The Worst Question in Genealogy

The Worst Question in Genealogy

by Kerry Scott on 12 November 2012

genealogy how far back

Now that we’ve unpacked most of the stuff in our new home in Albuquerque, we’re in the getting-out-and-meeting-new-people phase of our move. That means that we hear the usual get-to-know you questions on a regular basis…like, “What do you do?”

When I tell them I’m a genealogist, they sometimes think I mean:

  • A doctor who specializes in lady parts
  • A genetics expert
  • A rock expert
  • A jewelry expert

When I explain that I find dead people, nine times out of ten, the next question I get is this:

How far back have you gone?

Am I the only one who hates that question? Because here’s the answer: After nearly 20 years, I’m back to around 1800 or so.

Of course, they’re disappointed, because they wanted to hear that you were back to the Mayflower or  Thor or Adam and Eve or something. Nope. Not me. 1800-ish.

Confession: I’m not even all that interested in getting all the way back to Thor. I like American history. I’m interested in research here in the United States, and as soon as they’re back in Europe, I’m…well, not entirely disinterested, but much more likely to wander off in search of ice cream. My original attraction to genealogy was about understanding The Big Move–why they came, what they experienced when they got here, and what happened as a result of their decision to come. I’ve been moving my whole life, so big moves are a big deal for me.

I’m also much more interested in completely filling out a generation than going back one more. I want to know every sibling, every in-law, every godparent and neighbor and business associate, for each generation. Roughly 70% of my file cabinet is occupied by collateral lines, not direct ancestors. I’ve got a three-inch file on the family of my great-grandmother’s brother’s wife’s family, and three more inches on her half-brother’s wife’s sisters. I’ve even got a file on the law partner of my great-great-grandfather’s brother. I’m not sorry, because those folks are fascinating, and they’re recent enough that I’m able to craft a pretty clear picture of their lives. I don’t feel like I can do that with people who lived in the 1600s in Norway.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll get to those way-back folks eventually. But for me, the fun of genealogy is working on people from the past 200 years, where there’s enough meat available that I can really know them. I like being able to visit their towns (without a passport and a pile of money). I like reading their newspapers (in English). I like paying a fortune for their yearbooks on eBay so I can see what they looked like.

What about you? Do you like to go back as far as you can…or as wide as you can? Am I the only freak who mostly likes this side of the ocean? 

Photo by Bob Owen


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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Lohr November 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

Actually, I don’t mind the question “how far back have you gone?” It’s a good opportunity to explain (best done in summary form, a couple sentences) the process of searching and finding original records. It’s a typical question I get from my non-genealogist friends and it shows an interest on their part. Great opportunity to engage them in brief discussion of genealogy! Eventually, someone may ask them the same question.


Debi Austen November 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

I’m with you, Kerry! I figure I’ve got plenty to do to keep me busy just in the United States and I’m perfectly happy to spend my time here. Actually, lately I’ve been pretty focused on 20th century peeps and with all of the treasures I’ve found recently, I’ll be busy there until I die when someone will spend time learning about me.


EJPells November 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

Glad to hear your move went well. I am pretty much am about the same for my own family. I will usually go back one generation in the old country, research what reasons they may have wanted to move and then generally slow down significantly. I just love American history and my families place in it.

I also find I am not a strictly a “date collector” and spend time trying to fill out my ancestors life. What was happening around them in their time and area. In doing this I have found digging up what may be insignificant pieces of evidence, shed light on their life, or discount some of the direct evidence. It’s the Journey not the destination!


Barbara November 12, 2012 at 11:20 am

Agreed …. it’s the journey & such fun it is .


Wendy Mathias November 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

Yeah, I get that question plus its ugly stepsister: Are you related to anybody famous? What’s so hot about being famous? Many famous people led miserable lives.


Kerry Scott November 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Don’t get me started on the cult of celebrity. I don’t know or care whether Justin Bieber is my cousin (unless he has photos or a family Bible or something).


