Like most public online family trees, those at ancestry.com include horrors that beggar belief: children born before their parents, the same individual on multiple lines, people married at the age of two. Looking through Ancestry’s FAQs for an answer to a question these trees frequently make me ask – “Why? Dear God, why oh why?” – I came across a statement that gave me pause: “Many members have family trees that are not yet finished”.
Mmm. Well, yes. Because what exactly would a finished family tree look like? The Mormons, in their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve but they still have a way to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the organism that is the last universal common ancestor, our cenancestor. Even then, would it be “finished”? What about the origins of the elements making up that organism, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?
I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the eleven dimensions of the space-time continuum. Beam me up, Scotty.
And I’m sure some of my relatives immigrated from dimension seven.
The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away . Genealogical research means forever starting again. Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.
And don’t expect to finish, whatever ancestry.com says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.
Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.