Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Short History of FamilySearch Family Tree

Nearly ten years ago FamilySearch began an audacious project to construct a single pedigree to be shared by the entire world. After many false starts and stops, that process has now resulted in FamilySearch Family Tree, an experiment destined to make history, for better or worse.

FamilySearch Family Tree


In September 2005 I sat in the opening session of the Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. I don’t remember what else Jay Verkler said, but I remember the demonstration he and Craig Miller made of Common Pedigree, a product that came to be known as “new FamilySearch.” It was electrifying. Verkler and Miller, on different computers, simultaneously edited a common pedigree file, each building on the work of the other in real time. This file was to be a single view of all mankind, shared and improved by all. Collaboration would prevent duplication and improve data quality.

Attendees were told that the program would soon be available to the general public. One blogger was told that it would be the following year. (See “FGS Conference Keynote Address – Jay Verkler.”)


It wasn’t for twenty months, in May 2007, that the rollout began to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was to be released to the public once it had been released to Church members in all areas across the world. The rollout proceeded slow but steady until the end of 2008. It was then that a fatal flaw was discovered in the product. One hallmark of the product had become its undoing: no one could delete anyone else’s contributions.

If an individual was added multiple times by multiple people, the duplicate individuals could be tied together (“combined”), but not eliminated. Imagine George Washington crossing the Delaware. Now image five hundred clones of George, all tied together, trying to share the same boat. FamilySearch servers were sinking like overcrowded rowboats.

The rollout was suspended in mid-November. FamilySearch addressed the flaw in two ways: it built bigger boats and it imposed a strict limit on the number of passengers allowed in each.


While the rollout resumed in mid-April 2009, plans were already under way for a new system to replace New FamilySearch. In July of that year Ron Tanner, New FamilySearch product manager, disclosed that work was underway on a new system code named SCOE (Source Centric, Open Edit). This project would become Family Tree.

Rollout of New FamilySearch to Church members completed near the end of 2009.


In early 2010 Tanner said, “We have a goal of getting the general public in by the end of the year.” (However, he did give his oft-repeated disclaimer that he was a product manager and he wasn’t making any promises. :-)


The end of the year came and went, but shortly thereafter, in February 2011, FamilySearch began beta testing public access to New FamilySearch.

Meanwhile, users chaffed at the continued inability to delete anyone else’s contributions. Bad data abounded and while it could be augmented with correct data, the bad data could never be eliminated. (You remember: no one can ever delete anyone else’s contributions.) On the opposite extreme, the new SCOE system allows anyone to change or delete anything.


At RootsTech in 2012 Tanner showed Family Tree and said that they were taking NFS data and moving it over to Family Tree and opening it up to everyone, including the general public by the end of the year.

The end of the year came and went.


Yesterday, someone noticed that anyone could get to Family Tree. There was no formal announcement from FamilySearch. I’ve seen this before. It is called a soft launch. It allows an organization to float a new product without being flooded with so many users that the system collapses.

And so it has come. Eight years after the general public got its first taste, FamilySearch has delivered its common pedigree.

“Our goal in the Family Tree is to document the genealogy of mankind, accurately,” said Ron Tanner, “and preserve it for generations to come.”


  1. Since I now have access, I decided to give Family Tree a spin. First name I tried came up with a line that was completely wrong. The correct line has been known and properly documented since at least the 1940s. So much for "accuracy", Mr. Tanner.

    1. I think you missed the point, csccat. Mr. Tanner has nothing to do with the accuracy of the tree. If the information is wrong, that is because YOUR family put it in there wrong in the 1920s and it has been impossible to fix. The data source for Family Tree is TIB submissions from the 1900's, IGI submissions from the 1930's, Ancestral File submissions from the 1970s, New Family Search work from the 2000s. None of which, once it was in, could be corrected. Now is YOUR chance to take all the documentation you have and use it to properly source, document, and prove that line. Just don't "fix" any "errors" that you can't prove with proper sources. Also, please read all the help material for Family Tree, particularly about how to manage wrongly merged individual from New Family Search before starting to correct information.

    2. Thanks, Mr. Collett for the explanation. I misread Mr. Tanner's enthusiastic pronouncement at the ond of the article. I'm not a member of the LDS Church and really haven't followed the (apparently) long saga of the development of this project. I am, however, a stickler for documentation since I fail students for not providing it when they turn in research (What's good for the goose...). I doubt I will use Family Tree as my way of documenting my own family but I will contribute some more accurate research for others to find.

  2. I don't use either ancestry or Family Tree but I get your blogs from my wife who does use all of them I think. In reading your E-mail from her it seems like you have a big probem with Family Tree, Am I correct? are you a disgrunteled past employee or just do not like the company?

    Mr. Morris

  3. In the east we get the "soft roll outs" much earlier than UT CA ID and AZ. I have been teaching FT to non-members in our FHC since Oct. 2012. It has been enthusiastically received! It's FREE and so much better than Ancestry which they compare it to. Our class sizes. member and non-members, are increasing with non-members who love to come and learn and share.

    I have patrons with questions come in the FHC every week. They are getting back into genealogy and when I explain FT it is just what they are looking for! As opposed to "experts," they want a way to preserve what they know for free to their children and grandchildren. They trust the church who has given them so much over the years. They are willing to have patience with technical errors since they know they are just rolling it off the presses along with adding over 8.5 million indexed names in week! They are amazed and grateful for what the church has so freely offered them for so many years. They ask questions about "Why we do Family History?" and especially about the thousands of people it must take to offer so much for free, They want to give back to the LDS community.

