How many generations back can you trace?

1975 Golden Wedding celebration for Marcus Calder Campbell & Janet Russell Dickson

There’s been a discussion lately on one of the American genealogy blogs about how feasible it is to trace back through 10 generations of family history.

Leaving aside any arguments about “name hunting” as opposed to documenting a family’s history I thought it would be an interesting exercise to check the number of generations I’d traced for my own family.

My father’s ancestry is all Scottish, from the central belt of the country and on his side I can trace:

  • Generations 1-4: 15 out of 15 possible names (all of his great grandparents)
  • Generation 5: 16 out of 16 possible names (all of his great-great grandparents)
  • Generation 6: 15 out of 32 possible names (46% of his great-great-great grandparents)
  • Generation 7: 4 out of 64 possible names (6% of his 4x great grandparents)

and that’s it.

My mother’s family is all Scottish again but spreads across the borders, the Lothians and Caithness. On her side I can trace:

  • Generations 1-4: 15 out of 15 possible names (all of her great grandparents)
  • Generation 5: 16 out of 16 possible names (all of her great-great grandparents)
  • Generation 6: 12 out of 32 possible names (37% of her great-great-great grandparents)
  • Generation 7: 8 out of 64 possible names (12% of her 4x great grandparents)

and that’s it.

So what?

Well, it’s one way of stepping back and viewing the wood rather than the individual trees and leaves we normally concentrate on.

All but three of my Caithness ancestors are from the parishes of Halkirk and Bower where the Old Parish Registers don’t exist before 1780 – it’ll take a lot of luck and hunting in tenancy agreements held in Edinburgh to take them back any further.

I can see some ancestors who died post-1855 (the introduction of civil registration in Scotland) where the name of one parent is missing. I need to check that I’ve got the relevant certificates. If they died in an institution, I need to find out if those records survive and check to see if they contain further details.

and so on.

It’s been a useful exercise. I can see which families will need more research at archives in Scotland the next time I can grab a chance. I can also see families where more work with online sources, or in The National Archives at Kew, could bring results.

Have you ever stepped back to get an overview of your research?

How did you do it?

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3 Responses to How many generations back can you trace?

  1. julie neven says:

    iam reaseaching my mums family they were all born in scotland andi want to know where togo when iget there to get as ,much history as i can the name is mackie. thanks julie

  2. I just finished my first road trip to visit three states here in the US where I had previously exhausted my internet research options. As I was sitting here, I wondered how far back people usually have as a goal for their genealogy research so I asked Google and found this blog post of yours. Glad I did. You inspired me to check my progress and here is what I’ve found.

    My father is African American and I haven’t been able to get past the US Civil War. On his side I can trace:

    Generations 1-4: 13 out of 15 possible names (86.67% of his gg)
    and that’s it.

    My mothers’ family is from Belgium, Poland, and Russia and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit those countries to locate documents that haven’t been digitized for the internet. On her side I can trace:

    Generations 1-4: 13 out of 15 possible names (75% of her gg)
    Generation 5: 3 out of 16 possible names (18.75% of her 2x gg)
    Generation 6: 1 out of 32 possible names (3.13% of her 3x gg)
    Generation 7: 1 out of 64 possible names (1.56% of her 4x gg)
    and that’s it.

    Now I begin the daunting process of trying to locate will and land records to piece together the history of my African American ancestors before the Civil War. Eventually I will make a trip to Belgium, Poland, and Russia to attempt to locate BMD records there.

    I’ve done most of my research through Ancestry.com, familysearch.org, jewishgen.org, microfilm from the public library, a trip to the marriage bureau in NYC, and Social Security documents ordered online. Additionally, my husbands’ family has in their possession a family bible with some information. His family was a lot easier since his paternal grandmother was a Doan (part of the largest family association in North America).

    On his fathers’ side (the Doan line) I can trace:

    Generations 1-4: 15 out of 15 possible names (all of his gg)
    Generation 5: 12 out of 16 possible names (
    Generation 6: 5 out of 32 possible names (
    Generation 7: 3 out of 64 possible names (
    Generation 8: 4 out of 128 possible names (
    Generation 9: 3 out of 256 possible names (
    Generation 10: 4 out of 512 possible names (
    Generation 11: 3 out of 1024 possible names (
    and that’s it.

    On his mothers’ side I can trace:

    Generations 1-4: 15 out of 15 possible names (all of her gg)
    Generation 5: 13 out of 16 possible names (81.25% of her 2x gg)
    Generation 6: 17 out of 32 possible names (53.13% of her 3x gg)
    Generation 7: 6 out of 64 possible names (9.38% of her 4x gg)
    Generation 8: 2 out of 128 possible names
    Generation 9 2 out of 256 possible names
    Generation 10: 2 out of 512 possible names
    Generation 11: 1 out of 1024 possible names
    Generation 12: 2 out of 2048 possible names
    and that’s it.

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