...and my father's father before him.
October 16, 2013 6:49 PM   Subscribe

How far does genealogy go back in different countries/cultures?

In England, the average person can find at least some ancestors back to about 1600* with a middling amount of effort. Slightly socially higher than average families should have no worries tracing back to 1400s with some more work, and noble families can often go all the way back to 1066.

But what it is like in other countries or cultures? How far back can an average person hope to find ancestors just by checking widely available records? Or more difficult to access records? And what is the maximum for even the highest and most important families?

Any country is fine, although non-European heritage countries are more interesting.

Thank you.

*Assuming they have some forebears in the country at the time.
posted by Thing to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You may find the Wikipedia article on descent from antiquity relevant to your interests.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 6:59 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm originally from India and my parents can trace back about 100 years.

But I would venture a safe guess that my ancestors lived in the same 100 mile radius for at least 250 years. This is because our sub-caste is only located in this area.
posted by watrlily at 7:10 PM on October 16, 2013

The US is relatively young so if you have family who was in the US for a long time and did things like got married and went to church and had wills and registered their births or were in the military you can track your people back to whenever they got to the US pretty easily. Even though the early censuses are pretty hit or miss, colonist population was concentrated in a few regions and there are a lot of people who try to track their people back to the Mayflower or early settlers and so a lot of the early work has been done for you and it's a situation of trying to plug into someone's genealogy that's been already done. There are a lot of genealogies published online and available for text mining.

So I've got two sides to my family: dad's family has been in the US since the 1650s and we can track back to then pretty easily and a bit further into Europe but not much. My mom's family has been here only a few generations and without better skills than I have, the trails end at Portugal, Uzbekistan and "Russia"
posted by jessamyn at 7:12 PM on October 16, 2013

American here. I can trace back on one side to the family that came from Italy circa 1890s and on the other side the family that came from Ireland around 1850. So far I've found Italy and Ireland to be a genealogical black hole.
posted by snarfles at 7:21 PM on October 16, 2013

On the Sanjay Gupta episode of Finding Your Roots, they used the family history scrolls at Haridwar to go back eight generations. Clip from the show. More about the scrolls at Wikipedia. The New Yorker article cited in Wikipedia says that some families' scrolls go back more than twenty generations.
posted by bentley at 7:23 PM on October 16, 2013

A related question is how recently genealogical information is available. I've had success tracing my family via US census records, but I recently found out that data on individuals is not released (by law) for 72 years. This means that I (born in 1961) will not be able to see myself listed in a census until the year 2042, when i'll be 81. [sad face]

Back to your question... In my experience, Swedish records for normal (non-royalty) people go back at least to the 1500s. You just have to deal with their patronymic naming system.
posted by bruceo at 7:37 PM on October 16, 2013

I am Chinese-American. (Well, partially Taiwanese-American? Pandora's box I probably shouldn't open here.) In any case, my dad's side of the family has been in Taiwan for several hundred years, and then Fujian, in China, before that. We have an extended family genealogy book -- like, very, very extended -- that was commissioned sometime in the 1970s which presents an unbroken family line back to somewhere around the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).

I unfortunately don't have the book here with me, as it's at my parents' across the country, and when I last perused it several years ago my Chinese was much worse than it is now. And I don't believe the lineage presented for my family in the Han dynasty (it's a little too neat and shades into folklore) but, nevertheless, it does present a family tree going back many tens of generations.

It's worth noting that the family members presented are exclusively male, reflecting traditional Chinese culture's emphasis on patrilineality. Well, the book's divided into two sections: the first half is basically a really, really complex family tree including only male family members; and the second half has photographs of the last several generations and a running narrative about each family branch, and this section does include pictures and descriptions of the wives and daughters of the family.
posted by andrewesque at 7:37 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is the kind of book that I'm describing.

