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How far back can I trace my tree?


“I’ve traced my tree all the way back to 160AD. I’m related to King Fornjotur of Kvenland”


“I spent all night on and have managed to trace my family all the way back until 1250AD!”


Both of these are statements people have made recently in two of the many FB genealogy groups I am in. In my opinion both statements are complete rubbish. Sure these people may be of the belief that their trees are all correct and accurate and if they want to believe that, I wish them all the best. However it is highly, highly unlikely that these trees are accurate.


I believe as a genealogist or as an amateur family historian you need to understand the history of the place where your family lived. After the Roman Empire fell around 450 AD, Europe fell into darkness. No records exist of this period of time. The records we do have are oral stories handed down from generation to generation and then finally recorded by saga writers or monks from around 900 AD. That means we have hundreds of years of history passed down orally with no records to corroborate these stories.  It’s just not possible that you can prove you are related to King Fornjotur of Kvenland. Sure you might be but you won’t be able to prove it.


But what about DNA testing?


DNA testing is an interesting way of proving we are from a region. It does not and currently cannot say you are related to a particular person from history. It could show you have a percentage of Scandinavian ancestry but not that your blood is of a Royal family. 


So how far back can I reliably trace my tree back to then?


The UK government established the General Registry Office with an act of Parliament in 1836 and required all births, deaths, and marriages in England and Wales to be recorded with its office. Prior to that King Henry VIII decreed that each of the 11,000 parishes should keep a record of all the baptisms, marriages and burials from 1538. Note that its baptisms and burials, not births and deaths!


If you are lucky enough to have a real link to the aristocracy of the UK, then your family tree may be able to be traced further back than 1538. However as William the Conqueror (English history again!) pretty much destroyed the nobility structure when he arrived in 1066, the accuracy of the records prior to this date must be in question. 


Other European nations established records offices around the same time however some records have been destroyed by war and other disasters. For example, the Irish Public Records Office was partially destroyed by fire in 1922 during the civil war. This caused the destruction of many records from the 1800’s and before.


Many records were destroyed during bombings in WW1 and WW2 in Europe. For example, the Germans destroyed the archives in the town of Middleburg in the Netherlands when they invaded in 1940. These are the very recent events we know about; how many more records were destroyed when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the Catholic churches and their records in his reign? Or how many records were destroyed when the Franks invaded the areas of Europe they ruled over? Or even further back, the Vikings were not known for their respect of other people’s property! They were not likely not to burn down your church or manor house where the records may have been kept out of respect of those records.


It’s often said that peasants didn’t leave much of a record. If your ancestors were poor Scottish farmers like mine, they left next to no records. They were likely illiterate so wouldn’t have had a family bible or the money to pay the church to record their baptisms.


In reality, the vast majority of people will be able to only trace their family tree back to the mid 18th, maybe 17th century if they are very lucky and their parish records have been kept in a reasonable condition.


But I’ve found a tree on Ancestry/Family Search that details my ancestors! Surely that’s a good source?


No! Family or member trees on Ancestry or Family Search or any similar site are often unreliable and filled with false data. Well meaning people make errors and do not check the provenance of their data.


For example recently I was researching my friend’s tree for her. Her great uncle Herbert was shown in a member tree on Ancestry as marrying Emma. However a look on the marriage banns, which was right there on Ancestry, showed that Herbert’s father was listed as James whereas Herbert’s father was actually Henry. James was also listed as being deceased whereas Henry was alive for another ten years past this date.  This example was from the mid 1850’s so you can imagine the further back you go, the more likely it is that identity errors will be made.


I’ve spent more than ten years researching my family tree. The furthest back I can trace my ancestors is to Richard Balding, my 5 times great grandfather who lived in Berkshire from 1758 to 1822. I have an idea who his parents are but can’t prove it for sure so I don’t say I can trace back further. One day I’ll convince my husband to go traipsing around churches in Berkshire so I can prove it for sure!