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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It Happens to Prominent People, Too

When filming the ancestry of Geoffrey Canada for the first season of Finding Your Roots, Professor Gates tracked down two descendants, a brother and a sister, from the man who owned Canada’s slave ancestor, his great-great-grandfather. The show wanted to know if Canada was a descendant of this slave owner, and the only way to tell would be by comparing the autosomal DNA of these white descendants with Canada’s. But to do that, the brother or the sister would have to consent to a DNA test. 

So they contacted the brother first. He was not only reluctant; he also seemed quite hostile to the idea. Disappointed, Professor Gates personally contacted the sister. They had a long conversation about what they had found and what they sought to determine through a DNA comparison. He sent her DVDs of his previous genealogy TV series and let her know that Canada’s motivation was purely to discover the facts of his ancestry. He didn’t want to judge the circumstances of his possible paternity; he merely wanted to know if, indeed, as they suspected, he shared a white ancestor with this woman. Canada’s admixture revealed a significant recent percentage of European ancestry, so they thought this white ancestry most probably originated on this man’s plantation. 

Professor Gates waited a bit for a response. When this person didn’t call, he called her again. “The answer is no,” she said, politely but firmly. When asked why, she responded that the results would embarrass her father. Her father? Hadn’t he been dead for some years? “Yes,” she replied. But he would be embarrassed anyway, so the answer was no. No test. 

Professor Gates had to explain all of this, in the most positive way he could to Canada on camera. But he did so without disclosing the identity of the brother and sister who declined to be tested. They had a right to their privacy, and he believed they could not violate that right, or mock or criticize them in any way, though obviously they were as disappointed as Canada was. (That being said, the show always identifies slave-owner ancestors by name, even if it might embarrass any of the descendants.) 

How to Handle a Disagreement

It’s also important to note that there are many family trees on public boards with inaccurate information. It is frustrating, especially when you contact the person to let him or her know where the error is and he or she never responds and the public tree stays up online.

If your family tree is public, it might be a good idea either to make it private or to take it down, especially while trying to work this out with your “cousin.” If it is making someone uncomfortable, having information posted on Facebook is not a good idea, either. If it is 100 percent accurate, with sources cited, make it private and share it with your cousin.

Let your cousin know that you want to work with her to figure out the true answers to your ancestry. If she still doesn’t want to acknowledge you, we suggest staying private until further confirmations can be made. At that time, share again, and maybe she will be more receptive. If she isn’t, then let it go.

We agree with you that most researchers who post information on ancestry generally are interested in sharing. There are exceptions to every rule, and there are definitely some who aren’t interested in sharing information. Keep in mind that you don’t know this person, and maybe you don’t want to know this person. Just because she is or might be related doesn’t mean she’s someone with whom you want to connect.