CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS / SOMEWHERE IN CYBERSPACE

He had settled new frontiers, built groups of settlers, and led nighttime hunts to control marauding bears that were ravaging the community. Was Ephraim Towner really unable to stay up on a family tree? To make it worse, I felt an acute sense of déjà vu. Could this actually be happening again?

I had done all of the research in primary records for Ephraim, taking a dead-end and dead-boring brick wall and lighting it up with vital dates, family information, and stories of his life. His spouse, children, and parents were no longer a mystery; we knew where he came from and where he and his line went. He was a colorful character, even for an early settler, earning several mentions and first-hand stories told in county histories and other sources. I’d even found and visited the area of his (former) homestead and mill along a creek in Vermont, then the frontier and now just a spot off Towner Road on the outskirts of a quiet country town. Now the family just needed it posted online to add to the public record and ensure easy access.

There was just one problem. Almost as soon as it was up, the information that I had worked so hard to collect and catalog, the information that I knew for absolute fact was correct, disappeared from the website. In its place were names, dates, and other information that I knew, for certain, was not correct. I changed it back. And sure enough, after a few days, my information once again had disappeared.

Why would someone just keep posting incorrect information?

Fortunately, I was able to contact the person that kept posting, and she was happy to dialogue about the issue. Unsurprisingly, she had obtained her wrong data for free off a website, unsourced and unqualified. Assuming it to be gospel truth, she put it up. Not knowing why anyone would change “her” information, she kept changing it back.

When I explained the amount of work I’d done and the original sources I used, she realized that the information needed to be changed. Ultimately, the correct information stayed up—for this family.

This story has a good ending. But it is a cautionary tale. How many people, just like that lady on that web site, have obtained information online, assumed that someone, somewhere, checked it, and then re-posted it across the Internet, causing a cascade of wrong information that spills across websites, private family trees, generations, and ancestral lines? How many people have relied on such information, probably never even realizing that what it said actually had no connection to their family?

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