relationship.

Sources of Information

Some of the trees submitted on Rootsweb have source information attached, sometimes even a transcription of a will or deed. If you have a well-documented tree consider uploading it as a GEDCOM to Rootsweb or FamilySearch Genealogies as a free resource for anyone researching their family.

Collaborate with Other Researchers

Although you may need to do some detective work to find contact information for the person who submitted a tree, you may be able to locate them on other genealogy websites, Facebook, or people finder websites. I worked on a difficult client project a few months ago and found a very good tree on Rootsweb for the family. I was able to contact the owner who put me in contact with another family researcher who shared excellent information with me.

In summary, whether you’re just beginning a project or finding yourself in the midst of a sticky research problem, searching the user-submitted trees at Rootsweb and FamilySearch Genealogist just might give you the additional insight you need.

Best of luck in all you genealogical research!



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