Collateral Lines: To Trace or Not To Trace

The Family Group

‘The Family Group’ by William Leroy Jacobs, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In my early days of genealogy research (yes, just a few short months ago), I became obsessed with collecting every little scrap of information that popped up on my computer screen. It was as if I was a teenager playing a video game, in which the goal was to collect all the family history gems as fast as I could to win the game. But there wasn’t any game to win, and this process of collecting everything I found without really reading was a habit I couldn’t shake. Very quickly, It became overwhelming.

Then I transitioned to the “I-guess-I-have-it-so-I-should-read-it” phase. I spent months scouring the documents, websites, papers and photographs I’d collected, trying to glean even the smallest piece of information from them. Sometimes I get lucky and find something truly valuable, and other times I’m not even sure what I am looking at, let alone the reason I thought it was a good idea to save. Can you relate?

Recently, I found myself chasing rabbits down side branches of my family tree: following a sibling, their children, and sometimes even their children’s children. For more recent generations, this makes a lot of sense to me. I know my cousins, their spouses, and their children. Why shouldn’t I put them into my tree? However, how do you know where to stop? How do you make a decision to end a family line? I will have to cut it off sometime—otherwise my database would be overflowing with people that I’m only tangentially related to.

Of course, it’s easier to find information and documents on people who have been alive within the past hundred years. There are census records, Social Security records, school records, phone book listings and so much more. Cousins, close and distant, seem to leap off the pages whenever I examine records from my hometown. Once again the dilemma arises: Do I collect them all or just leave them be?

For example, my parent’s families are from small towns in southern Indiana. While the current generations are smaller, a hundred years ago they were both very large families that married into other large families, which then, on occasion, married back into the main family line a couple of generations later. Each one had between five and 10 children, and they in turn averaged six apiece. My mother’s mother was one of 19 children (two wives, and a couple sets of twins in there), and while not all of them lived to adulthood, those that did choose to have kids averaged three per family. I’m starting to give myself a headache with visions of twisted lines tangling together on my pedigree chart as I stumble forward, backward and sideways in time.

Granted, I know that my trusty genealogy software will keep this all organized, or at least I hope it will. For now, I think that I should really only go one or two generations down tangent lines. That should give me a good trend for relatives living in the area at the same times, as well as cousins helping one-another out on the farm. You know when that odd, out-of-nowhere name pops up on a census record? If I had a close cousin already charted with that name, it just might solve the question of who they were.

Now, back to sifting files and citing sources.

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.

Find your own elusive ancestors with a video demonstration on tips and tricks for Using Collateral and Cluster Searches to Beat Brick Walls from presenter Thomas MacEntee, available now from!

26 thoughts on “Collateral Lines: To Trace or Not To Trace

  1. My rule of thumb has been to only list the siblings (+ sibling spouse) of my direct line ancestors. Since I inherited large, well researched files from my side and my husband’s if I track too many colaterals I would get overly inundated. I track to my 1st cousins, but am not strict on that (family is wide spread and I do not get all the news on them all the time.) However, there have been a few farther back collateral lines that I have included, but that is mainly because of the intermarrying that has happened. Not necessarily direct intermarrying. Since I track siblings, I have cases where siblings of an ancestor on one family branch married a sibling (or cousin) from a different branch. The two people in question were not related to each other, but they make a double relationship to me. It can get convoluted, but the genius of database software is that those types of situations become apparent, especially if you go over duplicate person reports. In fact, I was unaware of some of the crossings across family branches until I reentered people after a database crash a few years ago.

    Truly, each person needs to decide how far they will track, since they need to judge how large a research project they want. Sometimes you need to track all the families in an area just to straighten them out (and keep them straight)!

  2. I track them all. I have great fun finding out who I am related to – even very distantly. My thought on it is that if I enter them, someone starting out may find my work and it may help them in their own quest. I can always limit what I print out for a chart. My mother’s side is very easy for me to search, they have been in politics going back as far as one being a signer of the US Constitution, and their lives are pretty well documented in books, etc. My father’s side — not so much… I can’t even find where his parents are buried, nor when they died — YET. So when I get frustrated trying to find something on his side, I go down one of the rabbit holes for a bit and feel some satisfaction instead of total frustration.

