More lost than found

The missing 7/8ths

Go ahead and count up the number of ancestors you have in the nine generations starting with your parents and going back to your seventh great grandparents. It’s a daunting number: two parents, plus four grandparents, plus eight great grandparents and so on.

By the time you hit those seventh great grandparents, you have a whopping 1,022 slots on your family tree to try to fill.1

Oh, yeah, sure, some of ‘em will be duplicates: we all have what’s called pedigree collapse — because of cousins marrying cousins somewhere, an individual or a couple ends up occupying more than one place in the family tree.2

But even with that, have you ever stopped to think just how far you’ve gotten — in all the years you’ve been researching your family history — in putting names and dates and details into all of those ancestral slots? Trust me, it’s an eye-opener for sure.

Earlier this week, on Facebook, genealogist Lisa B. Lee of California noted with dismay that, after researching her family for decades, she still could only identify 77 — 7.5% — of her 1,022 ancestors in those nine generations. She was batting 1.000 back through two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and 16 great grandparents, but dropped to about half of her 32 2nd great grandparents, fewer than one-sixth of her 64 3rd great grandparents and so on. “Humbling” was the word she used to describe it.3

On Thursday, professional genealogist Crista Cowan looked at her own numbers in an blog post, and she began by noting that — at roughly 25 years per generation — your seventh great grandparents lived only about 300 years ago. Not all that long, really. But even her best efforts had taken her only up to 365 of her 1,022 ancestors — 36%. “That means,” she said, “that 64% of my ancestry for that same time period is completely unknown to me.”4

And that analysis prompted Lorine McGinnis Schulze of Olive Tree Genealogy to check her own numbers yesterday. “I have found 295 for a total of 29%,” she reported. “What a surprise and yes, a shock! I knew I was stuck on my Irish ancestors. I knew I could only get back to my 2nd great grandparents on several of those ancestors from Ireland but I had no idea I had so many not found.”5

So the question for The Legal Genealogist: do I really want to know just how far I’ve gotten, or — to put it more bluntly — how much there is left to do?

I mean, really — I already own the t-shirt: So Many Ancestors, So Little Time. Do I really need to quantify it?

I’m the one, remember, where the dratted Lutheran pastor never asked, and my 2nd great grandmother never volunteered, the name of the father of my great grandfather Hermann Geissler.6

I’m the one whose 2nd great grandfather George Washington Cottrell was, I am convinced beyond any doubt, dropped off in Texas by his space alien parents on the grounds that he was incorrigible.7

I’m the one with the 3rd great grandfather who cheated on his first wife, finally married the second wife on Christmas Day 1829, and showed up on the 1830 census with — count ‘em — five children.8 So was my 2nd great grandmother the child of the first wife or the second? You tell me.

I mean, I can’t count all the women where all I know of them is a first name, right? I can’t count the 2nd great grandfather where the only evidence of his identity is a story handed down by a daughter who never knew her father and a last name — no first name given — that appeared on only one census record, can I?


Okay. Let it never be said that I was too chicken to count ‘em up. Here’s my sad story:

Generation Number Found
Parents 2 2
Grandparents 4 4
Great grandparents 8 8
2nd great grandparents 16 14
3rd great grandparents 32 22
4th great grandparents 64 25
5th great grandparents 128 25
6th great grandparents 256 16
7th great grandparents 512 10
Total 1022 126 (12.3%)

Let’s see now. Twelve years of serious genealogy, 12% accomplished… at this rate, I only have to live another 88 years and I’ll have all those slots filled in, right?

Well, okay, except for maybe George’s space alien parents…


  1. See Dick Eastman, “How Many Ancestors Do You Have?,” Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, posted 6 Feb 2011 ( : accessed 17 Aug 2012).
  2. Wikipedia (, “Pedigree collapse,” rev. 8 Aug 2012.
  3. Lisa B. Lee, status update, 13 Aug 2012, Facebook ( : accessed 17 Aug 2012).
  4. Crista Cowan, “Family History All Done? What’s Your Number?,” Blog, posted 16 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 17 Aug 2012).
  5. Lorine McGinnis Schulze, “What’s Your Number? Don’t Be Too Shocked if It’s Below 30%!,” Olive Tree Genealogy, posted 17 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 17 Aug 2012).
  6. Judy G. Russell, “Friedrike, how COULD you?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Jan 2012 ( : accessed 17 Aug 2012).
  7. See ibid., “Darn it all, George!,” posted 19 May 2012, and ibid., “Oh George… you stinker!,” posted 9 Jun 2012.
  8. Ibid., “Looking for an Alabama relative,” posted 1 Jul 2012.
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61 Responses to More lost than found

  1. Judy,

    Guess I’ll have to blog about this as well.

    I ran my numbers and of 1,023 I have 264 or 25.8%.

    The fun part of all of this, is the building of the Stories about those 264 PEOPLE. I started “collecting names” but now understand that is their stories that are important.

    All the more reason to keep looking, even it they are space aliens.

    Thank you,


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You really don’t have to count yourself, y’know. (You only have 1022 ancestors — that first “generation” is you!)

