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Do people really trace their family trees back that far?
April 28, 2011 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Do people really trace their family trees back that far? I'm pretty much dead-ended in the 1850s.

Here's my experience in doing research as a 4th gen immigrant American:

1930-present: pretty easy since these are people's grandparents and living people know the facts you need
~1870-1930: census records are available every 10 years that cover the people here pretty well, although there are some big gaps
before 1870: the barriers moving to this level seem huge, since the scant records that do exist are often only on paper in a foreign country

So I'm wondering how these "serious" genealogists do it. Is it that they have more history in the US, like the DAR, so it is somewhat easier?
posted by smackfu to Society & Culture (52 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried Googling some of the more unique names in your family history? I've found genealogy work done by other people who include names from my tree.
posted by Lucinda at 6:36 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are also other resources available outside of census records, such as newspapers, microfilm, etc for things such as obituaries/wedding announcements.
posted by litnerd at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2011

Are you asking about tracing family within the US, or overseas before they emigrated? In the UK, the National Archives have a lot of their records online. The collection includes government records going back 1000 years, and personal records including bmds back to 1837 for England and Wales, and 1553 for Scotland. Not all of them are online, but quite a few, by the look of it.
posted by penguin pie at 6:45 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was able to connect to my distant family tree (past my grandfather) just by seeing what other people had done on Once I connected my recent family history to someone else's work, I was able to take my surname back to 1670 in the US and 1570 in Norfolk, UK.

The downside, is I have not verified that information is correct (although I assume it is fairly accurate due to there being some history behind the name), but at least it is a good starting point for research.
posted by qwip at 6:45 AM on April 28, 2011

Is there a genealogical society for your surname? Those are very helpful.
posted by la petite marie at 6:45 AM on April 28, 2011

I think one of my great-aunts traced our family tree back to the late-middle ages. Most Europeans can probably go that far back, but no further because of a few hundred years of sparse or non-existent records.
posted by atrazine at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2011

My mom and her sisters and cousins have traced our ancestry back to mid-seventeenth century Germany. My pastor traces his back to thirteenth-century Scotland.

So, yes, people do this. It helps to have family records available.
posted by valkyryn at 6:47 AM on April 28, 2011

Depending on a) what ethnicity you're talking about and b) how common your surname is, you may have challenges. I've been trying to track down information about my Irish ancestor for a while now -- we know the name, birthdate, and birthplace of the first guy born in America, and I've even gotten some census records that list him and his death certificate. But on all those documents, the birthplace of his parents is listed simply as "Ireland" -- no town, no county, nothing else but "Ireland." And well, we knew that...

The problem was that that guy's parents came over sometime during the Famine, and U.S. immigration records for Irish immigrants during the years of the Famine are kind of a mess because they were pretty overwhelmed. (I always imagine the officials at all the ports just kind of throwing up their hands and saying, "whatever, just come in, we'll sort out the paperwork later".) So combine that with the fact that my Irish forbear's name was kind of common for the period ("James Hurley") and it's gonna be a challenge. So I'm left with a branch on the tree that goes back as far as 1849, and that's it for now.

Other groups and countries have had other challenges -- a friend of mine pointed out that in a lot of cases, records on Eastern European Jews probably may be hard to come by, because a lot of the records overseas may have been destroyed during the Third Reich. I'm sure the former Soviet Union records may have had similar paperwork purges.

This isn't to say that going back further isn't totally impossible, but in some cases, it's more of a challenge.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:55 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dad has traced his side back to the early middle ages. Other people have done most of the work, for him it's just a matter of gathering the information.

He's had a few things go in his favor. Those things include having ancestors that are either nobles or who worked for the nobles and were favored enough to be mentioned in some kind of historical document.

My mom has dead ended on her genealogy because one of her ancestors literally rode in to town one day and nobody knew where he came from or who he "really" was.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:56 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think sites like provide a lot of this material scanned in for you, which makes it much easier, and you also get some "crowd sourced" help gahering and verifying records. It does sometimes seem a bit speculative, though.
posted by ch1x0r at 6:57 AM on April 28, 2011

We are back to two 11th century ancestors of ours on two branches (though the branch split a couple hundred years ago.) The majority of my father's tree is back to the 18th century now. My wife's father's trees go back to the 16th century and her mother's trees we have close to the 18th century. However, we have almost nothing pre-20th century on my mother's side as it is completely bare of records (Greek), so we only have personal testimony which is becoming hard to collect.

Pre-America, it all depends on whether you descend from a record-keeping culture or a family with a coat of arms, some historical note, etc. If neither of those are the case then the dead ends you face are real assuming everybody is running into them. With some international travel, you might find gravestones, but you need to be sure what your connections are to the area in order to be sure who is buried under them. In practice you can't go more than an extra generation back based on guessing who is buried in which graves, because the cumulative uncertainty becomes quite large. is good about letting you record guesses about family trees that others can confirm, thankfully, so the inconclusive research you do is still helpful.
posted by michaelh at 6:58 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the U.S. there are plenty of records such as census forms and land purchase agreements that extend far earlier than the 1870's...and businesses like are constantly digitizing them. I can fairly easily trace my paternal line to the 1600's just using common online sources (although it helps that I share a surname with a major online genealogist).

