Genealogy FAQ

This page tackles a number of general questions about Genealogy. The lead Genealogy page, linked to just above, addresses a number of points that may also interest you. If you seek information about our Families Database, please see the Families Database’s own FAQ page.

Some people think that families have been documented only if they were aristrocratic or landed gentry. That may be true of many families but it is certainly not true for every one. Looking back at (say) Victorian times, there were many families who were of very modest means but who knew of a connection to someone who had a proven pedigree and made a record of that connection, perhaps in their Family Bible. If that came to the attention of the archivist of the family with the pedigree then, if that archivist was any good, that record would have been added to that pedigree. Serious genealogists do not leave someone out of a pedigree just because they were poor or not famous. In the past, family archivists might not include all of the minor branches of a pedigree in a publication, to save space or costs, but that constraint does not apply to modern archivists.

 

One of the many interesting things you find out about when you get involved in genealogy is how quickly (in generational terms) genes spread around a community and branches of families can rise to fame or fall into obscurity. The eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son of an Earl may inherit lands and the title and be fabulously wealthy but that Earl’s (perhaps illegitimate) youngest son’s youngest daughter’s youngest son may inherit nothing at all and be a pauper. Nevertheless, they would both have that Earl as one of their great-grandfathers. The social barriers that existed in the past are often given a lot of attention but experienced genealogists come across many examples of people who managed to cross those barriers, in both directions.

 

Let me not waste your time. My Families Database will not be able to help you find out who your great-grandparents were. It does not come that far forward in time. However, if you know who one or more of your great-grandparents’ own grandparents were, I might possibly be able to help you track back many more generations. If you think that your ancestors were all (say) poor factory workers then you are probably looking back 3 or 4 generations, for there were not many factories around before then. It is not unlikely that their grandparents were (say) agricultural workers who left the land to find work in a city. If you know that one of them was from a particular village and was of a family which had been there for generations, it is likely that he/she was connected to other families in that area, particularly but certainly not exclusively to those who had the same family name. As mentioned above, genes spread around a community very quickly (in generational terms). It is highly likely that your ancestor was connected to most of the local landowners, even if that connection was through an illegitimate birth. Finding that connection can be very difficult, it may well be impossible, but don’t forget that you have many ancestors. Find just one who has a connection to a documented family and you may well be ready to take up Genealogy in a big way.

1. The Families Database is aimed at helping people who have managed to find a connection to it to then go back many generations.
The database pulls together in one place much of the data of many of the best known secondary sources (sources which pull together information from ‘primary sources’ such as legal documents). Even though there are thousands of databases around, mine appears to have been one of the first to cover so many different families in such a co-ordinated way, presented in such an easy-to-use fashion.

 

2. The Families Database does not cover recent generations so you will not be able to find your grandparents or great-grandparents in it.
The database focuses on earlier generations. More on this below. There are several other sites which might be able to help you find out more about your recent ancestors. There are also many professional researchers who could research your family for you for a fee.

 

3. Stirnet does not do research work itself.
Stirnet is essentially a one-man band – me (Peter). I am working part-time on this site and simply do not have the time or resources to do any research work for anyone else. Sorry. My contribution to genie/historical research is this site in general and the Families Database in particular.

Although reputable genealogists do try to separate fact from fiction, it really is not always easy to do so. It is rare that one has access to prime records that can be relied on – and, even when one does, correct interpretation can be very difficult indeed, sometimes leading to fiery disputes between academics. Consider the Latin word nepos – at different times it meant grandson, nephew, or simply descendant or kin. It was used in many legal documents, of the type that has been used to support many family trees, but that uncertainty with just one word has led to much confusion.

 

Most of us have to rely on secondary or tertiary sources, research done by other people, some of whom have dedicated years of their lives to that particular subject/family. It is tempting to view something as true because it is in writing, it is old, it looks reasonable (given one’s limited understanding of the situation), and/or it is supported by people who appear to have taken trouble to be right – but that something could still be a load of rubbish. You have to be particularly careful of ancestries that support a claim that is made for political, social or financial gain. For example, at various times in Scotland’s history it was politically useful to claim that a family had Celtic roots rather than, say, Flemish roots. Even back in the 14th century this led to the writing of histories and the creation of genealogies that have since been proven to be completely false. However, if you came across a 14th century document you would probably be tempted to accept what it says simply because it is old.

