Genealogy Question: Broaden Your Family Tree, or Stay Direct Line?

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards discusses the two main choices genealogists face when creating and filling in their family tree. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

When I started working on my family tree, I did as instructed: start with yourself and work your way back. I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking about whether I should stay with my “direct line” (following only those who were related by blood), or should I “broaden my tree” (adding in the families of those who married into my family) – but at some point, I had to decide, and so I pondered the pluses and minuses of each.

Direct Line Family Tree

Photo: “Wuthering Heights” family tree, using reproductions of 18th-19th-century British portraits of unknown people
Photo: “Wuthering Heights” family tree, using reproductions of 18th-19th-century British portraits of unknown people. Credit: shako; Wikimedia Commons.

If I stayed with my direct line, I could focus intently on finding as much information as possible on relatively few family members. My mother’s father came from Czechoslovakia in 1916 and her mother’s parents came from Poland/Hungary in the late 1800s, so documentation on those who preceded them was impossible to find when I started. However, my father’s family were among the first settlers of Pennsylvania and Virginia – and well researched and documented already – so that work might only be trying to find anything that had so far evaded prior searchers, and then following those who came after arriving on my mother’s side.

Broad Family Tree

Photo: Naryshkin family tree, 18th century
Photo: Naryshkin family tree, 18th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If I “broadened my tree” I would be following those who married into my family, the others who made up their family, and then those who both married into their family and who came from each union, and so on (a genealogical tsunami). I would not be able to study anyone in depth because, no matter how many I entered, I would always be learning of new people to add to each person’s branch of the tree… and then discovering more documents which might lead me to more hints and people.

When I discussed this with many veteran genealogists, they each said they had faced the same quandary and ultimately had to decide for themselves (the rate for both sides were about 50-50), so this was no answer for me.

I Started Direct, Then Changed to a Broad Family Tree

For a while I tried not including parents’ and siblings’ names and information of extended family members when discovering them in censuses and other documents, but I always felt like I was robbing myself of family – so I finally gave in and started adding everyone. In doing so, I have also discovered thousands of new family members.

In adding them, I have found several instances of cousins marrying third or fourth cousins unknowingly. One cousin through my father’s side told me she wished she had known of the relationship before she married, as she would have chosen not to marry a third cousin – thus saving her years of angst and ultimately divorce!

My worries of a genealogical tsunami if I broadened my family tree did happen, as my tree currently has 21,404 connected individuals and I face an ever-increasing number of hints to go through (114,895 total hints and rising) every day. Sometimes I’ve gotten so frustrated in the ever-increasing number that I will quickly go through them and “ignore” hints that have no way to “prove it belongs to” the person it is attached to.

For example, I ignore other people’s trees unless I cannot find the information any other way, and then I only use their tree as a hint to search for that specific thing (such as a woman’s maiden name), or unsubstantiated information (like copies of articles that contain no citation as to where they found it), or if the person lived during a certain period but has a similar name to someone else that lived in another period or place (like someone who lived from 1920 to 1980 getting a hint for someone who fought in the Civil War), in order to lower the number of hints and feel like I’m accomplishing something.

I once did this over a three-day period and eliminated 100 PAGES of hints! Good news is that I will have my own version of a “Never Ending Story.” Bad news is that my frustrations grow every day that I can’t “give it my all.”

Please consider the pros and cons to each method of pursuing your family tree before beginning. If you change your mind (like I did, starting with a direct tree and then broadening it) you are also burdened with the decision as to whether to try to go back and add those you ignored (and figure out who it was, which may add to your frustrations) – or if you just start from this point on.

Happy Hunting!

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17 thoughts on “Genealogy Question: Broaden Your Family Tree, or Stay Direct Line?

  1. Ms. Edwards,
    I’m with you. I faced the same quandary. Early on I decided to broaden my tree/search because I wanted anyone and everyone to take a look at my tree and see how far and wide my family stretched across this country. It takes a lot of work, but I love it — often to the point of exhaustion. I have separate paternal and a maternal trees and together they boast 22,677 persons, going all the way back to my immigrant ancestor in 1684. And as you report there are so many more to be discovered. Where does it end? “It” won’t end before I do, I think.

    1. I finally decided that my efforts will be the starting point for later generations to continue, since I am documenting each person in my tree with as many documents as I can find. (This way people could see how I got the information I did, as sometimes there are errors on some of the dates — like a draft notice may have the birthdate of 12/17/1934 for my father, but in actuality he was born on that day in 1936. He wanted to join the Navy during the Korean War so hitchhiked from his little town in central PA to Baltimore. Recruiters in the area he lived knew how old he really was and that his parents refused to give him permission to join, so he did this to avoid his father or siblings finding out and him being turned away. But I didn’t find out until his funeral when I looked at the program and thought the printer had made a typo.)
      Happy Hunting!

