Monday, October 02, 2006

Charting the course

I often wish I had a better way to "see" my family tree with all its complexity of branches. Fill-in-the-blank charts are well and good, but they don't quite give me the big picture I long for. And the "tree" itself – well. The illustrations I see often show ancestors out at the ends of the leafy limbs, when we know we are talking about "roots." To be accurate, the forebears should be underground ( as they probably are, literally), and the descendants out on the various branches and twigs.

Sometimes I fantasize about having sections of the tree on large sheets, like those pull-down maps we used to have in school. Other times I dream of multiple computer monitors, to display more family members at once. Once I put up a 4x8 foot piece of wallboard in my work room and attempted to use it to arrange my collection of descendants from a single ancestor. On a butcher paper backing, I used gummed labels for the names, connecting them with thin black architects' tape. But I quickly discovered the importance of allowing for changes and additions, and gummed labels are not easy to shift. [How many erasers have you worn out, trying to draw a family tree?]

Of course, much depends on what kind of overview you have in mind. The straightforward pedigree chart does seem tree-like, with a slender trunk (you) supporting an ever multiplying series of predecessors. It looks more like a geometry problem than a form of plant life, though. I think of that construction as an inverted pyramid, although (in the interests of saving space, I suppose) most pedigree charts run from left to right instead of bottom to top. The fan-shaped display, with you in the center, is a similar kind of ancestors-only chart.

But if you want to include the siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, the arrangement gets more complex. Say you have traced a line back to an early progenitor, and want to branch out (pun intended). Actually it is easier to look for these relatives as you go because they can give important clues regarding your own ancestor. But you may have skipped over a few in that pedigree search, and are now looking for descendants and collaterals, rather than more ancestors. There are actually ancestor charts which include siblings for each generation. But what of their offspring? That is where the descendancy part comes in.

To do this sort of chart, first you have to choose an ancestor from among the many in your pedigree. (If you have gone back just six generations, counting yourself, there are 32 direct ancestors, most of whom probably had more than one child.) So which individual shall it be?

Once the choice is made, the problem is how to display your findings. Looking at a descendancy list, you soon realize there is no pre-designed format for you to follow. Families are not uniform in size. Multiple marriages take place. Cousins marry each other. Individuals seem to vanish for no apparent reason. Instead of a tidy pyramid, you may have a series of irregular terraces. (I have baked cakes that look like that.)

I used to have a DOS-based program called OrgPlus. It enabled the creation of an organizational chart, though with no connection to any genealogical computer program. I transferred names, dates and events to it by hand, manipulated the boxes, and was able to condense some families into simple lists, while expanding others' information. It took some doing, but I ended up with a nice big five-generation depiction of the known descendants of one ancestor. Because the charting program was for business organizations, the important person was at the TOP, not off to the side, and somehow that helped me get a better overview.

Sadly, OrgPlus has morphed into a very expensive program, and my old one doesn't work with modern-day Windows. There are other such business-related charting schemes, but they too are costly. If anyone out there knows of a stand-alone but genealogically-friendly drop chart, I'd love to hear about it.

In the meantime, I will just have to be satisfied with the usual displays provided for by my computer program (PAF Companion does charts for Personal Ancestral File, and virtually every other genealogy program for computers has a variety of charts -- just not the one I want the most).

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