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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dates, Dates and More Dates -- Understanding History

From time to time I have written about the sad state of history education in the United States and its impact on genealogists' understanding of their ancestors. I thought I might discuss some dates that are particularly important to genealogical research. I might also throw in some observations on the type of errors I commonly encounter because researchers do not correlate the historical dates with what they are putting into online family trees. Surprisingly there aren't that many crucial dates, but they are so often ignored that, for me, looking at the family trees online is like living in a pesky swarm of mosquitos.

Here are the dates in a roughly chronological order with a discussion of the importance of the date and what kinds of problems I usually encounter.

6:00 pm, Saturday, October 23, 4004 BC

This is the date calculated by Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th Century. If you would like to see how he calculated this date, you can read an extensive analysis the Date of creation. I am more than aware of the various controversies that surround this date and the religious fervor the various positions engender, but genealogists really shouldn't be worried about extending their pedigrees "back to Adam." There is no benefit that accrues from spending the time copying one or more of the unsupported genealogies into your own records whether you believe the date and the religious justification for the date or not. If you want to see my summary of the issue then you can view my video entitled, "Why You Can't Trace Your Lineage Back to Adam."

1500 AD

Following up on the "Back to Adam" issue is the significant date of 1500 AD. This date is a rough approximation of the earliest time during which records of ordinary people would have been kept in Europe. There are a very, very few records that go back further, but most of the records that have genealogical significance are not available before this date. Whenever I make this statement, I always have some that argue that "they have found more information about their family that goes back even further than this date." With a few notable exceptions, these people are merely copying from books published long after this date giving various pedigrees for kings and other prominent historical figures. Almost uniformly, these "older pedigrees" are based on undocumented and unsupported extensions.

There are some "proven" pedigrees that purport to extend the royal ancestry of immigrants to America, for example, but so what? When you begin copying, you are no longer doing genealogical research. If it makes you feel important or whatever to connect to European royalty, then go for it. But don't think you are impressing me or anyone who knows anything about these pedigrees.

I admire those who have the historical background, language skills and dedication to do Medieval research, but I have only met a small handful of these people in my entire life and they are certainly not the folks putting their family trees online. Note, there are a number of places in the world, such as China, where family records and pedigrees go back much further than 1500 AD. I might also mention that there are a few older parish records from Spain, but for most of Europe, this is about the limit.

1538 AD

This is the date that is commonly accepted as the beginning of the keeping of English parish records. If you have any questions at all about this date and want to show me how you got a baptismal record for you ancestor before this date, I would be glad to review it. Here is a book to get you started with your investigations in this area. If you don't know this history, you have no business adding content to online family trees. Keep your poor research and speculations to yourself.

Cox, Charles. The Parish Registers of England, by J. Charles Cox,... London: Methuen, 1910.

You can read a very nice, digitized copy of this book on the website at There are extensive references concerning the earliest records that have been located for each of the English parishes. Meanwhile, as soon as fixes the Family Tree and disconnects it from, I will be editing out all of the unsupported dates in all of my family lines. 

1492 or 1620 AD

This is the date of the arrival of the Mayflower in America, although some European settlements, especially those initiated by Spain, go back to the original time of Columbus. Arguments about earlier European settlements in America have an academic interest but not for genealogists. 

1620 to 1847 AD

This is the range of dates when the first European settlers entered the area now segmented into the states of the United States of America. Every state and every county in the United States has a date when the first European (or whatever) settlers first entered that portion of the country. Usually referred to as the date of earliest settlement, these dates are commonly ignored by people who locate their ancestors in parts of the country that were not settled at that time. I ran across a reference to one of my ancestors who was supposed to have been born in Utah in the 1700s. This is a really common error. There are lists of the time of formation of every state and every county, try the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for a start. 

Obviously this issue blends into the date calculations that seem to show children born before their parents and after their parents died. But I see all of this as a symptom of the same problem; a total lack of awareness of history and dates. Before any of us can take seriously much of what passes as genealogical research, we will have to clean up the mess caused by this gross ignorance of history. 

I could go on with dates such as the dates for the U.S. Civil war, and many others but I think this list gives an idea of the process we should all be aware of when we start putting our research online. 


  1. Whilst your 1500 date may be taken to be the earliest date for the majority of the population it is not true for all.
    One very good source for earlier records of births and deaths is the inquisitions post mortem (a local enquiry (covering the period 1239-1640) into the lands held by people of (from) the crown).
    IPMs in addition to wills from around 1384 provide a good means to build family lines.
    There are also many other records from medieval times that may be used to support the construction of family trees such as pipe rolls, chancery proceedings, taxation lists, papist lists, feet of fines, etc., etc.
    In addition Court baron and Court Leet records and similar add further information to individuals found

    I would agree they are not as simple to use and require more work to make reasonable assumptions but it is certainly possible to push a family further back than you suggest.


    1. Both of these comments are right. But I haven't seen any citations to the records you reference in your comment lately. Especially not on my part of the Family Tree. By the way, pipe rolls are essentially continuous from 1155 onwards until the 19th Century. They are also online see for example. I will stand by my date, until I start seeing some sources in the Family Tree and other online family trees.

  2. I have been reading your blog for several years and agree with you most of the time. However you, as many who had ancestors on the Mayflower, ignore that British America started in Jamestown in 1607. Although over 90% of all immigrants who arrived before 1620 died quickly there are dozens of immigrants who have documented descendants living today. Adventurers of Purse and Person edited by Frederick Dorman list over a hundred immigrant lineages from people who arrived by the Muster of 1624/25.

    1. Of course you are right. But how many people know that date? Apparently, the Mayflower has better PR.

    2. You might also note that I said, other European Settlements go back 1492. St. Augustine was founded in 1565. But of course, they spoke Spanish or the equivalent at the time.