Monday, July 3, 2017

How Many of Your Ancestors Do You Really Know About?

A while back I read an interesting blog post by Blaine Bettinger on his "The Genetic Genealogist" blog. The title of Blaine's post was "How Much of Your Family Tree Do You Know? And Why Does That Matter?" [1], and was mostly concerned about the implications of finding connections with DNA matches. This is a very interesting idea and I would encourage you to read his post if you are interested in using DNA testing in genealogy (as I am), but I bring this topic up for other reasons, which I'll discuss below.

A Look at the Numbers

First, let's look at the numbers; we've probably all seen some variation of this idea somewhere. We all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, etc. The number of direct ancestors in any previous generation is just 2 to the nth power, where n is the generation number, parents = generation 1, grandparents = generation 2, etc. The table below shows how many ancestors each of us has in 10 generations (along with how I am doing); I will explain the columns as we go.

Consider this for a moment -- Nicholas Ackley is my 7th great grandfather (I suspect for most readers of this blog he is probably around there as well); that is 9 generations away from me and from the "Total # of Possible Ancestors" column under the "BY GENERATION" heading we can see that he is only one of 512 7th great grandparents that I have. The same is true for any more distant generation -- your Ackley ancestor is only one of tens, if not hundreds, of direct ancestors you have in that generation. The point here is that if you spend all of your time researching your direct line, you are ignoring a large part of your ancestry that could be just as interesting as the line that gave you your surname. I know I have been guilty of spending more time on my Ackley line than other lines at times; I think we are naturally drawn to the family that gave us our surname.

Another interesting point that can be taken from this table -- if you go out 10 generations (which gets back to around the year 1600 for me), you can see from the "Total # of Possible Ancestors" column under the "OVERALL" heading that you have 2046 people in your tree, which means 2046 people to research. You can see that I am not doing so well when I look that far out; I have only identified 49 of my 1024 tenth generation direct ancestors (only 5%), and in total I have only identified 295 of the 2046 ancestors within 10 generations, which is only 14%. I'm doing pretty well out to the 5th generation; I am only missing 4 of the 62 ancestors in the first five generations, so I have identified 94% of those generations. But, if anyone asks me if my family tree is done yet, all I have to do is point to the 10th generation numbers and say "Not even close!".

How Much Do You Know?

In the process of populating the table above, I decided to make a list of all of the direct ancestors that I have identified as well as the important pieces of information I have for each one. Here is what the table looks like for the first four generations (I have hidden my parents since my dad is still living). Note that the color coding for each generation matches the color coding in the first table above. (My actual table goes all the way to the 10th generation, but for space considerations I only included the first 4.) 

I try to get at least the five pieces of information given in the table above when I add someone to my tree -- birth date, marriage date, death date, burial location (with a picture of the headstone), and an obituary. Of course I don't have all of these bits of information for everyone in my tree, but that is always the goal. Looks like I am doing pretty well for the first four generations. For this table my standard for putting a "Yes" in the "Document?" column for each of the first three dates is pretty strict -- if I don't have a piece of paper (or an electronic copy) with official verification of the date, I put a "No" in that column. That is probably a little more stringent than I need to be -- for many of those dates I have actually viewed the official records at a courthouse and taken notes on it, but since I didn't want to pay up to $20 to get a copy of each one (and courthouse rules prevent me from taking pictures of the records) I don't have a physical document with the date on it. So, for most of the dates shown above I do indeed have a reliable source for the information, but I don't necessarily have the piece of paper to go along with it. There are only 3 dates that I don't know and 4 burials I don't know, but I have some work to do obtaining actual documents. I'm also doing pretty well on headstone pictures and obituaries.

There are two main benefits that came out of this exercise:

(1) I now have a good summary of the basic facts I know about my direct ancestors
(2) I have a good quick reference that shows me where I have work to do

I could probably get reports from my genealogy software that would give me similar information, but going through the exercise made me realize what I have left to do. I feel good about what I have done so far, but there is much more work to be done.

Discussion Questions

  • How are you doing -- how many of your direct ancestors have you found?
  • How do you track your important data for your direct ancestors? Any other suggestions on how to stay on top of this?
  • What standards do you use for proving vital dates; i.e., what documentation do you personally require to be satisfied that you have the right information?

Link of the Day

The following link is for an article that was written quite some time ago (2011), but it is relevant to the topic of this post. It has an interesting discussion on the notion of pedigree collapse:

Quote of the Day

"Well done is better than well said."

--Benjamin Franklin


1. Blaine Bettinger, "How Much of Your Family Tree Do You Know? And Why Does That Matter?", The Genetic Genealogist, posted 11 August 2015 ( accessed 6 May 2017).

1 comment:

  1. Mike -- thanks for sharing this information. I follow Bettinger's blog too so have seen it, but I think it is great food for thought. Your blog is excellent. The facts you present in your other articles on the Ackleys are well documented. Again thanks for the work you have done on the Ackleys and for sharing it with others.