Mind the Gap: Missing Branches in the Family Tree

A few years ago, I came up with a colorful way to keep track of surnames in my family tree, as well as my progress from year to year. I shared it again on Facebook recently, and a number of people had comments or questions about it, so I thought it might be worth posting here. I used Excel to create the spreadsheet shown below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Surname chart, color-coded according to generation. Click image to enlarge.

Ignore the stars next to some of the surnames for now; I’ll get to those in a minute. First, the chart itself shows the four surnames of my grandparents, highlighted in red, in the first line. My great-grandparents have those same four surnames, plus the additional four surnames shown in orange in the next line. My great-great-grandparents have those same eight surnames, plus the additional eight surnames shown in yellow in the third block, and so on. It can get a little confusing as you get deeper into the tree, making sure you have every branch accounted for. However, the basic concept is that in every generation, you’re adding in just the new maiden names in that generation, to avoid duplication. So, for example, Figure 2 shows the Zieliński branch of my tree, with the generations marked to correspond with those on the chart. At the 4x-great-grandparent level, the chart includes the surnames marked with a star, Panek, Grzelak, Wilczek, and Winnicki. (For Polish surnames which exhibit masculine and feminine forms, I’ve used the masculine form throughout the chart.) The next four surnames in that column—Żala, Warzecha, Gębczyński, and Sasakiewicz—represent the ancestry of my great-grandmother, Genowefa/Genevieve (Klaus) Zielinski.

Figure 2: Pedigree chart showing Zielinski line with the generations marked to correspond to the chart. Stars indicate new surnames added in the 4x-great-grandparent level. Click image to enlarge.

To keep things neat, I try to line up the “new” maiden names that appear in each generation under the associated names from the previous generation. So, in the above example, Zieliński and Klaus are the surnames of my great-grandparents (red and orange), so Kalota is added in at the top of the next level, followed by Łącki (the maiden name of my great-great-grandmother Klaus). The next line shows the two new maiden names on the Zieliński side, Ciećwierz and Kurowski, followed by the two new maiden names on the Klaus side, Liguz and Ptaszkiewicz.

Headway and Holes

I like displaying the surnames in my family this way because it’s a nice visual summary of all the family lines that come together to create my personal tapestry, and it’s easy to see where the different ethnicities are mixed in. One can tell at a glance, for example, that two of my grandparents were entirely Polish, one was entirely German, and the other (Roberts line) was a mix of German, English, Irish, Scottish, and Alsatian. However, this arrangement also highlights the places where more work is needed. When a woman’s maiden name is not known, it creates a gap in the chart for the next generation. Such a gap exists on my Zazycki line, in the blue, 4xGGP tier.

I recently obtained birth and death records for my great-great-grandmother, Antonina (Naciążek) Zarzycka, identifying her parents as Franciszek Naciążek and Marianna Kowalska. That surname, Kowalski, filled in the last gap in my great-great-great-grandparents’ tier (green tier). Further research produced the marriage record for Franciszek and Marianna, which should push us back one more generation on the chart. However, the record only identified their parents as Piotr and Małgorzata (__) Naciążek, and Wojciech and Marianna (__) Kowalski. Since no maiden names were indicated for Małgorzata and Marianna, there are two gaps in the chart where their surnames should go. So, the 4xGGP tier contains the four maiden names of my Zazycki/Naciążek ancestors—two known, and two unknown—and the four maiden names of my Grzesiak/Krawczyński ancestors.

It may be obvious now that those stars next to certain surnames in Figure 1 indicate relatively recent discoveries. Specifically, those are new ancestors who have been discovered since the last time I updated this chart, one year ago. They represent breakthroughs on my Murri/Maurer line: my 3x-great-grandfather, Joseph Murri, was the son of Joseph Murri and Magdalena Schmaderer, and my 3x-great-grandmother, Walburga (Maurer) Murri was the daughter of Andreas Maurer (or Mauerer) and Katherina Weidner. Figure 3 shows the newly-added surnames in the 4xGGP and 5xGGP tiers as they appear in a pedigree chart.

Figure 3: Pedigree chart showing the surnames on my Murri/Maurer line which were added this year, marked with a star. Generational tiers are marked to correspond with those shown on the chart in Figure 1. Click image to enlarge.

In addition to the gap in the blue 4xGGP tier created by the lack of identified surnames on the Naciążek/Kowalski line, there’s another gap of four surnames in the Roberts/Walsh column. The first two lines of that gap exist because I have yet to definitively identify the parents of my 3x-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh. The next two lines of that gap exist because I have similarly failed to identify the parents of my 3x-great-grandfather, Robert Dodds. Thus far, those two have been very tough nuts to crack, but I’m still hopeful that the problems will be solved eventually.

Of course, filling in the gaps in that 5xGGP level is even more challenging, as research questions and obstacles multiply with each new generation. Women’s maiden names are less likely to be included on vital records, so each discovery is more labor-intensive. On some lines, I’ve gotten lucky, and I’ve been able to go back as far as 8x, 9x, or even 10xGGP, with confidence in the conclusions. Any further back, and it’s all speculative or hypothetical, pending further research.

