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Mar 8, 2022

A Genealogy Software Challenge

Here is a genealogy software challenge to ponder: can your present genealogy program properly chart all families? Can it properly display the relationships of all the people within its database? Can it do so without wasting a lot of paper?

Let’s try a test based upon history. Fifteen men and twelve women went to an isolated island in 1789 and lived without outside contact for many years. In fact, even today, the island has few visitors and almost no new immigrants. Every one of today’s 55 island residents is related to the other 54 in many, many ways. Everyone is everyone else’s second cousin as well as third cousin and probably also a sixth cousin eight times removed. If you were to enter that island’s entire population since 1789 into your genealogy program, will it display the relationships properly?

I am describing tiny Pitcairn Island, the final destination of Fletcher Christian and eleven other British sailors who mutinied against Captain Bligh on April 28, 1789. Bligh was set adrift in a small boat, along with many of the men who remained loyal to him. However, there was not enough room in the boat for everyone; so, some men were forced to go back to Tahiti, along with the mutineers on board the HMAV (His Majesty’s Armed Vessel) Bounty. Captain Bligh and 18 men made their way across 3,618 miles of ocean to Timor in what is perhaps one of the most heroic voyages of all time. Only one died along the trip; John Norton was killed by hostile savages during a brief stop at the island of Tofoa.

Fletcher Christian and the mutineers were soon reunited with the women they had recently left behind in Tahiti. However, they were in danger as the British authorities obviously would look for them on that island. The mutineers would have been hanged had the British authorities found them. Nine of the mutineers, along with six Polynesian men, twelve women, and one baby, soon set sail on board the Bounty, looking for a safe hiding place.

Fletcher Christian and his associates eventually landed at Pitcairn Island, a tiny island with no beach and no safe landing place for ships. The Bounty was anchored off shore, and everything was transferred to the island in small boats, a hazardous undertaking. The Bounty was then burned, perhaps deliberately or perhaps accidentally.

Pitcairn was shown on British maps of the day but in the wrong location. Any British ship looking for the island probably would never find it. Indeed, all but one of the mutineers never saw a British ship again as long as they lived. An American ship discovered the island in 1808 but had no interest in British mutineers and soon left. Two British man-of-war ships with updated maps visited the island in 1814 and found only one mutineer still living: John Adams had become the leader of the island’s population but was in ill health. The two British captains decided that taking John Adams back to England to stand trial for the mutiny would be “an act of great cruelty and inhumanity.” Adams died on Pitcairn Island on March 5, 1829, forty years after the mutiny.

You can read an excellent account of the sailing of the HMAV Bounty, including the mutiny, in many places on the Web, including at: http://www.immigration.gov.pn/history/index.html, https://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/pitcairn/history.shtml, and at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Pitcairn_Islands. Even more articles may be found by going to any search engine and entering:

Pitcairn Island

In 1831, the entire population of Pitcairn Island was forced to move to Tahiti. The experience was a disaster since Tahiti had become infected with European diseases. The Pitcairn islanders had no immunity and soon started dying. The first to die was Thursday October Christian, Fletcher’s oldest child. Eleven more died within weeks. The remaining people quickly returned to Pitcairn. In 1856 the population had become overcrowded, and all of the people were moved to Norfolk Island. Very soon thereafter many moved back to Pitcairn. Today, the population of Pitcairn Island is 55, all of whom are very close relatives of each other with intertwined genealogies. A picture of the entire population may be seen at http://library.puc.edu/pitcairn/images/PitcairnTour/BountyDayGroup04-smr.jpg.

Now here is the genealogy software challenge: can the program you are using at this time handle this data? Specifically, can it print proper pedigree charts and relationship charts of these people with heavily interlocking relationships?

“Pedigree collapse” is a term that quickly enters into this discussion. In a so-called “normal pedigree chart,” a person is shown with two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on and so forth in a mathematical progression. The number of grandparents doubles approximately every 25 years. In theory, each of us has 281.5 trillion ancestors in the past 1200 years, or 48 generations. That theory assumes, however, that we never had duplicate ancestors — those that show up in more than one place in a pedigree chart. Of course, the number of 281.5 trillion ancestors is ludicrous since that far exceeds the number of people who have ever lived on the face of the earth.

All of us have pedigree collapse although probably not as severely as the residents of Pitcairn Island. Anyone who can trace ancestry back to small isolated villages in Europe and even some villages in North America will often find the same people appearing in multiple places around the pedigree chart. I have found this often in my own French-Canadian ancestry, and I am sure the same thing exists with other ethnic groups.

The same phenomenon happens in reverse when listing all the descendants of a particular person: a particular descendant may appear in more than one place when distant cousins marry and then have children.

When printing lists of ancestors, descendants, pedigree charts, register reports, books of ancestors, and other, similar reports, a properly designed genealogy program should list the first occurrence of each ancestor or descendant with all the appropriate details of his or her life. Any subsequent appearance of the same person, however, should be brief. The second and later listings probably should only list the name and then “See person #245” or “Already listed on page 35” or similar wording.

Some of the simpler genealogy programs do not handle duplicate listings very well. Instead, they reprint the full details time and time again. If the record of a particular person in question has lengthy details and text information attached, the number of pages consumed grows quickly.

Let’s say that you have about a half-page of information about every person in your genealogy database. That database contains information about the descendants of Zacharie Cloutier and Sainte Dupont (two early residents of Beauport, near Quebec City). A full descendant report of that one couple could print more than one hundred pages in a properly designed genealogy program but easily could produce ten times that amount or more in any of the simpler programs. With the wrong genealogy program, you might end up printing thousands of pages, most of which simply duplicate information found in earlier pages.

I shudder to think how big the printouts would be when printing detailed information about all the descendants of Fletcher Christian. Any program that cannot handle duplicates properly would soon consume all the printer paper available!

A list of Fletcher Christian’s descendants is rather interesting to compare the relationships. For instance, Ferdinand William Christian is the 2nd cousin once removed of Timothy Christian as well as being his 2nd cousin twice removed, half 3rd cousin once removed, 3rd cousin once removed, 3rd cousin twice removed, husband of a 2nd cousin once removed, husband of a 2nd cousin twice removed, husband of a third cousin once removed, and husband of a third cousin twice removed.

In fact, the same Ferdinand William Christian married Marion Angela Warren. Not only is he the husband of that woman, he is also her second cousin.

Whew! I bet those family reunions are fun.

Can your genealogy program handle this convoluted family tree? Can it create proper printouts and reports? If it can handle the families of Pitcairn Island, I suspect it can also handle your family tree as well.