Beware the Deflating Genealogy Statistic

Beware Genealogy Statistics Horror

This Halloween I'm going to scare you and depress you with a genealogy statistic. One that even professional genealogists can't seem to overcome. It can haunt your sleep and make you dash under the covers, cancel your MyHeritage subscription and never attempt another genealogical discovery ever again.

What is this heart stopping detail? It's your genealogy score. Your genealogy number.

(Insert your own blood curling scream with dramatic horror film music)

Seriously, there are these genealogy measurements that go around the blogosphere. How many names are in your database? How many places are your ancestors from? How many different surnames are in your database? And on, and on, and on.

But, if you're like me. Some measurements are meaningless and others are a hindrance to my continued research efforts. The worst one asks the question of what is my genealogy number. Meaning, what percentage of possible ancestors have you discovered. How many people are on your family tree going directly back from yourself?

In simple family trees, your total number of ancestors double with each generation you examine as you move backward in time from you to your parents, to your grandparents, and so on. The simple math suggests that you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-parents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and so on, doubling as you work back in time. If you're fortunate enough to reach back 6 generations on your trees, you could have 512 ancestors.

However, if you have any twist in your tree, you may wind up with more ancestors than your mind can possibly hold. My grandmother was adopted. She has four sets of parents. According to some lineage societies, the only line that matters is her blood line. So, here's the number based on her blood line. So here is my number based on her DNA.

GenerationNumber of
Possible Ancestors
Number of My Ancestors Found
6th great2567
5th great1288
4th great6416
3rd great3226
2nd great1614
1st great87


84! That's terrible. Seriously, after decades of research building upon the decades of research of my predecessors. All I have discovered is 84 people? That's only a 16% completion rate. The shock isn't the percentage but the defeating feeling that I'll never find my ancestors at this rate. That's a Halloween Horror Story.

What's more heart wrenching is that my ancestors found will never be close to complete because my Grannie's birth mom never named the father of her child. There is a permanently blank section of my blood line's pedigree chart. With no known males to trace that line, how will I ever fill in the gaps even with DNA evidence?

So, in the 2nd great-grandparents, I'm always going to be short by two. The next generation back, I'll always be short by 4, and so on, and so forth. So, if I look at my score it is a haunting nightmare.

A possible happy horizon breaks for when I examine how many realistic names I have found. In other words, if I take Grannie's bio-dad out of the equation, the genealogy score improves to 19%. It improves, but not by much.


Unfortunately, my Grannie would be displeased if I only focused on her biological mother's line. That would be her nightmare. She never knew her birth mom. She adored her adopted parents. If I go with the my lineage of love, rather than blood, do the freaky feelings flee?

GenerationNumber of
Possible Ancestors
Number of My Ancestors Found
6th great25612
5th great12814
4th great6427
3rd great3230
2nd great1616
1st great88


I have taken on step further out of the dark abyss as I reach a 22% discovery rate. If I ignore the statistic for a moment, I can celebrate that I have a completed tree to the fourth generation back and if I find one more set of parents, I'll have a full set of 3rd great grandparent trading cards.

Those darn 4th, 5th, and 6th generation ancestors in their spotty record availablity and their tally marked census records, rather than names. The fear of never adding to their numbers is as scary as being in a room filled with spiders, snakes, or other creepy crawlies. Add to that, some of those generations require learning Latin and Old German! Oh yeah. Play the bone chilling Dracula chords right now.

What is the scene like when I combine my adopted biological ancestors and exclude unnamed bio-dad great-grandfather?

GenerationNumber of
Possible Ancestors
Number of My Ancestors Found
6th great28812
5th great14414
4th great7227
3rd great3634
2nd great1818
1st great99


* I've left out the bio-dad gap to focus on what's plausible to find.

Hmm... my percentage is 21%. Eek! I'm going backward toward the Texas chainsaw wielding madman.

Yes, I'm having a little fun this Halloween. Blame it on the candy corn. But seriously, you can look at your genealogy score and use it to point out that 'genealogy is never done.' The trouble comes when you have a weak constitution. Statistics like these over look the many discoveries that you have curated and all the effort you have employed to break through even one brick wall.

Be of good cheer, many pros have low numbers as well and they do this full time.  Lorine  McGinnis Schulze has a great post that tells us not to be surprised if our number is below 30% . (She even goes back 10 generations!).

I love how she presents a ray of hope at the end of the post to turn this slasher into a simply a fun mystery that has a cliff hanger ending:
Not having a high percentage of found ancestors is obviously not related to how experienced a genealogist you are or how long you've been researching, so there's no shame attached to a low number. It's just an interesting exercise that points out that genealogy research is never done!  (To read the rest of the post and the great comments, click here.)

After 20+ years of genealogy, looking at these numbers is very deflating. Knowing that I have a twisted tree and so many roadblocks that stand between me and one percentage point increase can suck the fun out of the work.

Thankfully, I also know that I despise horror films and avoid them like the plague. So, I should probably steer clear from these 'interesting' exercises and remember what family history really is.

Family history isn't just about how far back you can go. It's about every ancestor and their story. I have done what I can to capture and preserve the story of small genealogy score that is my heritage. Each name is more than a date and a place. They are people who lived lives and passed on their legacy (via DNA or no) to give me life.

When I think of genealogy in terms of turning my heart to these people and coming to know them, I think I'm approaching 80-90% success rate on my line. And that my friend is how I use caution when I'm around deflating genealogy statistics.

Andrew and Devon Noel Lee back to the 80s
May you have a Rockin' Good Halloween!


  1. Couching your views on the genealogical number in a Halloween theme made reading about statistics much more fun. Well done! I think family historians/genealogists get sidetracked from their research every time there is discussion of number of page views, blog visitors, DNA matches, shall I go on? I can't get hung up on how I rate - I just keep plodding along doing what I'm doing.

    1. Wendy. SO TRUE!!! I keep plodding along working to capture and preserve the stories of my living relatives and those who have gone before. When the books start accumulating on myself, that makes me feel amazing. Keep up the good work. And I'm glad you liked the statistics with the Halloween theme!

  2. Thanks for a fascinating approach to the numbers of genealogy. I completely agree with you, it's the stories that are most important, not the numbers themselves. Oh, and you're so lucky to be up close and personal with Bruce!

    1. The stories do matter! And yeah, Bruce is one way of viewing my hubby. Most people thought he was Sammy Haggar or Brett Michaels.


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