Deciding Which Ancestors to Trace (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

What To Do Before You Start Your Research…[edit | edit source]

You must expect to run into some problems along the way. It’s important though, that you not create your own frustrations by making mistakes in the initial stages of your research.

You’ve just taken the first step towards finding your roots. You are taking this course, you are doing what everyone should do first when embarking on a new journey, learn as much as you can about your project, so that you do not waste a lot of time making the same mistakes that others have done before you.

But a Couple of Don’ts First...[edit | edit source]

Don’t make any assumptions unless you can back them up with facts; and don’t believe anything you are told unless it can be confirmed by someone else or can be proven by documentation.

I’m not suggesting that your relatives may lie, but stories are often exaggerated or embellished. Stories dealing with the social standing of a family are often improved upon. Most of our first ancestors in North America had occupations connected to agriculture and the land. After the industrial revolution our ancestors became miners, mill-workers, railway men or worked in any job connected to industry. So beware of stories suggesting Royal or Noble descent.

The most important order of action is to always start with the known and find your way to the unknown. Just because you find a marriage of someone with the same last name as yours does not mean he is your ancestor. Making this assumption will only lead to disappointment.

So start with who you know best! Yourself... How would you want to record information about yourself? First, a good habit to get into, is to record everything that you know, accurately.

Second, it’s also important to write down all you know about yourself because your descendants will need your information, maybe several generations from now and you may not be here to explain yourself.

Remember, you will also be an ancestor some day!

Construct a Miniature Tree[edit | edit source]

A “miniature tree” is my name for a working diagram. It will tell you how much you know or don’t know before you begin, or at any point in your research progress. The basic concept is one generation per line:

Great-grandparents' generation
Grandparents' generation
Parents' generation
Your generation
Your children's generation

The easiest and most visual way to understand your family tree is by creating a type of ‘flow chart’ on paper. Find a large piece of paper (the back of a poster is good). Start by putting yourself in the middle of the paper. To the side, but on the same line, write down your spouse’s name (if you have one) or father of your children. To the left of yourself, list your brothers and sisters (siblings); their ancestry will be the same as yours. Your children, and the children of your siblings, will be on the line below you.

Your parents’ names should be on the line above you, and their brothers and sisters if you know them. List your father’s information on the left, and your mother’s on the right. You could also show all the spouses of siblings in your parents’ generation (your aunts and uncles) and their children (your cousins).

Next line above is for the grandparents’ generation, and of course you have four of them. Repeat the same process for their generation. By the time you get to the great-grandparents’ line/generation, your family information may be becoming sketchy.

An equals sign (=) can be used to indicate marriage. This kind of chart is sometimes called an hour-glass chart. That is because YOU are the focus. Assuming you have children, they are the roots of the “tree” and your ancestors are the “branches”.

By now your information is probably getting a little sketchy. Go down to the next line, write the names of your great-grandparents and so on.

Your Miniature Tree would consist of:

A Miniature Tree.jpg

and so on.....

Whose Genealogy Do You Want to Trace?[edit | edit source]

As early on as you can in your project, you should try to make this decision. You may want to trace just your father’s ancestors, or perhaps a maternal line, or all your children’s ancestors.

The higher up on your miniature tree you go, naturally the more ancestors there will be to find. Let’s look at this logically. When you look at my lineage these are the family surnames you see:

Whose Genealogy Do You Want to Trace.jpg

You may choose to trace just one of these lines. If I’m tracing just my St Denis ancestors, and not my mother’s ancestors (Blais), I would simply start my miniature tree with my father. This would give me my St Denis pedigree or ancestral chart.

Tracing one line.jpg

If you research all four grandparents’ families, then you are tracing your complete lineage, both female and male ancestors. The number of ancestors you will find will double for each generation completed. When you have completed the research for 3 generations you have 6 ancestors. After completing 5 generations you have 30 ancestors.

If you are successful in researching 10 generations, you will have 1022 ancestors. And by the time all ancestors are found to complete 15 generations you will have 32,766 ancestors. WOW!!!

Researching 4 Generations.jpg

The decisions of whose genealogy you are tracing should be made early in your project so that you can set up your charts properly. But don’t worry, you can change your mind along the way; you may decide to add to your research or to not proceed with certain other branches of your family.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.