Judy Russell is at it again. On Saturday I read her post on “the missing 7/8ths.” When looking back through the generations, it is amazing how quickly the numbers add up. Two parents yield four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great-great grandparents. By the time you reach the ninth generation (seventh-great grandparents), you have reached 1,022 individuals.
Now, not every person will have 1,022 unique individuals at this point. Often you will find multiple lines of descent from a couple due to cousin marriages in later generations. This is called pedigree collapse.
On Saturday, Judy picked up on a topic that has been running all week. Starting with a Facebook post on Monday by genealogist Lisa B. Lee. Lisa examined her ancestors and determined that after decades of research she had identified 77 out of those 1,022 ancestors for 7.5% found. Other genealogists have been counting this week as well. Crista Cowan from Ancestry.com had identified the most so far with 365 (35.7%) identified.
Judy decided to sit down and examine her numbers. She did not include any women for whom she only knew the first name. She also did not include individuals whose identities had not been proven. Her total was 126 or 12.3%. Her first gap appeared in the fifth generation with a missing set of second-great grandparents.
After reading this I decided with a bit of dread to look at my own pedigree, built over more than two decades of research. The feeling of dread came from knowing how lucky I am. Eight generations of my pedigree (including myself) are completely identified. I have only two mysteries: a sixth-great grandfather and a seventh-great grandfather. That leaves only eight people missing out of my pedigree, for a total of 1,014, or 99.6% found.
My ancestry is French-Canadian. Two of my grandparents were born in Québec. The other two grandparents were the children of immigrants. They closely followed their Catholic faith, and the Catholic church records in Québec are incredibly complete. In addition, following in the French tradition, women kept their surnames throughout their lives. Even the death records of married women will identify them with their surname. This greatly reduces the number of mysteries as compared to researchers of ancestors who follow the English tradition.
The downside is that when we have problems there are never easy solutions. And there have been a number of them along the way. Records may survive, the handwriting is often difficult to decipher. The use of sobriquets means that surnames can change from generation to generation (my great-grandfather was the first to carry the surname Leclerc from birth to death). I am descended from a New England boy carried captive to Canada during the Queen Anne’s War that took extensive research to identify. I published that research in “From Webber to Ouabard: The Probable New England Origins of Joseph Philippe Ouabard dit Langlois of Cap St. Ignace, Quebec” in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (159: 308–315.
Unfortunately, until DNA analysis gets significantly more sophisticated, it will be difficult to identify my two missing pieces. One is an illegitimate birth with no known parents. The other’s origins in France are unknown. Time to take a look at your pedigree. What’s your number?