My wife can trace her ancestry to the 1200's because her father was born in Germany- in the 1930's his family was required to provide extensive documentation to prove they weren't of Jewish ancestry.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 6:59 AM on April 28, 2011

I've traced my father's side back to the 1730s in America (when my ancestor and his brothers emigrated from Ireland), but after that it's definitely a little more difficult. If I trust the research done by others online, I can push that back to 1455, or even further (although by the 1500s, the last name is spelled 5-7 different ways, so things get a little iffy). If I trace JUST the clan name past then, I can get to a reference in the Annals of the Four Masters in 806, but that's kind of pushing the boundaries. Google can be your friend here. Also be aware that immigration records can be really confusing; my fiance's great-grandfather and his brothers had their surnames written as O'Donnell, McDonnell, MacDonald, and MacDonnell when they first came to America.
posted by specialagentwebb at 7:08 AM on April 28, 2011

Irish records tend to dead-end because of the Four Courts fire of 1922.
posted by scruss at 7:11 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

A lot of it is luck: whether your ancestors came from a place that kept good records (i.e. Europe, mostly), whether those records survived the years (most of Ireland's didn't), and how many genealogists in the past several decades have done the hardest parts (traveling to cemeteries, small-town registrars in the old country, poring over microfilm records of births/deaths/marriages, etc.).
Cyndi's list is a terrific resource. Probably the best place to start.
Ancestry is expensive but good–see if your public library has a subscription before you pay for it.
RootsWeb used to be better–nowadays, it's mostly a marketing hook for Ancestry.
I like Geni a lot. It's a good take on genealogy-as-social-networking.
Your local public library and/or historical society can probably put you in touch with a professional genealogist in your area. They can give you a fuller picture of the actual process than I can.
posted by willpie at 7:17 AM on April 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

We're back to 1200-something on one branch because some jackass got himself knighted (this resulted in no particular wealth, renown, or nobility, but it does mean people actually kept records of his family, particularly since he owed various feudal duties to other, wealthier dudes). Other branches peter out in the mid-1800s when the poor peasants from nowhere in particular arrived in the U.S. So it really just depends. It helps to have ancestors who were landowners or who came from relatively well-organized, rarely-invaded parts of Europe where baptismal records didn't get constantly lit on fire. But people didn't so much come to the U.S. because their lives in the old country were AWESOME. Lots more nameless peasants desperate enough to get on a ship to the other end of beyond.

Lots of good resources and research opportunities on the internet these days ... there are sites you can sign up with to volunteer to go to research for people in far-off places who want tombstone info or birth certificates or church records or whatever.

But in the days before internet, you wrote very polite letters to far-distant town halls, churches, cemetery keepers, libraries, etc. Sometimes with one copy in English and one poorly-translated copy in the target language. "I am looking for information about so-and-so, who emigrated to New York and died in 1852; we believe he came from Upper Klemenshir where he may have been a shepherd, and that he was baptized Catholic ..."

Although you have to figure, that's your "official" ancestry, but a certain non-negligible proportion of those births have to be irregular (cheating wife who produces some other man's child while the genealogy is still traced patrilineally; awkward family situation where everyone pretends so-and-so's kid is actually someone else's) ... so I'm never sure how much it matters anyway, though it's terribly interesting if you like history, since it personalizes it. Which is probably excuse enough.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:19 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personal records can help as well. I have my father's mother's family bible, which has hand-written records in it back to the 1700's.
(On the other hand, my paternal line goes back 6 generations or so until it comes up against a 'born-out-of-wedlock' notation, so there's sometimes 'luck' involved)
posted by MtDewd at 7:23 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

It depends on what country your ancestors were in.

In England, there was no census until 1801, but parishes started keeping records of baptisms, burials and marriages from the mid-16th century. Not all - some have their register books from 1538 forward, while others may have "lost" the old ones and only have them from about 1780 or 1800 forward. But missing registers can be supplemented with what are called "Bishop's transcripts" - the copy of the register sent to the local Bishop. In many English counties, these registers and transcripts have been transcribed and indexed by family name by local family & history societies. Given good luck, extant sources, and a family that doesn't move much or very far, it's not that hard to trace a family back to 1670 or 1560. I don't know the local records of other European countries well, but I gather that baptism, burial and marriage registers existed in a number of places from a relatively early period.

People who happen to be descended from landed families - farmers or landlords - may be able to trace their family back further through the manorial records, which can go back into the middle ages. I would be wary, personally, of genealogies claimed by families - families on the make through sheep farming or lawyering (like those upstarts, the Cecils) might make up a more noble heritage than was reality.

And even given good records, there is a great deal to family history that can be tenuous. Both family names and personal names could be repeated in a given village - if you see a given John King being born in 1617, are you sure it's the right John King? what about the John King born in 1615 to two different parents (maybe a cousin, maybe not even related). Historians who do family reconstruction to study population trends actually start with marriages because then you have the names of both parents to find the kids, but in early baptismal registers there may only be the father's name - and, of course, if the family leaves the village (as poorer sorts were wont to do, richer villagers were more likely to stay) they disapeer from the study.
posted by jb at 7:25 AM on April 28, 2011

Certainly it is easier if the names you're researching are unusual. I hit a roadblock in the Azores with Nunes, in the Netherlands with van Poppel, and in Ireland with Lyons. England was a bit easier with parish records, but my people were essentially hod-carrier stock from the City of London, and so no coats of arms for me.

