How do you map out your family history? Do you go up one line of the family, or do you try to discover the whole circle of direct line ancestors whose DNA has influenced yours? What you choose, the heritage which you lay claim to, will affect not just the research you do, but your whole concept of your ancestry. I’ve written about this fascinating challenge in my book Growing Your Family Tree (Chapter Two), but I’ll give a brief outline here. This vital topic is given scant attention, apart from practical considerations of managing your research, but it has a rich significance which everyone involved with family history can explore for themselves.
Circle of Ancestors – This approach means that you set out to trace as many direct-line ancestors as you can. The circle doubles in size at each generation, from 4 grandparents, to 32 at your 3x gt grandparents, and 64 for your 4x gt grandparents. Stop right there, for a moment…the numbers go rapidly off the scale after this point. If you want to lay claim to your ancestry, to get to ‘know’ your forbears, and to sense them in their entirety as a group, then clearly you’ll need to set a limit. For me, 32 is about right. I’ve got just about all of them in place, and each one has a distinct identity, and often a lot more too in terms of personality and life events. I’m happy to take some back to 4x gts or even further if it’s an easy line to follow, or there’s some riddle that I want to solve such as ‘How did this branch of the family end up in this particular place?’
A Direct Line – The traditional method of genealogy was to trace a direct line of descent, usually through the family name. As most of us come from a patrilineal culture, where taking the father’s name is standard, this tends to reinforce the concept of a male line as equating with ancestry. There are no rights or wrongs here; every society in the world devises its own kinship system, and where the line of descent is perceived as coming through the father, it tends to strengthen the family identity along those lines. And, of course, it’s easier to research as a rule, in these societies. But it’s by no means universal, and there’s no overriding reason to take either the name or the father’s line as the given.
You might also, for instance, choose to research the female line, and if you can cope with the successive name changes that are likely to occur with each generation, you may find it rewarding to trace this very physical and genuine line of descent. After all, it’s said that as many as a third of children have a different father to the one listed on the birth certificate! I have a treasured pair of photographs showing five generations of my female line, from my maternal great grandmother to my daughters’ daughters. And I can trace it back another three generations to my 3 x gt grandmother, Maria Adie of Bedworth, in a family of ribbon weavers and miners. There, so far, the trail runs out – unless you know different?
The Family Tree – It’s great to have a goal to start with, such as following one line, or establishing your circle of ancestors. But as I’ve indicated, you’ll probably want to compromise here and expand there, so the ‘Tree’ form allows you to do just that. Its branches grow vertically and stretch out laterally as well. The Tree itself is a powerful symbol of the family, and in many traditions it’s seen as representing the source of individual human lives, and the spirit of an individual family as well. Modern software makes it easy to ‘grow’ your tree, and to view it in different ways.
Tree, circle, line: our family history is not just about gathering data; the forms we draw it in are powerful and have a psychological impact too. These are ancient and potent symbols, and go beyond their use in pragmatic diagrams. By contemplating and drawing up family patterns this way, my sense of connection with my family history has deepened, and become full of meaning. And although you will probably use one of these primarily, you’re likely to find that each has value, and that you can move from one to another as your interest develops.