Is that you I hear reaching for the smelling salts at the very thought of using reverse genealogy?
You’ve always been told to start with what you know and then work backwards when researching the family tree, right? But trust me, it’s ok to do the opposite and start with what you know and move forward to find descendants – sometimes!
I’ve needed to use reverse genealogy methods several times recently when helping different clients either find long-lost relatives or their birth families. They were not all that interested in ancestors but wanted to find living, breathing humans. So, I took a deep breath and, ignoring all my training about always working backwards, I jumped right in.
When to use reverse genealogy
Reverse genealogy methods are useful to:
• find living or deceased family members’
descendants – often aunts, uncles and cousins – to
fill gaps in your family tree;
• help adoptees find birth parents and siblings;
• find heirs who may be entitled to an inheritance;
• find family members with whom you or your family
have lost contact;
• prove or disprove family folklore about being
related to famous (or infamous) individuals;
• fill in the missing generations when you have hit a brick
wall in working backwards and are sure, or at least
pretty sure, you know who an earlier ancestor was and
you want to prove it.
How to do reverse genealogy
Tracing a family line forward uses the same information sources as conventional genealogy. In the above examples, you are often looking for relatives’ records who were alive comparatively recently or who may still be living.
As with standard genealogy methods, reverse genealogy connects life events and uses all available resources to move toward the present day. Working forward through successive generations, using the information found in each record will usually lead to a living person or persons.
Where official BDM records are not available due to privacy constraints, secondary records such as immigration records, church records, electoral rolls, newspapers, headstones, etc., are relied on more heavily than would otherwise be the case for ancestral records. DNA testing is also becoming an increasingly mainstream tool for both forwards and backwards genealogical research.
The first source of potential records to check is online databases, both free and paid. Some commercial databases, such as Ancestry and Find My Past, use a method of “free to search and pay to view records”, although they usually have free introductory periods. Government archives in Australia are free to use and they have a mix of online and offline records.
If any aspect of your research is in Australia, then one of the most important resources for reverse genealogy is Trove. Operated by the Australian National Library (ANL), Trove is the go to database for online newspapers in this country. ANL is a government agency and access is currently free. I often think of Trove as the Australian taxpayer’s gift to genealogists and its value can’t be understated.
Social media is not used as often as it should be in family history searches but it provides valuable tools for reverse genealogy, particularly when searching for people who are alive in the 21st century. The obvious social networks include:
• Pinterest; and
But there are lesser known social media options including:
• Pipl.com - which claims to have the world's largest
people search engine. It markets itself as the place to
find the person behind the email address, social
username or phone number. While it is by no means
foolproof, you might be surprised who you find there
starting with only minimal information. The basic service
• Google Groups - a tool to find someone who may have
only posted to the internet a long time ago. Google
Groups has 800 million Usenet messages which
represents 20 years of internet conversations starting in
Of course, there is plain old Google. Many people forget the obvious and fail to do a standard, let alone advanced, Google search. Not only does it provide results from many different social networks, it also includes those that may no longer operate.
To get the most from the above websites, make sure you include a possible geographic location. Even a very broad one like “Australia” can make a big difference in finding the right person.
Finally, when all else fails, DNA testing (where possible), can add another dimension to your reverse genealogy methods.
Contacting people you don’t know
When conducting reverse genealogy and seeking information on living people, it is important to use any records you find wisely. This is particularly so if you are planning to contact people who may not know of your existence and/or relationship to them and for whom contact may come as a shock. You also need to be prepared for rejection if the people you believe are relatives are not interested in communicating with you for any reason.
Genealogy rules for publishing information on living people
Never forget the golden rule when it comes to publishing information on living people – don’t! At least not without their clear and specific permission. Just because information is available online about individuals does not give us the authority to publish or republish that information ourselves – either online or offline. I can’t emphasise this point enough.
Can you imagine the angst a person would experience on learning for the first time, based on something you published, that they are adopted? Or that one of their parents is not their parent? Or that a parent placed a child for adoption and had never told anyone?
Further, just because we think somebody's grandfather being a bankrupt crook is interesting, doesn't mean that his grandchildren think the same and they may not thank you for telling the world. So endeth the sermon. I’m sure you get the point. 😊
Have you ever broken the rules and tried reverse genealogy? How did it go? I would love to hear about your success or otherwise in the Comments section below.
And finally, just a gentle reminder that this blog article provides links to multiple external websites. Your Family Genealogist does not and cannot warrant, whatsoever, the content or policies of those websites. You should always check their privacy and cookie policies first if you choose to use them.
Until next time.
Your Family Genealogist
Picture : courtesy of Pixabay