Stop asking genealogists how far back they have researched

“You do genealogy. How far back have you gotten?”

Many folks who are trying to engage a genealogist in conversation ask this question. They think they’ve discovered a kindred spirit. Or they may be trying to make polite conversation.

I don’t mind folks who aren’t into genealogy asking this question. Those who are ‘serious genealogists’ who ask this question prickle my insides.The people who eagerly ask this question are name-gatherers.

Don’t be a Name-Gatherer

When I respond, “Oh, only about the 1850s in Ohio and a little further back in Canada,” name gatherers express great disappointment.

They sigh and say, “That’s too bad.”

Then they rapidly launch into, “I have my lines back to the 1500s and into royalty.”

They brag about their research and imply that I’m not a good researcher because my family lines don’t go back that far and lack royal blood.

Name gatherers. You drive a patient genealogist nuts.

How should I handle the question from Name-Gatherers?

Bless their enthusiasm. We need people of all stripes in family history. I just wish I knew how to respond. I think that’s the reason I wrote this post. Not to pick on such people or the question. Rather, I don’t know how to handle this question.

Maybe next time I’ll say, “to a drunk, an immigrant, and a professor.”

What do you think?

Would it be funny?

Maybe not.

The length of the tree matters not

The thing that frustrates me is how closed off people because my tree only reaches into the early 1800s. The pitying looks are so painful to respond with good graces.

“Smile and nod. Smile and nod,” I repeat inside my mind.

While I really want to scream, “It doesn’t matter how far I can go back!”

I have a famous cousin. His name is Elvis Presley. Yep, we’re 11th cousins. But sometimes we’re 9th cousins. It all depends on which tree you use.

Does it really matter that Elvis Presley is my 11th cousin? He’s my 10th great-grandmother’s 9th great-grandson.

Oh yeah. If Elvis were alive, we’d be tight!

BTW For those very astute individuals wondering why I’m not claiming my family goes further back than the 1850s (the folks who link me to Elvis), here’s why I can’t claim that. Many of the lines that connect me to ‘famous’ relatives have flaws that I know are there but do not have the skill set to solve at this time. 

My direct ancestors are nobodies

I used an app that showed me how I was related to various ‘famous’ folks and they were all 9th cousins and up.

When I switched to my direct ancestors, I have absolutely no hits.

No one of ‘importance’ appears on ANY one of my direct ancestors. In short, I’m a nobody who is carrying on the family tradition of being a nobody. “Somebodies” are on the cousin lines.

Gee, thanks!

Truthfully, I don’t care about famous ancestors. I care about my ancestors regardless of their status on the world stage.

Your Ancestors Matter No Matter there Fame or Lack Thereof

The ancestors that I have researched between me and the grandfathers and grandmothers in the 1850s are real to me. I have uncovered much of their stories. Certainly, there is still more to learn.

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 some of the years that were particularly happy or challenging.

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.

Emma Townsend Brown

Emma Virginia Townsend Brown… a woman who left little impact on the world, but someone whom I would rather meet than Elivs  or a distant German king.

I love my ancestors who were of little to no renown. I dream of time traveling back to see their lives and finding the answers to the question I have.

I love the homemakers, the immigrants, and the day laborers.

It’s okay that I haven’t found royalty. I also haven’t found murders or too many unsavory folks either, so it’s a win-win. Don’t you think?

Making peace with Name-Gatherers

Long ago, I laid aside frustration with name collecting genealogists. They are what they are and it excites them. Sometimes, I just wish I could help them see what I feel when I do family history.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

2 thoughts on “Stop asking genealogists how far back they have researched

  1. I do family history because I am interested in how my ancestors lived and what stuff they were made of. I find hearing people in their own voices, especially women, who are so underrepresented in history, to be most moving. Newspapers are good for this. My great-great-grandmother said on her 50th wedding anniversary, "Before I was married it was honey, rhubarb and pie but afterwards it was root hog, or die." Oho! She had a sense of humor — priceless to have ancestors who could laugh at themselves.

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