In general, because of the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship, or at least strong cultural emphasis on the family, genealogy was pretty meticulously done. (Exclusively male, of course.) Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s did a lot to destroy much of this heritage.
posted by andrewesque at 7:40 PM on October 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ireland appears to be genealogical black hole for my family as well. We have good records back to the 1820's-1850's when my family made it to Australia but our Irish records were apparently burnt in the street during the Irish civil war. At least that's what my grandmother told me, she had tried to get those records.
posted by deadwax at 8:23 PM on October 16, 2013

My English, French, and German ancestors can be easily traced back to the 1400s-1600s. My Hungarian, Polish, and Slovakian ancestors can only rarely be traced past their immigration to America in the late 1800s or very early 1900s. Names were changed through immigration, records were lost, entire towns and all their records disappeared through wars and border shifts.
posted by erst at 8:50 PM on October 16, 2013

I'm American; I only know my maternal family, which came to America from Estonia in the 1920s. I'm either second- or third-generation American, depending on which grandparent you count from.

One of my incredibly distant relatives has made it his life's work to build a database of pretty much everyone ever who has any family connections to Käsmu. The oldest recorded ancestor I've got in that database was born in 1683 and died in 1751. He may have founded the village; Google Translate is not clear on that point. His father and wife are both mentioned, but there are no dates of birth or death for either.

Most of this information, as I understand it, was scavenged piecemeal from parish registers, private family records, and graveyards, with the registers and records giving names and the graves corroborating the dates.
posted by cmyk at 8:53 PM on October 16, 2013

My family has a complete and well-researched Anglo-Norman genealogy and we can trace back before well 1066. It helps that our first ancestor to come to America, Samuel Ffrench the Joiner (1687-1763), is highly researched, possibly because his brother was appointed a Governor of New York before the American Revolution or possibly because his family joined a Mayflower line by marriage, or maybe just because there's a lot of documentation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Well before that, his ancestor Theophilus de French accompanied William the Conqueror to England to England and fought in the Battle of Hastings. He was a direct descendant of Harlovan, son of Rollo, Duke of Normandy, who's disputed wife was Gisella, daughter of Charles the Simple (879 - 929), King of Western France. If you accept that, you can easily trace back further.

So in France, records and lineage are solid for at least some families. FWIW, my family is largely uninterested until Samuel French; my sister is named Suzannah French Lastname after one of his daughters; my cousins are also named for his children. We've done this for generations.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:37 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

American here.

You're right - on my grandmother's British side, we can trace back to 1428, in England, all the way through American history and down to me. (And we weren't all necessarily socially higher than average - one of my ancestors was a nanny in Brooklyn.)

But pre-1428, we've learned that our family is definitely from Hungary. So, Hungarians can probably trace themselves back pretty far. (We're yet to figure that out. Soon, hopefully.)

On my Grandfather's Swedish side, we're having difficulty going back farther than about the mid 1700s. Mostly, it's because of the problem that everyone is named Johan Anderssen or Anders Johanssen, and then in reverse for their kids. (Variants in spelling make it even tougher.) But I'm kind of guessing here, as it has been really difficult to research this side, for this problem.
posted by ulfberht at 9:43 PM on October 16, 2013

And what is the maximum for even the highest and most important families?

You might find the "descent from Charlemagne" theory interesting. Essentially, because of statistical reality, virtually every European or person of European descent is a descendant of Charlemagne. Furthermore, for any other Europeans living at that time, they either have no living descendants today or every European is their descendant.

It's a bit wonky to wrap your head around but if you read through some of the studies it makes a lot more sense. The starting argument goes something like this: you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, etc. If you extrapolate this backward to Charlemagne's time it means you would have 1 trillion ancestors, which is obviously way more people than lived in the world, let alone Europe, at that time. Basically, your ancestral lines criss-cross and weave, you descend from the same individual in multiple ways, and by the time you get back to Charlemagne's time the odds that you are not descended from him are vanishingly small.

