What does it mean when FamilySearch tells you there are possible duplicates? In this article, we'll discuss what's going on in your tree and why, and we'll learn how to fix it.
What's really going on when this happens?
The FamilySearch system shows every person for whom research has been done by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints since the mid-nineteenth century. When new people use the system, at first it doesn't show you any of this. It only shows you what it knows about you and your family. But if you work at it long enough, your tree will eventually get to the point where it includes someone whose research has already been completed by another FamilySearch user.
The more this happens, the more of your family tree you can see, if others have been working on your same relatives. Each time this happens, the system realizes you've created an ancestor on your tree that looks very much like one that already exists. Maybe the two have a similar name, similar wife's name, and lived in the same time or near the same place - close enough to get flagged as a potential duplicate.
This causes the system to update the number next to the "Possible Duplicates" link in the right-hand column. Has this happened to you? If so, go ahead and get to the "Person" page for that ancestor in your tree, and click on the "Possible Duplicates" link.
You'll get a screen that looks something like this:
On the left you see what I have in FamilySearch. On the right you see information from the potential duplicate.
Now, I know from my own records that the John Bryson I'm researching was born about 1828, but I only have census records. This says he was born in 1826. If this person's research on the birth of John Bryson turns out to be more complete and correct, this could in fact be the same person. In my records, John died on 27 May 1870, same as above. Both show that he and his wife are from Ireland and that they came to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in about 1849-1850. Both show similar children with similar birth dates.
Here, you just have to click into this other copy of your ancestor and verify the research. You have to make a judgement call as to whether or not these are the same person. If you're not sure, don't merge! Undoing a merge means duplicating research effort, manually disconnecting relatives and reconnecting them to the right people -- it's a mess!
When in doubt, it's usually better not to merge; it's best to do more research first!
Once you are satisfied that these are the same person, you want to copy information into the left side that needs to be saved into the remaining copy of your ancestor after the merge.
For example, let's say you only have the first and last name. If the other copy happens to have the middle name, you want to be sure and "Replace" it. Sometimes you may have to make a mental note or copy and paste into a text editor, then add something back in by editing the "Person" profile after you complete the merge.
Whether or not the two versions have all the same people, you want to add them all anyway. Be careful though, as there are going to be exceptions to this rule. In some cases, adding all the duplicate people over like this makes FamilySearch aware that the same spouse and siblings you're adding (assuming they exist) are also duplicates. This gives you a way of preserving that information so you can go down the list of siblings and spouses later and merge by ID if FamilySearch doesn't happen to catch it.
Click "Confirm Merge".
Go down through all the affected family members and rinse and repeat until all the duplicate people added into your family line have been merged. Now the pre-existing tree has been completely merged with your tree. You can see the other users' family tree, and they can see yours.
It is at this point that having good, complete, well-documented research becomes critical: you don't want to give other people a reason to change what you've done. It's best to find missing spouses and to put children with the right marriages. This way, their appearance in later households doesn't cause confusion to another user who will be unfamiliar with the research you've done when they first encounter it.
As a rule, I don't ever add a new ancestor to FamilySearch until I've done the research and am in a position to fully document my work before logging out.
That's basically all there is to merging. It's a powerful tool the effect of which cannot be undone, so obviously you want to tread lightly.
To get an idea of what manually "un-merging" will be like, should you ever need to do it, read my article about being a discerning family history detective.
Best of luck to you in merging FamilySearch duplicates, and I hope this page saves you from making the mistakes I made while I was learning all this stuff!