  2. Loved this article. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the 8,000 family members I’ve found so far. But I have learned a lot. When I make the scrapbook, I plan to follow the direct line!

    1. Several genealogy programs have the ability to write a book tracing your direct line (you can arrange it to start at a certain ancestor and work your way forward or start with you and work your way back), and you can tell it to insert footnotes on documentation, photos, etc., as well as add in your own stories on each person. Check out demos of different ones to see which you can work with easily. It might save you a little work on a scrapbook. I also suggest entering it on a genealogy website just in case something destroys your research or computer (my computer was dropped and broke in so many pieces it could not be salvaged, nor any of my hard drive, but luckily I had uploaded a small amount to a genealogy website so this saved me a little work — and an aunt of mine had all her research and photos lost when fire destroyed her home).
      Happy Hunting!

  3. Interesting article. I could not imagine tracing the ancestors of spouses, because I have their descendants. I’m having enough trouble keeping up with my blood line and their spouses. My paternal grandmother had 15 children and my paternal great-grandmother had 21 children. I have been researching my ancestors and documenting their descendants for over 25 years, and I’m still searching. The younger generation of my paternal tree have started researching their families (maternal and paternal). I look at their research from time to time to see if anything interests me beyond my direct blood line. If I didn’t have so many relatives and ancestors to work with I would probably entertain broadening my research.

    1. Like I said in the article, by broadening my tree I found several places where the family’s family of spouse ended up marrying other cousins of my direct relative (a good friend of mine just told me that he had cousins doubly related to him as his parents’ siblings married (sister of the mother married brother of his father) and this happened also 2 generations before. I also have found several instances when I was researching my ex-husband’s line of siblings: in his direct line married a set of brothers, and had I not included the spouses’ family I never would have known that and just dismissed the facts of the husbands having the same last name. In my own tree I also found a direct female cousin who married her first husband and then he died and she married his brother who also had a cousin with the exact same name. (It took a lot of unknotting to figure out which man I was researching!) You never know what else you can find out by broadening the tree!
      Happy Hunting!

  4. My late husband and I found out that we were first cousins, 12 generations removed. So rather than have separate trees, we joined them. We were experiencing the tsunami you describe. Our files are on PAF which has a relationship calculator. So when we wondered if we were overreaching we developed a rule of 8. If the person’s relationship of cousin + removes = 8, we stop adding. The exception being our direct lines for the first 4 generations. It satisfies the need to add and the need to have a defined stopping point.

    1. Some grad students created a program that allows anyone with a tree on FamilySearch to compare their tree to everyone else who had a tree on there, and then you can ask it to come up with a list of what Famous Scientists, Declaration of Independence Writers, Movie Stars, etc., show a relation to you and how. The program can also be asked to compare the trees of you and those whose names you enter. It is a free program and the only requirements are having a tree on FamilySearch and creating an account (also free). In comparing my tree with those in my ward I found out that several of my friends were distantly related to me even though we had all moved to Hampton, VA, from all over the U.S. I also found out several well-known people were related (Jesse James, John Wayne, the Lee family of VA, writers of the Declaration and their grandson who was a general in the Civil War, to name a few). Just be aware that some people who enter their trees do not always document their relatives so it may be hearsay (twice I’ve gone on to see a relation with Elvis Presley but these would vanish as the proof was not available and was probably hearsay).
      Happy Hunting!

  5. I started with the broad approach, because I started with the goal of updating a genealogy of my father’s paternal family written in 1868. That is an ongoing process. But then I decided to do my mother’s family, and because at the time I could only get back 3 generations I took the same broad approach. Then I finally got around to identifying ancestors. Then I turned to the recent dead-ends, found some good sources, and decided to take a broad approach to those ancestral families for whom there was no genealogy (many of the ancestral families of my father’s paternal grandfather had their own genealogies, and I was and am in contact with the people keeping those up to date). On my mother’s side, my tracking of the ancestral families pretty much amounts to doing a genealogy of the two towns in which her parents were born. Unlike jigsaw puzzles that eventually are finished, these puzzles are never finished, as each completed piece puts more pieces in the box!

  6. I follow collateral lines down. I also look for marriage “loops,” and when one of those is likely, I’ll back up on the other trees far enough to prove the connection. I do the preliminary work on the FamilySearch tree -– if it pays off, I add the other people to my Legacy file; if it doesn’t pan out, I just leave the people there at FamilySearch. When I was working with my Canadian cousins back in the latter 1800s, I rarely had to go back more than 2 generations to find links. However, with my Germans, who go back to the late 1600s, I may need to go even further.