Candace WIlmot November 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

I agree, so much so that I am collecting everything I can find about anyone who lived in the little Illinois village I’m researching. Granted, a lot of them are my relatives, but there are lots of others and they are all fascinating.


Sheri Fenley November 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

I am 100% with you on this one Kerry, I feel the connect with my ancestors when I see their faces or visit the places they lived, worked and played. The only exception to this are my 2nd great grandparents who are Germans from Russia and came here in 1878 with their entire village. I have a great interest in their lives while they lived in the Volga River Valley.


Karen Wyles November 12, 2012 at 11:06 am

I feel more connected to my ancestors on this side of the pond, in my case that mostly means Massachusetts and Nova Scotia and yes the towns they came from.
I guess genealogy attracts me because I am a history buff and yes I’ve moved a lot too.



Barbara November 12, 2012 at 11:19 am

I am totally with you … love going wide. Sometimes the cousin’s spouse or someone’s business associate is fascinating and brings so much more richness to the story.

I wonder how the family in NY communicated when one daughter married and moved to Iowa in 1858 — did they ever see her again? And then her daughter moved to SD and later (1920) Montana. Their lives were so different than the cousins who stayed in NY.

I have discovered some brothers or brother-in-laws or cousins who moved to Mississippi in the 1840s bringing up all sorts of questions about a family being on opposite sides in the Civil War.

I have found cousins of my NY ancestors having elaborate 2000 person wedding parties in Chicago in 1868 while back in NY state they lived in a log cabin in the woods with great dependence on their one cow. I love the contrasts.

I do cross the ocean at times since my husband is British. One of his great grandfathers was known to be a butler, and that’s about all UNTIL I decided to check out his employer. He happened to be a very well-known and influential person with impressive visitors to his home… it added so much to our limited story about Bryan the butler.

Sometimes I get so engrossed I can’t remember how I got down the path I’m on … who is this interesting person? Oh, the stepfather of the in-law of the cousin of who???? But it doesn’t matter, they add to the richness of the era.

I’m particularly interested in the obvious impact of the CW on my relatives … some moved away and prospered, some suffered terribly. I’d like to understand the influences better. It’s made me very interested in US history. I’ll let someone else figure out which ships my early colonists came on, I prefer 1860-1920.


Rosemary November 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

Good, I’m not the only one who has detailed the lives of my 2nd cousin’s father-in-law’s sister’s child. My research isn’t in the US at all except for the odd remote relative who came here. It’s all in England (for the most part) and Australia.


Karen Skelton November 12, 2012 at 11:40 am

You nailed it, Kerry! I am going to print a short stack of this post and keep them handy to pass out whenever I get asked that question! Good advertising for you, easier for me, and nicer for the questioner since it will reduce the invariable eye-roll that I engage in when I hear this question. By the way, a relative on my husband’s side has traced their mutual line back to 37 kings/princes/dukes or some other royalty in the houses of Europe, and — and wait for it — the Norse deities Odin and Frigg who traveled to Scandinavia from their homeland of Asgard in the Middle East. Now there was a big move for you. :)


Jackie Jardine November 12, 2012 at 11:46 am

I couldn’t have said it better! I began my genealogical search 40 plus years ago with the primary purpose of tracking my ancestors to their countries of origin. I thought this would take me a couple of months – something that has given me many laughs over the years. Each line I have gotten to other shores I have labeled “done” for my lifetime. Those are for other family genealogists to research. My primary love is the United States and Canada – and fortunately for me – I have plenty of scope for this lifetime!


George P. Farris November 12, 2012 at 11:55 am

Dear Kerry:

Moving is the pits! I hope you are now close to being settled.

Wow! Hard question you’ve posed. Like you, I enjoy American History, but I go where the evidence, or hints, take me. A fact that you have earlier written on, is that with each generation you take your blood line back you double the number of direct ancestors you have (with the exception of pedigree collapse). So, I have around ten of my maternal lines back to the start of the 19th century. Most of them go back to colonial times.