    I agree – each person needs to do what they are comfortable with. This works for me, so far ;-)

  3. I do a lot of “side” tracking with mine. I figure if I have a lot of branches and different family names then there is a bigger chance of someone seeing their family name and getting some new information for themselves and maybe they will be so kind to contact me through Ancestry. They may have THE names that I’m looking for for my own trees. This has happen twice. I call them my almost cousins.

  4. If you are into genetic genealogy at all, you may well want to trace collateral lines. Because otherwise you may find yourself “matching” on a site like FamilyTree DNA, someone who is a 4th, or 5th cousin and who has a surname completely mysterious to you. The only way to sort that out is to have a pretty good idea what your collateral lines look like (and hope the person you match with has done that as well).

    In general, I think it is helpful to have as much information as you can, particularly when you are faced with brick walls. Perhaps someone on one of those collateral lines does have information that can help — a family Bible page, an old family story, that can be another clue to another attack on that brick wall.

    There is a site called LostCousins (British) that works on this principle — helping you find “cousins” who may have that missing piece of information.

  5. If it weren’t for collateral lines I would never have gotten as far as I have… my family research has never been a straight line. I find bits and pieces on those collateral lines that substantiate my direct line. I also, agree with Sherry and Leslie, I snag more people related to me through those collateral lines and am as happy to help as I am to receive help!

    However, like Elizabeth, you have to draw the line somewhere… I figure if my software can handle it so can I, so for me there is currently no limit. I don’t keep documents anymore the further down I take the collateral lines; I do post the sources to my tree on ancestry, even post the docs when I find them but don’t keep the paper.

  6. Like Elizabeth, I mainly stick to siblings of direct line ancestors (along with their spouses). It has helped me make connections to other researchers I may have missed if I had stayed focused on just my ancestor because they also only list their ancestor (who was the sibling of mine).

    Moving below the level of my grandparents is where the game changes for me and I try to record all vital records. I sort of see myself as the keeper of this information for the family, and while they don’t always care, I hope someday, someone might, and they don’t have to be in my direct line this way.

    My other except is a pet project surname. I have one that I am working on when time allows that is a large, old family and one that is different my normal research rules.

  7. Wow everyone! Thanks for all the advice, it is wonderful to hear what other people do. I think this will be an ongoing thing for me. Right now, I am going to be extensive on the last four generations (us, our parents, grand, and great grandparents). The lines further back, only if I am trying to do some circle around type research.

  8. The wonderful side branches have given me most of the info on my main family line. I have met people from all over the country. This colaboraboration has been wonderful. I ham thankful for the people who don’t mind helping me correct the side branch either. But I agree. How much is to much.

  9. I follow every trail I find. Yes after 900+ pages of pedigree charts and duplicate intersecting family lines I gave up printing out charts. A lot of 2nd cousins marrying each other each sharing the same great grandparents. After tracing quite a few branches thru the Patriarchs back to Adam & Chava in Gan Eden, I think I have enough info for now…but occasionally I. Find some more and I add them in. Now I’m more focused on collecting. Stories and newspaper clips.

  10. I have usually tracked the bulk of the collateral people. By doing that I was able to find out that, via my mother’s family, I am related (by marriage) to Benedict Arnold. That was via an ancestor who was in New Amsterdam in the late 1600’s. I just followed his children down and there he was. But then, I am retired and do have the time.

  11. My Mother’s line is my wall;;
    She was born out of wedlock, Her father was(possibly) of German lineage, but there is only his name; age and occupation listed on her birth certificate. Her mother was wed FOUR times before she met my grandfather.
    My mother was:(1) Fostered, (2)Put up for adoption
    (never officially completed, but she used the name in school)
    and then wed my father. SO, she had THREE Official Names!!!
    She also had two half-siblings from her mother’s first husband.
    SO, my job is to decipher how to show she went from Family “A” to Family”B” to Family”C”. and scant documentation!!!

