Archive for the ‘Ancestry’ Category

I often write about people who have done interesting things or perhaps emigrated or fought in various wars. Some of these people might even have left numerous descendants and be the ancestors of some of us today. I have to say that it is these stories that understandably provoke the most interest and comment. But in any family the vast majority of people led simple and very often unrecorded lives. Some also left no descendants to carry their name or even their memory. Yet they are nonetheless part of ‘our’ extended family and their lives are perhaps more representative than those who were perhaps more heroic. This is the sad story of the tragic but heroic end of a young Manchester warehouseman called William Grisdale.



William was born in 1816 in Over Staveley in Westmorland, the fourth of nine children of bobbin turner John Grisdale and his wife Jennet Stainton. At this time Over Staveley was pretty much totally dedicated to making bobbins to supply the mills in Lancashire and elsewhere. Staveley had first had cotton mills but’ it was the growth of the bobbin mills that caused the most rapid period of change in the village in the years 1820-1850’, by 1851 ‘there were 187 bobbin workers in the Staveley area and well over 100 in the village itself where there were bobbin mills in what had been Rawes Mill, in the old fulling mill at Newgate (Gatefoot today) and in part of the Barley Bridge Mill and at Chadwicks… ‘

Bobbin Mill

Bobbin Mill

William grew up in Over Staveley with his siblings while his father went off to turn bobbins in one of these Staveley bobbin mills. Perhaps William couldn’t find work in the bobbin mills or didn’t like the work; in any case he moved to Liverpool and became a ‘labourer’ living in Crosshall Street, where in 1842 he married a girl from the same  street called Ann Thexton. After their marriage couple moved to Lower Grafton Street in Toxteth, where the next year a son John was born. Sometime over the course of the next few years the family moved from Liverpool to Salford where William found work as a ‘warehouse porter’. In 1851 the family were living in Yearsley Street in Salford, but the next year, sadly, eight year-old John died. Perhaps the family’s grief was assuaged a little when a daughter was born in the spring of 1853, named Jennet after William’s mother.

Street next to Crosshall Street in Liverpool in mid 1800s

Street next to Crosshall Street in Liverpool in mid 1800s

William was obviously a good worker because by 1853 he had become the chief warehoseman at the Manchester Bonded Warehouses in Salford. Bonded warehouses were regulated by the government customs and excise and allowed merchants to delay payment of tax on imported goods until they were sold and delivered to customers from the warehouse. One of the main things stored in these warehouses was spirits.

On Tuesday 21st June, just weeks after the birth of daughter Jennet, William went to his job in the warehouse as usual, it was not however to be a usual day. A few days later several newspapers told what happened:

Reginald’s Newspaper 26 June 1853.

Narrow Escape of the Manchester Bonded Warehouses –

On Tuesday, a man named William Grisdale, was trimming some spirit casks from an open vat containing 1,700 gallons of brandy, in Manchester Bonded Warehouses, when the light in his lamp by some accident set on fire the spirits in one of the casks he was filling, at the bunghole. The flames spread over the outside of the cask, wherever the brandy had run, burning with great ferocity and there was a danger of that in the open vat taking fire.

Grisdale with great presence of mind and intrepidly, rolled the barrel out of doors, and this probably saved the buildings and property from destruction. As it was, a track of flame was left along the floor from the brandy which escaped through the bunghole as he rolled out the cask, and the door through which the cask was rolled also took fire; but, with the assistance of the other warehousemen, the danger was speedily overcome by extinguishing the flames on the floor and door. Grisdale was much burnt about the face, hands, and other parts of the body, and had to be removed for surgical aid, but is likely to recover.

A former Manchester Bonded Warehouse

A former Manchester Bonded Warehouse

The previous day the Manchester Courier had reported similarly but with other details under ‘Fires in Manchester’:

… About one o’clock on Monday, as William Grisdale, a person in the employ of the Bonded Warehouse Company, was engaged under Mr Vivian, the landing waiter, in what is termed ‘vatting’, whilst pouring some brandy into a cask, a drop splashed up from the bunghole to the top of the lamp, and caused a blaze. The flame was augmented by some drops of spirit on the cask, and in another instant the brandy in the cask caught fire, sending forth a large flame from the bung-hole. With great presence of mind, and although enveloped in flames, Grisdale succeeded in rolling the cask to the door. At the time of the accident Mr. Vivian stood a few yards from Grisdale; and seeing him on fire, while he courageously rolled the cask out of the door he pulled of his coat and dashed it against the flame, with which Grisdale’s clothes were enveloped.

