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.

5 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.

  2. Hi Devon Noel Lee: Sitting here 20 miles from the North Central Florida Coast keeping track of Hurricane Dorian which is still hanging around the Bahamas with 185 MPH winds making up its directional mind. Browsing to kill time between updates and I saw your article. I come from, I thought, a mundane family of little or no accomplishment. My maternal grandmother claimed descent from Humphrey Pinney who came to America around 1633 on the Mary and John. The Pinney line can be traced from Grandma’s grandfather Martin to Humphrey in two books, The History of Erie County Pennsylvania published about 1884 and the History of Windsor CT earlier. My wife and my mother did not get along. My mother was motivated to do our genealogy to show my wife that we did not fall out of a tree. My wife was writing a Biography for her doctoral thesis & a doctor related to her subject had done massive research on her subject’s family. He died and his wife threw it all out. I had a collection of begat, begat, begat, and thought that I needed to put what I had in a book, and had to make it interesting or no one would care. Early on I was warned away from researching ancient European relations by Hulda Hoover McClain, Herbert’s daughter, a cousin I found researching genealogy. She felt that such genealogies were unreliable. Her letter is in the manuscript of my book. I have a great interest in history and wanted to find out what we did and how we lived from the sources accessible to me. I started looking at local histories from towns that my begats came from and was surprised that they did quite a lot. For instance the first meeting of the United Colonies, the forerunner of the United States was held in the house of Captain John Steele, a documented ancestor! I came out of college at the time of the Vietnam War and went to law school because the history professor jobs were all taken for their draft exemptions. I got drafted out of Law School. Mother was carrying the load of genealogy research. One day she told me that I had better libraries near me and should do more and to see if I could find Lucretia Quincey.
    The Quinceys are relations of the Adams family and all are well documented and from what I could find, not related to us. I thought mabe it is Quinney, there wasn’t much to find there, not us either. I sat there going Quinney, Binney, Finney, Ginney, Hinney, Jinney, Kinney, Linney, Minney, Ninney, Oinney, Pinney! Could it be another Pinney line?! Bingo. With in a half hour I was done with Lucretia Pinney, Nathaniel Pinnney, III, a son of my Nathaniel, Jr and grand son of Sr. Nathniel III married Elizabeth Carrier, her father was an accused witch Richard Carrier, his mother was Martha Allen Carrier, hanged as a witch at Salem. I went to a history shelf pulled down the first History within my grasp and the Chapter on the Witch trials was named after Martha! I was hooked. It is 25 years later and I have a History of New England, New York and Western Pennsylvania told through my not as ordinary as I thought family. We are documented cousins of 18 American Presidents, Winston Churchill on his American Mother’s side, Princes Diana on her American Grandmother’s side, the prominent cousins are too legion for the space here. When my first Grand daughter was born everyone who saw her said she looks just like Shirley Temple. I looked at Shirley Temple’s ahnentafel chart – Riley is cousin to Shirley Temple in five different lines and Shirley’s father was from the next township from mine in Erie County, Pennsylvania. I had stories, I had accomplished ancestors, even some in Europe, but I had stuck to the plan advised by Hoover’s daughter who was good enough to respond to a question I asked. One day this last year I noticed an article that claimed that both genealogy and genetics had advanced to such a point that it is believed that all Americans of European descent are descended from nobility and royalty. I had time to kill on the train to and from work in Orlando. I had a smart phone. I started looking on line for what others may have found about my ancestors who I had left my search of at the boat. Bingo. In less than three weeks I had 21 lines to Charlemagne and several lines to remote Irish and Scandinavian royalty beyond 200 A.D. It would take me a life time to verify all of those claimed lines, but they all collapse in upon the same usual suspects as in those days not many had reason to preserve their ancestry for posterity. John Steele took me back to most all the royalty that one could want, among these I found William Marshall, the greatest knight who ever lived, counselor to the Angevine Kings, who wrote the Magna Carta and mediated its execution, my favorite putative noble ancestor. No I have not verified the entire line to him as I have attained my goal of finding my American History and who we were and are, I have a book of about a thousand pages that tells the history of the United States through my family. There are some caveats here and there where I feel that the proofs are credible but not conclusive and some of these have been since proved by others. Most of the family lines are well documented and, famous or not, we were substantial participants in many many ways in the creation of this country and like you say the Cousins are amazing. I am a 73 year old lawyer still proof reading and doing rewrites, I intend to self publish before I die. I also have developed many short cuts to finding ancestors that you might be interested in, such as where you find a notable cousin, find out what the genealogists know about them, it will often inform your research. My favorite peave is when I read such as these: “Luther was a great hunter, there were many stories of his hunting adventures…” but not one of these hunting stories is mentioned. “Timothy loved sitting before the hearth telling stories of his adventures on the frontier…” but not one story of Timothy’s adventures on the frontier is repeated. Then again sometimes you come across a 300 year old letter. Old litigation that informs. A small hint of a complete alter ego of an ancestor who built meeting houses, mills, bridges, and even boats for wealthy men and for communities, that was a letter from Gov. John Winthrop, Jr., to Rev. Roger Williams, about a banned book believed to be in William’s hands that Winthrop wanted to secure and read, together with discussion of freedom of conscience. The letter was signed “Yours by Elderkin, John Winthrop, Jr.”! My ancestor was trusted to deliver such sensitive mail between such powerful men, concerning issues that became foundational to our society! He must have been much more than just a building contractor, which would have been enough, as ancient relics built by him still exist. I have Lees from Connecticut in my family. I must get back to my supervision of the Hurricane. I liked your perspective of looking for the lives of the every day people. But do not fight against occasionally finding someone not so ordinary, they are out there for all of us to find. Regards, Harold A. Lassman, Esquire,

  3. I’ve been doing genealogy for over 55 years since my early teens. The search was prompted by my grandmother’s claim that her side of the family was descended from Mary, Queen of Scots. Long story short – absolutely no way this is this true, but I did learn a lot about history in the process.

    One of my biggest concerns today is that it is too easy to simply grab a name that seems to fit into your tree without a proper verification of facts. My well-meaning, enthusiastic neice started adding names to our on-line family tree.and made a real mess of things. It took me nearly a year to clean it up. Who knows who may have been sent down the wrong path by the information she posted.

    Another relative added information that showed we are descended from King Phillip II of Spain through a Hapsburg line in Austria. Sounded interesting so I dug deeper. A few little facts my relative overlooked – the children of King Phillip II are well documented and Phillip would have been 2 years old when our ancestor was born. When I asked her where she found this information, “Well, I found it on-line.”

    Most of my lines only go back 200 to 300 years because I always check the documentation. Peope with lines that go back far into history MAY be accurate. But, unless every connection is carefully documented, probably not.

    Gennealogy is interesting, enlightening but requires hard work and attention to detail. Happy Hunting!

    1. Carol, you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Thank you so much for your comments. I have one line that ‘goes back to Adam’but as you say, it’s very, very flawed. I’m not ready to tackle that beast as other lines that only go back to the 1850s in the USA are holding my attention.
      – Devon

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