An old Atlantic article from 2002 and a more up-to-date National Geographic post. And a person who apparently independently came to the same conclusion.
posted by andrewesque at 10:30 PM on October 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Throughout the muslim populations of the Indian Ocean there are individuals with well documented bloodlines back to the Prophet Muhammad (600AD), the "sayyids" or "habibs" of Yemeni origin.
posted by BinGregory at 11:36 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Genealogical documents back to the Prophet, sometimes called a silsilah, can be made into works of calligraphic art. Here is a contemporary example from Singapore.
posted by BinGregory at 12:07 AM on October 17, 2013

At least the 15th century patrilineally. Koreans are serious about ancestry and recordkeeping. The Chosun Dynasty and the Koryo Dynasty both kept meticulous records, with multiple archival copies stored in far-flung places in case of fire or other disaster. There's a royal grant to one of my ancestors at the end of the 16th century in recognition of his heroism during the Hideyoshi Invasion and I've stood in front of the shrine built in his honor.
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:11 AM on October 17, 2013

I've managed to trace my mother's paternal line (the branch of my family longest in the US) back to the mid-1790s, when my multiple-great-grandfather arrived from *somewhere* in Scotland with an extremely common name --- even if I knew his hometown, that common name would probably make him untraceable.

I've pushed my mother's paternal line to around the 1780s, through several generations born in Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg. Apparently my ancestors moved around a lot, and who cared about keeping track of where the peasants came from?!?

I haven't gotten my father's paternal line farther back than the mid-1850s: more extremely common names in this line, plus what appears to be a combination of secrecy and deliberate lies.

On the other hand, part of my father's maternal line is pretty complete back to around 1550: oddly enough, we have the Nazis to thank for that --- the family was required to produce a pretty through and well-documented family tree to prove they weren't Jewish and so avoid deportation to the death camps.

All in all, my 'dead ends' have a variety of reasons for being blocked; church records have been useful, but ALL of my family lines seem to have had a lax attitude towards religion: they switched churches pretty casually. They all moved all over the map, too, and rarely stayed in one place more than 2-3 generations. AND they not only tended to have common names but they re-used those same common names generation after generation. Plus, of course, there's also the actual lying and occasional outright record-falsification..... Add all that to things like the way two world wars destroyed a lot of what records there were (don't forget: there're more records kept on the aristocracy than the peasantry), and I doubt I'll be able to uncover much more.
posted by easily confused at 1:37 AM on October 17, 2013

Also, I don't know if this is within your scope of interest, but the Sufi orders (and other Islamic religious sciences) also track lineage of spiritual authority back to the Prophet, either through his heir and son-in-law Ali or through his companion Abu Bakr. These are not biological relationships but "live" teacher-student chains, with each link being an act of dispensation to teach. These are also known as silsilah. The silsilah of one branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order for example has 40 links back to Abu Bakr.
posted by BinGregory at 1:44 AM on October 17, 2013

My family can pretty much only go so far as 1912 and Ellis Island.

I suppose that if we were to travel to Ukraine, Romainia and Hungary that we might be able to uncover more records. As Jews we might have to appeal to Temple records, etc, since we may not be registered with the actual government. Hell, we didn't even have last names unless we bought them!

So I doubt we could go back very far.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:31 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your ancestors were a persecuted minority like Jews, African Americans, or Native Americans, you have virtually no chance to go back more than a couple generations. People don't keep records when they're starving and getting murdered.
posted by miyabo at 6:34 AM on October 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

American here. Dad's side I can get back to the 1700s in the US and then we're in England and you're right, the records are there which is nice. For some, though, I have a hard time figuring out where in England they came from and then finding them there. Boat manifests are helpful for this, but not always.

Mom's side, it's the same. We end up in Germany and England and I've been more successful with British records from afar. I suppose if I went to Germany I may have better luck.

She's half Armenian though and I can only take us with records to arriving in the US around 1912. From family knowledge, I have names back to the mid-1800s, but I have no formal records.. they were in Turkey and then Syria. Even if I went there, I imagine those records no longer exist. Much like what miyabo above me says, they were being exterminated or chased out of their homeland so the records didn't happen. An uncle ended up in exile in Iran from around 1915 to the 1950s and I have no idea how to find out what he was up to or where in Iran he was during that time.

One interesting way that has cropped up is DNA testing and then sharing knowledge with others you match with. There's an Armenian DNA Project that is helping with that.