  2. Ah, Judy, how humbling. Like you, I find I did just fine up until my third great grandparents where I dropped about the same amount you did. My overall score from there is 15%. If I want to solve these issues, I have to focus on Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium. It’s a whole new world out there for me.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hope you have good luck in that whole new world out there, Barbara! Some of those places should have really good records…

  3. Pat Morgan says:

    I can only identify 71. Bummer! But in my defense I have only been at this for about six years so I guess realistically that is not too bad. Now if only I had paid more attention in my high school french classes I might be further along in locating my French-Canadian folks in Quebec.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yeah, I have the same language issue — or, rather, handwriting issue — with my Germans. Dratted Gothic script anyway…

  4. Your 2nd g grandfather must be related to my 3rd g grandmother! I loved the post; I, along with most of your readers can RELATE! hee-hee!

  5. Cyndy Bray says:

    Bummer! I only have 90 and a I counted women with only first names so actually have way less than 9%. Only been at it just over 5 years so I may have to live to be 900.

  6. Martin Hollick says:

    This is interesting and I read the two blogs from whence this question came. I can 393 of such ancestors for a kill ratio of 38.5%. I have conducted genealogical research on and off for 35 years since I was a teenager. [That's five countries in five different languages, I can name all my 4th great grandparents by full name. On average the years 1780-1800]. But I heartily disagree with the original premise of the posting. First of all, you can know that you’re done. If you are a really good genealogist then you know what records exist or don’t exist. And the further back you go, depending on place and ethnicity, there can be literally no records. And all lines end. Period. Even if you can leap great hurdles like finding your ancestral place in Ireland before the famine migration (which I’ve done), the records peter out but one or two more generations beyond that. So people of Irish, Scottish (ain’t no church records that go back much past 1780), African-American, Jewish, and many other ethnicities have end points in their research.

    Now what do people do? If bitten by the genealogical bug they research their spouse’s family; their friends; their in-laws, etc. They also fall back into family history (very different from genealogy IMHO) and trace aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. But to say that there is a certain percentage left to do when there is literally no way to do it, is absurd. I don’t believe in brick walls. I believe that people haven’t done their homework well enough. Then I believe that there are no records and the trail goes cold. I can’t go back in time and ask Maria Teresa to allow religious freedom earlier in her reign so that Lutheran church records start earlier that 1772. I can’t make the Easter Uprising of 1916 take place away from the Irish censuses of 1841 and 1851. Even if your Pettypool English origin is correct what does that get you? One more generation? maybe two? How many English church records (that still exist) predate the year 1550?

    I’ve known only one person who knew all his 10th generation ancestors in all lines. He is 100% French Canadian and he did his homework. No one else, in the top echelons of genealogical research that I know, comes anywhere close to that.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You must have WAY more time than I do, Martin, if you’re “done” with even a single line. Even if I get “done” with the names and dates, I want the stories and that means the history, the politics, the religions, the economics, the customs, the superstitions…

      There is no way on God’s green earth that I’m going to be even close to “done” by the time I shuffle off this mortal coil.

      • Martin Hollick says:

        Well I’ve been doing this far longer than most people. And I never cared for the stories at all, I leave that for the family historians. As a genealogist, I wanted to prove relationships in the past. And as the genealogical proof reasoning says, after a “reasonably exhaustive search” and I’ve done thousands of them, I can safely say, there is not another relationship that I can prove. There is no deed, no court case, no church record, no vital record, no census, no military record, no family bible, etc. that exists now to help me past the point I have come to. If you still feel the need to research, you need to find a new family.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I understand where you’re coming from, Martin — but that’s not my style at all. For me, it’s the stories.

  7. Nan Harvey says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the space alien issue. I’m sure that’s where the “6% uncertain” in my Ancestry DNA ethnicity results comes from.

    Seriously, I start dropping off at 2nd great grandparents and have so many maybes in the later generations I hesitate to even try to count them up. I don’t find myself so drawn now to extending the lines back as I do finding the stories and extended families of those that aren’t so distant. If I’m going to leave something that my relatives will appreciate it will be those stories, not a pedigree chart. I’m trying to keep that in mind as I go forward.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It really is all about the stories, Nan. The rest of it is just names and dates. But oh… those stories

  8. Judy,

    Fantastic post. I shared it on our company Facebook page.

    And I think I’ll continue to share it with everyone who states that they’ve “done” all their family history.

    I always have to fight back a chuckle when I hear that word “done”.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t bother to fight back the chuckle. I ain’t ever gonna be done.

      • True!

        I meant for clients/prospective clients though…

        I don’t want to laugh out of respect. An amateur may not realize how big of a word “done” is in genealogy and that there’s really no such thing.

        I just try to educate them a bit, as you just did with this post, and for that, I’m grateful. :)

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          True, true. Breaking into hysterics isn’t the best way to win friends if you’re doing client work. (One of many reasons I tend not to do client work…)

  9. Barbara Schenck says:

    It was a challenge just figuring out how to figure it out. Mathematically inclined, I’m not. But when I finally did it — and left out the women with first names but no last names — I have 266, for 26% give or take a dead relative or two. Some I despair of (all aliens took the surname Johnson, in my humble opinion).