In the US, historical societies are helpful, but things still get difficult without good family records around the 18th century.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:25 AM on April 28, 2011

I've traced lines of my family tree back to the 1300s on, but have not personally verified them so they could be a big bunch of BS. It depends on where your family comes from though.

Most of my maternal grandfather's family came over to Massachusetts from England in the late 1600s, so that's easy enough. Same with my paternal grandmother's family (although her father was supposedly adopted, so that makes things hard.) My maternal grandmother's line can only go back to just before the Dawes rolls - Indians didn't really keep written records.

But my paternal grandfather's parents immigrated from Norway at the turn of the century and apparently there was a huge records fire in Norway so they're all gone. That, coupled with the fact that oldemor was named Anna Olsen has made tracing that line next to impossible. Do you KNOW how many Anna Olsens have existed in Norway? Then Oldefar changed his name when he immigrated and I'm not sure exactly what his given name was. And his last name was a very common Norwegian farmer's name. It's all very frustrating.

Genealogy is like a game of chance. You might get lucky and you might not.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:25 AM on April 28, 2011

Do people really trace their family trees back that far?

There is an incredible amount of cheating and poor research in genealogy that wouldn't pass muster in any of the academic realms I can think of. Most popular genealogy is a rickety structure of bullshit, lies, fraud, fakes, wishful thinking, self-indulgence, mistakes, and utter incompetence.

The main problems are little primary research (second-, third-, fourth-, nth-hand quoting), lots of problems with document provenance (including problems with "cleaned" (or doctored) photos, letters and private records), multi-generation copies that are difficult to read: microfilm to photostats to photocopies to scanners to fax to printers etc., as well as problems with notes being rewritten by hand from the backs of photos.

If you find your own tree connects to someone else's tree that goes back centuries further than you are able to prove, be careful about borrowing that tree. It is incredibly common to find that it is impossible to prove some of the connections the other person has made. They don't have the documentation, can't remember where they got it, and often don't seem much interested in proving what they're claiming to be true. It's enough for them that it *could* be true, or that they *want* it to be true. They really want to show connections to some mythical past and they'll stretch every kind of fact to get there.

The most common cheats are:

--Assuming two people with the same, or just similar, names in the same town must be the same, even if other details are different. Sometimes they're just in the same county, or even just in the same state. A lot of this depends upon the single fact that spelling in the past has been less consistent than it is now, which is true -- but even if modern ideas of spelling consistency should not be used to judge past spellers, modern ideas of quality research *should* be used to judge past record-keeping.

--Borrowing whole other branches without verifying each node.

--Making up ancestors to connect two trees. I mean, completely out of whole cloth. Utterly invented. Big trees will have things like "GGGGGGG Smith ?-?" (the "?-?" being the missing birth-death dates) buried in them. Take that name out, whole branches of the tree collapse.

--Reporting family rumor and hearsay as fact without printed documentation. This is fine for a collection of family stories, but it too often is reduced to a family tree of some sort, in which it looks firm, solid, and legit and is taken as fact, then retransmitted to other people who are connected to the same tree.

--Failure to properly hedge, caveat, waffle and cavil. Doubt is one of those things that seems to be mostly missing, where when this work is done by professionals, there are constantly asterisks and footnotes that indicate just how doubtful the researcher is. Of course, when the work is borrowed by amateurs, the asterisks and the footnotes tend to vanish.

Of course, much of genealogy is done as a hobby and its practitioners shouldn't necessarily be held to academic standards. And little harm is being done if mistakes are made or facts are stretched. But to me, the solid provable facts are what make it interesting. I'm more entranced by hundred-year-old census records with my great-grandparents on it than I am by a possible connection to a Swiss canton in the 1500s that has no documentation whatsoever.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:27 AM on April 28, 2011 [18 favorites]

If what you're interested in is building a tree rather than doing primary source research, as much as I hate the ads and the emails, I really do recommend for this. If you are American, you can build your tree back as far as you can go and the overwhelming odds are that other people have overlapped and done the primary source research for you.

Otherwise, in the US you want the Mormons, in the UK you want the National Archives, in Ireland you want a time machine, and anywhere else you basically want a local genealogist and a lot of luck.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:28 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have said, I think a lot of it depends on where your ancestors were from.

Waaaaaay back in the early days of the internet, when most of the online genealogy resources were still free, I was able to trace some of my French ancestors back to the middle ages. I think the whole process took less than half a day - it was that easy. IIRC it was the LDS church records that had the most info, even though my ancestors were never LDS members.