Assistance being speedily got, while some of the men succeeded in extinguishing the fire upon Grisdale’s clothes, others put out the flame, which still blazed along the ten yards over which the cask had been rolled. Grisdale, who was badly burned, especially about the legs, was taken at once to the Infirmary surgeon and his own medical man. We are glad to say that he is in a fair way of recovery, and it is to his courage and self-possession that the preservation of the warehouses and their contents are to be attributed.

But the Manchester Courier had just got news that William Grisdale had died at his home two days previously, and on a later page to the above story reported that ‘Grisdale died at his own home on Thursday, leaving a wife and child’. Other reports said he had spent three days in excruciating agony before he died.

Spirit barrels afire

Spirit barrels afire

William’s courage had saved a lot of people a lot of money and a fund was established to help his wife and infant children. In September the Manchester Courier was asking for subscriptions to ‘aid the widow and infant daughter of the late William Grisdale who was burned to death in extinguishing a fire… which he accomplished at the cost of his own life’. Many companies (mostly insurance) and local merchants had already given and their individual contributions were all listed, totalling so far nearly £300.

At least the money would help William’s widow Ann to feed and clothe baby Jennet Grisdale. But it was not to be, because just four months after William had died of his burns one-year old Jennet died too. Widow Ann would soon remarry and have two more daughters but as I said at the beginning who was there to remember William and his two children? His courage and heroism was at least as great as others I have written about on this blog and at least I commemorate him here.

It was probably a cold and windy day in New York’s docks in late October 1872 when two young English mothers stepped ashore. Both women had young children and they probably were holding their hands tightly as they walked down the gang-plank. Helen and Mary Ann Campbell had made the two week voyage from Liverpool on Cunard’s steamship Batavia without their husbands, Joseph and John Campbell, who had already been in America for three years. Did the women have any inkling that they would soon be in the heart of the faraway Dakota Territory and witness some of the most famous, and sad, events in the final stages of the ‘winning of the American West’? They would see General Custer depart for his expedition into the Black Hills of the Lakota Indians and the subsequent gold rush that ensued. They would be close to the last resistance of the Native Americans, their victory over General Custer and his Seventh cavalry at Little Big Horn, and the brutal massacres that followed.

Helen’s husband Joseph Hugh Campbell was a former gunner in the British Royal Marine Artillery, and a wheelwright by trade. Her sister-in-law Mary Ann was married to Joseph’s younger brother John Hugh Campbell. It’s most likely that the husbands were in New York to greet their families. Joseph would not even yet have seen his son Charles, who had been born after he had left for America. There was a third brother, Robert, who was in America too, and more than likely he came to New York’s docks too.

Great Yarmouth in the nineteenth century

Great Yarmouth in the nineteenth century

All three brothers were born in the bustling maritime town of Yarmouth in Norfolk, children of millwright Hugh Campbell and his long-term partner Martha Midsummer Callf. Hugh wouldn’t be able to marry Martha until 1874 after his first wife Mary Ward had died. As the family name suggests, the Campbells were originally from Scotland, but Hugh’s grandfather, also called Hugh, had come to Yarmouth from Killin in Perthshire in about 1760. The family were always involved with the sea and some of them went off to London to build ships in the docklands of East London before returning to Norfolk. I might tell this fascinating story at a later time.

Joseph was born in 1839 and probably joined the Royal Marines in the late 1850s. We don’t know the exact date or the cirumstances. But we know that in 1861 he was serving as a gunner in the Royal Marine Artillery based at Fort Cumberland on Portsea, near Portsmouth in  Hampshire on the south coast of England. Fort Cumberland was ‘first built in 1746 on the eastern tip of Portsea Island, protecting the flank of Portsmouth some miles west across the marshes, the fort was later rebuilt in a star-shaped design’.

Fort Cumberland, Portsea, Hampshire

Fort Cumberland, Portsea, Hampshire

‘After the formation of the Royal Marine Artillery in 1804, the Companies that were attached to the Portsmouth Division of Royal Marines required a base to exercise and train with their field artillery and naval cannons. From 1817 Fort Cumberland was used, and from 1858 it became the Head Quarters for the RMA Division until Eastney Barracks was completed in 1867.’