Surnames of My Better Half

After I posted my surname chart on Facebook, one of my friends asked me if I had done the same thing with the surnames on my husband’s side of the family. I hadn’t, but I rectified that situation after her request, and the result is shown in Figure 4. As you can see, I haven’t done as much work on his side of the family. Much of what I do know comes from the efforts of other researchers; namely, Joe Malachowski (Szczepankiewicz family), Mike Kocieniewski (Kantowski/Kąt family), and Anna Kessling (Kessling family). But I guess that’s the nature of genealogy: each of us works on assembling our little bit of the jigsaw puzzle, and we benefit from the progress made by others who collaborate on different parts of the picture.

Figure 4: Surname chart, color-coded according to generation, for my husband’s side of the family. Click image to enlarge.

In any case, it’s clear that I’m making better progress with research into the Skolimowski line than I am with researching my husband’s other family lines, and there’s a good reason for that. Of my husband’s eight ancestral surnames (red and orange tiers), only three of them came from the Russian partition of Poland: the Skolimowski, Majczyk, and Szczepankiewicz families. All the others—Woliński, Bartoszewicz, Lewandowski, Drajem, and Kantowski—were from Prussian Poland. And while I have gotten comfortable with reading vital records in Polish, Russian and Latin, the old German Kurrent script continues to challenge me, so it’s always easy to put that research on the back burner. I keep telling myself that I need to just bite the bullet, put in the time, and gain sufficient familiarity that I can translate vital records for myself. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So, maybe I’ll make some progress with that in 2023.

Additional Tools for Visualizing Gaps

There are other tools out there that can help researchers visualize gaps in their family trees. A really nice example is Johnny Perl’s Tree Completeness Calculator, shown in Figure 5, which is one of many utilities offered at his site, DNA Painter. I believe this is one of the tools available without a subscription, although I find that my subscription to DNA Painter offers tremendous value for the price. To use the Tree Completeness Calculator, simply upload a GEDCOM, and click the button. The tool allows you to view tree completeness up to 18th-great-grandparents, but for my tree, that was overkill.

Figure 5: Tree Completeness chart produced from the GEDCOM of my family tree, uploaded to DNA Painter.

Once your GEDCOM is uploaded, you can also visualize tree completeness in other ways, such as the fan chart shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Fan chart showing 9 generations of my pedigree. Maternal ancestors make up the right half of the fan, with paternal ancestors on the left.

One drawback to both of these gap visualization methods is that they overestimate tree completeness, since my GEDCOM contains some “hypothetical” ancestors, and also quite a few women whose maiden surnames are not known. For example, this chart, and the one in Figure 5, indicate that all but one of my 64 4x-great-grandparents have been identified, whereas my chart in Figure 1 shows six gaps at that level. That’s because the standard GEDCOM tree completeness calculation considers an ancestor to be “identified” if only a first name is known, so both Małgorzata (__) Naciążęk and Marianna (__) Kowalska are “identified,” along with Christiana (__) Hodgkinson. My GEDCOM also includes three hypothetical ancestors whom I’ve added to my tree while I’m gathering data to test those hypotheses: the parents of Robert Walsh, and the father of Catherine Grant. The only 4xGGP who is truly unidentified, according to the GEDCOM tree completeness calculation, is the mother of Catherine Grant, who is completely blank in my tree, without even a hint of speculation.

Of course, DNA Painter offers a way to rectify this by offering additional “Dimensions” which can be overlaid to the tree. These include aspects such as country of birth, age at death, birth century, and even zodiac sign (western and Chinese), as well as research level. The Research Level dimension adds six levels of ancestral profiles, based on a “level-up challenge” posted by genealogist Yvette Hoitink in a blog post.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors…

However you choose to visualize gaps in your family tree, it’s a helpful exercise to take stock of those gaps from time to time. But what do you do about those missing branches when you find them? The good news is that there’s hope for all of us: digitization efforts are bringing collections of historical documents from around the world online, offering easy access, and DNA testing is opening doors that were once thought to be permanently closed. Sometimes a fresh outlook is all that’s needed—a willingness to try some new strategies and resources, and an opportunity to brainstorm your brick walls with like-minded genealogists over a cup of coffee.

Where does one go to learn about the latest genealogy methodologies and resources, and hang out with fellow family historians? Why, the 17th New England Regional Genealogical Conference, of course! NERGC is a biennial conference, organized entirely by volunteers, that will take place from May 3–6, 2023, in Springfield, Massachusetts. I’ve been attending and volunteering with NERGC conferences since 2015, and it’s a seriously good time. The 2023 conference will offer over 100 presentations, 7 workshops, a large exhibit hall, special interest group meetings (including Polish/Eastern European), a genealogical Society Fair, and an Ancestors Road Show, where researchers can sign up for free, 20-minute consultations with professional researchers representing a variety of specialties.

The theme for this conference is, “Missing Branches Are Not the End of the Line,” which means that our program committee has selected the presentations with an eye toward helping genealogists break through those brick walls, and fill in those missing branches. I’m excited to be presenting the lecture, “Breaking Through Brick Walls with Cluster Research,” and I’d love to meet some of you there. Conference registration should be opening soon; in the meantime, you can sign up for our Ezine to make sure you don’t miss any news and updates. Happy researching, and I hope to see you in Springfield in May!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2022

2 thoughts on “Mind the Gap: Missing Branches in the Family Tree

  1. Thanks once again, Julie. I made a chart similar to yours but prefer the one you made so I will work on that today. Also, thanks for the heads up on the NE Genealogical Conference in May. I’ll put that on my calendar!

    Liked by 1 person

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