Another way to assess a genealogy is to consider the “scope” of its content. Few genealogies trace all descendants of a seventeenth-century New England couple through male and female lines to the present: just ask the Mayflower Society about their “Five Generations” program, now approaching sixty years of effort with more than fifty volumes – and still growing!

Standard genealogies usually trace descendants of the same surname through male lines because it is a much simpler task to collect data exclusive to one surname at a time. Usually, the author – or the client who paid the author – is a descendant of that surname and often the book will emphasize the author or client’s branch of the family in more detail than others. The author may have had limited access to records of other branches of the family and/or may have only corresponded with a limited range of relatives, relying on information that may or may not have been reliable. For example, a genealogy on the Richard Hawes family of Dorchester, compiled in the 1950s, contains many errors on my mother’s branch of the family. Come to find out the information was submitted by a dear, distant cousin who had been kicked in the head by a horse when she was a child!

Mobility is often an issue. The first two editions of the Babson family’s genealogy contained nothing about a branch of the family that migrated from New England to North Carolina and now comprises the largest number of Babson-named descendants.

[If] one is tracing a New England immigrant family line with proved English royalty behind it, one could be dealing with branches of ancestors extending thirty generations…

Turning the tree around, is this a genealogy that traces ancestors of the author/client? Is it supposed to be all known ancestors, or perhaps five generations of ancestors, or only certain lines of ancestry? Obviously, if one is tracing a New England immigrant family line with proved English royalty behind it, one could be dealing with branches of ancestors extending thirty generations – which is why most genealogies tend to stop on this side of the Atlantic.

Does the content include useful supplemental material, such as transcriptions of wills and deeds, or is there extraneous material, perhaps long, meandering stories or reproductions of college degree certificates? If this is a surname genealogy, how does it treat daughters? Are they simply ended by marriage, or are their children, perhaps even grandchildren, included?

Understanding the intended scope of a genealogy is particularly important when we do not find information on our ancestors. Was that because our ancestor does not belong to this family, or was it because our ancestor just did not fall within the scope of the work?

Next week we will narrow the scope and talk about formats.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

10 thoughts on “Scope

  1. I have a break in my genealogy. My ancestor appears to have had a child out of wedlock. Several years later she married a gentleman with the same first name of her son. It is tempting to consider this man to be the father of my ancestor. Perhaps he was married at the time of my ancestor’s birth. I’m planning a trip down to NEHGS in a few weeks, so perhaps there will be more data available. Any thoughts?

    1. That situation happened in my family…about 300 years ago! Ann Gurney had 3 children, but there was no evidence of marriage documents and her last name was the same as her father. A year or so after the birth of her last child, she married a Joseph Buswell. A few years ago, I got an email and the gentleman said he thought he was a Buswell, not a Gurney. He took a DNA test and sure enough he matched my brother! Joseph Buswell married Ann after his wife died. Kind of a tip-off. But the 300 year old secret is no secret any more. DNA restored a whole branch of our family we didn’t even know was lost!

    2. Debbie, look for things such as where “Daddy” lived when the baby was born. Yes, determine whether he was married before. Are they in censuses? Do they have common relatives?
      Good luck!

  2. Speaking of “genealogical writing” my own preoccupation is making such writings more interesting – more than a stark statement of birth, marriage and death dates. For example, I like to place events in context of the times – e.g. wars going on, migrations opening up new areas, etc. I also like to relate geography to today’s names – for example “Mooretown, New York, known since 1788 as Bradford, Vermont”. Another example – saying someone passed away “at the age of __”. I know one can compute that, but it is nice to bring attention to an unusually short or long life.

    1. Dave, that kind of background is good and adds to the story, just as long as you don’t try to include so much that it gets confusing. Also, be careful about calculating age at death if it does not appear on the record/gravestone — make sure you indicate that you did the calculation.

  3. That last paragraph really hits the mark. I might have to post it above my monitor. But one more point, perhaps “my family” chose not to be a part of the study/book of that far away and distant ancestor. My husband’s family that married into that line really doesn’t think it is anyone else’s business or ‘why do you need to know that?’ That is a tough philosophy to break through.

  4. When I “finished” (for the time being) my own ancestors, I decided to attempt the entire Town of Stratham, New Hampshire, as well as all the known descendants of its founder Captain Thomas Wiggin 1601-1667, including the female descendants. As a result I’ve found errors in the genealogy at NEHGS. Researching early NH without vital records is a challenge, so no wonder errors happened. Deeds and Probate and Court records make for good reading though. Someday I hope to publish a book for Stratham to rival Dow’s Hampton.

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