When is my Family Tree Complete?

This question is often debated among genealogists. Some say that a family tree should include only direct ancestors, while others feel the record is not complete without recording the collateral lines (that is, the siblings of each ancestor, their wives, and their descendants). Still others prefer somewhere in between the two extremes.

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The answer is different for each person, and depends, among other things, on the amount of time available and the purpose of your research. You may want to trace only your direct line of ancestors. However, as you progress in your research, you likely will find that looking only at your direct ancestors provides only part of the picture - kind of like having only the trunk of the tree, with no branches or leaves!

A few examples are as follows:

1. A broader family search may provide the reason a direct ancestor migrated

I have one direct ancestor who came to Canada from England in the 1820s, taught school in Coburg, Ontario, for a short time, and then moved on to take up farming in a county nearby.

What that history does not reveal is that his brother, a Lieutenant in the British navy, fought and was wounded in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The British government later granted him 200 acres of land in Ontario, Canada for his participation in the war effort.

Battle of Trafalgar.
"Victory by Constable"
Public Domain

Both my direct ancestor and another brother, and their families, came to Canada as a result of the Lieutenant’s return visit to England, after settling in Canada, and convincing them to emigrate. They all settled in the same area.

Given some of the other family names in the area, and their connection to that family in the British records, it would appear that the three brothers were not the only ones who were convinced to come at that time!

2. Broader Research may reveal familial relationships between neighbors, or boarders and landlords

It also is possible to miss relationships between individuals and the families they are boarding with, or living near to, if the family tree is kept too narrow.

For example, I recently discovered that Marion, a direct ancestor of mine, and another couple had their children christened at the same time. The two entries, one above the other in the register, listed the same address as the place of residence.

Public Domain

I had searched for Marion and her son in London, England, for many years, without success. Marion had the child christened under a different first name than what our family had always thought.

I would have passed this record by as not being the family grouping I was looking for, due to the differences between the record and what I had been told, except for the surname (Baker) of the couple living at the same address.

I had already researched the family of the man that Marion eventually married. I knew that his sister had married a Baker.

When I checked my family history research, I discovered that the husband of the Baker couple was a nephew of the man she eventually married. He and his wife signed as witnesses on the marriage record of Marion and her husband.

I therefore had discovered a key piece of the “puzzle” I was piecing together, all because I had expanded my family history research to include extended family members.

3. A broader search may reveal migration patterns among descendants

I also began looking into the collateral lines of my paternal great-great-grandparents and their forebears. So far, I have discovered that, of the descendants of Francis (my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather):

  • at least two cousins in a collateral line had come to Canada and settled on the West Coast;
  • two brothers from another line settled in the Canadian Prairies, and one eventually moved to Washington State;
  • my great-grandparents settled in Ontario, Canada;
  • One of my grandfather’s brothers migrated to the US, and his descendants have spread out across that country;
  • Two other descendants, second cousins to each other, had migrated to Australia and/or New Zealand, within a few years of each other; and
  • another descendant had settled in Rhodesia, although some of his descendants now are located in South Africa, and others in New Zealand.

Public domain.

All of this migration happened within about a 30-year period. Had I researched only my direct ancestors, I would have been under the impression that my great-grandparents – who, I discovered, settled where they did in Canada because my great-grandmother’s uncle and his 11 married children were there - were the only ones of Francis' descendants who had migrated out of England, whereas Francis has descendants in at least four continents of the world.

4. Searching siblings' birth records can add more ancestors to your tree!

One other advantage of broadening the search is that, in many cases, parish birth records prior to July 1, 1837 often listed the mother’s first name and married surname. I have often found that, if I search in the FreeREG records for other children born to the same couple, at least one of the records of birth may indicate the mother’s maiden name.

Once you have that information, you can search for the couple’s marriage record in the same database.

Wikimedia Commons

 In the majority of cases, those marriage records will tell you the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom.

You then are able to add another generation to your family tree, with the fathers’ names, and search for their marriage records, yielding their spouses’ and fathers’ names.

Then you can find their birth records. And so on ...

In this way, you can continue to add past generations to your family tree. I have heard it said that you can discover more information about a particular ancestor by looking at a sibling’s information. That certainly is true in this situation!

5. A broader search can reveal marriage between relatives

Another point of interest is that, in expanding your search to collateral lines, you often will discover interrelationships, or intermarriages between cousins or other family members, which would not otherwise have become apparent.

An example would be the discovery that your great-grandmother's two brothers married your great-grandfather's two sisters, thereby keeping it "all in the family" in a big way - and forever either complicating, or symplifying (depending on which way you look at it) the family tree!

In one family tree I've seen, to cite a more complex example, a woman - we'll call her Caroline - and her husband had a daughter, whom we'll call Mary. Mary married Ken, and they had three boys.

So far, so good.

Ken's mother Ann passed away at some point, and his father John later remarried. Who did he marry? ... Caroline's younger sister, Dinah - Mary's aunt. John and Dinah had a number of children together.

So aunt and niece married father and son.

I wonder what Ken and Mary's children called John : Grandpa, or Great-Uncle John? And Ken's half-siblings were also his first cousins by marriage ...

"Utter Befuddlement"
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hmmm ... Perhaps that one was better left undiscovered - it's a little hard to get my head around the interrelationships!


In summary, while a family history search limited only to direct ancestors can be rewarding, it can also be limiting, in that it may not provide the full picture of what was happening in your ancestors’ lives and the influences that may have been at play in decisions that they made - for example, with respect to migrating to another country.

You may also be unable to get as far back in your ancestry search as you would otherwise be able to do, if you were to look into other siblings at each level of your family tree.

A compromise solution might be to broader your search only at levels where it appears necessary to do so - for example, in circumstances where you are unable to get any further back.

This is somewhat of a "happy medium" between researching only the direct line and expanding it to include all collateral lines.

Ultimately, since family trees can continue indefinitely by adding additional collateral lines, the answer to the question of when a family tree is complete is a personal one, which each individual must decide for him or herself, given the time available, the reasons for undertaking the research, and the level of “addiction” they have for family history research. And I, for one, am quite “addicted” – I find it fascinating!

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