Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seeking Descendants

When you work on your family history, do you find yourself wandering down parallel lines? Or do you stay on the straight and narrow, backtracking through history, following the line from direct descendant to immediate predecessor, swimming upstream and upstream only?

As you probably have already guessed, I choose to meander.

I have some solid reasons for that choice—despite personality quirks that insure that persuasion—so before I explore the one descendant I’m particularly interested in now, I’d like to state my case.

Why Research Parallel Lines?

Just in my own experience, I’ve run across a few reasons for delving into the lines of those who were siblings of my direct ancestors. Here are some reflections on this process:

  • Can you say, “Brick wall”?

Knowing who the siblings are in the family you’re currently researching provides a key to work-arounds when you get stuck. If you can’t find parents’ names for your direct ancestor, for instance, perhaps that ancestor’s siblings may turn out to have documentation that yields the result you were seeking.

Case in point: While researching Timothy Kelly in Fort Wayne, not once could I uncover the names of his parents. He married in 1860—too soon for the government to require additional data collection. Likewise, he died in 1901, narrowly missing legislative changes for death certificates, too. However, his sister, though unmarried, died just after her state government began requiring the type of additional information that provided me with the answer I sought.

  • Now, can you say, “Cousin Bait”?

If you want to target the crowd-sourcing of your family history research project to people who have a specific, vested interest in your particular family, you really need to recruit cousins. If the ones you can call up or harass on Facebook won’t respond to your pleas for help, you’ve got to find other ways to recruit those extra sets of eyes and hands. That entails getting your family tree project out there where others can find you—but it also requires you to dangle those hooks that a potential cousin can latch on to. If you don’t display information on siblings of your direct line—that’s the “bait,” in case you were wondering—how will those potential cousins know that you are a viable connection?

Example: by working on all the descendants of this extended Kelly family in Fort Wayne, I documented enough names of the other branches of this tree that when people Googled their own family names, that search led them to my online queries and trees at and Rootsweb (not to mention the collection of names and data being added right here, daily). That’s led to email correspondence with a couple other distant Kelly family members that I would not have otherwise been aware of.

  • Call it another way to leave a family legacy.

Sometimes, I feel like people researching their genealogy get overwhelmed with their me-me-me focus. They want to know who is related to “me.” They want to know that great-great-ancestor is someone famous. Or rich. And if not that, at least notorious. While there are many wonderful volunteers out there “paying it forward” by helping with genealogical projects to benefit others—everything from local genealogical society efforts to the around-the-world army of volunteers indexing records for—we all could use a little redirecting in our genealogy focus.

After all, our family history research and its written results are the legacy we will leave behind. What more unselfish way to research that story than to include all the family members descendant from that key ancestor?

With the many online resources aiding us in constructing our family trees now, the focus is on the race backward in time. In contrast, when I think back to my earliest days of research—in libraries predating any electronic gadgets—I think of the books I pulled down from reference shelves. There, in many of those volumes, I could find titles that included the words, “The Descendants Of.” I am so grateful for those researchers I’ve never met—who probably were long gone before I was even born—who had the foresight to frame their genealogical questions with that forward perspective.

Wanting to Be That Kind of Researcher

Even if the parallel line I’m eyeing yields only one descendant, it still makes a worthwhile project for me. I want to do this because I want to find relatives. Perhaps it’s the small-family syndrome playing its way out in my life. It’s a call to find connections.

At this juncture in the Kelly family research, though, I find an unusual situation: Timothy Kelly’s six children gave him only one grandchild. With the potential to call this the last leaf on this Kelly tree, to research such a small parallel line hardly qualifies as brick-wall bashing, or even cousin bait strategizing. Why bother?

In the case of this one child—Joan Horton, as we find in the 1940 census—she may not represent a continuing line of descendants. Even if the line stops here, with this one 1940 mention of a descendant, we do a service by documenting what became of this vanishing immigrant family. We grant significance in the act of remembering others. We can certainly afford to present such others with this one dignity.


  1. I'm with you. I've probably - no DEFINITELY - had MORE success on my me-me-me interests by researching collateral lines than by following the straight and narrow. I'm fascinated by this ever-changing definition of family.

    1. Don't you just love it when that "side line" ends up letting you strike some research gold?! It's been so neat to meet cousins I never knew I had, but like you, Wendy, I've never lost sight of the fact that detours can get you there faster, sometimes, than just plugging away at the straight and narrow.

  2. Ugh, typos.

    Having a small family - I definitely look downstream. Some of that spills over into finding LIVING people who descended from those in old photographs.

    My personal goals are NOT "finding out" if I am related to someone "famous." It focuses on how did I get here and why. The answer lies in those that came before me, that moved hither and yon - for whatever reason (some inscrutable, some obvious.) I will be a "leaf" - so there isn't a legacy thing going (my niece and nephews have only a "half" interest in any event, being half the product of some other family. So that feeds the "find others for others" thing. It has its own rewards/frustrations. :)

    1. Iggy, don't think you will be left with a next generation who is only "half" interested in your family heritage. I firmly believe there will be someone to take up your research torch and run with it. A very close friend of mine is in much the same situation as you, yet in her persistent research--now international--she has met a distant and quite elderly relative who has come to see her as the very one she had given up hope ever finding to take her place in the research trail. Likewise, there will be someone else to pass your research along to when the time is right.

      I definitely see in action what you are saying about your efforts and interest spilling over into finding living descendants for orphan photographs. I see you hard at work at it every day at Forgotten Old Photos. You have made a huge contribution to the effort there and at other blogs like it. There are quite a few of those living people reunited with photographs from their family's heritage, thanks to your effort!

    2. Oh you are great at finding people! And I do appreciate it! So grateful to have you for a friend:)

  3. I "need" to do more research..but I have been too busy preserving what information I have on the past four generations of my husbands paternal relatives. I will finish with that this winter...fingers crossed.
    I suppose I should lay a road map that someone else could follow on the rest of the relatives:)

    1. Finish? Far Side, you know genealogy research is never finished ;)


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