Should I Post Controversial Family Tree Info Online?

Tracing Your Roots: How to handle those who don’t want possible family ties made public.

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Dear Professor Gates:

I am writing you to ask your advice on how to handle a problem that has recently occurred in my ancestral search. I have been on since 2006 and recently received my ethnicity results from my DNA. The company helps people find relatives by matching DNA results. As it turns out, one of my highest matches came from my father’s paternal side, through my grandfather Theodore Joseph Johnson, whom we knew little about. When I made contact with a new “cousin,” she seemed happy and excited about completing the puzzle. However, once I was able to narrow down the source, this “cousin” became quite negative and defensive about the notion that her grandfather was my great-grandfather. Her mother and I are a 98 percent match, and her grandfather’s history, occupation, etc., all aligns with what I know to be true concerning my grandfather’s family origins. 

What advice do you have for dealing with a situation as sensitive and life changing as this? As it stands, I recently received correspondence in the form of a nasty text demanding that I remove her grandfather’s information from my family tree. I felt I had no choice but to block her from my and Facebook pages. Why begin a genealogy search if you are not mature enough to deal with all that may be uncovered? —Margo Canady-Johnson

An All-Too-Common Scenario

We are sorry that you have come across someone who initially was interested in communicating but for some reason is not interested anymore. This could be for a number of reasons.

The best thing to do is to share what information that you have with that person, making sure that all of your information has citations. If anything is speculation, state why and state that further research is needed.

Most times when we connect with “cousins,” we share information and receive memorabilia such as photographs and family Bibles that we did not have, since such items are often passed down through different family members. It is a fun way to share. 

On one occasion, this piece’s co-author, Suzanne Stewart, knew of a client’s ancestor being researched by the New England Historic Genealogical Society who had fought in the Civil War, was captured and spent some time on an island in a prison. Later he escaped with several others, and this escape was written up in the newspaper, mentioning all escapees by name. This particular person being researched then went on to fight for the opposite side.

The “cousin” with whom they made contact was very excited to share photos he had of the soldier in both his Union and Confederate uniforms. With the client’s consent, the society made sure that they shared everything that they found in their research process with this newfound relative. Researching other family lines is usually a good idea, and one that often provides additional information.

If you have controversial information, we think it is best to not make it public online. It could be that this person was interested in corresponding with you until she spoke with someone else in the family. Possibly she is trying to protect her privacy and information that she doesn’t want others to know about. If you surprised her with new information, this could very well be the case.