Finding any info older than the turn of the last century for my non-religious Catholic ancestors, and my central Asian ancestors, was impossible though. It seems a lot of European ancestry info comes from church records, but if the family members were not members of a church, records were not kept.
posted by chez shoes at 7:28 AM on April 28, 2011

I should add, we have like a third or fourth cousin who's very into genealogy (she's the one who's gotten it back to 1200) and has been doing this for longer than I've been alive. She used to send basically a Christmas letter to ALL the living relatives she'd found with an updated family tree and a little list of information she needed from far-distant places, if anyone happened to be going there. And indeed, if we happened to be vacationing near that place, or my dad had a business trip nearby, someone would take a short detour to spend half a day trying to get a baptismal record in Quebec or taking pictures of a tombstone in Normandy. Lots of people just ignored it all, but plenty were interested enough to create an extended family network to help her in the research. Even, like, sixth cousins studying abroad or whatever.

When I was 13 or so I went on a tombstone-finding expedition with my dad to get a birth and death date and a spousal name for someone (alas, no parent names), and we mailed it to her and she wrote back, a few weeks later, a letter with what genealogy that had clarified and what new research avenues having that information opened up for her, and I could totally see how people get hooked on this type of research. It was so fascinatingly rewarding to get so much information off one old stone. :) Definitely a worthwhile endeavor for a kid and made me more interested in history generally.

Nowadays she has a facebook group for our family and does a lot more of her research via internet methods (including belonging to sites where amateur genealogists sign up to do research for each other in places local to them). But I really admire her and her hobby, it's totally fascinating and she was "crowdsourcing" before there was such a thing! :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:30 AM on April 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

As others here have experienced, my sister has had a lot of luck using to find distant relations that have basically already done a lot of the work for her. We are only 2nd generation Americans so most of the work had to be done outside the country.

You were wondering how these "serious" genealogists do it; well a lot of the ones I know travel back to the "homeland." My brother and sister took a trip to a small island in the Azores, birthplace of my paternal grandfather. They came knowing almost zero Portuguese, but had copies of family photos in a small album. They stopped the first older gentleman that they saw who seemed to be the right age to maybe remember our grandfather and his family. Long story short, my siblings were meeting long lost family members later that day. Other people have had to go the more traditional route, which is typically visiting local institutions such as archives or churches to review records that have not yet been digitized looking up family names. Of course you'd have to have gotten to the point where you are pretty certain that your distant relatives lived in that area. And coming full circle back to my sister and; she has just pigbacked on the work that has already been done on our family tree by others; she's contacted these people. Just last fall she spent a few days in Provence visiting with some relative on our mother's side of the family about which we knew very little before my sister got into our family history. Indeed it turned out that most of what we'd been told about that side of the family is incorrect.
posted by kaybdc at 7:31 AM on April 28, 2011

Someday I will get myself to Europe and spend a month or two digging in local archives. Not going to happen anytime soon for me, alas. But there's still a lot you can do without going in person.

With a combination of online research and letter-writing, I've found four of our family's original European hometowns, and there have been digitized documents available online for three of them. The first step is finding the name of the place, which can be easy (great-aunt Sara knows) or harder (deciphering a German town name as recorded by a 19th century American clerk) or so a combination of luck and drudgery (locating surname/profession match in old national trade directory and combing through that town's microfilmed church records.) When I was first starting out, I did a lot of broad searches on (free) and (subscription or public library), and looked at a lot of records that turned out not to be relevant. But when you find the right one, where a person is linked to a place, it's amazingly satisfying.

And sometimes it just doesn't work: I have one branch of my family that shows up in Chicago in 1890 or so, and I don't yet know anything else about them. They have a really common name too, which makes it difficult.

But I've had great luck with other branches once I've gotten some inkling of where I was looking. It really depends on place of origin. Some places have allowed the Mormons access to very old records for a long time, and you can get relevant microfilms sent (for a couple of bucks to cover shipping) from Utah to your local LDS church family history center where you can look at them. You don't have to be LDS to do this -- I'm not, and I've found the local Mormons to be very friendly and helpful.

Other places have been digitizing lots of records recently, and you can get them for free on line. Many municipalities in France have done this, for instance, and you can page through birth, marriage, and death records going back to the 1500s and earlier, through the government archive websites.

If you have lots of family from one region, there is often a preferred online site or service that people there use for genealogy and posting family trees and it's a good idea to look for this. For the part of France that was relevant for me, geneanet is where the action is. I instantly added 6 generations to one branch when I found this site -- and I struck up a correspondence with the distant cousin who is doing all the research there in France.

For places that don't make records available online or to the LDS, it's harder. (Switzerland, I'm looking at you.) If you know a little something specific, you can try writing to institutions that might hold records, like churches. Or you can try to hire a researcher who can go to the place in person. Some towns have a small corps of local volunteers who will get records for you at cost. Online bulletin boards are great for this ( hosts a lot, and there are some independent ones too. Just google.)

It takes persistence and a little ingenuity and a willingness to put up with research trails that end up leading nowhere (or end up being about some other family!). But I've had a lot of fun doing this. Good luck, and memail me if you want info about anything specific.
posted by philokalia at 7:44 AM on April 28, 2011

Mo Nickels has it exactly right. Genealogy is full of holes and assumptions and a lot of it can be made up.

I have done some personal research but I haven't gone much farther than 1868 because I won't move on until I have a copy of the documentation for myself. I won't just take some random far removed relative's word that so-and-so was born here and his parents were this and this. Unless I see the proof then it doesn't exist.

