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"Beyond the Index"

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/20/2003

Beyond the Pedigree Presentation

For the past two years, my children have done “family tree” projects as a part of their 4-H exhibits. And while we had a reasonably good time working on the project, I realized there were other ways to present information besides creating a family tree. Frankly, a “family tree” is still a “family tree,” even if the letters are fancy and pictures are added. Virtually every other child’s project was some close variant of a pedigree chart.

While I’m not opposed to the use of family trees to visualize relationships and to make a display of one’s heritage, I think that there might be other kinds of approaches that are just as interesting and informative. This week we will look at some other ways children can present family history. Some of these ways can be used by adults as well--particularly at family reunions.


A significant number of my children’s ancestors were post-1850 immigrants. From 1847 to 1883, thirty-five of their ancestors made the voyage from Europe to the United States. We have been fortunate enough to find the name of the ship and date and place of landing for approximately three-fourths of these ancestors. There are several ways we could display that information:

  • Create a chronology showing all of the dates of known immigration.
  • Choose several ancestors and obtain maps showing their village of origin and pictures of the ship, where possible.
  • Pick one ancestral family and learn what we can about their trip, from their village of origin to their final destination. From where did the ship sail? Where did the ship land? What can we find out about the kind of ship on which the ancestor sailed? Can we find a picture of the exact ship or a similar one? How did the immigrant likely get from where they originally landed to where they finally settled?
  • Determine what things an immigrant would likely have taken on their voyage.
  • Create a pie chart showing as each slice your children’s different ethnic background. Mine have a large slice listed as “unknown ethnic background.” This can build on math skills as well.


    Another project is to locate all my children’s great-grandparents in 1930. Since I’ve already located these entries myself, I’ll have the child “re-find” the family in the 1930 census with a little direction. After all, what good is it if I just hand them copies?

    Ancestry’s online indexes to the 1930 census will greatly facilitate this process and we won’t even have to leave our home to complete this project. While helping my daughter search, I will try to avoid giving her an hour-long lecture on spelling, Soundex, and other census pitfalls. I will only tell her what she needs to know in order to find the individuals I have already found. Finding eight people, especially if I have already located them myself, should not be too problematic.

    We will print out a nice copy of at least part of the 1930 census image for each of these eight great-grandparents to use on our display.

    We will mount these printouts on a poster board. Additional items on the display could include:

  • A map showing where all these people were living in 1930 (in our case, we only need the northern half of Illinois)
  • A map showing the birthplace of all these people and their parents (in our case we need from New York State to Missouri)
  • A chart showing the great-grandparents’ ages in 1930 (in my case they ranged from 6 to 26)
  • A listing of the occupations of the individuals located, if applicable (in our cases, the great-grandparents and their father’s occupations included several farmers; a bus driver; a laborer; a city sewer worker for the City of DuPage, Illinois; a setter of pins in a bowling alley; and a drug store clerk)


    Genealogists love maps and given their visual nature, they may appeal to a child more than a display that is largely text. To prevent being overwhelmed, there are several different ways we could create a presentation using a map:

  • Map the places of birth of all ancestors up to the great-great-grandparents. Including the child, this would total thirty-one places of birth and could be another way to partially show where the family originated. In our case, the places of birth would only include five states. If we went back to the great-great-great-grandparents, we would have several states and a handful of European countries as well.
  • Map the places in which one ancestor lived during his or her lifetime. Many genealogists also use this technique, which can be an interesting way to view an ancestor’s life.
  • Map the places where an ancestor’s children or grandchildren settled. This can be a useful way to see how the family has spread out over a few generations.
  • Map the places where the children’s ancestors through a specified number of generations are buried.
  • Make a small map of one cemetery showing where a specified number of family members are buried. A map of the entire cemetery may be too large of an undertaking, but one showing just family members should be more manageable. This is something the genealogist should be doing anyway.


    For those who really want to use a family tree, why not include an obituary of each ancestor instead of a picture? If marriage announcements or notices can be found, considering placing those between the ancestor’s names on the tree as a way of connecting the two individuals together. This approach is slightly different from one that is traditionally used. And for the adult genealogist in the family, it might motivate them to locate some items they have overlooked in their research.


    Another variant on the family tree theme would be to use pictures of tombstones instead of actual ancestral pictures. Children with photography projects could combine their work on both projects and learn about taking photographs in different light, at different angles, etc.


    Instead of using pictures on a family tree chart, find magazine or other pictures to represent the occupation of each ancestor and place these next to the ancestor’s name.


    Another variant on the family tree approach is to use ancestral signatures instead of pictures. Place the signatures next the individual’s name on the chart in place of pictures. Another interesting method of presentation is to display as many signatures of relatives with the same surname as possible, showing the handwriting variations over the years. This can be especially dramatic if some signatures are several centuries old or are from ancestors who learned to write in a formal script in a non-English language.

    Locating ancestral signatures was discussed in an Ancestry Daily News article in 2000:


    We have only scratched the surface. Hopefully we have given those who have to create a presentation some ideas to get them started on their project. There’s more your child can do to “present” their family tree than simply filling out a pedigree chart with names. Being creative with the presentation (not with the data) may make the project more interesting for the child and for you. Working with your child (or grandchild, niece, nephew, etc.) will be a good experience and hopefully both of you will learn something during the process.

    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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