How Far Back Can You Trace Your Family Tree?

Marc McDermott
February 24, 2022

Have you ever wondered how far back someone could trace their family tree? Many family historians have come across colleagues who claim they are related to an early American settler, or they descend from medieval European royalty such as Charlemagne. But how can they prove it? In this article, we’ll explore how far back genealogical records can go, whether DNA can help tie you to ancient ancestors, and how you could possibly connect your tree to a well-known family line!

How far back in time do the oldest genealogies go?

The oldest traceable family tree is that of the Chinese Kang clan, which documents the family’s lineage over 5200 years and more than 80 generations!

This family tree contains over 2 million descendants, including the great philosopher Confucius. China is known for having “exceptional recordkeeping” going back centuries, and many of the oldest proven family trees are from that country- providing exciting possibilities for family historians with Chinese heritage. 

For genealogists whose families came from elsewhere, it may not be possible to trace your family tree back quite as far. Generally speaking (and focusing on paper records, not DNA), many people could reliably trace their trees back to the 17th century. But there are several factors that will determine your chances of success.

Factors that determine how far back you can trace your family tree

How good was the record-keeping in your ancestor’s country of origin?

Many countries pale in comparison to China’s meticulous record-keeping. For example, in a younger country like the United States, “universal” recording of vital records (births, marriages, deaths) was not mandated until the early 20th century. Prior to the early 1900s, records are spotty and may not exist at all for many areas, especially in the newly developed states and territories in the western half of the U.S. You may have better luck in Europe- Switzerland, for example, began recording public records over 700 years ago, and many people of Icelandic descent can trace their family back 30 generations.

What type of religion did your ancestors follow?

Church records are often the oldest types of records for genealogy, and they are therefore an important resource when looking for evidence to move your family tree back further. Local churches were often the only institution keeping records in a particular area, and different religions followed different rules for recordkeeping. For example, if you have Irish ancestors, whether they were from Northern Ireland (Protestant) or Ireland (Catholic) may determine how and where you will be able to locate individual information, once you move beyond government-level recordkeeping.

Was your ancestor well-known or well-to-do?

Today, everyone’s birth, marriage or death is recorded per law. But in earlier centuries, an ancestor’s race, social status, or wealth could very likely determine whether they were documented in the local record books at all. The descendant of a local mayor or king will have better luck than a descendant of the king’s maid or servant.

This also explains why descendants of African American slaves are often not able to trace their ancestors back to their point of origin- prior to the Civil War, slaves were rarely recorded by name in government records- and they are nothing but tick marks in the 1850 and 1860 census records. 

Did your ancestor’s culture follow a written history or an oral history?

Many cultures followed a tradition of oral history- so there may not be any written documentation of your ancestors’ births, marriages or deaths. 

Were the records destroyed?

This is a very common occurrence all around the world- fires, hurricanes, wars, or human neglect have caused the destruction of countless records over the centuries. 

Can DNA help you go back further in history than traditional genealogy?

Not quite. Let’s look at the three types of DNA that can help with genetic genealogy.

  • Autosomal DNA- This kind of DNA is used by genealogy testing companies for “cousin matching,” and can be useful for proving relationships back about 6-8 generations. Unfortunately, it cannot help locate relatives farther back then that, and even the oldest ancestor that can be discovered with autosomal DNA will still be well within a traditional genealogical time period (likely the mid-to-late 1700s). 
  • Y-DNA and mtDNA- Y-DNA traces a man’s lineage back through his paternal line, while mtDNA can trace a person’s maternal lineage. These DNA results can be useful for examining a person’s ancient maternal/paternal origins and finding distant cousins, but Y-DNA and mtDNA results cannot provide specific information about individual ancestors in your family tree. 

DNA has helped to prove descent from at least two ancient ancestors- the previously mentioned Charlemagne, and conqueror Genghis Khan. However, having a connection to these ancestors is really not all that special! Nearly everyone of European ancestry descends from Charlemagne, and Y-DNA evidence indicates that about 1 in 200 men alive today directly descend from Genghis Khan!  However, there are many famous ancestors who don’t have quite so many descendants, and there are opportunities for you to prove your connection to them.

What are established genealogies?

Established genealogies can connect a person to a well-known ancestor. Many of these family lines are managed by a lineage society, which can provide a certificate or other proof that a person descends from a famous ancestor. In order to join a lineage society, a person must be able to prove ancestry back to a certain ancestor in a certain generation. From there, the society can often use its established lineage to “connect the dots” back to the famous ancestor. Here are just a few examples of lineage societies that use established genealogies to prove ancestry:

  • General Society of Mayflower Descendants- Society members have successfully proven their connection to a passenger on the Mayflower, which included some of the earliest settlers to the United States. The Mayflower Society offers to check your family tree against their previously documented lineage to determine if you have enough information to submit an application, or if further research needs to be done in order to establish a connection.
  • The Baronial Order of Magna Charta- This Society includes the descendants of the 25 Barons of the Magna Carta Surety, the men who developed the Magna Carta in the year 1215. The Order has a long list of “gateway” ancestors that connect back to the Barons’ lineage.
  • The Huguenot Society of America- This Society honors descendants of French Protestants who were forced to flee France in the 16th and 17th centuries due to religious persecution. Many of these refugees settled in the U.S. The Society has a list of “qualified Huguenot Ancestors” that can be consulted by interested applicants.

Final Thoughts

Connecting your family tree to an ancient ancestor is not a quick and easy process. In genealogy, it is much more important to thoroughly research relationships one generation at a time and methodically move back to older ancestors. This can take dozens, if not hundreds, of hours. And in order to connect to an established genealogy, lineage societies require many pieces of documentation before they will approve your application. Many people are unable to move their family tree back more than several generations, and that is OK- all of our ancestors are important to us, even if we can’t identify those who existed hundreds of years ago. After all, without them, we wouldn’t be here today!

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