Monday, August 17, 2015

Fireworks and Genealogy

It probably wasn't that hard to deduce—after my sniveling comment last week about mouse-eared hotel shower faucets—that being three hundred miles south of my home would likely land me in Disneyland. If you had arrived at that conclusion, you were correct.

While some of the people in our party that week attended stodgy old business conference proceedings, and some others of our company indulged themselves in the wonders of the Magic Kingdom, I, myself, did not partake in either. I used those precious daytime hours to decompress, relax and revel in the sinfully green landscape surrounding me.

When it came to evening activities, though, all were present and accounted for, once the nightly fireworks display began.

And so it is that I still have fireworks on my mind.

About the same time as we made our trip southward, Blaine T. Bettinger wrote a post on his genetic genealogy blog discussing the helpfulness of realizing just how much of one's family tree is already completed. The title of his post asked the question, "How much of your family tree do you know?" The follow-up was a thought-provoking prompt: "And why does that matter?"

I've thought about those questions all week. I mulled over them while walking around that beautiful hotel landscaping I enjoy so much. I thought about his questions during the mind-numbingly dull drive back home through the baking-hot central valley. I even rehashed what he wrote after returning home.

There wasn't a time I considered it any more, however, than when we were watching those nightly fireworks displays. And yesterday's edition of my bi-monthly post accounting for my ongoing genealogy progress made me realize: of course it would be fireworks that would make me think of his blog post. After all, what I'm doing in my constant research—especially now, as I try desperately to make connections in those hundreds of DNA matches that don't seem to line up—is very much like those fireworks I watched every evening.

If the comparison fails to light up any connections in your mind, hold on. I'll explain.

You see, all my family trees—my husband's paternal tree, his separate maternal tree, and each of my two separate trees, as well—have been getting exceedingly fat around the middle, lately. The reason for this is simple: I'm adding data on all the siblings of all the ancestors as they take their places in our direct lines. And then, after pushing back yet another generation, I'm working my way forward again—documenting each sibling's marriage and children, then their marriages and descendants, and on through the generations, back to the present.

There's a reason for tracing all those collateral lines. It's like those fireworks. Peering through the dark sky last week, I could see a thin strand of light as each of the fireworks shot straight up in the air, going higher and higher until at just the right point, something inside detonated and radiated a shower of lights and color in a full radius across the sky. Then, the bright arc of light, now spread out, began its descent downward again. We watched, never failing to delight in the show, never taking our eyes off those last fading streams of light until they faded out, entirely.

And then the next missile would shoot toward the dark sky, and we'd follow yet another line upwards—and then track it back down, as far as our eyes could see.

For each line of ascent in our family trees, I'd push it as far as I could go, then chart each of that person's children, trailing that line back downward, as far as I could see. Yes, the explosion at the pinnacle is the bright point at which we are all most interested—finding a new maiden name for the next generation's mystery relative certainly provides us some research fireworks—but before it goes dark, it is the connections that are made on that descending trajectory that allow me to match up with someone else on my DNA test matches who might not have as complete a family tree diagram. It's those downward-falling sparks from that research fireworks display that light up the connections with others that I'm seeking.

In his article, Blaine Bettinger mentioned the usefulness of actually completing a chart—which he displayed on his blog post—framing the question of research completeness in terms of percentages of ancestors known per span of generations. For instance, for the two nearest generations consisting of your parents and grandparents, the total number of people needed to complete that portion of your tree would be six—two parents and four grandparents. What percentage of those six do you have itemized in your own family tree? If you are like most people, you can claim 100% completion there.

Push that back yet another generation, and the total head count would increase to fourteen: eight greats plus the six we already mentioned. Are you still shining at 100%?

Adding another generation on top of that—jumping that total head count to thirty with your second great grandparents—and we start to see some DNA test participants slipping from their 100% positions. And as I've mentioned before, that hampers us from being equipped to determine connections with DNA matches as close as third cousin. When genetic genealogy companies can give results up to the level of sixth cousin, that means some are out of the game by the time they are only halfway in. That can really take the sizzle out of the fireworks display.

Blaine Bettinger's percentages chart is a great motivator. From the vantage point of the big picture, it allows you to visualize the level of completion of your family tree(s). It certainly will help me track my progress more thoroughly for my bi-monthly statistical wrap-ups—added, as I'll do, to a systematic follow-through on those downward descending streams from each branch of the overall family tree.

The higher each new fireworks missile shoots, the more descendants it will shower down in its trailing light display. After all, by the time I reach the fifth great grandparents who will yield me the sixth cousin connections I seek, we'll be looking at a total display of 254 possible ancestors, let alone all their children and their descendants. But it will take a brilliant display of those fireworks to light up all the connections that need to be made, before we can effectively sort out all those DNA matches.



  1. Replies
    1. It will be interesting to get that into a visible form, using the chart Blaine has suggested. It will also help focus the effort by targeting specific ancestors needing further research work.

  2. An interesting analogy - with the fireworks.

    I've not gotten the full 32 great greats. I stopped when they "came across the pond" mostly since it was a lot harder - and more expensive (with Ancestry) to go international. But I'm only short one of them.

    1. That's a pretty good record, Iggy--especially considering the international angle. Actually, with FamilySearch adding so many international records, that will eventually be one free source worth checking back with on a regular basis. It may not be long before you can push back that barrier yet another generation.

  3. This is a great analogy, Jacqi, and a very visual one. I can just see all the descendants of my various collateral lines lighting up as we go back down through the generations. And you're right--DNA testing provides more incentive than ever for us to branch out into those lines.

    1. It's practically a necessity, Shelley. I know in my own case, there is certainly otherwise a gap between the reach of my family trees and those of my many DNA matches. We have to do something to bridge that gap!


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