Sometime in 1863 Joseph had either been discharged from the Marines or was back in Norfolk on leave. Whatever the case, he struck up a liaison with a local girl in Norwich called Ellen Dye, the daughter of shoemaker Robert Dye. Ellen became pregnant and delivered a baby daughter in Norwich in April 1864. Joseph and Ellen called the child Constane Campbell Dye. It was a usual pratice for unmarried mothers to give the father’s family name as a middle name. There must have been something real between Joseph and Ellen because two years later they had another child, this time a boy whom they called Robert Hugh Campbell Dye: Robert after Ellen’s father and Hugh after Joseph’s father. Why Joseph and Ellen never married we will never know. What we do know it that less than one one year after the birth of his son Robert, Joseph abandoned Ellen and married someone else: another Norfolk girl called Helen Eastoe. Helen was the daughter of Sprowston wheelwright Edmund Eastoe; she was two years Joseph’s senior. Given that Joseph too became a wheelwright it might well be that he was working with Helen’s father. Joseph and Helen married towards the end of 1867 in Norwich, and their first child, Joseph Hugh Eastoe Campbell, was born the next year.

Ellen and Joseph’s two other children were left to live with Ellen’s parents in Norwich.

Helen became pregnant again in the spring of 1869 and a son called Charles Alfred Campbell was born in Norwich in early 1870, but by this time as we will see Joseph had already left for America.

While all this was going on, Joseph’s three-year younger brother John had married as well. John had been given the name John Hugh Campbell Callf when he was born, because, as mentioned his parents weren’t able to marry while Hugh’s first wife was still alive. Joseph too had been given the name Callf at birth but all the family used the name Campbell in later years. John married under his full name of John Hugh Campbell Callf in late 1866 in Norwich, his wife was Mary Ann Hunn, the daughter of carpenter William Hunn. It’s probable that their first daughter Susana (later called Susie) was born in 1865 before their wedding. Two more children followed: Joseph Hugh in 1867 in Norwich and John in 1869 in Holborn in London. Mary Ann’s parents had moved to London and she had moved with them when her husband went to America with his brothers sometime in 1869.

What took Joseph, John and their unmarried brother Robert to America? Did they know people there? Had Joseph been to the United States while in the Marines? Or had they just heard of the opportunities there? We don’t know. But went they did in 1869. The date of their emigration is found in a book published in 1881 called History of southeastern Dakota, in which there are short ‘biographies’ of the prominent citizens of the town of Yankton in that year. Here we find both Joseph and John; they were the owners of the only ‘foundry’ and ‘iron works’ in the town, trading under the name J & J Campbell. John Campbell, it is said, came to America in 1869 and having ‘located in Sioux City in 1872, he removed to Yankton in 1874’. Joseph’s entry tells us he ‘came to America in company with his brothers’. In the English census of 1871, John, Joseph and Robert are absent. Joseph’s wife Helen is listed living in Norwich with their two children and was said to be the ‘wife of wheelwright in N. America’.

New York Docks in 1872

New York Docks in 1872

I believe that the three brothers first lived in New York. There is an entry in the 1870 US Federal census for an English-born ‘carpenter’ called Joseph Campbell, aged 30, living in Ward 20 District 3. This might or might not be our man. Most likely what happened is that the brothers were in New York and once established there wrote back home asking their wives to join them; possibly sending the money for the trip too. When their families arrived in October 1872 they then moved west, possibly first to Sioux City in Iowa and then to Yankton in the Dakota Territory. It is of course possible that the brothers had already made their way out west and that their families had to make the overland trip to join them alone. Remember John’s ‘biography’ says he located in Sioux City in 1872.

The families probably went west by train, first to Sioux City then to Yankton. The railway had reached Sioux City in 1868: ‘The first train rumbled into town. The date, March 9, 1868, was the cause of much local celebrating. “SAVED AT LAST!” read the Sioux City Journal headline.’ By 1873 it had reached Yankton: ‘In 1873 a railroad line was expanded to Yankton, Dakota Territory. Yankton then became the end of the railroad line and much of the business growth Sioux City had gained moved up river.’

The Dakota Territory was established in 1861. It didn’t become a state (actually two states) until 1889.