One of the advantages I encountered with my maternal lines was that they were mostly of Western European origin (better documented). At a certain point in the first quarter of 17th century during the Jamestown era of colonization I began to find clues that pointed to a connection with aristocrat, noble, then royal lines, some that go back the dawn of the 10th century.

Now I spring from humble origins and for the most part my ancestors here left little reason for anyone to record their lives. With this in mind I adapted an approach that led me to study the time and locations in which they lived, thus learning more about them through examining the times in which they lived.

My paternal line was more difficult as my paternal grandparents are from Lebanon, and I was hampered by the destruction of documents during their civil war, and a language, Arabic, to which I had not previously been exposed. In spite of these difficulties I traveled to the homeland and learned much which led to taking some of my paternal lines back to the first quarter of the 19th century.

It was while researching my pre-1625 maternal line when I encountered the evidence which led me to my maternal lines which descended from royalty. I found that once you have a genetic connection, wherever they may have lived, you will have an emotional investment that helps you learn so much more about history. Also it becomes easier when you do tap into a nobel, or royal line, because you can virtually do your research on Wikipedia clicking from one link to another.

In summation I would say go where the evidence takes you. You’ll be amazed with what you learn about history. And, having traversed the chasms of time and distance you will find you have developed an emotional investment in your distant, but direct, ancestors!

Go well and far,


Roxanne Richardson November 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

When I started in doing genealogy, my goal was to find my immigrant ancestors, and then see if I could figure out why they came. We had only one immigrant story, which was that of my g2grandfather, who arrived, alone, in the 1850s. I didn’t realize that the reason we didn’t have any other immigrant stories was because most of the other immigrants came over a lot earlier. (I also didn’t realize how unusual his story would be. Most of my immigrant ancestors came with family.)

I tend to work on a direct line going back, then I spread out amongst siblings, in-laws, cousins, whoever I think will help me get through a brick wall when I come to it. I’m always circling back and revisiting ancestors I wandered away from before, finding more documents, maps, spouses, etc.

When I did find the occasional 19th century immigrant, I was willing to do a little digging for overseas records (amongst my English ancestors), but I wasn’t all that interested in searching out the generations that came before them.

While I agree that there is a ton of documentation available after 1800, there is a remarkable amount of documentation available for 17th century ancestors, if you can find your way back through the 18th century to get to them. On my mother’s side, I have mostly New York Dutch ancestry (including one of the original Walloon families who immigrated in the early 1620s and settled in New Amsterdam a few years later after it was “purchased” from the Indians.) But I also have a LOT of German Palatine ancestors who came over in the 1709/1710 migration. There are a surprising number of records and documents relating to both of these groups, and none of it is in English (it helps to have 400 years of genealogists come before you to translate it). Luckily, there are books about these people that are written in English.

On my dad’s side is mostly English ancestry, much of it from 17th century New England, which, again, has quite a bit of documentation available, thanks to the NEHGS. While I have lots of information on the folks from 1800 going forward, and not so much going back the prior 100 years, (other than bare facts), identifying ancestors who were here in the early years has given me the desire to really understand what those people seeking “religious freedom” were looking for. I do have some Mayflower ancestors (as do millions of other Americans), and lots more who came in the next 10 or 15 years of the Great Migration. Once I saw how many of them were piling up, and the reason they all supposedly came was “religious freedom,” I finally got sick of that 3rd grade Thanksgiving explanation and decided to find out what that actually meant. It’s driven me to learn about the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, what the Pilgrims and Puritans really believed, and how they were different from each other, what New York state was like for the 150 years prior to Independence, etc. All of those major world events caused my ancestors to immigrate here, and I count all of it as part of American history, because without it, they wouldn’t have come when they did, for the reasons they did.

My favorite thing about genealogy, besides the fact that the work is never done, is that there is always something new to learn, whether that something new is a research technique, a fact about a specific ancestor, or an understanding of what the world was like at a particular moment in time. It’s made me care about history, because I care about the people who were involved in it all at the time.


