Collaborative family tree-building with Geni

Geni Family Tree

There are a number of online tools vying for genealogists’ business when it comes to family record-keeping. After taking a close look at the various options, I decided sometime last year to use Ancestry.com and the partner desktop application, Family Tree Maker, for maintaining my information. Ancestry.com seemed to offer a great balance between access to records and a clean user interface.

I recently decided to sign up for a “Plus” membership with a different online tool, Geni. While most genealogists look down upon the idea of collaborating with strangers to amass one giant tree where we are all connected, Geni takes the opposite approach, encouraging users to reach out, join trees, merge “profiles,” and work together to keep the trees clean from junk. I had already used Geni to discover more information about certain branches of my tree, such as one family that married into the Kerstmans, descendants of the Hermans and the family that married into my cousins in that branch, and additional vital details about closer relatives. With these clues, I can better search for records through other resources to confirm new data.

Having already built a tree with more than 3,000 relatives — though some are related only by marriage — I would have liked to be able to upload my data directly into Geni through the use of the standard GEDCOM text file format. Geni has disabled this feature for several years due to the massive amount of clean-up work that would be necessary as a result of many users uploading files with 5,000 relatives, 20,000 relatives, or more. The feature would present too many duplicates for the user base to handle, even though there seems to be many dedicated individuals keeping their eyes on public profiles.

Geni Family Tree
Geni Family Tree

I manually entered my ancestors and their direct descendants first. When, through random searches, I’ve found public profiles pertaining to cousins not represented in my core tree, I added the profiles necessary to expand my tree out to the profiles already managed by other Geni users. I’ve sent some requests to merge our common relatives, but as many of these profiles don’t seem to be managed actively, I haven’t seen much response yet.

When I do find compelling information that enhances my extended family tree information, I generally manually add the new information to my family tree on Ancestry.com, but I generally add only what I can confirm with records available to the public, such as census records. My membership with Geni also allows me to export a GEDCOM file from selected public profiles so I can easily import entire branches into my main family tree, but such tools can be dangerous. I’m careful to only do so when I’ve been able to confirm that the profiles on Geni are in fact my relatives, as distant as they might be.

While Geni allows users (profile managers) to apply source records to profiles, it is not nearly as comprehensive as Ancestry.com’s system. I see Geni as a useful tool for connecting with people who may be studying shared family branches and finding some new hints for further research, but the focus on collaboration takes away from the emphasis on record-finding and confirming data.

FamilyTreeDNA offers some insight

This summer, I ordered a DNA testing kit from FamilyTreeDNA. Having already completed autosomal DNA testing with AncestryDNA, I opted to order a Y-DNA 37 test from a different company. Testing the Y-chromosome offers different results than autosomal testing. The latter helps you carve a picture of your entire genetic composition, roughly equal parts from each ancestor in each generation. That is, each of your eight great-grandparents contributes roughly 12.5 percent to your genetic composition with these tests.

The Y-chromosome test and the mitochondrial DNA test are different. The Y chromosome provides clues only to patrilineal ancestry, your father, your father’s father, his father, and so on, back through time, through only the male contributions. The test uses mutations in the genes to determine ancestral heritage, and through this information, can classify every male into a migration group. Any males with matching genetic markers has a good chance of being related through a recent common ancestor.

I enrolled in FamilyTreeDNA and provided the details of my furthest confirmed paternal ancestor, Moses Landes. While I do have one document indicating Moses’s father’s name was Joseph, I don’t have any birth or death dates for him, so I didn’t include that information in my profile. I joined a group on the website where other Landes (or Landis) descendants meet online to discuss their findings.

My genetic composition does not fit with the other members of this Landes group. It’s not surprising, given that our surname does not extend very far. From what I’ve been told, this family did not go by the name Landes in Romania.

Haplogroup G Migration Pattern [FamilyTreeDNA]
The DNA indicates I am a member of haplogroup G2c, a branch of haplogroup G. This haplogroup represents Ashkenazi Jews, and some evidence suggests that the G2c branch reflects a migration out of Sicily to northeastern Europe in the Middle Ages.

FamilyTreeDNA links me to others who have had their DNA analyzed and whose DNA markers are similar to mine. There are no exact message for all 37 markers tested, but when limited to 12 markers, the site’s database offers me eight exact matches and 131 matches one step away. Evaluating 25 markers, I have two matches two steps away, one of whom is also two steps away when evaluating all 37 markers I’ve tested. There is a 91 percent chance according to FamilyTreeDNA than he and I share a common ancestor within 12 generations.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure where to go from here.

The Family Finder service, another autosomal DNA test, might provide me more insight into my relatives, considering FamilyTreeDNA’s database is more extensive than AncestryDNA’s at this time. The Mitochondrial DNA will provide migration information for my maternal ancestors. I’m not prepared at this time to spend more money on testing until I can glean more value for the tests I’ve already purchased.