August 9, 2016

The Search for our Ancestry (XXVII)

The Three Dimensions of Genealogy
By Angelo Coniglio
Genealogy entails more than tracing a single line or surname of ancestors, even though that line may go very far into the past. I like to think of genealogy as having three dimensions, which I characterize as backwards, sideways, and forward.
A simple example: Researching your parents is backwards genealogy; researching your siblings is sideways genealogy, and researching your children is forward genealogy. Even this simple approach can quickly become complex.  If you go sideways to include your siblings, to be complete, your tree must go forward for each sibling, and include their children, your nieces and nephews. If you go backwards to detail your parents’ lives, you must go sideways to chronicle your aunts and uncles, then forward again, to account for your first cousins.
I have encountered many folks who initially have a simplified view of genealogy. Often they are interested only in determining a pedigree (family tree) that traces all the direct ancestors with their father’s surname (use ‘Smith’ as an example), and are very happy and proud when they show me that they have the name and information of their fourth- or fifth-great grandfather ‘Smith’.  
Here’s what they overlook: lets consider your fourth-great grandfather.  That’s six generations back (parents: 1 generation; grandparents: 2 generations; great-grandparents: 3 generations; etc.) Add 2 to the number of ‘greats’ to determine the number of generations back. Now, six generations back, barring intermarriages, you had sixty-four fourth-great grandparents (32 couples)! So you have only 1/64 of the “blood” (or DNA) of your fourth-great grandfather ‘Smith’. Those other 63 fourth-great grandparents, each with different surnames, contributed an equal portion of your ancestry, even though they didn’t all necessarily have the surname Smith. 
So to be complete, your tree of direct ancestors must go backwards for every line of direct ancestor, male or female. If you go to the sixth generation back, that’s not just six ancestral couples. The number doubles in each generation, and adding the ancestors from each, by the sixth generation that gives a total of ninety-six persons, encompassing as many as sixty-four different surnames.  
Now, for the sideways part. Those 32 couples from six generations back likely had siblings, and they, in addition to your direct ancestors, were your relatives. In fact the siblings of your ancestors in each generation were (or are) your blood relatives. These are called ‘collateral lines’; that is, they are not your direct ancestors, but, for example, your fourth-great uncle, or your second-great aunt, etc. and they all had some DNA that matched some of yours.
From the collateral lines, forward genealogy will reveal the children of all the siblings of your direct ancestors in each generation, leading to ‘fifth cousins’, ‘third cousins once removed’, and so on. Many of these offspring of collateral lines could be alive today, so that you may have relatives that share the bloodlines of not only that fourth-great grandfather ‘Smith’, but of your other 63 ancestors from that generation.
Another trait of some researchers is that they may show no interest in generations that they don’t remember: “I don’t care about my great-grandmother, I never knew her.” They may want to know all about ancestors or relatives who they knew: “where did my uncle live as a boy?”; or “how did my aunt wind up in Chicago?”, etc. They may be concerned with the most minute details of their known relatives’ lives, yet care less whether their earlier ancestors came from Russia, China, Italy, or the Moon! That’s admirably tolerant, but I feel they miss a lot by not extending their trees back in time.  Doing so can help gain a perspective of the persons to whom you owe your existence, and the ethnic, social and regional forces that shaped them (and so, shaped their children and their children’s children, and ultimately, you, yourself.)  To the same ends, if you’re truly interested in your heritage, you should research sideways and forward, to identify living relatives who share that heritage.
Doing three-dimensional genealogy can help you to extend your family tree in all directions. If you know your fourth-great grandfather was James Smith, and you know his siblings’ names, but you are unable to find his birth record, look ‘sideways’ for the birth records of his siblings. If you know James Smith’s sister was Rosa, and you find Rosa Smith’s birth record, then Rosa’s parents were James’ parents. These would be your fifth-great grandparents, and you have gone backwards in time, by going sideways!
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel, inspired by his Sicilian research. Order the paperback or the Kindle version at 
Coniglio’s web page at has helpul hints on genealogic research. If you have genealogy questions, or would like him to lecture to your club or group, e-mail him at