    I agree with the “give me stories” approach to these folks (even aliens tell stories, though I reckon they lie as much as they tell the truth). Always a new challenge!

  10. Great exercise and humbling indeed. I’m another who started in my teens and have been doing this on and off for 40 years.
    355 of 1022 for nearly 35% I have all 32 of my 3rd great grandparents and then as my Mom used to say “It all goes to hell in a hand basket!”

    And I will echo the others—it’s those stories and especially those mystery stories that the DNA have uncovered that keeps me going….

  11. Anthony graziano says:

    Great post- I’m guessing I’m at 14-15% after 20 years, and the 30 years my mom put in before she handed me the project.
    The bigger question is whether 9 gens is the future gold standard? Am I doing enough now to propagate the history so my great grandchildren WILL have 9 gens? Maybe I can only get to 6, but in 3 more generations, my great-grand kids will be at 50% to start.

    I wonder what stock will be worth then?

    Again- great post.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hey you have to leave SOMETHING for your great grandchildren to find, right?

    • B.G. Wiehle says:

      Unless you’re also tracing your children’s and grandchildren’s in-laws (assuming there are already marriages to base that on), your contribution to your descendants’ ancestry DECREASES 50% EACH GENERATION. Depressing but true.
      Great post!

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        It does decrease, but that gives us hope that some of our … um … quirks may not pass on to our descendants!!

  12. Nancy Schlegel says:

    To make a fair comparison, think this needs the addition of a degree of difficulty , e.g.

         X 2      finding maiden name

         X 4      finding different name “in the old country”

         X 6      finding Jewish name

         X 10    any “in the old country”

         X 20    any immigrant

         X 50    finding hometown for any immigrant

         X 100  any slave

         X 200  finding home country for any slave

  13. Trish Dukeman says:

    LOL well I see some family ties to old George (alien lines in the family)I have a feeling based on previous experience that George and I are some how related as that explains perfectly my situation. And since I am really new at this I’m glad that you have a headstart on this side of the family. As I have been putting together the trees of all my connections it just dawned on me that this would not be nearly as fun if it just all fit together easily.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (a) You’re right: it really wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it were easy.

      (b) There is no doubt in my mind that a big chunk of where our lines intersect is Cottrell! So batten down the hatches — that side of the family is a wild ride.

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  15. Denise Baker says:

    Bravo! It takes alot of courage to face those numbers, but it also tells us where we need to go. My maternal grandfather only had a photo of his biological father, and we don’t know if his mother ever gave him a name. That is one whole section I may never fill in, but at least we may be able to find someone with that same photo to match to (unfortunately, it was taken in Sweden before 1908).

    Thank you for going through your review – it has given me the push to start adding up my numbers.


  16. Debi Austen says:

    I thought I was doing pretty good after only about 3 years…..until I did this exercise. 10.7% found sounds a whole lot better than 89.3% not found :-( And I even had a lot of help on my Martin (close to Johnson, Jones, and Robertson) side from someone who wrote a “book” about them 40 years ago. And I’m with you – I love the stories!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Keep at it, Deb! You’ll get up there to 12 or 15% with the rest of us! (Sigh…)

      And yeah, it really really really is the stories.

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  18. Bill Jackson says:

    Is it cheating to shift your “Home Person” back to your grandchild? I suddenly moved back 2 more generations by doing that!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      (Sitting here laughing.) Yes, unfortunately, that’s cheating. You have to start with your parents as the first ancestral generation — not your kids!

      • Bill Jackson says:

        Sigh – I figured that was the case. I started with them back in ’76 and am still digging. (that’s 1976, I’m old but not ancient – yet.)

        I’ll have to do the math and embarass myself with the numbers.

        Great topic and quite enjoyable.

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  20. Ruy Cardoso says:

    839.5 out of 1022, or about 82%, though that number is probably misleadingly high if we incorporate something like the degree-of-difficulty notion someone commented on above. For only about half of the 839.5 do I have marriage records, for example; for the other half, the people are named as parents on children’s marriages or as grandparents on grandchildren’s baptisms (usually on both).

    I still have plenty of more church record research to do, so I’ll eventually find most of the remaining marriages and a good chunk of the corresponding baptisms. And notarial records became available online recently in the area of concern, though those are going to be a tough slog for multiple reasons.

    What’s with the half a person, you ask? It involves a birth with an unknown father, but with other evidence indicating that the father was one of two brothers — I just don’t know which.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Oh, man… Ruy, that’s really wonderful. Now… where did I put that “I’m so jealous” button anyway…? I know I had one…

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  22. Malin says:

    I’ve found 419 of 1022, or 41%, after four years of genealogy. I’m 99% Swedish, and Swedish registers are great! :) But at least a hundred or so of the remaining 603 will probably never be found, due to some cases of “unknown fathers”.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Yeah, one of my German lines is brick-walled at the moment with an unknown father. Sigh…

      • Malin says:

        In one case, I have found a little note identifying the father of my great grandmother. Maybe. Problem is the text is so crammed together, I can’t tell if it’s really about her, or one of her two just as fatherless sisters …

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