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How Far Back Did You Get?

It’s usually the first question any family historian receives from an interested relative: ‘How far back did you get?' Curiosity abounds and the pressure is on, anticipation mounting with each second.

1800s is vanilla.

1700s is interesting.

1600s is a jolly good show.

1500s is well, anything in King Henry the Eighth or Queen Elizabeth the First’s time is ‘… wonderfully exciting and how do you read all that horrible squiggly writing?’

And so begins the race for a lofty family tree, a race that tempts many an amateur researcher into taking a few shortcuts. Assume a date here, pencil in a possible placeholder name there ('Mary Smith – she’s just got to be my ancestor!'). All of this is done in the rush to triumphantly crow, ‘The family tree is finished.’

Fact: family trees are never ‘finished.’

Family trees are added to, pruned and enhanced with additional proven information, however, the word ‘finished’ isn’t in the vocabulary of the serious genealogist. There is always more to add, another ancestral line to explore, or a new archive deposit coming online that will shed new light on one’s ancestor who was a shoemaker in London.

Be reasonable. Have rational expectations. Accept the fact that you will likely be fortunate to get one ancestral line—exceptionally well proven with reference sources—back to the 1500s. Researchers claiming they have proven their lineage back to the Vikings, well, they have some paperwork to produce.

A recent foray into a genealogy website, one that allows others to update another researcher’s family tree, yielded the following treasures from one family in nineteenth century England:

1) addition of three children to the family before the couple were married. (Yes, it did happen sometimes, but the proof and documentation needed for this case were missing).

2) addition of another three children with the same-named parents, but who lived in a distant parish (remember there was no easy form of transport like today). One of these children was born only four months after a previous child.

AND the absolute winner:

3) an infant added to the same couple’s list of offspring, said child born a full 13 years after the mother died.

An important lesson is learned here. Family history isn’t a race to prove your family tree is better or taller than another researcher’s. Rather, focus on making your family tree the best proven one. Sources, evidence, documentation: these are what should impress both colleagues and relatives, not the earliest date on the family tree.

Need guidance on how to research properly?

Read the latest blog from Paul Chiddicks:


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