The Dakota Territory consisted of the northernmost part of the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of the United States. The name refers to the Dakota branch of the Sioux tribes which occupied the area at the time. Most of Dakota Territory was formerly part of the Minnesota and Nebraska territories. When Minnesota became a state in 1858, the leftover area between the Missouri River and Minnesota’s western boundary fell unorganized. When the Yankton Treaty was signed later that year, ceding much of what had been Sioux Indian land to the U.S. Government; early settlers formed an unofficial provisional government and unsuccessfully lobbied for United States territory status. Three years later soon-to-be-President Abraham Lincoln’s cousin-in-law, J.B.S. Todd, personally lobbied for territory status and Washington formally created Dakota Territory. It became an organized territory on March 2, 1861. Upon creation, Dakota Territory included much of present-day Montana and Wyoming.

Yankton in 1876

Yankton in 1876

The Territory’s capital was the town of Yankton; in size it was bigger than most European countries. In the early 1870s the white population only amounted to about 12,000 and Yankton itself, the biggest settlement, had just 3,000. This was still very much the land of Native American Indians, particularly, though not exclusively, the Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne. As elsewhere the Americans would soon start ethnically cleansing the territory and reducing the Native people to a small underclass.

In 1868 the United States Government had signed a Treaty at Fort Laramie in Wyoming (also called the Sioux Treaty of 1868) with the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brulé bands of Lakota people, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Nation. This was to guarantee ‘Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, and further land and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The Powder River Country was to be henceforth closed to all whites’.

Dakota Territory

Dakota Territory

When the Campbells arrived in Yankton, which in Joseph’s case I would date to 1873 because his daughter Charlotte was born in Yankton in January 1874, Dakota was witnessing the first years of a huge wave of immigration called the Great Dakota Boom.

As the economic depression of 1873 abated, the railroads took a new interest in this virgin territory.  Although the federal government made no land grants in Dakota as in other territories, there were plenty of opportunities for profit in the founding of new towns.  Town lots came dear in railroad terminus, and since the companies had the advantage of knowing where the track would be laid next, they invariably held title to the choicest lots.  Of the 285 towns which were platted during the Boom period, 138 of them were founded by the railroads.  89 more were platted along the railroad right of way by private land companies.

These were placed every seven to ten miles along the tracks to provide a market-place for the farmers within driving distance by team and wagon.  While the presence of a railroad meant instant prosperity for the community there was often distrust of the giant monopolies which could place the depot, tracks and outbuildings to their best advantage rather than the town’s.  For this reason, future town sites were often discreetly bought up by agents of the company and a certain amount of skulduggery was not uncommon in the rush for profits.

The influence of the railroads cannot be overemphasized in both the rapid settlement and ultimate success of Dakota Territory.  They tended to neutralize the negative weather and conditions by bringing in fuel, food, fencing and building materials – all unavailable on the treeless plains.  And of course the railroads brought the farmer closer to his marketplace.

People flooded in from the East and from Europe, particularly German Russians, Scandinavians as well as Irish and English. ‘Many a Scandinavian or northern European immigrant first heard of this new land of opportunity from a railroad brochure, poster or flier printed in his own native language.’

‘Unlike earlier pioneers who formed caravans of prairie schooners across the plains, these settlers came by rail, often to within just a few miles of their final destination,’ as most likely did the Campbells. But while the Scandinavians tended to become rural farmers, the English tended to settle in Yankton and other growing settlements.

But in 1873/4 most of the land in Dakota, and particularly the Black Hills, still belonged to the Native American Nations. They had, for sure, already suffered many a defeat at the hands of the U.S. Army, and were on the path to almost total subjugation and annihilation, but they could still live and hunt in the Black Hills, a land sacred to them. This would soon change; the reason being, as usual, gold.

Custer's Black Hills expedition in 1874

Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874

As Ernest Grafe writes in The 1874 Black Hills Expedition:

There had always been rumors of gold here, however, and by 1874 the frontier settlements were putting pressure on the government to permit exploration. A financial panic was adding to the pressure, and it’s possible that the railroads were working behind the scenes to generate more business. It was in this atmosphere that Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan ordered a reconnaissance of the Black Hills, allegedly to look for a site on which to build a fort. The reconnaissance would be led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who brought along a photographer, several newspapermen and two prospectors — but who never once mentioned building a fort.

Custer’s expedition triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush. But Custer had first come to Dakota in April 1873 ‘to protect a railroad survey party against the Lakota’. He and his Seventh cavalry were first stationed in Yankton, whose citizens had rescued them when they were caught in a tremendous snow storm. They would stay in Yankton until May 1874 when they set out on their expedition to the Black Hills. There is no doubt that Joseph Campbell and his family would have seen Custer, his officers and the men of the cavalry on many occasions. Little would they know the fate that awaited them.

