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

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How far back can I go with my genealogy?

If you have been reading my posts on claims of pedigrees "back to Adam," you might be asking, OK so where do I go to get reliable information once I get back into the 1700s or 1600s? That, of course, depends on where you live and where your ancestors came from. Almost everyone in the world comes from immigrant ancestors. Even if you happen to know where your ancestors came from and when they arrived and you live in exactly the same place, you are going to be confronted with an immigrant issue. (OK so your ancestors were Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals, your people still came from somewhere even if their origins are lost in the dim past). If you are a descendant of someone from Europe or Asia and now live in another place, your main challenge is going to be tracing those origins.

If your ancestors arrived in the United States, or Australia, or New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter from some other country in the last 100 years, finding their country of origin is usually just a matter of searching for records that, in all probability, exist somewhere. But as you move back in time, into the 1800s, those records become harder and harder to find.

There is an exception to this rule, however, as you move back in time in countries like the United States, Australia and New Zealand, identifying the immigrants becomes easier rather than harder. If you are a descendant of the native population of these places you have your own challenges in moving into the past, usually dependent on whether or not your people kept records, either written or oral, and whether those records have survived.

But in countries like the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, people have been researching these early immigrants for now hundreds of years. What is known is known and what is not known is admittedly not known.

For example, in Australia, although the native inhabitants had lived there for thousands of years,
the first European explorations began in 1606, when Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait which now bears his name. In that same year, a Dutch ship, the Duyfken, made the first authenticated landing in Australia at Cape York. In 1642, Dutchman Abel Tasman reached Tasmania, which he named Van Diemen's Land.

Other sightings and landings occurred, but it was not until 1770 that the more fertile east coast was sighted by Captain James Cook, of the British Royal Navy. A few years thereafter, on 13 May 1787, a fleet of 11 ships sailed from England and reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 with 1,530 people, 736 of them convicts. Eight days later, the fleet left to establish a settlement at Port Jackson, a few miles north at what became Sydney. See European discovery and the colonisation of Australia.

The point here is that these events occurred during a time period when records of these events were being kept by the governments involved and even the people involved. Journals and diaries date from that time period and these types of records are also available. Does this mean that every single person who immigrated to Australia can be identified? No, certainly not. But generally speaking records are available and extensive efforts have been made to document each of the early settlers.

The same thing has happened in the U.S. There is extensive documentation on the earliest settlers. If you have ancestors that arrived in America (now the United States) before 1700, it is likely that their names appear in the extensive documentation that has been accumulated by researchers over the years. If they arrived later, between 1700 and 1800, you may have more difficulty and during the early 1800s more records begin to appear but there may still be a significant challenge in identifying the immigrant's origin.

So, at some point, almost all genealogical researchers end up searching for records of their ancestors in a country other than the one they currently live in.

There are extensive finding aids for helping researchers discover the origin of their immigrant ancestors. Most of the productive searches focus on the immigrant and his or her descendents after arrival in the country where their descendents lived. For example, if you want to know where an immigrant to America came from, you look at U.S. records first.

Let's assume you trace your ancestors back to an immigrant, which is inevitable if you are of European descent and live in a country like the U.S. or Australia or New Zealand, you are then looking for records in the country or origin, England, Germany, France, Spain, whatever. Now your search is dependent on records in those countries and you face the daunting task of becoming acquainted with the types of records that are available.

So you start to do research in a European country. How far back can you go and where are the records? Of course that depends on the country, but generally speaking record keeping has a limit. For example, the earliest church records in Denmark date back to 1572. See Denmark Church Records Christening Guide.

Wherever your ancestors came from, you inevitably have to face the reality that no more reliable records exist for any particular ancestral line. That line may end with an unidentified foundling in a hospital or shelter in the U.S. in the 1900s or it might end with a European ancestor in the 1600s or even the 1500s, but it will end.

What are the chances you or your predecessor genealogists have reached the end of every one of your ancestral lines? Practically zero. You have many more records available than anyone has ever had in the past. Now is the time to do that research and not depend on conclusions from prior researchers. 

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