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How Far Back Can Genealogy Go?

Updated on June 17, 2017

A Genealogy is more than just names and date.

One of the most common questions any genealogist is asked is “How far back have you got?” which is a valid question but many don’t realise that genealogy isn’t about the length of your family tree but the way your ancestors can be brought to life using old documents.

A family history is so much more than names, dates and places and that additional work is so worthwhile. It allows you to really get to know who your ancestors were, how they lived their lives and what qualities they had which you inherited.

My Own Genealogy Research

After almost thirty years of genealogy research the earliest ancestor I have discovered was in the early seventeenth century. From my own experience it can be fairly easy to trace your family history back to the early nineteenth century. The census records in the UK begin in 1841 and any adult on this census would have been born in the late part of the eighteenth century or the early part of the nineteenth century. A person’s success getting this far back will depend on a number of issues regarding the popularity of the surname, the location in which they lived and the amount of migration the family experienced. You also need to take into consideration the social status of your ancestors. Generally speaking it was the rich, the poor and the non law abiding ancestors who left a larger paper trail behind them.

Prior to the nineteenth century the process of confirming your genealogy becomes much more difficult. Without the existence of the census returns it’s harder to discover the relationship between individuals and what you are left with is normally a list of baptisms, marriages and burials which may or may not fit into your family tree. We are of course all assuming that if a baptism records the name of both parents that the husband is the natural father! In fact you only have to look at how many people in the twenty first century lie on official documents to understand that there is always a chance of an illegitimate child being claimed by someone else! Being positive that you aren’t suddenly progressing down a completely different, and non related path becomes harder especially if your surname is one of the more common ones.

Are you descended from Royalty or historical figures?

Has anyone ever said to you “I can trace my family history back to ….” and go on to give you a famous name in history who lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago? It’s very common for individuals to claim familiarity with such people with little knowledge of real genealogy and the need for accurate records to back it up.

Once upon a time I was told that my family were French aristocrats who had escaped the French Revolution by travelling across the English Channel. They were then said to have buried all their money in a graveyard in Kent and hoped one day to collect the money. (Why they would bury their money is anyone’s guess as I would assume that they would need it!). It would have been so easy for me to find an aristocratic family bearing their surname (which did sound French by the way) and make the obvious assumptions that those people were my ancestors. This is where so many people make huge mistakes in their genealogy.

The mistake isn’t just in the fact that they make assumptions without any evidence but that they are so riveted towards their family being someone special, rich or famous that they ignore the evidence before them. In the end I traced this particular branch of my family to the West Midlands in the 1730’s with no links to France, let alone the French revolution at all.

In the UK it’s far easier to establish relationships if your ancestors resided in small villages as opposed to towns and cities where there can be several unrelated families sharing a surname. Having said that I was once in contact with a fellow genealogist who was tracing not one, but three families who shared surnames. After many months of research we discovered that the three families were in no way related to their counterparts regardless of the fact that they shared names and lived within a half mile radius of each other.

What Records Exist?

The Church first began keeping baptism, marriage and burial records in the sixteenth century and the number of this which have survived is quite high. It is possible to get back to this time depending on the individual family but before the sixteenth century it becomes exceedingly difficult. That isn’t to say that it isn’t possible but very very few families would left a paper trail this far back in time. One of the sources available are manorial records but the information these provide is scant and whilst it will name individual men (not women) it won’t give you enough evidence to build a family history. The average person won’t have left any evidence of their existence and the few records which do exist will probably be reserved for the upper classes.

It would be very exciting if we could all claim to be descended from royalty or other famous people in history but the truth is the vast majority of people find that the evidence to get further back in history simply doesn’t exist anymore, if it even existed in the first place. Claiming to be descended from someone such as Charlemagne or Attila the Hun may sound great but the chances of the genealogy not being falsified at some point in history or the evidence being inconclusive is unusual.

To summarise the question “How far back can a genealogy go?” you need to base it on the individual family. The vast majority of people will only be able to trace their genealogy back to the 18th century or the 16th at best. The handful of families who did leave sufficient evidence of their lives prior to this time will more then likely be the same upper class people whose genealogies are already written and published as part of our history. Are these genealogies accurate? We’ll never really know will we?


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