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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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