After the expedition miners kept arriving to try their luck in the diggings in the Lakota’s Black Hills. They usually come via Yankton, and Joseph and John Campbell would, as the only ‘founders’ and iron workers in town, have supplied many of them with the iron tools and machinery they needed.

General Custer

General Custer

The U.S. Government made noises about stopping this invasion of miners into the Indians’ reservations, but once mining and money was involved their resolve flagged. I won’t retell the whole sorry tale here, but in 1876 General Custer attacked an Indian settlement at Little Big Horn. It was a mistake: there were many more Lakota and Cheyenne warriors there than he had imagined and Custer’s Seventh Cavalry companies were killed to a man. Sitting Bull and his warriors had secured the last victory Native American Indians would ever have over the invading Americans.

News of the death of Custer and his men would have soon reached Yankton. The population of the town were scared, including the Campbell brothers and their families. But their fears were unfounded. The American government despatched more troops and over the coming months started piteously to hunt down the various Indian groups which had dispersed after Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull fled north and found sanctuary for a time in the ‘Land of the Great Mother’: Canada. The U.S. government seized the Black Hills land in 1877.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

You can read about this sad and brutal history in many books, or watch PBS’s excellent documentary series The West. The battle of Little Big Horn was the last time Native Americans were able to resist the American invasions of their land. From now on the Lakota and the other local tribes were herded into smaller reservations and had to rely on patchy deliveries of ‘rations’ to survive. Their children were to be shipped off to faraway schools to be deracinated; stripped of their language and culture and introduced to the dubious benefits of Christianity. ‘How the West was won’ is a brutal and sad tale. It tells us more about American savagery than it does about the ‘barbarous’ Indians.

In 1880 – 1882 Joseph and John Campbell were still in Yankton running the ‘Yankton Iron Works’. Since his family’s family arrival in Dakota Joseph and Helen had had four more children: Charlotte in 1874, John Robert in 1877, Constance Elizabeth in 1880 and Helen in 1882. His brother John and his wife Mary Ann had had two: Martha Caroline in 1878 and Robert Hugh in 1879.

Where had their younger brother Robert been all this time? Although he had come to America with his brothers, the first mention of him I can find is in 1895 in Sioux City, Iowa. He would marry seventeen year-old Kansas-born girl Ada Maud Parsons in Sioux City in 1898 and have a son called William Herbert the next year. Perhaps Robert had spent more than twenty years seeking his fortune, first in the Black Hills and then elsewhere before marrying in Sioux City aged thirty-eight? We don’t know. Sometime before 1910 Robert and Ada ‘divorced’ and she took their son to live with her parents in Marshall, Iowa, but by 1915 she was back in Sioux City with her parents, by now, she said, a ‘widow’. In 1920, still with her parents, she said she was ‘single’. But Robert wasn’t dead, he was back in Sioux City living with Ada in 1925 and 1928 before disappearing again by 1930 when Ada was back with her parents but still said to be ‘married’. Nothing more is heard of Robert. Ada eventually moved to California where she died in 1969 aged eighty-eight.

Sioux City, Iowa in 1873 as the Campbells first saw it

Sioux City, Iowa in 1873 as the Campbells first saw it

But what of Joseph and John and their families who we left in Yankton? John took his family back to Sioux City in the mid 1880s where he and Mary Ann had two more children: William Arthur in 1887 and Mildred in 1889. He was still there in 1910, aged 66 and unemployed, living with his widowed daughter Martha Gardner and her children and his divorced daughter Mildred Lowe. After that there is no trace of John, but his wife Mary Ann (nee Hunn) died in 1915 and is buried in Sioux City’s Graceland Cemetery.

Joseph too left Yankton. Possibly by way of Sioux City the family moved to Chicago in 1891. In 1900 the family are living in Chicago’s 12th Ward and Joseph is working as an ‘engineer’ in a stationer’s printing shop. Helen was said to have had eleven children (I can only identify six), of which five were still alive. Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that Helen died two years later aged sixty-three of ‘Hemiplegia’, most probably brought on by a stroke.

Joseph lived on. He was by now in his sixties, a former Royal Marine gunner, a wheelwright, a founder, a machinist and an engineer. After thirty years in America did he ever, I wonder, think of the family he had abandoned back in England? In Dakota he had christened a daughter Constance. It was a family name and he had given the same name to his first child with Ellen Dye back in 1864. Did he ever think of his first two children: Constance Campbell Dye and Robert Hugh Campbell Dye? Maybe yes, maybe no. I sometimes think about this because Joseph was my 2nd great grandfather, and his first child Constance Campbell Dye was my great grandmother. Already by the time his wife died in 1902, Joseph had ten grandchildren back in Norfolk, another was to follow in 1905.