I have a few ancestors that I have documentation for from earlier (for example my great-grandfather who fought in the American Revolution, his parents weren't married so they were tried and convicted for/of fornication. He's an honest to goodness bastard.) who I am slowly working my way back to. I have the names of his descendants and I know how it should match up, but I don't take it as fact until I have the proof. My dad is doing the same thing with the great-grandfather who lived in what's now Northern France in the 1050s. It's just a lot harder for him.

Getting a name is just the beginning.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:57 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would caution anyone against taking trees you find online (including those created by users) with anything other than a grain of salt. Yes, some people do the hard work and legitimately trace their families back that far. On the other hand, lots of people just log onto, find trees put together by other people and take them as gospel. Then they copy them over into their own trees and the errors propagate. Such trees often have few, if any, references to support their validity. Always verify anything you see against the primary sources to be sure the evidence supports the claims which are being made.

In terms of finding records beyond the U.S. from earlier centuries, I would definitely recommend you check out the Mormon church's FamilySearch records. Some of it is digitized, but the vast majority is not yet (a massive crowd-sourced digitization project is currently underway). You can search through their microfilm catalog based on locations you're interested in and see what records they have available. You can then find a local FamilySearch Center, which is usually a room at a local Mormon church where you can go to request that a copy of that microfilm be sent (the current fee is $5.50). Within a couple of weeks, the film will arrive and you can peruse it at your leisure for a few weeks before it has to be sent back. I have found several records this way that were not available anywhere online. You don't have to be a member of the Mormon church to make use of their genealogy facilities, and they will not attempt to proselytize you. If you'll pardon the mixed metaphor, the mecca for genealogy enthusiasts is the Mormon church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City, which provides more or less immediate access to their entire repository of microfilm and microfiche records. Many people will figure out records they need to obtain, then plan a trip to SLC for a few days to search for them at the library.
posted by Nothlit at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

My uncle has our family tree going back to the 1650s. He did it by going back to the country of origin for our family (Ireland), and painstakingly sifting through ancient records over there.

However, recently, he started a family DNA project. That DNA project has revealed all sorts of things - confirmed so things, and proven other things false.
posted by Flood at 8:06 AM on April 28, 2011

Another problem comes from the tendency of family geneaologists to embellish the family's history with stories that aren't relevant because it makes the family's history seem sexier or more dramatic. My family's resident geneaologist has said that we come from the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, and that the family narrowly escaped death when the island's inhabitants decided to make a stand against invaders.

The dramatic stand against invaders happened, but about three hundred years too early for my ancestors to have both taken part in the battle and emigrated to Canada. But hot damn, it makes for good storytelling, so long as your listener doesn't know how to use Google.
posted by LN at 8:07 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

the barriers moving to this level seem huge, since the scant records that do exist are often only on paper in a foreign country

Do you really think the barriers are that huge? It's not like people can't travel abroad to look up foreign records.

This depends on the country, of course. Scandinavian countries are notoriously meticulous record keepers, as are the British Isles. Once you get out to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, there are fewer records and you depend on a local relative who simply "knows" the story, which probably only goes back a couple hundred years.
posted by deanc at 8:25 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I generally scoff at those who say they trace their ancestry back anywhere before ~1700 (with some exceptions) because if you base genealogy on verifiable documentation that is easily findable and accessible, you are less likely to find this sort of documentation the further back you go unless one is connected to wealth/power in some way.

As others have said, it is also the blind luck of where your ancestors came from that can determine how much you will learn. I, personally, had never made it back beyond the 19th Century in my own heritage until I discovered the identity of a biological great grandmother on my mother's side (previously unknown due to an adoption in that line) who came from Scotland (whereas she and I had been raised to believe we were German, for which there is scant documentation). Scotland is at the cutting edge of making available ancient records, and for the first time, I was able to push a line back to the 18th Century and only a decade or two away now from the 17th!

Also as a general caution about "looking up my family tree at" ... As a young librarian/research aide, I was taught by my mentors to always preface assisting our walk-in patrons "you can't just go to a book on the shelf and voila! there's your family tree" (again, unless you're part of a wealthy or powerful family). I battle with this in one of my lines, and will likely battle with it for the rest of my life. Some well-meaning soul in the 1950s tied one of my direct ancestors into having been descended from someone who, it turns out under the light of modern research and easier access to records than occurred in the 1950s, was a bit of a charlatan and duped people into thinking he was a war hero (in fact, there are monuments and such in this guy's name) when, in fact, his traumatic war service in a later war was likely the cause for him to associate himself with the more famous earlier war.

but any time you look up my ancestors name, especially on, you see her as either the granddaughter of this charlatan, or at least a great or great great granddaughter. there is ZERO evidence to back up any of this, and in the name of patriotism, Christianity, and other "you can't argue with us" reasoning and mentality, if you challenge these people and their phony family trees, you get a wail of feedback that is quite frightening. it certainly muddies the water for amateur genealogists or just the curious folks who have the right to know their true heritage, not someone's ill-conceived and poorly researched idea of it.

my general advice is to not be concerned on how far back you can go, but instead focus on all that you can justify through meticulous documentation and celebrate the stories you uncover during that research! i have so many amazing stories of the folks I've found so far that it makes me less concerned about going back into the deep, deep past.
posted by kuppajava at 8:26 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lots of luck, as much info from living family elders as you can squeeze out of 'em, plus access to records --- and with luck, the pertinent records haven't been destroyed by nature (fire/flood/bugs), wars (bombing in WWI or WWII, for instance), or just plain thrown out at some time.