… had 2 parents, each of whom ….. (etc., etc.), so that, if you went back 5 generations, you must have 2x2x2x2x2 = 32 different great-great-great-grandparents. Is that right?

 

Not necessarily! One or more of the sets of parents might have been related to each other so that you were descended from their common ancestors in more than one way. It used to be quite common for relations to marry (or otherwise have a family with each other), perhaps not so much between first cousins (people who share a set of grandparents) but certainly it was quite common between second or third cousins (people with great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents in common). After all, going back 200 years or so, most people did not travel around the country very much but lived in roughly the same area as their parents and grandparents before them. With smaller numbers of people around than there are today, it is likely that most of the people who lived in an area were related to each other one way or another. Friendships and love affairs between relations must have happened regularly. Also, of course, people would have met and had children without knowing that they were related. Think of your own position – although you may know who all your first cousins are (with whom you share a set of grandparents), do you know all your second cousins (shared great-grandparents), or third cousins (great-great-grandparents), or more distantly related ? Probably not. Let’s take the point a step further …

 

If you go back 34 generations or so, which would take you back about 1,000 years, you might think that you had something like ‘2 to the power 34′ ancestors (2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2) alive in 1000 AD, which is more than 17 billion people. That is clearly nonsense FIRSTLY because there were only about 300 million alive in the whole world at that time (the 1 billion mark wasn’t passed until about 1800 AD, the 2 billion mark until about 1925) and SECONDLY because a large percentage of those who were alive at that time must have had no surviving children / grandchildren / great-grandchildren / etc.. For the sake of the discussion, let’s guess and say that one-sixth of the people who were alive in 1000 AD produced descendants who are living today. That would mean that the present world population of over 6.7 billion are all descended from about 50 million people alive in 1000. There are two points it seems reasonable to conclude from these facts:

  1. there must have been many inter-marriages between the descendants of those who were alive in 1000 AD.
  2. it is quite likely that you are related in some way to almost everyone you meet !

… (a few tens of thousands of years) ALL Europeans are descended from the same 10 or so people. Can this be true?

 

It would be wrong for us to try to sound knowledgeable about genetics or the evolution & survival of mankind. Furthermore, recorded history does not go anything like far back enough to provide documentary evidence to support this kind of suggestion. Nevertheless, genealogy does provide some ‘evidence’ to support the view that we are all descended from a relatively small number of people. It shows that people who come from very different backgrounds in different countries, and who may think they have nothing in common with each other, do in fact have at least some ancestors in common. With this as a starting-point, it seems reasonable to make some interesting suppositions. For example: whether or not the people involved actually know it, it seems reasonable to suppose that:

  • Everyone alive who has any English blood in them is descended from King Edward 1 of England (1239-1307).
  • Everyone alive who has any Scots blood in them is descended from King Robert ‘the Bruce’ of Scotland (1274-1329).
  • Everyone alive who has any French blood in them is descended from King Philip III (‘the Bold’) of France (1245-1270).
  • Everyone alive who has any European blood in them is descended from Charlemagne the Emperor (747-814).

etc. etc.. [Many other people could have been picked as examples.]

 

Why do these seem reasonable to suppose ? It’s because these guys had so many grandchildren, legitimate and illegitimate, that their genes permeate the modern world. Their names appear not just once or twice but many times in most well-researched family trees. It’s not just that most if not all English people are descended from Edward I, most/all Scots from Robert the Bruce, and most/all French from Philip III. It is probable also that most Scots are descended from Edward I (one of his great-grandaughters, Joan Beaufort, married both King James I of Scotland and Sir James Stewart of Lorn and had many grandchildren through both marriages), most English are descended from Robert Bruce of Scotland (who had many descendants who lived and bred in England), most Scots and English are descended from Philip III of France (his daughter Margaret was the second wife of Edward I of England, granddaughter Isabella was the wife of Edward II) whilst many French are descended from Edward I and/or Robert the Bruce (both of whom had many descendants who lived and bred in France).

 

Be cautious about favouring one historical figure over another as you may be descended from the one you don’t like!