  7. I totally understand. But if I didn’t follow those folks I wouldn’t have found some of the relatives who ended up living with their extended family. Some did not end up with family, and were harder to find, especially the unmarried folks. Personally, I have no clue how many I have found on the four family trees I was asked to work on. What I have discovered is that genealogy is like housework: No matter how hard you try, you’re never really done. And I wouldn’t stop doing it for the world!

    1. By doing my broad tree I uncovered a gentleman, Cordy, whose grandmother had married into my maternal line, and I mentioned this to another cousin, Barb, who went to school with him (she was a closer relative by 1 generation) and had regular email with him. She put me in contact with him as he also had the “genealogy bug” and had been going and looking at newspaper microfilm and microfiche for several decades for articles on those whose last names were a part of his tree (he would print a copy and add it to a notebook which slowly became about 12 notebooks and he is now indexing the names and retyping the articles and has printed copies for some members of his family). He would do this on his days off, being a state police officer in PA. He has been invaluable on some missing information as he lived in the area many of the relatives lived, so he could go to the churches in the area, cemeteries, and even get copies of the death certificates of relatives whom we lost track of (he found a possible aunt’s tombstone which just had the years of birth and death and we weren’t sure if we had the right person or not — and we did).

      Happy Hunting!

  8. My personal policy regarding in-laws is: if I have met the person and know them fairly well, then I may choose to include their pedigree and other descendants in my database.

  9. I decided from the beginning to include everyone I could find in my tree, but to concentrate on my direct ancestors until I had fully researched all I could. The reason I included everyone? Sometimes you can’t find the information you are missing, but a cousin researching their collateral line will have found that all-important information you need. This has happened to me several times, and I have also been able to connect others to a line when they could not find that connection as well by knowing the rest of the family. And yes, with over 625 related families it is rather a nightmare trying to keep up with all the hints and suggestions the various sites offer. Once a week I spend 30 minutes going through these hints and suggestions, but I don’t lose any sleep over the ones I haven’t gotten to yet, especially as I have found that the sites will offer the exact same information over and over and over again. It is helpful to know who the siblings and children are and to whom they were married. Just this week when working on my granddaughter’s paternal grandmother’s line, I found that one of her lines and one of my father’s paternal grandmother’s lines are identical! I would never have connected that relationship if I hadn’t known the children of the couple. Hope this helps.

  10. I feel your pain! I finally gave in and now have over 10,000 people in my tree, but I’ve also been able to find additional information I needed!

  11. I first expressed interest in genealogy, asking questions of family, when I was 9 years old. My mother’s father, James Meredith, was the only one interested in family trees. He lived just 2 miles from me, but had passed away of a heart attack in 1944. Fortunately for me, about 18 years later, after I was married, Grandmother Lottie Weekes Meredith handed me some of James’ treasured family information. As the only one into genealogy, I inherited it. Lottie had saved it for me all of those years.

    One amazing letter was written in 1907 by my Great-Great-Grandfather, William Olmstead (age 84), to Grandfather Meredith, replying to questions from Lottie and Jim soon after they wed in 1904. Among other things, it says my 3rd Gr-Grandmother, Susannah Bates, heard the cannons firing in Bennington, VT, in the Revolutionary War as a child. It also says that the Olmsteads came over on The Lyon in 1632, landing near Boston. William Olmstead’s uncle, a Presbyterian minister, was steeped in genealogy and passed much information to William. It was thought the Olmsteads were 3 brothers, but later found to be an uncle and 2 nephews.

    No one else left in my family (Kellogg) knew about this, nor did they know that the Kelloggs also came over early (1600s). Oddly, both of my parents liked history and historical novels, but not their own genealogy. This lit a fire under me to learn more. Fortunately, a neighbor told me about DAR. Joining it encouraged my research too. Even when I slow down at times because of family (3 children) or the 12 moves we’ve made since 1963, I’ve always gone back to it. The only caveat is that I haven’t put much on computer, but need to do that.

    I tend to go broad rather than straight up the line. It seems important to pick up everyone who’s a relative, not just the one straight line. However, that’s a matter of choice.

    1. Thank you for sharing your journey into genealogy. In another article I’ve written I came up with some suggested questions to try to get those members of your family to answer. In reading their answers you can find areas that you can get them to elaborate on to have it down before it is lost to the ages,

      As in this article I say it is up for each person to decide whether to just follow a direct line or to go to a broader aspect (I started with the former but gradually widened it over time because I decided it was the right thing to do).

      I suggest seeing if the people in your family have left wills or diaries (wills can be found at the person’s county seat and diaries may have been saved by family or may have been donated to the historical society where they lived or possibly microfilmed or on microfiche by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and available to anyone).

      Happy Hunting!

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