    They want to put the effort into making FT what it can be and make corrections. They help teach classes in the center. They serve a shift. They index for the church. They trust the administrators to follow through on helping them and stopping petty cat fights and family feuds that come out of the west with restricting access to those who don't follow the rules.

    When I demo with my FT they love the photos and stories i have added! They are looking forward to being able to access that link also. When they see the words ordinances on my tree they ask what they are. I explain they are records for our church and that will not be on your tree since you are not a member. Most see it as a technical thing, others ask more about our doctrine. The volume of those impressed with the volunteer service of the church is 100%.

    I am serving as VP and program chair for our local society. When I advertised FT on our program list and showed it a couple of months ago we had our highest attendance at 86 members who wanted to know the latest from FS.

    I am new to this newsletter and have been so surprised at what seems to be unrealistic expectations of FS and negative comments about them not doing enough or doing it perfectly. I hope more gratitude and a few more prayers for the church's software engineers could be offered.

    We are working towards having a closer temple. Our non-member friends are excited about the idea, They index with us to help it happen as we need to bring those numbers up in our area to qualify.

    Shelli Nye
    Director Cranberry Twp. FHC
    (North Pittsburgh, PA)

  4. Shelli's comments are scary to me. The information that has often been entered in the past from someone's personal "knowledge" is sometimes only family tradition. Yet it gets picked up and added by another person to their tree. I looked at Family Tree for my somewhat famous ancestor, the kind everyone wants to attach to, and the errors are terrible. My question is this: Why should I now take the time to enter in all the documentation these other people care less about? I am not LDS but do indexing and arbitration as well as transcription work for other organizations.

    I think that there is no way to correct the attitude of too many people that this is a game of one-upmanship, i.e., who can claim the most people in their family tree. There is so much that is accepted by FamilySearch, Ancestry, etc. that has no documentation. This then gets perpetuated. To claim that someone else's tree is a source or documentation for what you put up as an event in your tree is insanity.

    1. My short answer would be, because you care.

      My long answer is my perception that the grand goal of Family Tree of having one and only one entry for an individual, properly sourced and documented can be the cure for perpetuating family myths and blind copying.

      In working in Family Tree over the past year, I have been concentrating on my grandparents, great-grandparents, their children and their children’s spouses adding links to death certificates, newspaper articles, marriage certificates, and other primary documents (using Dropbox to create links to scans of the actual documents if the images are not on-line already) to prove as much of their information as possible. Almost every person in this groups has had errors in their records from multiple Family Group Sheet submissions over the past 100 years or more. All these errors were in the the old new.familysearch and the even older IGI and could never be corrected. My hope is that this information will stay corrected.

      For example, if my distant cousins, whose only source for my great-grandparents’ marriage is a dim photocopy of a 75 year old Family Group Sheet and an online tree with no sources which both state that they were married 15 June 1890, go into Family Tree where I have put the date of 12 July 1889 and the newspaper clipping dated 13 July 1889 that reports on their wedding of the day before, I would hope they will be happy to have their information corrected and enjoy reading the the newspaper article.

      As far as blind copying, in Family Tree, there is no reason to copy and repost someone else’s tree, because there is only one tree. No one should ever have any reason to add a person that is already there. I would hope that people will start to realize that if an ancestor they don’t know much about is already in the tree, they can just leave them alone. And maybe, just maybe, with enough people that do care monitoring and preserving correct, documented information, the information on massively common ancestors and major historical figures will stabilize into the best available.

    2. Thank you Gordon Collett for explaining the details of FT to abbymac. The idea of correcting the old info with documents and noting conflicting info with additional documents helps everyone to better interpret what they see. It is a mark of a "newbie" (nothing wrong with newbies :) ! ) to disregard or disclaim conflicting information because they don't know what to do with it and they want to only walk on solid ground. FT gives us the opportunity to address old family memories and traditions with some facts and documents as they become available. Not everything is available all at once and by only one person. The idea of a common tree and one big human family cooperating together is an idea that automatically discards the one- up- man-ship competitive idea. As we cooperate together many opportunities that were not available before open up. It can be a lot of work if you happen to be related to a "famous person/pioneer" and it takes discipline to start with yourself and go backwards in a logical and organized fashion to check for duplicates and correct and document what you know. The way genealogy was done in the past leads people to jump out ahead and see their end on the tree before they have gone back step by step. Most of the people I work with have the "advantage" of not having multiple tree submissions already on FS. I hope as FT continues to spread that more and more people catch the idea of allowing things to be not perfect but instead as accurate as possible and will care enough to put in the required effort.

  5. My turn to nitpick about the Family Tree.

    On March 6, as soon as I became aware that it was available to the public, I visited and edited my direct lines, with proven information. There was a lot to fix! To be expected - some of my primary lines have been researched and badly for a long time. Some of the errors were ones I have not seen on various other trees on Rootsweb, Ancestry, KindredTrails, etc.

    I only put a watch on 1 person, because I was not yet sure exactly how many emails or other message traffic would be created.

    Today I received my first "watch" email - what a sad commentary!
    1 - the link to the watched person took me to an outdated TOS on - NOT the new and improved Family Tree
    2 - clicking on all other links in the message also took me to the old tree on
    3 - As expected, the old tree on had not been updated with the corrections I had made on Family Tree. But, what will the unsuspecting person think when s/he sees that!


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