Aren’t You Finished With That Tree Yet: the overwhelming mathematics of your family tree
There are many ways to do family history research. Some genealogists dedicate their efforts to tracing just one surname or one branch. Other family historians focus primarily on direct ancestors but not their siblings or other kids. Others hunt for any blood relatives while ignoring in-laws and step-people. For my own research, I try to get anybody that is connected. If a branch has spent a lot of time in a specific area, they have probably married into many of the same families. Social circles were much smaller in 1880. For example, both sides of my wife’s family have lived in the same rural communities for 120 years. Since there were only so many other African-American families living in the area, I see many of the same last names come into play again and again. I go ahead and research those families too. It takes a lot more time, but it is fascinating to see how some of these groups are intertwined.
So when will my tree be finished? Probably never… Let’s say you only researched your direct ancestors and left all those cousins alone, you could confidently get back to maybe your 6x great grandparents on most lines. When you go back centuries ago, there are fewer records, but there are more descendants. This means you have more people trying to research that person than who are trying to research your grandfather, but there are far fewer records to choose from. Excluding incest, everyone has:
16 great-great grandparents
32 great-great-great grandparents
64 great-great-great-great grandparents
128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents
256 great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents
We’ve got a lot of folks floating around inside us! I traced one line back to my 14x great-grandfather William Jolliffe (born 1530 in Dorest, England). Most lines I couldn’t go back that far, but he happened to be from an English-speaking nation with lots of online records. Besides Papa Jolliffe, I have 65,535 other 14x great-grandparents. I doubt I’ll ever find them.
Even once you go so far back, then coming back down is a challenge. My 4x great grandfather, James W. Holman (1812-1892) and his wife Jean Flack (1810-1888) of Lincoln County, Tennessee had ten known children. Of course, some people have many kids and some few or none, but imagine if each of them had an average of five. That gives James and Jean 50 grandchildren, 250 great-grandchildren, and, ultimately, 31,250 great-great-great-great grandchildren like me. I’ve got a lot of fifth cousins out there, and that’s just one branch!
This entry was not the most scandalous or exciting post, but I hope it gave you some understanding of why a genealogist’s work is never done. As a way to thank you for reading, here are some old pictures!