How Many of My Ancestors Have I Documented?

Donna Pointkouski (What’s Past is Prologue) recently wrote about the Genealogical Smackdown: Colonials vs Immigrants, referring back to a post last spring by Randy Seaver (GeneaMusings) on Can you document all names back 10 generations?

Well, I decided it’s time for me to play the numbers game and see how I’m doing in identifying my ancestors. I have tabulated the numbers of names documented for each generation, beginning with me as the first generation. The numerator in the following table shows how many names I’ve recorded in that generation and the denominator shows the actual number of people in that generation.

1st generation = 1/1
2nd generation = 2/2
3rd generation = 4/4
4th generation = 8/8
5th generation = 10/16
6th generation = 13/32
7th generation = 7/64 UPDATED 19 Jan 2011:  11/64
8th generation = 6/128
9th generation = 7/256
10th generation = 12/512
11th generation = 6/1024
12th generation = 6/2048
13th generation = 3/4096
14th generation = 3/8192

So, for 10 generations, I have only documented the names of 2% of my ancestors. After the 5th generation, the percentage of possible ancestors I have found drops off pretty rapidly.

My four grandparents were all immigrants. All were ethnically Polish. At the time of their immigration, two (my mother’s parents) were Russian citizens and two (my father’s parents) were Austrian citizens. All four immigrated between 1905 and 1913.

So, in United States records, there is little of use to me prior to 1905. This situation required me to make an immediate leap into Polish parish records, the primary source of information in Polish genealogical research. In a comment to Donna’s post, Jasia (Creative Gene) correctly points out that, in most cases, there are few records available to help genealogists research Polish ancestors other than parish records.

Randy stated that “… Europe, where the civil records and the church records usually go back to the 1500s, unless there are major record losses in the country or provinces.” I have not found this to be true in Poland. In fact, many Polish parish records are non-existent prior to the late-1700s. Even those that do exist may be all but inaccessible.

Take, for example, the ancestors of my paternal grandfather. At the time I researched this line of ancestors, all the existing records were held in the parish church. Now, I am told, some of those records may have been moved to the diocesan archives. None have been microfilmed. To research these records, one must go either to the parish church or to the diocesan archives, and the diocesan archives won’t necessarily let you see them. In any case, the parish records only extend back to the late-1700s, after the first partition of Poland. None of these records have been microfilmed or digitized.

The records for my paternal grandmother’s ancestors are even harder to find. Apparently, the village where the parish church stood was burned to the ground in World War II (it seems that the villagers were responsible for some guerilla warfare against the invading armies and were severely punished). Some parish records exist back to the mid-1800s, but are in the diocesan archives. The archives will not let anyone see the original records because they are too fragile. They will, however, transcribe a record if provided with the correct name and date. None of these records have been microfilmed or digitized.

The records for my maternal grandmother’s ancestors are all located in the Lithuanian archives. I have no idea how far back these records extend. If a genealogist writes to the archives to request a record, there is a ten year wait for a response. One can view the records in the archives reading room as long as the record book required has not been sent for repair. None of the records for my maternal grandmother’s ancestors have been microfilmed or digitized.

So now we come to the records for my maternal grandfather’s ancestors. Most of these parish records have been microfilmed, but these ancestors were Polish nobility and they tended to move every two generations or so. I have found these ancestors in the parishes of Szwelice, Krasne, Przasnysz, and Pałuki. The Szwelice records go back to 1693, but my ancestors lived in this parish only after the mid-1800s. The Krasne records go back to 1657, but my ancestors lived in this parish only after the mid-1700s. The records for Przasnysz go back to 1618 and the records for Pałuki go back to 1658.

Even though the records extend further back in time, the earliest parish record I have found for any of my ancestors is from 1701. Earlier records appear to have been maintained somewhat sporadically. For the ancestors of my four grandparents, the earliest parish records I have found are:

Paternal grandfather’s ancestors: 1787
Paternal grandmother’s ancestors: 1812
Maternal grandfather’s ancestors: 1701
Maternal grandmother’s ancestors: 1918

That much said, my earliest known ancestor is Jan Baran de Chodkowo-Załogi, probably born in the mid-1500s. So, how did I get this line (and several other lines) to the mid-1500s when I lost them in the parish records in the 1700s?

The only reason I was able to trace a few lines back this far was that these lines were noble families, whose legal transactions (dowries, land records, financial records, and disputes) were recorded in the court records. Such was not the case for the majority of the Polish population who were peasants. Even these records do not record births, marriages, or deaths. They do, however, provide information that allows the genealogist to approximate the year of some of those events (e.g. Mateusz was living in 1695 but deceased in 1705). Most importantly, these records often document two or three generations of ancestors (e.g. Mateusz, father of Jan and son of the deceased Antoni). These records have not been microfilmed or digitized and must be viewed at the Polish archives in Warsaw.

Luckily, however, one of my ancestral lines, the Chodkowski family, has been thoroughly researched in both parish records and court records, and the results published in 2005 by the Chodkowski Family Association. Now I know how a descendant of a US colonial family feels when he/she taps into DAR records or Mayflower genealogies.

In the end, I don’t ever expect to accomplish much research on the ancestors of either of my grandmothers. The records are simply not accessible. I don’t expect to accomplish any more on the ancestors of my paternal grandfather because I’ve reached the earliest of the records. I still have plenty of research to conduct on my maternal grandfather’s ancestors, though, where there are plenty of records, including parish records, left to search.

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen J. Danko

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6 Responses to How Many of My Ancestors Have I Documented?

  1. Patrice Houck Schadt says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. I have been hesitant in starting a search overseas for my husband’s grandparents and appreciate the information you shared about the difficulties of the search. Thank you again.

    Patrice Houck Schadt

    • Steve says:

      Patrice, don’t hesitate any longer! There are difficulties in researching European ancestors, but it gets easier once you get your feet wet!

  2. Donna says:


    Great post! I didn’t play the numbers game when I did mine, though I may do another to add that info. While the point of genealogy isn’t merely just collecting the names for each generation, I was actually surprised by your numbers…surprised because I have found more of my ancestors – that is, up to the 9th generation. I only have 2 in the 10th and zero after that so far. No nobility in my genes!

    I still think, and I’m trying not to be biased, that the “Immigrant” genealogy is harder for many of the reasons you named. While I may have found “more” ancestors than you, I will conceed that the numbers are larger on the sides of my 2 Bavarian great-grandparents. That’s the line that I can get back to the 1600s! I am making progress on the Polish sides, but once you get beyond 1800 you are less likely to find anything as you well know. And then there’s the great-grandmother born in Poland but probably not Polish (likely Czech). I still can’t even find her birth record.

    Oh, I have to add a special thanks to you. I was only recently able to add the names of eight 4th great-grandparents and two 5th because you graciously translated the records I found!


    • Steve says:

      Donna, I’ve never checked out the numbers before, so this was an interesting exercise. Currently, I’m finishing up some work on my Chodkowski relatives and then I’m jumping into the mire, feet-first, to find some of those missing Niedzialkowski relatives!

  3. Pingback: 10 generations back | mrog::blog

  4. Matthew says:

    could you tell me how to obtain the information published in 2005 by the Chodkowski Family Association? I am a fellow Chodkowski. Thanks.

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