I think I've managed to push back to a single 4th great-grandparent born in the 1770s; I'm still re-checking that. Other than that, I can't seem to get my maternal grandmother's line past her father, or my paternal grandfather's line past his grandfather. We have lots of very common names on both sides that were re-used by the family over and over, poor immigrants more concerned with their next meal than genealogical tables, and the occasional bald-faced lie. (Just because your elders tell you something, check it anyway! At his funeral, I discovered my grandfather purposely lied about his sibling.)
posted by easily confused at 8:27 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Since no one else has mentioned it,'s forums are a good way to get in touch with people researching the same surnames. Mo Nickel's comments apply: this is a way to get leads, some of which may be well-sourced.

In some cities, the public library may have a genealogy branch, which has copies of family history books and some public records. There's one in Houston, which I've visited. Find out from your friendly local librarian where the closest genealogy library is located.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2011

But hot damn, it makes for good storytelling, so long as your listener doesn't know how to use Google.
posted by LN at 11:07 AM on April 28

I happen to have the same last name as a very well-to-do family which owns a chain of stores with the same name; my father used to swear that we were related and were cheated out of money. Years later, I notice on Wikipedia that the family who began the story emmigrated to Canada one hundred years before our family did, and we are no relation whatsoever.

'Course, my dad also told me that monarch butterflies lived for 5 years (more like 10 months), so maybe my dad just liked making stuff up.

I would take all geneology research with a cup or two of salt; even the family reconstitutions done by academic historians can be questionable (they often have more than one candidate, and will go for the most likely), though that's less important since they are averaging out things like age of first marriage over thousands of people.
posted by jb at 10:36 AM on April 28, 2011

sorry - I mean the family who began the STORE.
posted by jb at 10:36 AM on April 28, 2011

I have been working on my genealogy for about 35 years, since I was 13. I started by interviewing my oldest living relatives. I had a great-aunt on my father's side was in her 90s at the time, and one of my mother's first cousins was in his 90s as well. From the two of them I was able to get a lot of first hand information that took my family history back into the early 1800s. Of course, over time I verified the facts these relatives told me with vital records, wills, cemetery records, etc.

Going further back, the story is very different on the two sides.

My mother is descended primarily from folks who came from Europe to New England in the 1600s. Finding those connections was not always easy, but, for the most part, the records exist. New England towns were very concerned with recording births, marriages, and deaths. I also lived in New England until I was 30, so I was able to travel to cemeteries, look at town records that had not been transcribed and published, and access published genealogies for many of the families from which my mother descended. (However, published genealogies can contain errors and should be used with caution.) Basically, with hard work, if the records exist, you can find your ancestry in this part of the country. (Of course, there is always the possiblity of infidelity or secret adoption, so you are really tracing the 'public' parents of an individual.)

My father was the son of immigrants. Tracing his ancestry has been much harder, through census, marriage, and death records in his home country, I can get most of his ancestral lines back to the 1700s, but without traveling there and doing more extensive research on site, I doubt I will be able to get back much farther. But, I think if I were willing to spend months with parish registers in the places where these ancestors lived, I could probably trace back another 100 years or so.

I think the mistake most people make is thinking that you can do this sort of work by just researching your parents, and their parents, and so on. A really complex genealogical puzzle might only be figured out by research everyone descended from a particular person, to make sure that everyone fits together properly. Or, you might have to try to do a family tree for everyone in a village or neighborhood in order to find the right 18 year old Elizabeth who got married that year. The answer might not be in the census records of your direct ancestor, but in the records of a first cousin of that ancestor who has a common grandparent living with them.

You might want to get an issue of a scholarly genealogical journal, like The American Genealogist or The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and read one of the articles where a professional genealogist discusses how they put the pieces together for a family they were researching.
posted by hworth at 11:06 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty much in your boat for most parts of my family.

My paternal grandmother's family have a very unique surname and are part of a well-documented population that emigrated to the Americas at a very specific moment in time So we can trace our ancestry on that side of the family back to seventeenth century Alsace.

My maternal grandfather's family happen to be from a part of the world where borders were fairly stable and people didn't move around a whole hell of a lot. We can trace our ancestry pretty much indefinitely on that side, because it's unlikely that a bunch of farm laborers from nowheresville, Sweden, were anywhere else but nowheresville, Sweden, 500 or 1000 years ago.

Everyone else, though? Everything we know is completely unverifiable because the details are too sketchy. My surname is probably in the top 20 in Britain and Ireland, nobody can find any record of a certain Northern Irish village, and there are just way too many Just So Stories that don't match up well to verifiable reality.

A lot of people came to America to get lost. Some of them were really good at it.
posted by Sara C. at 11:27 AM on April 28, 2011

So I'm wondering how these "serious" genealogists do it.

Well there certainly seems to be a wealth of information, don't let anybody tell you genealogy people don't care.