Jacqi Stevens November 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I’m with you, Kerry: ice cream is the ultimate escape mechanism!

I also tend to side with you on your sentiments regarding wanting to know everything there is to know about one generation before moving back yet one more. There is a lot to know, when it comes to ferreting out the details on just one person’s life. When you add the sister…and the brother…and the eleven other siblings in the family before checking out mom’s–and dad’s–eleven other siblings’ families too…well, that starts adding up a lot of names in ye olde database, let alone the details of what life was like for them, way back in 1899.

Glad to see you are settled in and back at blogging. I really look forward to my regular dose of fresh “Clues.”


Kerry Scott November 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Thank you!


Whitney McKim November 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I think I agree… I mean, I didn’t use to. I think I first started out just wanting to go as high in those branches as possible. Then I remembered I was afraid of heights. And suddenly, everything around me seemed a whole lot more appealing. Actually, I think I’m kidding myself and everyone when I don’t admit it was my fascination with the multiple wives of Oliver Cromwell McAfee that really made me appreciate the value of collateral relatives. Just because they’re not directly related doesn’t mean they don’t have a great story or won’t tell you some dirty little secret about that elusive direct relative that you are chasing.

I think it might be the difference between the newbies and the ones who have been around the block. Until you get down and dirty with your genealogy, it’s hard to shake off the stardom of being related to Thor….


Jenny Lanctot November 12, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I agree with you, Kerry. I’m still trying to master U.S. records. Foreign records scare me a little. Okay, a lot. Besides, I won’t feel like I’m ready to make the jump across the pond until I know the folks on THIS side of the pond. I’m with you, I want to know their stories and the stories of their neighbors, friends, and in-laws (or outlaws, as the case may be).


Acadian Genealogist November 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I feel like I’m a little of both. I’m fascinated by the culture that my fore-bearers established on this continent, but with the multiple deportations of Acadians by the British, one can’t help and traipse back and forth across the pond. I want to go back further in history as part of my heritage comes from Jersey and that island with its history fascinates me to no end. Having said this, I keep finding goodies over here in Canada that keep distracting me.

I have lots of data and information going back hundreds of years and for now, except for adding the occasional direct ancestor to my tree, I save all the “overseas” information in a folder for a rainy day. With 17 children, working on my paternal grandparents and their descendants is, within itself, a massive challenge.


Mary Lohr November 12, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Guess I’m a bit on the opposite side. My earliest immigrant ancestors came to the USA in the late 1850s and it did not take a lot of work to find much about them since they tended to stay in one area. So for me the real fun and challenge began when I jumped the pond and researched in Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Germany, Ireland, and Sweden. In the process I met an 8th cousin of mine who, along with his wife, were guests in our home and also hosted us in Germany last year. We also met my husband’s third cousins in Germany. It’s a wonderful world and if I had stopped at the water’s edge, I would have missed many wonderful experiences.


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith November 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I’m with you on this one, too, Kerry. I tend to do a complete descendancy on each couple, on each line, as I go back. I have little interest on ‘jumping back across the pond’ and even less on anything in another language… or even hard to decipher English, for that matter. I love the history of the USA, and there is a lot of it, if you pay attention, which sets the context of all my ancestors. That is more than enough to keep me occupied in the years I have left on this earth… One of my daughters has started getting serious about our European ancestors. More power to her! ;-)


Kerry Scott November 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I look forward to the day when I can outsource some of this work to my children.


Dee Blakley November 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

What all the others said.

Excellent post.

I’m glad you’ve gotten unpacked now. This post was worth the wait.


Kerry Scott November 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm



Louis Kessler November 12, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Those of us who can’t go back, go wide.


Patricia Nemeth November 13, 2012 at 10:57 am

We agree! I hate that question. Some family researches jump through the hoops and skip the proof part just to get back farther in time. Just when I think there is no more information on a family member out jumps new facts. I want each person’s life to be more than dates of birth, marriage death and was burial.


