Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Descendancy Research -- the real challenge of genealogy

I learned to drive a car with a manual transmission. Of course, this is almost unheard of today except in certain types of vehicles, but the idea I quickly learned was that there were five speeds forward and only one in reverse. Well, genealogy is sort of like that. It is much easier to go forward with research of your ancestors, than it is to find those same ancestors' descendants or essentially in reverse.

The whole idea of looking for the descendants of your ancestors seems contrary to most people's ideas about genealogy as such. When I suggest that someone may wish to research all of the descendants of a particular ancestor, I am often faced with the question of why anyone would want to do this. In reality, descendancy research has been the mainstay of surname books for a very long time. There have always been a significant number of people interested in tracing the descendants of a remote ancestor especially if that ancestor was famous or otherwise noteworthy. In my own family, I have several books chronicling a remote ancestor and attempting to trace all of his descendants.

To a certain degree, DNA testing is involved primarily in the descendancy research. It is often necessary to trace the descendants of a target ancestor in order to find candidates for DNA matching.

From a researcher's standpoint, looking for the descendants of a remote ancestor involves only a few more research techniques and searching back in the past. The main difference is that there is always an end to descendancy research when you have reached the current living generation.

This type of research can also be viewed as "filling in" the blanks in your family pedigree. FamilySearch has published a handout entitled "Easy Steps to: Descendancy Research." Now, I am always leery of any proposal that uses the word "easy" just because whatever is described is usually not easy. I would certainly say this about descendancy research. Some time ago I had the idea of writing or compiling a book about my remote ancestor Samuel Linton. As the project progressed, I became more and more aware of the extraordinary effort that would be needed to find current, living descendants as well as the need to document the remote ancestor. In this case I am still looking for sources many years into the project.

Because of privacy considerations, online information about living people is not as easy to access as information about people who died more than 70 years ago. In years past, there was not nearly the concern about including currently living people in published books. Many such books were compiled without the knowledge or consent of those listed. If you are compiling such a book today, what would you do with those people who refused to give permission for their names or other personal information to be included?

It is a fact of genealogical life that most of the records we encounter list only one person or that person's parents. Even if we find a record listing a child it is very rare that all of the children in the family are listed. One of the major reasons why the U.S. Census records are so valuable after 1850 is because they list complete families. But few other records go into such detail and individual family members must usually be located one at a time. There are a few types of records that can be helpful such as probate records that may list the spouses of adult children.

Even when desscendancy research would be fairly simple, for at least the children of a direct ancestor, finding the spouses of the children and their subsequent children can be a challenge. I usually encounter this situation when someone is trying to "prove" their relationship to a remote ancestor by starting with the ancestor. Often, this whole process begins as a result of an unsubstantiated story passed down through a family.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki makes the following suggestions for getting started:
  • Begin with what you know. If you already know the names of your great-grandparents and approximately when and where they were married, it will be much easier to search for their descendants.
  • Begin with individuals or families alive around 1850. People who lived in the period from the mid-1800s to the present are usually easier to find. In many countries, birth, and death records began to be created by the mid-1800s. Also, some countries began to keep census records showing the names and ages of each family member.
  • Record what you find on family group records. A family group record will enable you to record information for all the children in a family, parents and grandparents. As you search for the descendants of your ancestors, family group records will help you organize your work.
 Because of the nature of the research it is extremely important that you document your sources and that you look for an existing surname book. You may wish to check the following sources:
Each of these websites has a huge collection of digital books with many that fall into the category of genealogy or local histories. 


  1. re: "Of course, this is almost unheard of today...".

    You're obviously speaking for the US, right James? :-)

    1. I would guess, we can't even find manual transmission cars to buy even if we wanted to. I have a manual shift automatic transmission in my Subaru. No clutch. I borrowed my daughter's old car some time ago and that was the first manual transmission I had driven in years.

  2. It's the opposite here [UK/Ireland], and probably for most of Europe too. Manual is the norm, and you have to be explicit if you want to buy/rent an automatic - although they might guess by the accent. I usually choose an automatic if I'm in a country where they drive on the right, just so that it's easier to switch back when I drive on the left again.

    1. I am sure that says something about the difference between the US and Europe, but I am not quite sure what it is :-)

  3. This is probably too obvious to mention, but: FamilySearch will allow you to do a search by specifying parents.

    E.g., just this morning I looked for "____ Myrick", I specified Maine, between 1790 and 1810, and I specified parents "Paul Myrick" and "Mary" -- and I got the birth records of 10 of their children.

    1. Thanks for the tip. You can do that in some of the other databases also.

  4. "Because of privacy considerations, online information about living people is not as easy to access as information about people who died more than 70 years ago."
    Probably because you live in a land which censors its citizens, here in the true land of the free, England, we can view current registers and purchase anyone's, birth, marriage or death certificate as a matter of right.

    1. I'm not sure I would call it censuring. I think it has more to do with the fact that the state governments sell that information and would lose a revenue stream if the documents were easily obtainable. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Land of the free? In the USA, ownership of a printing press is not Licensed by Government. Anyone may own/operate one.

  5. Because people were less mobile 50 years ago plus, one-place studies (another European genealogy staple) are valuable for researching both ancestry and descendancy.