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

Friday, September 26, 2014

Building a Bridge in the Middle of the Air

Frequently, someone will approach me for assistance in finding a remote ancestor. I have a standard set of questions that I ask to clarifying the research objective. I generally ask when the ancestor lived and exactly where they lived. I usually pursue the questions by briefly verifying the time period involved and the location of an identifiable event. More often than you would expect, the person requesting assistance has absolutely no idea about the identity of the distant relative or any of the distant relatives descendants. For example, if the person were seeking information about a distant great-great-great-grandfather, I will continue asking the same questions about each of the descendants of the remote ancestor until the person requesting assistance can provide some concrete information.

Usually, the person's research objective has been selected merely on the basis of a missing ancestor in a family tree; usually in the form of the fan chart. I liken this situation to attempting to build a bridge by starting in the middle of the air before finishing the supports for each side of the structure. Almost always, the missing ancestor is missing because of a lack of adequate research concerning the ancestors descendants. In some cases, after questioning people about each generation of their ancestry, I have found that the only ancestors that they know anything about are their own parents.

Commonly, the inquiry about the remote ancestor relies entirely upon unreliable and unverified information in the generations leading up to the target ancestor. The enticement of an empty location on a pedigree chart is sometimes overwhelming. Some researchers, particularly new researchers, thinks that "doing their genealogy" involves extending a pedigree before spending any time becoming acquainted with the intervening ancestors. Frequently, the places and dates are approximate. In addition, I find incomplete names, approximate dates and places not fully specified.

There is a delicate balance between encouraging the researcher and throwing cold water on the whole project. Sometimes the potential investigator fails to grasp the significance of the lack of supporting data in his or her pedigree. As a result, sometimes we part ways on a less than satisfactory basis. I am certain that the person, under these circumstances, believes that I did not understand what they were trying to accomplish. Likewise, I am certain that they did not understand what I was saying. Additionally, they did not realize the significance or the importance of establishing all the facts leading up to the missing information.

It is not difficult to determine in any pedigree the point at which the information available as become entirely speculative rather than based upon concrete, supported information. There is always a point in which dates become approximate and the places lose their specificity. To the degree that the information is either speculative or incomplete, subsequent generations back any support.

I constantly advise, even experienced genealogists, to examine their data and avoid the problem of trying to build a pedigree in the air.


  1. Thank you for this analogy...I too encounter this situation quite often when people are needing help with filling in the gaps of their tree.

  2. James Tanner: This reminds to of a previous post you made involving Alfred F. Schmuhl, concerning Back To Adam, dated Wednesday, May 25, 2011. You note: "Neither these or any other books or materials by Mr. Schmuhl appear in a search of thousands of libraries however." You ask: "OK, who was Albert F. Schmuhl? I can't find a word about this august authority on the ancient lines anywhere on the Web. Some one has been profitably selling this chart for a long time. Anyone know Mr. Schmuhl? " Finally, you note: "I don't think you have to disbelieve the Bible to comet o the conclusion that the genealogies in the Bible are entirely unsupported with any documents or facts outside of the scriptures themselves."

  3. Mr. Tanner: This article is a classic. Well done.