Laura November 14, 2012 at 6:05 am

I saw the headline and knew right away what the question was. I groan inwardly and try to address it whenever it comes up, which is often. I’m with you, Kerry! I want to know the families, their communities, their circumstances, the histories, their lives. Sure, most of my lines go back to the colonies and I have two connections to the Mayflower … or so I’m told. I haven’t actually done the step-by-step, sourced work to prove it yet. I’m too busy working on those 19th-century people of interest. But, someday, when I can document the work, everyone who’s been pestering me to get into the DAR or Mayflower Society will finally leave me alone. Meanwhile, I’m fully immersed in the 1800s and loving it.


Israel P. November 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

I’m with you on the “How far back” question. On my male line, I know nothing more than I did forty years ago, even that is my main area of research. What I have done is to make it into a hugely successful single-surname project.


Jana Last November 14, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I LOVE collateral lines! Without them, our family tree would look like a skinny telephone pole!


Jo Graham November 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

I’ve been mistaken for a Lady Parts Expert too – several times. :-) Family history research – wider is better than further back, for the moment :-)


Greta Koehl November 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

You nailed it; what you have described is basically the story of my approach to family research. I invented the term “reverse orphan” to describe the numerous (however many great-grand) uncles and aunts that I have done lots of research on because they never married/didn’t have children/didn’t have children who survived to have their own children – so I felt it was up to me to tell their stories. I have a major brick wall at the great-grandparent level and three at the great-great grandparent level. The families I have focused on, i.e. the ones who had been researched the least, mostly because they had very common last names, have yielded some incredible stories when I really dug down into the research. And I just feel closer to these families. And yes, I have come to love American history, which is something I never would have thought would happen when I was young. A bit of my philosophy of family research is described in this post:


Kathleen Gregory November 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I started researching 40 years ago, wow where did the time go? I am really addicted to research in itself. For example, reading old newspapers in search of a family member, I found he had been married. The newspaper article was her asking for an annulment after 20 years of marriage. Yes, 20! He was in an insane asylum and she swore she never knew. They never had children, but I felt this compulsion to know who she was, where she came from, etc.

I too, add descendants to my aunts and uncles. A lot of my research goes that direction more than up the ancestral line.

My children don’t understand looking for dead people. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about new discoveries. So, I share my research with my cousins!

I do have lines back to the Mayflower that my aunt researched years ago.
Most of my other lines go back to late 1700s, which I find the most challenging to find records to prove these people even existed or that they are my ancestors.


Kate Eakman November 19, 2012 at 4:32 pm

“I’m not sorry, because those folks are fascinating, and they’re recent enough that I’m able to craft a pretty clear picture of their lives.”

An EXCELLENT way to look at family history. I have been researching mine for 20+ years, and on some lines am no further back than the 1850s. It’s no biggie to me because I KNOW the folks in my family – their lives, their occupations, their families – and I like them. Thank you Kerry Scott for writing this!


Phoebe C. November 25, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I’ve been immersed in genealogy for about two to three years (given that I’m only 16), and my interests and goals for the subject vary greatly and have shifted over the years. When I first started out I very much wanted to locate my immigrant ancestors on my mother’s side (my father was born in Cyprus so in his case I wanted at the minimum names and villages going back to the 2nd great generations [this goal has been reached]). As I’ve been researching, I’ve found to my great surprise that I don’t seem to have any 19th century immigrant ancestors–I only began to find a few immigrant ancestors in the early 18th century,and more in the 17th. So this in itself gets me excited.
I personally love trivia and little stories, and like to collect photos and stories etc whenever possible. I sometimes get sidetracked by certain ancestors that allude me, obsessively trying to figure out their parentage because I know so little about them. …For a long time I was addicted to adding every single descendant from a German immigrant ancestor to my family tree that I could, but I’ve put that task off due to the fact that there are so many people to add.