Mankato in the1920s

Mankato in the1920s

Whatever the case, Joseph’s amazing life was far from over. In 1910 he was still working as an engineer in a Chicago ‘water works’. In 1920, aged seventy-nine, he was living with his son John’s family but still working as an engineer! Sometime in the 1920s Joseph had to call time on his long working life and he moved to North Mankato in Nicollet County, Minnesota. He spent his last years living with his granddaughter Grace Michel, her husband Bernard, and their children. It was here in Mankato a long way from Norfolk that Joseph Hugh Campbell died on 26 October 1931 aged ninety-two; he was buried with his wife and son Charles back in Chicago’s Forest Home Cemetery.

Joseph has a lot of descendants in the United States plus many in England too, including myself. What had become of Joseph’s first ‘love’ Ellen Dye and his two children Constance and Robert? Ellen married Norwich shoemaker Henry Bell and had five children with him. She continued to work as a silk weaver in Norwich until her death in 1920 aged seventy-six. Joseph’s son Robert married Flora Hoy Davidson in 1892 but they had no children. He died in Norwich in 1948. Joseph’s first born child Constance Campbell Dye on the other hand married Norwich shoemaker Henry Allen in 1882 and had eleven children over the next twenty-three years, while also, like her mother, working as a silk weaver. Her fourth child, my grandfather, was born in 1887; he was named Robert after Constance’s grandfather Robert Dye.

Joseph Hugh Campbell led an amazing life!

Robert Allen (Joseph's grandson) with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin

Robert Allen (Joseph’s grandson and my grandfather) with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin

Some aspects of genealogical relatedness.

It might seem an odd question to ask, but are you your child’s cousin? The answer, perhaps rather surprisingly, is that you well might be. In fact if you go back far enough the chances are high that you are. The only question being how far back you have to go. Understanding why illustrates some interesting features of family history and history in general.

In an article in Family Tree magazine I wrote about how many ancestors we have. The fact is that the numbers don’t keep on doubling in each generation (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents etc), but rather at some point the number of our direct ancestors stops expanding and goes into steep reverse. The reasons for this have to with ‘cousin marriage’. Our ancestors married cousins of various degrees, and not just that but when they, just for example, married a second cousin they were most probably related in multiple other ways to their spouse as well, not just in one way.

One of the upshots of this is that any particular ancestor you have might be your ancestor several times over but via different routes. Your 6th great grandmother could be your direct ancestor by three or four quite separate routes. The frequency that this happens in your own family, and the timescale over which it happens, will depend to a large extent on whether your family came from a small, possibly remote, and certainly rather closed community, or not. The more cut-off or remote a community is, the more different degrees of cousin marriage would have been prevalent and thus the sooner in the past you are likely to find some people being your ancestors more than once by different routes.

Saxton's 1577 map of Lancashire. 'Meoles' is top left

Saxton’s 1577 map of Lancashire. ‘Meoles’ is top left

I’ll take one example from my own family. My paternal grandmother was called Mary Seddon. She came from a long line of farmers in the Lancashire parish of North Meols (pronounced Meals). The resort town of Southport developed there in the nineteenth century, but prior to this North Meols was for many centuries a small, isolated and very cut-off farming, fishing and smuggling community. There were only a limited number of families and they continually intermarried. These families included the Linakers, Blundells, Aughtons, Bakers, Hootons, Gregsons,  Rimmers, Abrams and Seddons; all of whom appear in my own family history. Indeed not only did these families marry each other, they also married within the same family, quite often first cousins with the same name! Nearly all the marriages were between cousins of some degree and involved several distinct relationships between the spouses. Because the community was so small and closed (people twenty miles away said they didn’t understand the accent), this inbreeding can quite readily be spotted in the records. Whereas with a family in a much larger or more open community, like a big city, this type of cousin marriage is likely to have been much less frequent and significantly harder to spot when it did occur.

On this side of my family I can clearly identify several cases where a direct ancestor is an ancestor by several distinct routes.