The way it worked with a family member who traced his far-side ancestry back to Marco Polo: he did the tracing himself until he got to somewhere in the 1800s, where he found himself hooking into existing genealogy that had already been done by someone else.
posted by rhizome at 11:42 AM on April 28, 2011

It's certainly much harder beyond that point, especially if you've mostly relied on things like census records to get back that far. To me it seems like there's two barriers to going back further.

One is identifying the details you'll need about the ancestors who were born in the "old country"-- specific place of birth, parents' names, birthdate, etc. You've got a decent shot at finding this information in vital records or other records here in the US if you dig hard enough, although it's not necessarily easy. I can't tell if you've been able to do this already.

Second is actually researching in the records of other countries. And there's just a really wide range of availability of information depending on where you're talking about (and the class/situation of your ancestors), so it's hard to generalize. But lots of places have pretty good records, and then it's just a question of whether you travel there to research, or pay a researcher there to do it for you, or write/call places, or in some cases there's a decent amount available online you can get to yourself. (Or if you can find another descendant who's already done the work for you!)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 12:29 PM on April 28, 2011

My paternal line is descended from a fairly well-documented ancestor who landed in the U.S. in the 1600s, and it helps that his descendants settled a couple of towns over from where I currently live and spent several generations there. While poking around online I found more information that traced his ancestors back to England in the 1500s... I haven't tried to really verify any of that older information, so I take it with a big grain of salt.
posted by usonian at 1:23 PM on April 28, 2011

It should perhaps be pointed out that the number of ancestors gets big really fast, so there's a decent chance you'll run into an already-researched genealogy.

One extreme example was showcased in that BBC show, Who Do You Think You Are. One of the subjected celebs could trace his ancestry back to William the Conqueror. Of course, that's so far back that the 2n number of ancestors would go into the millions (not really of course, there would be a lot of multiple occurrences I suppose).

So.. I don't know.. I suppose the further back you go, the less interesting it actually becomes, because the family tree will get very large very fast. I mean.. do you really feel any kinship with someone you share 1/512th of your blood with?
posted by Harry at 3:51 PM on April 28, 2011

The census in Canada and England go back to 1851 and 1841, respectively. There are other primary documents that begin in the mid-1800s. These will reference people born in the late 1700's, so it's not that difficult to get back that far for many lines. Any lineage prior to that often requires a lot of assumptions, which others have mentioned. My primary interest has been in discovering where my ancestors were before they emigrated to North America, and how they prospered in the first couple generations here. That is covered for me if I can get back to about 1800. Anything I have before that is just names, places and dates, with very little life story to make it interesting.

I've been frustrated that even with the internet most hobby researchers are still building trees in isolation, repeating each other's work at the surface instead of collaborating from their different perspectives to strengthen what we know about our shared ancestors. I've lost much of my enthusiasm for genealogy while waiting for something new to come along.
posted by TimTypeZed at 4:19 PM on April 28, 2011

In terms of genealogy me family is lucky enough to have descended from some major royalty (via the illegitimate offspring of a minor branch) so we're able to trace things way back to the point where things descend into the realm of mythology (as in post-roman rulers who made up ancestry leading back to pagan gods etc). As far as the ancestry of Charlemagne and the kings of Wessex is verifiable that's how far we can trace it back. It starts getting a bit murky when going back further than the 7th century BC or so. That said... there is almost nobody in central Europe who isn't a descendant from someone like Charlemagne so it does become kind of meaningless but it's still historically interesting.
On the "common" side of things ancestral we can trace my family name's line back to about the early 15th century. Again, this is a stroke of luck since my last name is very unusual and is derived from a particular village founded by ancestor's of mine who were farmers back then.

It's these kind of things that help. Famous and/or infamous ancestors tend to be more visible in the historical record of times before there was better record keeping in general. That said, the more collections of historical papers and volumes are being scanned and, if possible, OCR-ed the more likely it will become that genealogically valuable traces surface in searches. Church record of births and burials tend to be helpful, old graveyards in places where ancestors lived may hold clues. But you always need connected chains so you can work your way backwards one link at a time.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:52 PM on April 28, 2011

Well, for crowdsourcing you really need to go to Add your last known person, watch it, and see if anyone adds information.

The reason I have information about my family going way back is that most people are somehow affiliated with some kind of religion. Especially on the east coast of America. OK, yes you will find some free thinkers but most people through history have seen the benefits to survival of aligning with a group. So the majority of people in my family have some kind of church records.

Also, back in the 1800s many people had officially archived wills even if they only had a cow and a mattress to hand down. (my family for example)

If I follow my tree back to 1776, I have 8 sets of g-g-g-g-grandparents in America. 5 of those men were in the military. So yes, DAR is very useful for anyone in America.

Every census should say where the person's father and mother were born - do you at least have that?

I'd be happy to help you with this through WeRelate. Mefi mail me if you like.
posted by cda at 6:04 PM on April 28, 2011

Mormon's have records both good and bad (I've uncovered patent errors here and there) but are worth checking. Why, just going there now to find the links I found some good things I had been meaning to check for sometime but have suddenly appeared.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:08 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mom has worked on our family's genealogy for a long time, and she took over the work from her mother, who had also worked on it for quite a while. Some of the lines do go way back, but from what I've gathered, having a line that goes that far back takes some luck. For example, a g-g-g-g-g-g-grandmother's brother may have been a famous painter or something and someone decided back in the day that this person was worth writing a biography. Or someone marries into a noble line and they were obsessed with keeping ancestral records.