Eh. I switch from American to European genealogy on impulse, based on which family line I’m most interested in at the moment.


Margaret November 29, 2012 at 7:04 pm

I to like wide and deep. I’m still having fun getting the details on my grandpa’s brothers and trying to fill in as many gaps as I can on the lives of their dad and grandad who was in the Civil War. Yeah. Who needs just a long list of names and gradually decreasing dates when you can get juicy tidbits about lives!!!


Jodi December 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I totally agree! I tell people, it’s the quality of information not the quantity. I always advise people to focus on building big fat picture of their ancestors rather than a long skinny (easily broken) string.
Thanks for posting.


Howland Davis December 17, 2012 at 9:27 am

My answer to your question is yes and no.
I do have family lines that go back to the Mayflower and a British land grant in 1686. But, as you say, there is too much on this side of the Atlantic to keep me busy.
But, in working on the maternal father’s branch, I find a number of families with an uncommon surname and similar given names to which I can find no connection. I am convined that I need to get back to France in the early 1600s to make the connection. I would love to do that research!


Pauleen December 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I so agree that is (1) the most common question and (2) to me, the most annoying one! Like you I’m far more interested in who they were, what their lives were like, the social/historical/economic etc context in which they lived. I do want to go back to their birth place, to learn more about why they may have made the great migration, but not so I can go back to Adam & Eve. I’ve realised my goal is to ultimately reach the point where for many years they were settled in one place which formed who they are. Thanks for an enjoyable post.


Susan Partlan January 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm

“…much more likely to wander off in search of ice cream. ” So funny. I know what you mean. I also prefer the history here in the US.

We’ll be in NYC next week. One day we’re taking a day trip to drive to Kingston and walk about the graves of Martin’s ancestors. I can’t wait.


Diane October 7, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Yes, I hate the question. Some of the other folks came up with excellent responses that I will try to remember next time I get asked.
I’m in a different situation. I have no US ancestors. I was born in Canada to a Hungarian father and Canadian-born mother of Hungarian-born parents.
But, I agree about filling in the lines. It’s just harder trying to find cousins on the other side of the pond who mostly do not speak English. I have found through his Hungarian website a 5th cousin in my father’s paternal line who is the only relative I know outside my immediate family that shares my surname. I would love to find relatives who knew my grandparents or great-grandparents but am striking out so far.
Learning a lot about eastern European history, trying to figure out what their lives were like and why they did what they did. Who knew history could be so interesting?
Love your blog Kerry. Always gives me a chuckle. Hope you are enjoying Albuquerque.


Kerry Scott October 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Thanks Diane…we sure are!


Ange Coniglio February 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Kerry, Candace, Barbara et al.: Being that my parents came to America “only” one hundred years ago, I have not a single ancestor, aunt, uncle, or first cousin in the U. S. My wife has a couple of cousins, but no ancestors born in the U. S.

So if I want to do genealogy for my family or hers, I have no choice but to seek my Sicilian roots. How far back have I gone? To the mid-1700s, where the records simply cease. Peasants and sulfur miners didn’t make the news in those days, and before that time the skimpy, at best, church records just peter out.

That doesn’t stop me from extending my search to collateral lines to get them as far back as possible, and then to trace them forward to find distant cousins whose ancestors did make it to these shores, but again, only in the past century or so. All the American civil war, probate, land records, etc. don’t help me; what I need is to find more records “across the pond.”


Judy May 8, 2014 at 12:57 am

Just found your blog. Very interesting. I like the way you say what you have to say and your subject matter. Your followers and their comments are just wonderful. You must love doing this and I’m sure your following is well deserved. I am inspired to get back to chasing down my ancestors so I can continue to enjoy the company.


Kerry Scott May 8, 2014 at 7:08 am

Thank you! You can enjoy the company as long as you like, even if you’re not doing research. Most of the post here are for entertainment purposes (unlike this one), and everyone is welcome.


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