But what about a parent’s relationship with their child? Obviously you are your child’s parent by definition – the closest kinship relationship. Your own parents were your child’s grandparents and so on. Yet your child has another parent as well. It is because you might be related to your spouse or partner that your child can also be your own cousin. The ‘degree’ of the cousin relationship being determined by how far back you have to go till you and your spouse find common ancestors. With first cousins it’s quite clear. If you married your first cousin this means you share a common pair of grandparents. In turn this means that your child will be a first cousin ‘once removed’ of both you and your spouse.

In closed communities like North Meols where there were more often than not multiple cousin relationships between couples, then almost invariably any child will be a cousin of some degree of both of his or her parents – say a ‘2nd cousin once removed’.

Alberbury Shropshire

Alberbury Shropshire

In my own family this suggests that up until the time of my grandmother’s own parents (called Richard Seddon and Margaret Blundell), all parents and children in this line of the family were pretty certainly ‘cousins’. I can prove that this was the case. Yet North Meols did start to open up, and more and more people came in as Southport developed, including my Lewis family which arrived from Shropshire in about 1871. When my Southport-born grandfather married Mary Seddon and they had a son (my father), was he a cousin of some type of his own parents? In order for this to have been so my paternal grandparents’ lines would have needed to have crossed sometime back in history. Was there at some time a union between these lines of this Lancashire family and this Shropshire family? Over the period of time I can trace, roughly 400 – 500 years, I can’t see any such union, although it’s still possible. Yet if we were able to look further back into history we would very probably find some very ancient such union. While North Meols and western Shropshire were both pretty closed societies they weren’t hermetically sealed. But the fact remains that my father was not a cousin of his parents over any reasonable timescale. The same is even truer of the relationship between me and my daughter, because my wife isn’t even British.

What’s the answer for you? Is your child your ‘cousin’? If you and your partner come from the same small and relatively closed community then you very well likely are. You might not have to go back very far to prove this. If, however, you and your partner come from separate or much more open communities, or even from different countries, then any cousin relationship with your child would probably be only of immense antiquity or wouldn’t for all practical purposes exist at all.

My recent article about William Booker and his family, who were early New Zealand settlers, has caused a small flurry of interest from some of his descendants in New Zealand. They have also provided me not only with a lot of information about some of his descendants but also more about how the family came to New Zealand.

Mary Booker

I had suggested that the reason William and Jemima Booker had emigrated with their children in 1856 was probably connected with of their daughter Mary Booker. I wrote:

 The answer I think must be connected with the couple’s first daughter, Mary Booker, who had been born in Saint Pancras, London in 1833. Somehow Mary had made her way to Melbourne in Australia where she arrived on the 5 October 1853 on the Statesman. She met and married George Ishmael Clarke there in 1854. The couple like many others had joined the Victoria Gold Rush and worked in the “diggings”, but George had quickly contracted a chest infection and before he died he had asked Mary, who was pregnant, to go to his parents (Ishmael and Mary Clarke), who were living in Nelson in New Zealand, to have their baby. After George’s death this Mary did and their child, George William Ishmael Clarke, was born in Nelson in April 1855. So I don’t think it beyond the realms of reason to think that it was perhaps Mary who had written to her family in London and encouraged them to join her down-under?

It turns out that this was indeed the case. Mary’s descendants have provided me with the text of a very poignant letter written by her to her parents on February 10th 1855, after she had moved to New Zealand following the death of her husband in Australia:

 I write these few lines hoping they will find you well. I am glad to say they leave me well at present (considering the circumstances in which I am placed) I have written one letter to you but as yet have received no answer which makes me feel very anxious. After my arrival in Melbourne I became acquainted with George Ishmael Clarke, and was married and then proceded to the diggings, but we have not been there about three weeks when he caught a severe cold which settled on his lungs and soon terminated in death. He was a kind and faithful husband to me the short time that we were permitted to enjoy each other’s society which was not for more than five months and only two out of them he was in the health. It was his wish that I should come to his parents here in Nelson who are very kind and affectionate towards me. Before the bearer arrives with this letter I expected to be confined the latter in of April, and I thank the Gracious Providence I am places along with kind and affectionate hearts who respect and honour me on account of their dear son and my husband who died at the age of 24 years. I hope and trust that this letter will find you in good health and that you will write as soon as possible. I have sent this letter by care of the bearer a friend of Mrs Clarke on board the ship Monsoon for London who has kindly promised to call upon you on his arrival. Give my love and plenty of kisses to my dear brothers and sisters. I will enclose a piece of my husband’s hair and a piece of mine. The darkest is his. I must now conclude with my dearest wishes for your welfare and should we not meet again on this earth I hope and trust we shall have a happy meeting where parting is not known and death can never sever. I will wish you good bye my dear parents and no more at present. Your affectionate daughter. Mary Booker.

