10 January 2023

How to Tell if a Hint is Any Good

I never cared about Ancestry hints. That why I have them turned off when I'm working on my tree in Family Tree Maker. But last year I helped out another genealogist by adding to a few research trees she had on Ancestry. That's when I saw the value of hints.

They're a real time-saver! Say you're piecing together the life of someone you don't know. If they have a bunch of documents in their hints, that's where I'd want to look first.

But you never want to accept hints blindly and add them to your family tree. Think of them as nothing more than a possible match. They could be wrong, you know. Each one is there for you to check out.

It's your job to examine each hint and figure out if it matches your family.

A Well-Timed Hint

I grew up with about ten 1st and 2nd cousins on my mom's side of the family. One of these cousins recently asked for access to my online Ancestry tree. I warned her that:

Larry died shortly after my 1st child was born in 1989. It came as a shock to me, and a terrible loss. In recent years I've tried to learn about his family, but I never had enough details to get anywhere.

When I viewed my tree online to see what my cousin was about to see, I found something new. There were a couple of green Potential Father and Potential Mother hints for Larry. In fact, there were 9 hints for him. The first was the 1950 census I'd been unable to find on my own.

Sometimes I laugh at potential parent suggestions. But this time, the hints were gold.
Sometimes I laugh at potential parent suggestions. But this time, the hints were gold.

Now that I had confirmation for a handful of Larry's facts, I started looking into his father. I soon found an unsourced family tree that had several generations of Larry's family. But was this information right?

Is This Hint Any Good?

Larry's grandparents came from Italy. That meant I could verify those unsourced names and dates. I used the online Italian vital records website, Antenati, and searched the right town.

I confirmed and added to the family's names and dates. I got the correct spelling for the family name. (See Look Past the Misspellings to Find Your Ancestors.) Plus I found many more names and dates specific to Larry's paternal line. I wouldn't have trusted any of these names or facts from a hint or a tree without seeing the documents for myself.

How to Harvest a Hint

After many years of ignoring hints, I'm now open to exploring them. When you have a lack of information, as I did for Larry's family, the right hints can push you onto the right path. But you must confirm that it's the right path by doing the research for yourself.

When you look at a hint:

  1. Make sure it doesn't contradict something you know for sure. Is the person born in a state or country that's impossible for your person? Are they the wrong age by a long-shot?
  2. Examine all the documents and see if any don't fit with the others. The one hint that referred to Larry as a lawyer was absolutely not my cousin. I know what he did for a living. Take a look at 3 Ways to Tell If That Hint is No Good.
  3. See which documents your favorite website offers you for this person. This gives you more data points to compare. Some documents may not fit in, especially when compared to those that do.

Documents are critical. ("Pics or it didn't happen!") You need to see and verify the facts for yourself. That's why you must fully research hints that come from unsourced family trees.

It's up to you to confirm whether a hint is putting you on the right path. And if it is, the race is on!

My cousin was hoping to tie a particular last name to her family. When I found her grandparents' NYC marriage certificate, I had the answer. The bride's mother had the last name we were looking for.

That's a perfect example of a fact I wouldn't believe or accept without seeing the document for myself.

I hope you find hints that set you on the right research path. Just remember, they may be way off base.


  1. Good advice. If the potential parents have only a family tree as the source, I don't bother. If actual sources are attached, I can evaluate the evidence for myself.

    1. That's how I see it, too. In the case above, I'd just confirmed Larry's parents' names with the 1950 census. So even though the potential parents were from a tree, I knew they were the right names. That tree turned out to be very good.

  2. I too work with hints, but cautiously...As you point out here, sometimes they can lead to breakthroughs. Genealogist Connie Knox refers to them as "low-hanging fruit". I'm always careful to assess every single one and if I choose to add one I'm not sure of, I make a note of that in the Description area and download the image to my computer for safe-keeping. Rarely do I add anything to my main database until I'm sure it's correct. I used to use Ancestry's Shoebox feature, but I gather its days might be numbered and it's pretty useless as it can't be sorted or searched.

  3. This has been a frequently discussed topic in the Ancestry Users group I visit often, and the cause for many arguments. My comment offered pretty much the same guidelines. What I do is take a screen shot to save, then save it to PDF which eventually might get printed. Printed info goes into a disorganized folder I keep on top of the physical desk, in other words, actual paper in a manila folder cluttering the desk, as I work best this way. It takes time to sort and thoroughly research these hints, and I don't enter names unless I have at least one valid source, i.e. an image of any official record that ties him/her to my ancestors.

    1. It can cause me some stress, but if I see a hint with good prospects, I have to work through it then and there. No saving. Now or never! We each know what style works best for us.

  4. My top tip about working from hints comes from Crista Cowan at Ancestry (it's in one of her Barefoot Genealogy videos). Evaluate all the hints for a person as a group. In the video, Crista opened a tab for each hint and rearranged the tabs in her browser so they were in chronological order. If you have two same-name people who lived in two different locations, looking at the group of hints as a group makes the pattern stand out.

    1. Yes, I love that idea. And I love Crista's multiple tabs method. I think I was already doing that when I heard her explain it years ago. It works well for evaluating hints.