Genealogy: Grafted Trees

Grafting fruit trees is a good thing. It assures the production of the expected fruit with the expected traits. Grafting an undocumented family tree is not a good thing and assures nothing! I knew this. I know it better after my recent experience.

Several family researchers had traced one of our shared lines through Isaac Martin back to the 1600s. How exciting! The data looked good. Good enough that I added those individuals to my tree on Even better, I now had a famous ancestor on my tree: Lewis Burwell, a prominent and wealthy Virginia planter. One of the Burwell daughters married John Martin and supposedly produced my ancestor, Isaac.

But something was amiss. The individuals from Isaac Martin forward to the present were well documented. The individuals from his proposed parents, John and Martha Martin, back were well documented. The problem? I could not find one family tree that had documentation for the relationship between Isaac and his supposed parents. In fact, many of the trees didn’t include much if any documentation for anyone. They had simply grafted someone else’s tree onto their own tree, and I had followed suit thinking I would go back later and collect documentation.

However, that little documentation niggle drove me to spend about four hours looking for any evidence that John Martin did indeed have a son named Isaac whether he was my Isaac or not. I could find no evidence anywhere that John and Martha (Burwell) Martin had a son named Isaac! I immediately removed those grafted branches! I searched a little more and found other researchers who had come to the same conclusion I had, some of whom posited other possible family lines, but I’ll wait until I find documentation before adding anyone else.

Wasted time? In a sense, yes. Adding and removing names takes time. In truth, not at all. The research is necessary. Besides, pruning helps a fruit tree grow bigger and stronger. It may take me years to find and document Isaac Martin’s parents, but when I do my family tree will also be bigger and stronger. If I don’t, at least my tree won’t be top heavy with generations of unrelated folks.

In the meantime, I plan to keep possible but not documentable information in a folder rather than in a tree just in case someone’s guess turns out to be a good one and there really is one piece of evidence still out there waiting to be discovered.

Have you had to remove grafted branches from your tree, or have you discovered that one piece of evidence that proves the branch belongs? What led to your discovery? Share your story in the comments section.

4 thoughts on “Genealogy: Grafted Trees

  1. Research is always necessary. If research is completed beforehand, the frustration of “grafting”, and novices picking up the error and passing it along would make genealogy less frustrating for those of us who do it the traditional way: research then add, not add then research.

    • Amen, Sharon! In the past, I had always made that my standard operating procedure. I think my sense of urgency got in my way. In the past, I only added names from an actual definitive verifiable primary document. (I’m the OCD member of my family.) I don’t think I’ll make that mistake again! And you’re right. It is frustrating to go to other trees, see something promising, and discover there is not one source to support it. So I’ll just have to search until I leave this world and then leave it up to someone else. 🙂

  2. I learned early on that many family trees are built on assumptions and sometimes wishful thinking. I had inherited quite a bit of material from other relatives, as did my cousins. I quickly found that, on examination, many of the lines simply fell apart. I decided to set all of it aside, and simply start at the beginning. The first thing I realized is that, though I am an experienced researcher in my professional field, I needed to learn both the resources and the research skills unique to genealogy, and spent quite a lot of time doing that. It paid off, as I was able to recognize many of the “red flags”. I also learned the techniques that genealogists use to get past brick walls. The practice I feel is most productive is to follow the paper trail as far as I can, keeping an eye out for information that can fill in the background of the people I am looking at. That background includes, not only immediate and collatoral family, but also neighbors in detail (not just names). Their occupations sometimes provide important clues. The community itself provides clues: why and how did this community form? Where were the people from? Why did they leave? Answering these questions often told me where next to look. One line in particular was supposed to lead to a Mass family, but there were connections that simply didn’t make sense. I used collateral relatives with an unusual name to trace back, and was able to locate the line I was researching in a completely different place with well-established connections, which is how I came to Kentucky. Ironically enough, eventually that line did interconnect with the same Mass family, but through an entirely different person in a different line and a different generation.

    Only when I have solid evidence on a particular line do I refer to trees built by other people for clues that might lead to further research. I’ve found that very few trees include usable citations but sometimes am pleasantly surprised, and from time to time find a “co-researcher” for a particular lines.

    A recent lesson in how “grafting” can result in bizarre tree formations occurred recently when I accepted a trial membership in My Heritage. There was a match, and I accepted it, not realizing that unlike FamilySearch, which allows one to select individual facts for inclusion in one’s own tree, MH attaches the entire tree in which a match appears. What a mess: the grafted tree included egregious errors, including making my grandmother the sister of my her husband, my grandfather, as well as his daughter, and included links to people I have proven through research in original records are not members of my lines. Errors of that nature demonstrate that there has been no research at all on that tree. Fortunately, I was able to remove the link, and will never make that mistake again.

    Early on, I made all the usual “beginner” mistakes, and had to back up and start over. This still happens from time to time: I follow a trail to see where it leads, and realize I am on the wrong track. This is an almost inevitable part of doing genealogy. Basing one’s research on evidence and using solid methods of deduction and proof arguments help keep me from going too far afield (I have a line right now that looks like it took a wrong turn, but it has provided me some insights into the lives of people who at least may have lived much like my ancestors). One thing I have learned is not to be too attached to my own ancestors, especially in the early stages of my research into a line. It is very useful, once I have an idea of the geographical area I need to research, to step back and learn about that area, as I described above: who moved there? Why? What kind of community was it? What did they do to earn a living? Communities were far more diverse than we tend to think looking back. What was the political climate? What weather events might have affected them? Building that picture can help me find my family, and the community can help me flesh out their lives.

    This has got me thinking again that I should start a blog, not only to talk about WHO I discover, but to talk about all the things that lead me to them, and tell about their lives. Thanks for sparking this discussion, Sylia. You’ve got me to thinking. That’s a good thing.

  3. Thank you so much, Annie, for sharing your experiences and advice! Genealogy welcomes new beginners all the time–and returners like myself. We all need help and reminders. Perhaps the more we share, the fewer grafted trees and other things that lead us astray will appear. By the way, I think maybe you just posted your first blog! Let us know when you set up your page.

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