Updated 30 January 2021
"How far back have you traced your family tree?" The dreaded question people ask someone interested in genealogy.
While many think they have asked a question triggering polite conversation, this question, and its kid sister "How far back can you trace your family tree?" It can make a serious family historian groan. We know a few things that the person asking doesn't realize. Let's cover those now.
Factors Limiting How Far Back You Can Trace Your Family Tree
Experienced genealogists know that family history research is about time and place. A researchers ability to find a long ancestral line depends on the following factors:
country of origin
use of surnames
the religion of each generation
migration of each generation
socioeconomic status of each ancestor
Let's explore just one limiting factor in the ability to trace a lineage - the country of origin.
Some cultures have an oral history culture. My friend from Samoa has to ask a village leader about her ancestry preceding her grandparents.
Some countries did not have archives set up to maintain records or laws requiring documentation creation until recently. In Australia, census records were taken but then destroyed. Canadian Census records were inconsistently created.
In the United States of America, some places didn't keep civil birth and death records until the 1910s, while other locations have accessible records into the 1800s. While some records do reach back into Colonial America, not every colony has such a collection.
Apparently, Switzerland has kept public records for 715 years. In Iceland, many people have their family history traced back 30 generations.
China maintained lineage records for at least the last 2,000 years. The longest line of ancestry is apparently the Kang(姜) clan, which is 5,200 years old.
Across the globe, how far back you can trace your family tree depends on your lineage being lucky enough to have few limiting factors.
For many experienced family historians, once you know where a person's family lines are likely from, any lineage before 1400 raises many eyebrows of skepticism.
For more commentary on this subject, subject this video.
Can You Trace Your Family Tree Back to Adam?
Quality genealogy research depends on documentation. There are a few problems with attempting to construct a family tree back to Biblical Adam.
First, languages are not consistent throughout history. Have you heard of Modern English, Middle English, and Old English? Few people alive today can easily read Old English. The same holds true for Old German.
On my way, I have a photograph of Chinese calligraphy as it changed from ancient times to the present. Few Chinese people can read the preceding language, let alone the ancient script. For those who can read the ancient script, most of those scholars are not heavily invested in genealogical records.
Next, even though records may exist in a location back to 5,500 years, the details
contained on those records did not always include genealogies.
Finally, when records cease, it's impossible to trace a person's ancestry. Prehistoric time involves a time before written records and transitions in the realm of archaeology.
Archaeology records can tell you a culture wove baskets, made iron tools, or hunted various wild beasts. But pre-historic records can not specify the identity of a single individual. Therefore, we can not know who begat whom or who married whom to the first human who ever lived.
Does How Far Back You Can Trace Your Ancestry Determine Your Expertise as a Genealogist?
Doing family history requires more effort than hopping on FamilySearch's one-world family tree and clicking on preceding generations until the lines stop. It also means more than connecting your family tree with other family trees on Ancestry or MyHeritage and doing essentially the same task.
Doing family history means validating relationships and identifying supporting documentation about each individual on your family tree. It means going beyond birth, marriage, and death records and exploring census, land, tax, newspaper, and probate records, to name a few.
On the conservative side, let's say it takes me 10 hours to research each of my 128 direct ancestors, which would reach my 5th great-grandparents). It would take me 8 years working an average of 3 hours a week.
Would those 8 years of working casually on my 128 ancestors mean I'm more or less experienced than a person who says they have a family tree with 10,000 names in it?
If you said less, then let's do the math. Of the 10,000 names in a person's tree, did they really spend 10,000 hours ensuring each person has reliable documentation? If they worked 3 hours a week on their family history, it would take 641 years to complete. If they worked 40 hours a week for an entire year, it would take 48 years to research each person in that database.
Don’t Be a Name-Gatherer
In family history research, there are researchers, and there are name-gatherers. Name-gathers brag about their family tree's size and insist they have definitively proven their ancestry back royalty in the 1500s.
Name-gatherers will also respond with disappointment when I say, "I have traced my family tree reliably back to the 1800s in Ohio."
I often exclude my Comfort line that goes back to Colonial America but moved to Canada after the American Revolution. The reason is I have not personally validated these relationships and explored the records for the Comforts.
A name-gatherer doesn't want to hear how I keep trying to tackle my Swedish Anderson brick wall. William Anderson lived in Howard County, Missouri, in the 1880s, and no records, besides the census that year and the death record of his daughter, document him. I would love to research him further by the lack of records and no DNA matches make it impossible for me to put that line beyond the 1880s.
A name-gather doesn't want to hear how I have searched nearly every document I can currently access for my German immigrant ancestor Joseph Geiszler. He seems to have been plucked out of Baden, Germany before 1856 and dropped into Franklin County, Ohio, with no other kin other than his wife, whom he met in Ohio.
Finally, a name-gatherer doesn't want to hear that a family tree with no sources or poor-quality sources makes for a false tree.
If you're a name-gatherer, stop asking a fellow genealogist, "How far back have you traced your family tree?" It triggers eye-rolls and reduces camaraderie.
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The Length of Your Family Tree Matters Not
As I have acquired more experience as a family historian, my focus has shifted from extending my family lines into the past to writing family histories.
I tell writing workshop attendees that if you want to become a better genealogist, you write your ancestors' stories. Even those boring, non-famous ancestors. Their story matters.
I wrote the rough drafts for 120 ancestors in one year. I followed my Recipe for Writing Family History formula, which made this a fun project. This work was accomplished because I had completed over 15 years of family history research, working in my spare time.
The ancestors that I have researched became real to me as I uncovered the depth of their stories. If I were to go back in time to meet them, I would know where to find them and what they were doing. I would know how many people are in their homes and about their particularly happy or challenging years.
This knowledge is so satisfying that I’m always hungry to learn more. To find one more record about anyone that I know and anyone that I discover along the way.
A Better Question to Ask a Genealogist?
Instead of asking a genealogist how far back they have traced their genealogy, ask one of these questions instead:
Who are you researching right now?
What brick wall ancestor are you trying to figure out?
What discovery have you made recently?
Have you written a story about an ancestor that I can read?
If you would like to learn how to research your ancestors further or write their stories, read one of these blog posts.