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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 5/17/2000


Three Questions

There are three questions I have been asked more times than I care to remember. Each one irritates me in a different way and illustrates a common misunderstanding about genealogical research.

How far back have you traced your family tree?
The misunderstanding here is that the number of ancestorsí names you know somehow implies a level of skill at genealogy. However, there are many genealogists, both "professionals" and very serious and knowledgeable "amateurs," who have lines they cannot extend beyond 1850. Their inability to trace their family into antiquity (read: Adam and Eve) does not imply that they are not capable genealogists.

There are many reasons why a line cannot be traced beyond a certain date. The reasons frequently center on a lack of records (or access to what records are available), some type of incorrect or unknown information, or a common name. I have three great-great-grandparents for whom I have no parentsí names and one for whom I have the name of a father and nothing else. It is not for lack of trying. It is a lack of making a connection that is logical and reasonable.

Genealogy is more than attempting to see how many names I can enter or import into my database. It is about connecting individuals to others in my file when the connection is reasonable, plausible, and supported by evidence. That is not to say that every connection can be proven one hundred percent, but rather that the connection is logical.

It would be tempting to just "grab" a parent for my Ira Sargent or Ellen Butler and go from there. It would extend my pedigree. But alas, it will take work, time, perseverance, and just a little bit of luck to find the "right" parent. I also realize that itís important to go back and re-evaluate previously held conclusions. Iíve got one ancestor I need to remove from my ahnentafel chart in light of new information. And Iíve got one more that Iím convinced was not born on this planet.

Rather than be concerned about how far back weíve traced or how many names we know, we should focus on how accurately we have traced what we have. For those who "get into" accuracy, it can be just as fun as "collecting." Just remember that not everything will be proven one hundred percent and that thereís not a primary source for everything.

Are you related to anyone famous?
To the best of my knowledge, no, and itís never been the goal of my research. Thereís a possible relationship to former President Carter, but one has to trace back to nearly 1720 to make it, and the connection is currently under suspicion. I have no famous ancestors nor close relatives who qualify as "famous" either. Most toiled in relative obscurity.

And whatís so wrong with that?

When I was in high school and I won an award for something, I was asked about genealogy, and the "famous relative" issue came up. I replied that my ancestors were "just farmers" and have long thought that the word "just" should have been left out of my reply. The reporter was looking for some connection to fame and fortune and certainly didnít find it in my ancestral chart.

The names on my pedigree chart are not found in any national history books or biographical works. All of my families from 1850 on were farmers, none with vast landed estates. Most of my families before that were in the same situation, although some were a little more well-off than others. My wifeís ancestors, who were more urban than mine, were mainly artisans and laborers. No rich and famous there either.

And this is likely similar to the background of many other genealogists. Tales of rich forebears, castles, and ten thousand-acre estates are most likely that—tales. While your ancestor might not appear in the index of your childís history book, it is important to remember that history might have impacted him or her in one way or another.

  • One of my wifeís ancestors was one of the "Kingís Daughters" who came to Quebec in the 1600s.

  • One of my ancestors was an English convict sent to America in 1764.

  • One of my ancestors nearly lost his farm after the American Revolution because the landlord was a British subject and the property was intended to be sold at auction.

  • One of my ancestors was censured by the Virginia House of Burgesses for bringing "punch" to an election. (The punch was not Kool-Aidģ!)

    How long has your family been here?
    This question is difficult for the genealogist to answer. Frequently, the non-genealogist does not even want to hear the "real" answer to the question, as an accurate answer is likely a long one.

    I have lived in the town I currently reside in for three years. Thatís easy enough to answer. But the question usually refers to how long my family has been in America or Canada, and that oneís not always so easy to answer because they didnít all immigrate at the same time.

    I have fourteen ancestors (or complete families) that immigrated at various times, ranging from 1764 until 1883. These are only the ones I have been fortunate enough to document. There are dozens of others for whom I have no immigration information at all. And I may never be able to get it, especially for those families who settled here before the American Revolution.

    I can honestly say that half of my family came here between 1850 and 1883. The other half came at various times ranging from the 1600s to 1864. Where they were all from I cannot say.

    But the length of time my (or your) family has been here is not really the issue. The issue is learning about them as best and as accurately as you can. It is also important to remember that peoples have been moving around on the globe for thousands of years.

    One interesting idea is to create an immigration timeline, showing the various years your ancestors arrived and where they came from. Creating such a timeline provides you with a better overview of your family and may help you notice gaps in your research.

    When it comes right down to it, these three questions have little to do with genealogy. So the next time you are asked one of these questions, please consider whether it has any impact on your research.

    Good Luck.

    Copyright 2000, Michael John Neill.
    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 Magazine and Genealogical Computing.

  • Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill

     1930 Census Online   

    Genealogy Section of Ebay

    ---type in your surname or county and state in the search box that comes up on the left hand side of your screen. I've found and purchased several books this way!