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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Can Online Family Trees Offer Clues For Your Genealogy Brick Walls?

Genealogy Brick wall with the title clues in online trees

Can online trees help you break through your genealogy brick walls? That’s the question we’re going to tackle. First, we’ll discuss the trustworthiness of online family trees. Then I’ll wrap things up with a demonstration of how I use online trees to help me find clues for my 4th great grandfather John Townley.

Devon Noel Lee pointing to video title Clues in Death Records

Watch this research plan development process in action in this video.

Where to Find Online Family Trees

Online family trees can appear anywhere on the internet. Using Google searches may help you find personal websites and blogs featuring family trees. Several genealogy websites have family tree building as an essential tool for sharing and organization research. I have demonstrated how to use each of the following sites and their tree building features.

You can also explore Geni and WikiTree for family tree sharing experiences. The internet abounds with many online trees, though you have to be careful what you believe. (For a humorous warning of what not to trust in online trees, try this video.)

What Things Should You Know Before Using Someone Else’s Research

In the video Should You Trust an Online Family Tree?, I've emphasized using caution with these digital genealogy resources.

In many cases, the trees are neither entirely false nor entirely accurate. When exploring an online tree, evaluate every fact, source, and relationship as clues until you validate them. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the tree have sources?

  • What is the quality of those sources?

  • Do the dates make sense?

  • Are the children with the correct mothers (and fathers)?

  • Are the dates and places possible given the time?

If you proceed with caution, you can actually find clues in the online trees of other researchers.

Clues in Personal Family Tree Websites

Over the years, I’ve found numerous clues on genealogy message boards and websites. In the case of my genealogy brick wall, John Townley, I found the following:

Townley Family Tree Site

A Townley family researcher said that Cole Townley connected Effingham Townley as the father of John Townley [of Cincinnati] via a story about George Washington Townley (a possible brother).

Should I accept this family legend as gospel truth?

Of course not. I need to ask the following questions before accepting the statement.

  • Who is Cole?

  • What evidence does he have to back up his research?

  • Who was the original storyteller?

  • Is this George Washington Townley the same one I found in the 1840 US Census record in the previous video?

Genealogy Message Board

Ten years ago, I learned about a family Bible for John Townley's descendants on a well-known message board. Apparently, an entry connects him to a specific Effingham Townley.

While this Bible seems to support the internment record and death register, can I accept the website's declaration that the Bible says it's true?

I can not. I'm still waiting for someone in the Townley family to share pictures of the Bible. In the meantime, I'm going to look for other online family tree resources.

Finding Clues on the FamilySearch Family Tree

In 2012, when FamilySearch released the shared family tree. Eight years ago, my brick wall was solved because someone had connected parents to John Townley in the family tree!!!

It's time for a genealogy happy dance!

Or, not.

As I shared in this video, The Power of Peer Review in Genealogy, I highly recommend reviewing others' genealogy research. Ensure they use quality, relevant sources before you accept any family tree.

As I demonstrated in the video above, I quickly disproved the family tree. I had to remove John from the wrong set of parents.

On the surface, the clues on FamilySearch failed to hold up to scrutiny. And yet, clues lurked below the surface that pointed me toward a potential father.

↪️ Are you struggling to break through your brick walls?

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The Clue in an Online Tree That Changed My Hypothesis

As I explored the wrong parental links on FamilySearch and the previously mentioned personal websites, I discovered an often repeated story in the Townley families.

Apparently, the first Townley in America was named John Townley. He came from England. He was Sir John Townley and was knighted by the king and lived in Townley Hall. It was the forebearer of Col Richard Townley.

Using Google for my genealogy question, I found a Wikipedia Article about

Wikipedia article for Col Richard Townley of Elizabethtown, New Jersey
Wikipedia article for Col Richard Townley of Elizabethtown, New Jersey

This article provided the catalyst for why Townleys from Elizabeth, New Jersey name their sons Effingham. Richard Townley, a well-known leader, was connected to Lord Effingham.

I have three clues that combine with this notable historical figure to warrant further investigation.

  • John Townley's family naming children after their forebearers, one of which is his great-grandson, baring the name of John Effingham Townley.

  • John Townley’s internment record at Spring Grove Cemetery links him to a father named Effingham.

  • John’s son Asa’s internment record which links the family to Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Develop Hypothesis Based on the Research of Others:

If Col. Richard Townley is John Townley's distant direct ancestor, then I should utilize a different search strategy.

I'll use the descendancy research method, spoken of in this video, to find descendants of Col. Townley named Effingham. John's likely father should be named Effingham and be of the right age and in the right location to cross his path.

Descendancy Family Tree View of Col Richard Townley

Starting with Col Richard Townley (d. 1711 in Elizabeth, New Jersey) profile on FamilySearch, I found the following descendants named Effingham Townley.

  • Effingham Townley (b. 1710) and Rebecca Crane

  • Effingham Townley (b. 1690) and Sarah Evetts

  • Effingham Townley Jr (b. 1729) and Jemina Earl

  • Effingham Townley (b 1759) and Rhoda

In my blog posts, Brick Wall and Inferential Genealogy, I went a step further. I created a graphic showing the relationship of all the Effinghams alive and living in New Jersey around John's birth year of 1801.

Biologically, only Effingham Townley (b 1759) and Rhoda could be the parents of John Townley (b. 1801). This couple had the following children:

  • William

  • Richard

  • John

  • Abby

  • Caleb

Do you notice anything that aligns with my previous research?

In the 1830 Census, I found the following Townleys living in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. They are listed by name, the number of individuals in their household, their gender, and their age group.

  • Caleb Townley, 5, m 20 thru 29

  • William Townley, 3, m 30 thru 39

  • John Townley, 5, m 20 thru 29

  • William Townley, 3, m 30 thru 39

  • Catherine Townley, 3, f 20 thru 29

  • Joshua Townley, 4, m 70 thru 79

  • Richard Townley, 7, m 30 thru 39

My spidey senses began tingling, but I'm not satisfied that I have enough evidence to conclude that this family group relates to my John Townley.

If you want your own genealogy research plan template, get a copy of my Research Plan Template and print it out or use it online.

Time to Update My Research Plan

For now, I must turn to my genealogy research plan and record what I have discovered.

For Goal #1, I can update my theory that Effingham Townley and Rhoda might be the parents of John Townley (who moved to Cincinnati). As such, John's siblings are Caleb, William, Richard, and Abby.

I can also note that George and Major Townley are not John's brothers. I need to return back to the FamilySearch family tree to see if they are cousins.

Additionally, I could use two analytical tools to keep track of my clues, along with my genealogy research plan. These tools are covered in the following videos:

At this point, I don't need a clue web or mind map, so I'll just update my genealogy research plan as follows.

Additional "Using Online Tree Clues " Show Notes

A reference for all blog posts and videos mentioned in the YouTube episode.

Brick wall with family tree overlay and the words- clues in probate records
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