Having said that, the main reason I came in to post was to say more or less exactly what Mo Nickels already said so well.

Lots of people are really bad/lazy about verifying information, and they're even worse at documenting sources. It's not necessarily bad to include some of this information, so long as you clearly document it as unverified. Others may disagree, and I suppose my feelings might change if you were going to widely distribute the information, but I think it's ok to put that stuff in, mark it as unverified, and then start work on verifying it.

In other words: rules #1-3 are - document your sources, document your sources, and document your sources. Places like are fine places to start, so long as you go in knowing that people often haven't followed any of rules 1-3 and that even the transcribers who do work for such places make errors too.

The key is to verify that information. It can be a great excuse for trips too. Ancestors took a ship from Scotland to Nova Scotia? A perfect excuse to visit eastern Canada! You can probably look at whatever ship records you need in a day if you know what you're doing, then you can spend the rest of the vacation seeing the town where those ancestors landed. (Ok, I'm pretty sure you can order a lot of those records and I'm sure more of them are online now than when I was little and would go with my mom on these trips, but hey, it's still a good excuse!)
posted by chndrcks at 12:32 AM on April 29, 2011

Oh - I forgot to add (although others have made this point already): Whenever you get a secondary source - ask yourself if this group might have a hidden agenda. For example, a religious organization may have an interest in proving that their founder was related to various important religious figures. Such an interest of course doesn't mean that their records are less accurate, but it's a reason to verify said records when possible.
posted by chndrcks at 12:38 AM on April 29, 2011

The person I've met who could trace her ancestry back the furthest was something like a 2nd cousin 9 times removed to Abraham Lincoln. Once you've got Honest Abe in the family, suddenly eeeeveryone's interested in figuring out who begat whom. Her family tree was incredibly awesome to look at - could go back hundreds of years, at least as long as you kept following Lincoln.

That is to say, once you've got a historian's skills on your side, a historian with some incentive to get it right and go above and beyond, I think this kind of research is more productive.
posted by troublesome at 1:00 AM on April 29, 2011

Thanks for all the fabulous answers. They've given me a lot of ideas for going forward with my research. Especially pulling up old obits on microfilm (since I have used new obits to get a lot of good info like mother's maiden name) and googling unique names + location to find someone else's primary source research.

Joining to trees you find on the internet just seems so iffy to me. I constantly run into primary sources that are only 75% correct, and it would be so easy to just accept them as-is, but then you get a possibly incorrect mother/father and that whole branch is now suspect. Frankly, I already have reservations about letting my relatives edit it. MyHeritage now lets you add sources and corresponding notes to people's profiles, which I find invaluable, though I wish there was a rigorous change log too.
posted by smackfu at 6:43 AM on April 29, 2011

My grandmother told me a story when I was young that her dad and his brother blew up their father and stepmother with dynamite while they were sitting on the porch watching the sunset, because they were too abusive and the brothers decided to try to make an escape. She said that her uncle joined up with a roving band of "gypsies," while her dad was adopted by a family in Kansas City. I used to tell this story until about high school, when I was in a writing class retelling it and the teacher stopped me and asked, "Gypsies? In North America?" I had also been told that my grandmother's cousins had done enough genealogical research to trace our ancestors back to the Mayflower, but later found out that this is an especially common trope in American lineage stories. Eventually I confronted my grandma about all this stuff and she backpedaled on a lot of it, so yes, Mo Nickels' cautions are certainly warranted.
On the other hand, my maternal grandfather's side of the family is fairly well-documented. His grandfather started a general store in rural Minnesota shortly after he and his wife immigrated from Finland over 100 years ago, and it is still in operation. The oldest living resident from that town is 92 and can verify who lived there and when. There are pictures of his grandfather before the move in a town in Finland called Muonio. My grandpa and his brother have been there and found their great-grandparent's tombstones, and records of the family going a decent way back. Like all genealogical searches though, even their trail went cold eventually, so my grandpa's brother decided to get his DNA tested to "Y-Chromosomal Adam" and "Mitochondrial Eve." I felt that that was a lot more revealing than any church records or passenger lists could be.
posted by Demogorgon at 6:49 AM on April 29, 2011

I want to just add another story here: I once did some google searching on an old family surname that my family used to have before they adopted my current one. Sure enough, I came across a guy with a website whose family history involved that same surname, whose ancestors came from the same region as my ancestors with that surname. I e-mailed him and told him the story of my ancestors, which is actually somewhat entertaining. Later on, the guy mentioned the story of my family on his website and then completely embellished it to create a connection to his family (and, even worse, used my name as the source of the embellished story).

This is just another one of those examples of how family lore can end up being invented out of whole cloth. However, many western and northern European countries have excellent birth/death/baptism records going back hundreds of years, so you really can piece together reliable data.
posted by deanc at 9:12 PM on April 29, 2011

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