Sunday, November 7, 2021

"Like Interwoven Thickets"


Following yet another episode from the British television series "Who Do You Think You Are?" linking one of today's celebrities with a monarch from the past, the BBC News "royal correspondent" Sean Coughlan remarked that if you look far enough, "a surprisingly high number of people will find a royal ancestor."

In the same BBC article, researcher Turi King—known for her role in the genetic confirmation of King Richard III's re-discovered remains—agreed that there is a high number of people now living who are related to this historic monarch. As professor King put it, when reaching back into history that many generations, there is a high degree of overlap between ancestral lines—"like interwoven thickets" rather than discreet branches on a family tree.

For some families, that "thicket" effect may appear sooner than for others. I think of my mother-in-law's tree with its many interwoven lines. Raised in a small, tight-knit community in central Ohio, she grew up in a place populated by settlers who arrived in the early 1800s—and never left. Generation after generation, those settlers' large Catholic families intermarried and raised yet another generation of many descendants. The joke in that county's high schools was that students practically pulled out their pedigree chart before asking anyone on a first date. No sense falling in love with a second cousin.

Thanks to the useful tools of genetic genealogy, that, too, became the impetus for my different research goal in pursuing my mother-in-law's family tree. While I pursue stories to discuss on A Family Tapestry, in the background, I'm always churning through each branch of my mother-in-law's tree, seeking collateral lines among the descendants of each generation. That tree is indeed turning into an "Interwoven Thicket."

There are other research goals I address on an annual basis. The other day, one reader commented, "Can you expand on how you choose your projects? Do you rotate amongst a list every month?"

The short answer to this is yes, I do. But the process I use has evolved over the years. Two years ago, I codified my approach as searching for my "Twelve Most Wanted" ancestors each year—one selected ancestor researched per month, rotating through the four family trees I maintained at the time (one for each grandparents of my daughter). The season for choosing the next year's Twelve Most Wanted began the day after Christmas and continued until Epiphany—one ancestor selected on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and slated for an entire specified month's dedicated research in the coming year.

I began in 2020, and since the process went so well that first year, I repeated the effort with a second set of ancestors for this year, too. I will likely do the same for next year, using that lull at the end of the holiday season to review work that's already been completed to focus on the weak spots needing further attention. Perhaps you could call that pruning the trees.

Not that there aren't other genealogical tasks to attend to each year. The constant research thrumming in the background is the culling of hints and the never-ending search for signs of the next generation of descendants for each ancestral collateral line. A more biweekly occurrence, along with my tabulation of the "vital stats" of a research progress report, is the checking of new DNA matches for all my family members who have tested—adding confirmed matches where they belong in the family tree, along with an update to the supporting documentation.

All told, amassing over fifty thousand individuals—ancestors plus all their descendants—in the trees I'm nurturing might seem to be an interwoven thicket in the waiting, but so far, I've yet to see any branches of my husband's line marry into any from my own family's ancestry. Still, I do have to tiptoe carefully among the tangled roots of my mother-in-law's tree. Some families' history seems to take on the shape of topiary gardens while others a tangle of banyan trees


  1. I admire your writing, Jacqi! Thank for the glimpse into your research strategy.

    1. Thank you, Sandy! And thank you for asking. It was a helpful prompt, and hopefully will get the discussion flowing among all of us on how we approach our research dilemmas.

  2. Wonderful post. I so admire your methodical, logical, and elegant framework for researching what looks to most of us like a chaotic mess.

    I am by nature not at all like you, and I really appreciate your correct but gentle guideposts to The Right Way To Do It. And I love that you repeat your lessons over time, so some of us slow learners have a chance to let it sink in.

    My thickets may be more interwoven than most: 100 percent of my great-great-great-grandparents (and most of my 4xGreats) lived in SC. Which makes my colored dots difficult to untangle. LOL

    And I am just waiting for a chance to interweave my husband's Virginia thicket with my own. But this is the most fun hobby I have ever had. Your writings are always helpful to make my work better.

    1. Lisa, I am a firm believer in "learning by osmosis." Stuff takes time to truly sink in and become a part of our daily habits.

      That said, I am not sure there is a "Right Way To Do It." Oh, of course, there are genealogically-accepted methodologies, but in squaring off with a brick wall, sometimes we need to examine the problem from this perspective, then that, then several others. That is where creative problem solving comes in.

      I remember your challenge with your South Carolina roots. That is indeed a huge puzzle, but I have faith in you that you are up to it!


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