There are genealogists who attempt to trace every possible relative that they can find, no matter how distant they are and no matter how remotely related they are. I understand that. I understand the reasons for that. I get the desire to “search” and the excitement over “finding people.” Distant relatives can sometimes hold the clue to a family mystery, have long-lost family ephemera or mementos in their possession, or be willing to assist with research.

But one has to draw the line somewhere. How much will it help me to learn about my 5th great-grandmother’s step-father’s first cousin’s third wife’s descendants by her first husband?

Just where is that line?

There’s not really a right answer to this question. It depends.  But I have to draw a line if for no other reason than time and money. Keeping my sanity and my focus are good reasons as well.

If I’m researching a man who was born somewhere in New York in the 1810s and died in Vernon County, Missouri, in the 1880s (Benjamin Butler for anyone who is interested) and I’m totally “stuck” on him, it might be helpful to try and locate as many of his descendants as possible, with the hope that one of them has some information or is able to assist me in some way, shape, or form. Do I have to completely research every detail of the life of every one of his descendants? Probably not.

I should probably research his known children and grandchildren pretty extensively in hopes that some clue in their lives shed information on their father.  This would include more than simply locating their date and place of death and census enumerations. An unknown relative may be mentioned in the records of one of the children (eg. perhaps providing testimony in a court case) or a death record, biography or a similar record may provide a location of which I was unfamiliar.

I may even choose to expand my research circle on this ancestor to include individuals whom his children married, who he purchased property from, who he owned money to when he died (or who owed him money), etc. It’s probably not going to help me on him to research the first cousin of his great-grandson’s third wife.

The other thing is that it is difficult to completely research the people I need to (Benjamin, his children, and his associates) if I’m researching completely anyone and everyone who has any sort of a tie to him.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

Are there times when this approach is helpful? Sure.

But if I’ve got gaps in my work on Benjamin’s children, then that’s probably where I need to focus my time.





5 Responses

  1. I record names of siblings of my direct line and their spouses in case I need to hunt for information about the parents. The only time I’ve branched out further than that was when I worked on my 20 year Williams project, trying to identify all the descendants of Roger, Thomas and Matthias Williams of Cumberland County, VA through the end of the Civil War (5 generations, total.) That about made me crazy.

    • Most of the time completely researching the person of interest and their immediate family provides sufficiently consistent information, but there are exceptions.

      And part of it depends upon what the goal of the researcher is. Mine is to fully document my direct line ancestors as best I can. Doing that usually includes researching the children fairly completely as well.

  2. When I began, I thought if I could get the family members back 12 generations to the landing of the “Mayflower” that my grandmother had done, but it was stolen, I thought I would stop there. I knew I went back to two of them , but as I researched, it turned out it was more like 15 with many more of the Separatists who arrived later.

    I haven’t traced all of them through their years in America but I didn’t get several of them back to their arrival.

    I have the other three lines back into the 1700’s in their various homelands.

    I have been reading about the history of when the Separatists were living in England and Holland and the conditons they were leaving behind, when they sailed. Also, the history of after they arrived.

  3. For me it depends on how hairbrained I get! If I’m helping someone with their family history and I get interested I’ll look for all the relatives related to the ones I started with, because I’m interested in the history of the area and people related to that area. So I end up researching cousins and in-laws who are married to the cousins. I have made some good related discoveries this way though!
    When folks come over on a ship [my research is based in the US] they don’t come alone. They usually went west in big wagon trains [the white folks]. Or were part of a tribe. Or if they were Mexican, they often had large extended families.
    So I do do extended research. But I call it on the list of grandchildren and great-grandchildren entries. I tell my rellies that they are responsible for keeping all those kids in the family books. I don’t keep track of live people, only the ones that have gone beyond.

  4. Knowledge of the names of those distant kin may be required to locate court records relating to the estates of more immediate relatives. A crucial chancery court case index entry may not include the surname of one’s actual ancestor. You never can predict what might be really useful for such research finds.

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