Here’s the genealogical equivalent to the age-old “boxers or briefs” question—when it comes to family history, does your passion lie with finding ancestors, or finding descendants? Both pursuits have their own unique rewards and particular challenges.
Many people get hooked on family history as they try to flesh out a chart of their direct ancestors. As kids, we fill in grandparents, ask about great-grandparents and quickly fill in the first few levels of the basic ancestry charts. It’s a huge thrill to completely fill in that one-page, five-generation chart.
For people who are driven by the search for ancestors, the ultimate goal is often to identify and record as many direct ancestors as possible and to go back as far as possible. We’ll spend months banging on a particular brick wall until we eventually uncover a new ancestor, or add specific dates and places where we previously only had a name.
Or we might be driven more by the search for descendants. We pick one of our ancestral families, often starting with our own surname, and we do our best to fill in a complete tree of descendants, starting as far back as possible.
For descendants-focused family historians, the ultimate goal is to create a tree that contains absolutely every descendant of a particular family. We get energized by reconnecting with long-lost cousins and by fleshing out branches of the family that we didn’t know anything about.
Me, I’m more of a descendants-guy than an ancestors-guy. This is probably because I come from a large family (my Sexton line) that has always been close and because we are such good storytellers. I also love the idea of putting an ancestor in some sort of historical context, by learning as much as possible about their immediate family.
Both quests—ancestors or descendants—are never-ending. We can always keep pushing the search for ancestors, as we go back farther and farther. And, building a list of descendants, there are always new babies being born and cousins growing up and getting married.
Whichever aspect we tend to focus on, there is a lot of benefit in switching occasionally between ancestors-focused and descendants-focused. Learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and family can often help us push our records even further back. And we can often learn more about a tree of descendants by finding out more about the ancestors on both sides of the family.
In reality, most of us are a mixture of both types of family historian. Rare is the completely clean .GED file that goes in one direction only. We often start out by exploring direct ancestors, but eventually get interested in the families that these ancestors came from. So we start “going sideways”, learning as much as we can about the entire family.
But when it comes down to it, if I had to answer the ancestors-or-descendants question directly, I’d have to say—descendants. How about you?