  12. I follow collaterals because I want to find whole family photographs. In the late 18th c. Lots of families made photo graphs of the entire family. It is really amazing to see tese people. Often you can see a resemblance to this generation. I just looked at one of those little photos in a case. It said “C.R. Case16 yrs old” Now I can see the remblance to my 14 year old grandson. Amazing. I would have sworn he didn’t resemble anyone in my family!

  13. I usually go no more than three branches off my main line unless I have a sneaking suspicion that a branch will intersect into my main line further down the tree. This has happened several times thus far for me.

  14. By tracing a collateral line (my g-g-grandfather’s first cousin), I found a newspaper article on the occasion of the cousin’s 102nd birthday in which she recounted how her grandfather (our common ancestor) was 96 when he died (giving an approximate date of his death, which was unrecorded) and how he told of being 12 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

  15. I have searched siblings of my main lines, especially if I can’t find much. I have a lot of lines to work on since I am adopted but know my birth families. I have had help from distant cousins as a result of posting my tree online, message boards, etc. I wouldn’t have been able to get that far back without help along the way. I also have family photos because of other’s kindness, for both my lines and my husband’s lines. Checking the collateral lines can be a blessing.

  16. I was lucky enough that both sides of my family loved both professional and home photographs taken. By tracing the collateral lines too, I have been able to put some of these photo faces with a person. I have discovered that in some collateral lines and direct relatives were neighbors, assisted with wills and probates, attended the same churches or schools, etc.
    Through living relatives of those in the collateral lines I have been put in contact with at least 9 living direct relatives.

  17. I like to find the newest bud on the smallest twig on my tree. Anyone can collect names, but along the way one should be learning the history of our country as it really was, not as written in error filled books.
    If one’s ancestors have been on the same area for many years, there is a good chance a relative on whom you have nothing will turn up married into another of your lines.
    Most real genealogist share. I may have something someone else needs and they may have something on my ancestor I never found. I feel good when I can provide a missing piece.


  18. I wander down all sorts of branches. Sometimes I find researchers in these branches that have more information on our common ancestors.

    Late one night, I was trying to match obituaries with names in my database. I found that one of the children listed in an obituary lived in my town. With further investigation, I found that she was in my neighborhood! We are both several states away from where we were born and where the majority of the family live.

    There are many advantages of wandering through branches but I can also see the argument for narrowing the research. I have no sense of ever really coming to a stopping point with any of my family.

  19. Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts. Years ago I started out wanting to document all my direct ancesters’ siblings, their spouses and children. Then I’d find a “cousin” who had the next generation documented, so I added them. Then I realized I had found 3 and 4 generations down of all siblings in a couple of my lines. On one line, my great great grandfather, Hugh Phillips, who migrated from Cornwall in 1842 to Mineral Point, WI, I had found all his 7 siblings, had a copy of a condolence letter one wrote from England to the family in WI when Hugh died in 1880 that described the manorial home they had grown up in from abt 1815 to 1835 or so. That ancient home is now Nance B & B near Illogan, Cornwall. Because I followed Hugh’s siblings, I have found living descendants of all of them and we are planning a family reunion in April 2013 of these descendants in Cornwall and will visit the old Nance Farm and some of us will stay in the same rooms of the home in which our ancestors played and lived and grew. If I had not followed my heart and the clues for those collateral lines, this miracle would not be happening! Let their spirits guide you and blessings to all in your research!

  20. For the most recent generations, I include as many people as will allow me to include their information. Some cousins have come around later when they became more interested in our family history and were very thankful that I had information readily available.
    For the generations that include people I’ve never met, I include collaterals that I found easily. Many times I have hit a brick wall that was solved by information of collaterals. This is especially helpful 2-3 generations+ up since people didn’t move far from families as much.

  21. I am most interested in collaterals. To me the most interesting thing is not who I might be descended from but who i am related to who is living.

    I am interested in anyone descended from anyone I am descended from along with their spouses and the parents of their spouses. I don’t add the siblings of their spouses though.

