Leave something for the next generation to discover

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”.

Back to 1560, but still only scratching the surface

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.

Great grand uncle Aloyius on the far right

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.

21 thoughts on “Leave something for the next generation to discover”

  1. Such a comfort/relief to read your words. I have always felt like a failure in my quest to make the perfect family tree, only to find the types of errors you describe. Glad I’m not the only one. I’ll keep plugging away. Thanks John!!

  2. We are stardust, we are golden
    We are billion year old carbon
    And we got to get ourselves back to the garden…

  3. I am intrigued by the family tree going back to 1560 that you used to illustrate your blog. Can you identify it for readers?

  4. Many thanks for this thread Mr. G …words for all of us to remember! Would like to make a poster of one of the paragraphs and post it on my wall to remind me everyday! Thanks!

  5. Love your sense of humour too…..hopefully I’ll be on another time plane which that might make our cenancestor seem modern by today’s calculations…..but then today’s physicist’s calculations are changing as new discoveries are made, are they not?
    I know that dates in my family tree seem to move according to the records I have searched……even the primary sources can not be taken as ‘truth’.

  6. So reassuring to hear…describes my life’s work perfectly. Thank for the perspective. But if I could only find….. 🙂

  7. Based on your writing today I don’t think I will be able to find the census mentioned in Luke’s Gospel for the Holy Family. I thought for sure it might be on microfilm in Jerusalem or Vatican City.

  8. Oh no, never to be finished! My family laughs at me when I say;”I am getting ready to print the tree, am just about finished with research, expect the tree soon”…… or any other sort of ridiculous statement I may have declared. They, like you, are much more in touch with the reality a family tree will never be finished. Thank you! Researching can become fun again, the tree does not have to be Perfect, Exact, or Flawless. Facts about some of my Irish ancestors may never be found, but I know way more about them now than when the hunt began and that is a positive for sure. But……wait! Who will take over when I’m gone?

  9. Amen. If older me looks back at “what the heck am I doing” me of 30 years ago, I’d be giving myself hell all because I didn’t know what I didn’t know and what I did know wasn’t all real. It was the best I had and it was a work in progress. Progress that to this day results in pruning, changing and segueing over just how to interpret things. There are some facts I’ll fight about, but many others are ones I can accept I have have gotten stuff wrong. And how best but to find those who say differently and see if maybe, just maybe, they know better than I do.

  10. Thanks for your article! Makes me feel better about my “messy, unfinished tree”, 30 years in the making. Cheers & happy trails!

  11. I keep my research questions and the few answers in a big blue box. It needs to be bigger on the inside to accommodate the growing lìst of questions thrown up.

    Hmmm……last time I saw it, the Tardis was empty…….

  12. Amen.

    I have a tree on Ancestry, MyHeritage, Familytree and Wikitree.
    Wikitree is a free online tree and you have to have documented sources to make a profile. There always administrators happy to let you know when you have an error and they always remind you if you do not have a documented source attached to the person, such as birth, baptism, marriage and death records along with Census records, newspaper clippings, war drafts, immigration and Naturalization records etc….. Wikitree is clean and as accurate a tree as humanly possible. You can set privacy levels for those in your tree that you want private, but do leave open, those that died 50 plus years ago. That way, if anyone else is looking for their ancestors (aunts, uncles, cousins etc….) they can find them through Google. I had a 2nd cousin find me that way, We share great grandparents. His grandmother and my grandfather were siblings. My father’s side has been a long road, but slowly making progress. We have shared documents and wonderful family pictures. With Wikitre, you don’t have all the clutter of hints that may have nothing to do with your ancestor. Ancestry and the other companies out their are good for research and possible matches. They are good tools. I love all the information that you share with us. They are always intellectual, thoughtful and informative.

  13. Thanks John for all your excellent articles, full of wit as well as info. I would however not fully agree with your advice in this article.
    Most Irish people can trace their ancestors back about 4 generations or so. Many of course can go back a lot further. What we can leave for future generations to discover I dont know, but I’d be inclined to believe we should push to discover all we can now. The local ‘Tracers’ and ‘Seanachies’ are a dying breed, and all we can hope for in the future is some document or documents we dont know about to turn up. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is my advice, and its never been so sunny in the world of Irish genealogy as it is now.
    Get what we know down and have it available, and the future can look after itself.

  14. Looking for realitives of tom and peggy matthews buried at athena cemetry headstone put on 2 years ago by surving son, l am his cousin coming over in sept hoping someone can pass this on as l am in australia an my ,grandfathet thomas hatthews ,came to australia n

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