Dec 17, 2021

How Many Ancestors

December 17, 2021

Have you ever thought about how many ancestors you have in the five generations starting with your parents? As it turns out, quite a lot.


Everyone’s family tree starts out small with two parents. Each generation thereafter, the number doubles so that by the time you reach your fifth great-grandparents, you have 128. That’s a lot of great-great-great-great-great grandparents to keep track of.


It’s not that easy to locate them all either. Even the most assiduous genealogists rarely are able to name all 128 of their fifth great grandparents. There are always a few ancestors that just refuse to be found, even after decades of research.


This week the matter of finding ancestors was brought home to me by a woman who visited the local LCGS One-on-One Session where I was volunteering. Her family had passed down a story indicating that one of her ancestors was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She wanted to know if that could be true.


As any genealogist knows, a family tree starts with you and then works back in time. I asked the woman what she knew about her family line. Sadly, she really only knew the names of her grandparents and a couple of great grandparents. That’s a pretty typical response from folks who haven’t done genealogy. A couple of generations, and memories fade. An occasional family story of special interest might be passed down, but that’s about it.


This woman needed to trace each and every one of her lines back to her 128 fifth generation ancestors. This would take her back to approximately the time of the Revolution.


I explained to her that this was a search that might require years to complete – certainly not something we could accomplish in the couple of hours we had. Just to give her a feel for what she’d need to do, we chose one grandfather and focused on his paternal line. After just a few minutes, the enormity of the search sank in. The sheer number of ancestors she needed to look at was overwhelming.


I don’t know whether the woman will persist with her project or not. My best guess is not because she admitted she’s only really interested in proving her story, not in who her fifth great grandparents were.


I do care who my great grandparents were and have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to trace them back as far as I can. Even so, I can only name 52 of my fifth great grandparents. That’s less than half of the 128 I actually have. I also have to admit that some of those 52 might be a little iffy. A long-deceased cousin did research on many of my Scandinavian lines, and I’ve never gone back and personally verified all of his work. His work that I’ve checked has turned out to be valid, but still.


The incident at the one-on-one session has caused me to think more about how many ancestors I have and how many I still haven’t found. It looks like I still have a lot of work to do. Unlike the one-on-one visitor, I love genealogy. For me, the search will continue.




Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large