    However I do original research only on ancestors, their siblings and spouses and compile information on the rest.

    When I add someone who has married into my “family” I like to add their parents but not their siblings.

    Someone told me that by the time someone was a fifth cousin the connection wasn’t meaningful and therefore I should not bother any further.

    But why are they less interesting than a person who is five generations above me. I found my daughter was working with a fourth cousin. How interesting is that.

    Also tracing down these collaterals shows spooky connections. Example my son’s name is Matthew John. The Matthew was not named after anyone. However one line has several Matthew Johns but there is no Matthew John’s in any other line (in the 11,000 people I have in my tree. And even weirdly, I found that my son bears a familial resemblance to that line.

    Having different lines matching up again in different parts of the world is even more fun. A first cousin of mine born in Ottawa Ontario is a double third cousin with a third cousin of mine born in Virginia.

    I think all the fun is in the collaterals.

  22. I find that a mixed bag is the best solution. I have direct lines from both parents as far back as I can go so that I have structure in my tree. On my father’s side he has one “American” grandparent, and 3 German grandparents. I’m sticking in America. However, my mother is old stock through and through. As I enter each couple I add children when they are available, but I don’t follow those children’s children. I am fortunate that I have each parent in at least one or two published genealogies.

    However, for my father’s great grandmother (Ruth), a person contacted me with Ruth’s other 5 sisters and one brother, as well as their children and grandchildren. This has grown to quite a friendship, which I would not have gained without this collatoral exploration.

    Also, some of my mother’s ancestors are Philadelphia Quakers. I’m looking forward to exploring the first ancestor who immigrated late in the 1600’s. This would enable me to learn some of Philadephia’s early history, as well as to learn about Quakers and Land Records.

    My suggestion is to follow where the trails lead you and see what you can find and learn.

  23. Well you all have given me a lot of information to think about. I do fill out siblings, their spouses, and their children when I can in each generation. A few of them I have searched forward more to try and find unusual connections (particularly when I was trying to discover the relationship to Horace Greeley and Buffalo Bill for my husband’s family). I may not be able to trace all of my family down multiple generations as a general rule, but I think I will take it on a case by case basis.

    Thank you for all you input on this! You have given me a lot to consider and to think about.

  24. Like the author, I was enthralled with all the people I was finding when I first began serious research in database format (I have been interested in family history for a long time). But since I have found so many “blood” relatives, I needed to pull back and make a decision on collateral lines and branches. I try to follow 2 rules: (1) the spouse marrying into the family is not traced but the children of that union are and (2) I will search lines for my siblings’ children and their spouses because I have no biological children of my own. I also search my husband’s line in a separate tree so that my step-grandsons will have their lineage some day.

  25. My rule of thumb is to include siblings and their spouses and children — so one over, one generation down. I still connect and share with contemporary distant cousins through online family trees and forums, but I may not put them in my tree.

    I do make exceptions to the rule: If the lower-down generations are people who are personally close/meaningful to me and my family. If there are duplicated names within a family that I need to keep straight. And I include all generations that are still in Italy, because we really have little direct knowledge of those left behind and records can be difficult to get; so oral history exchanged with the distant cousins is invaluable, really the only source for photos and even very basic details like the names of siblings and ancestors.

  26. I want everybody! I have over 20,000 names on my different families, on 4 different trees. My mom’s, my dad’s, my husband’s mom’s and his dad’s branch. If some are intermarried, I put only the relevant ones on each tree and keep the rest on each family’s separate tree. I am lucky to be Icelandic on my mom’s side and the Icelandic are very good at keeping up with the ancestry so we go back to about year 533 with them. Dad’s Norwegian ancestry is a little harder but recently descendents of their area of Norway has been translating a lot of their info. My husband is more mixed (German, Norwegian, Danish, Scotch, Irish and we think a little English) so have difficutly on some branches. If it weren’t for some of the collateral branches, I wouldn’t have met (by computer) several relatives who have enriched my trees and become e-mail friends. Love this “job”!

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