On another note, I've been happy to find church records from Norway online for my partner's family, back to the 1600s!
posted by jdl at 6:53 AM on October 17, 2013

My wife is from Portugal which has been good at both keeping and now digitising church records. It is also a very old and relatively stable country.

On sort of a whim, she decided to look into her family online and was able to get a genealogy going back to the 16th century along several branches. This took her a few weeks. Most of the work was in deciphering the handwriting from scanned documents.
posted by vacapinta at 7:42 AM on October 17, 2013

If your ancestors were a persecuted minority like Jews

Yes and no. There are actually some organizations devoted to trying to preserve the history of the Jewish people in places where they were forcibly removed. Not disagreeing with your general point but in some cases it's easier to try to trace Jewish ancestors through a place like Poland than non-Jews, though it can be really hit or miss.
posted by jessamyn at 7:44 AM on October 17, 2013

A lot of this depends on a few factors:

If your family was well off and/or prominent, they're easier to trace in just about any country. If they were poor and illiterate, they're harder to trace. Wars and government oppression destroy records.

My Yankee family is easy to trace back to the 1600's in the US and to Europe before that.

My well known, well-to-do southern family goes back to 1200 through several different lines. But...the family that lived in an area destroyed by the Civil War is virtually untraceable.

If the records were stored in a church and the church burned, the records may truly be gone. I live in an area where the historical society has all of the country records. They have not taken good care of them. This year, the basement of the storage building flooded. Some birth records from the 1800's were in a box on the floor. Those birth records were destroyed. It's a very clear illustration of how fragile having paper records in one building can be.
posted by clarkstonian at 8:28 AM on October 17, 2013

OTOH, you know who is AWESOME at collecting geneolgical data? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They have a site you can review.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:01 AM on October 17, 2013

No mention of Iceland?

Germany makes for curious situation. Lot of destruction of records for obvious reasons. During the Nazi years, citizens were expected to provide a family tree showing purity of blood to the Reich Genealogical Authority.

The Charlemagne thing is kind of fun. I sometimes wonder how many people would have to die for me to get on the English throne.

You might find information on Cyndi's list
posted by IndigoJones at 4:22 PM on October 17, 2013

Most Maori in New Zealand could, if they wanted to, trace their genealogy back to about the 1300's or so, or arrival of the first canoes (Waka) to New Zealand. Tribes are categorised by descent from which Waka. Baiscally if you can get back to a chief, you can trace it back to the waka. This is from oral history that has been recorded, and is fairly easily accessible these days. For the highest and most important families, they have whakapapa (genealogy) going to pre-New Zealand colonisation. Possibly 1000's?

I've got 22 generations recorded going back from my Great-greatmother's great-grandmother, who was Maori, making it about 28 generations in all? Way further than any of my European ancestors.
posted by Elysum at 6:03 PM on October 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

American of English-German-Swiss descent, AFAIK. On my father's side, I know of one branch of the family that's been traced back significantly, on the English side to an ancestor who came over in 1630 and is known to have come from East Anglia. On that side we have (again, AFAIK) a verified line of descent, starting from the first guy with "James, James, Benjamin, Samuel, Otis, Jabez…"*.

On my mother's side, I grew up hearing anecdotes about ancestors having come over on the Mayflower, and the ancestor who got assigned the governorship of Jamaica but died of malaria before setting foot onshore (who may or may not be the ancestor whose portrait reportedly hangs in the Hall of Governors**), but I've lost touch with that side of the family and have no documentation.

*Somewhere down the line we wind up with "Zelotes Bassett", according to the papers I've seen.

**A term I heard my grandmother use with pride during my childhood, but about which my current search fails to find anything relevant. Ahem.

posted by Lexica at 9:06 PM on October 17, 2013

In many countries it's not unusual for no official record to have been made of someone's birth, and for people to not know exactly how old they are. In those areas the only knowledge of genealogy is likely to be through oral tradition.
posted by yohko at 3:56 PM on October 18, 2013

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