In addition:

 The Booker Family…  arrived in New Zealand aboard the ship Cresswell in October 1856. New son-in-law, Jock Fraser, (he & Mary were married in March 1856) stood surety for William, Jemima and their seven children.


 George Ishmael Clarke was the first born to Mary Booker on 10 April 1855 at Nelson, after being widowed at the Goldfields in Australia. When she came to Nelson at her husband’s wishes, Mary lived with Ishmael and Betsy (nee Steeden) her in-laws until the baby was born and for the first year or so of George Ishmael’s life. It appears that the Clarke’s were neighbours of Jock Fraser in Nelson, and so not surprising Jock and Mary became acquainted and were married at Nelson on 27 March 1856. 

George Ishmael Clarke Jnr

Many of us are interested in where our families come from as well as who our ancestors were. What and where are our ‘roots’? Some of you might even have researched your genealogy or family history. Yet have you ever seriously considered how many direct ancestors you really have? Obviously it’s a lot, but how many? You might have even heard statements to the effect that all Europeans are descendants of Charlemagne in the eighth century or that all people of English ancestry are descended from 86% of the people living in England at the time of William the Conqueror almost a thousand years ago. If you live in North America and have English or European ancestors the same questions apply. Indeed wherever you live and whatever your ethnic ancestry the questions of descent and ancestry are the same. This short article attempts, in a non-mathematical way, to answer or at least elucidate some of these issues.

Exponential growth – an explosion of ancestors?

On the surface the question of how many ancestors you have might seem simple to answer. After all you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents do you not? The number of your ancestors doubles every generation. Surely you just need to do a simple mathematical calculation to work out the number of your direct ancestors who were living and breeding so many generations ago? The numbers surely just double in each generation: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. They would a form a pyramid – with you at the top of course!

After 10 generations you ‘should have had’ 1,024 ninth great grandparents. When was ten generations ago? Throughout this paper I will assume that you were born in 1947 (such a date has been used extensively in population studies) and that the average length of a generation is 30 years (this is an average inter-generational length not the age at which our ancestors had their first child – which is lower). So ten generations prior to 1947 takes us back to the mid seventeenth century – to around the time of the English Civil War and to the early days of British settlement in North America.

You might also be interested in working out how many direct ancestors you might have had in total between a certain date in the past and now. You can just add up the numbers for each generation. For instance from the time of your great great grandparents you could have had 30 direct ancestors in total: 2+4+8+16=30. Going back ten generations the total is 2,046 direct ancestors.

If you have ever had an interest in family history and genealogy you will very likely have quickly discovered how the number of your own direct ancestors does seem to explode the further back you look. You might even, as I did, have had to buy a software package to keep track! So 1,024 direct ancestors going back ten generations might not seem too many.

Given the available records, being able to trace our family back ten generations, down every line, would for most of us be a notable achievement. But let’s extend our calculation yet further back – to twenty and thirty generations – a mere blip in our genealogical and genetic history. Twenty generations ago, in the mid-fourteenth century at around the time of the Black Death in Europe and about 150 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ America, a simple doubling of the number of your direct ancestors in each generation would imply that you had 1,048,576 nineteenth great grandparents at the time. In Britain at that time the total population was probably no more than three million – and that even before the Black Death reduced the population by a third or more. This suggests that if your ancestor numbers always doubled in each generation by the mid-fourteenth century they would account for one third of the total British population. A lot but not inconceivable.

But the number of people alive at any one time didn’t just consist of one generation. Depending on your own age you are likely to have parents and grandparents who are still alive and/or children and grandchildren of your own. So in any individual’s ancestry the number of his or her direct ancestors, in any generation, alive at a particular time is only a fraction of the total number of direct ancestors alive at that time. The precise fraction will vary from location to location and through time. It will also vary somewhat between different individuals’ ancestry. Overall for Britain over the last thousand years it has been estimated that the fraction of the total population comprising ‘one’ generation has been, in percentage terms, somewhere around 40%. Putting this another way, this means that on average in any individual’s ancestry there are about 2.5 ‘generations’ alive at any one time. I will use this assumption. But you should be aware that within reason the analysis that will follow would still be valid if we were to use even quite different assumptions. Looking back 20 generations to the mid-fourteenth century, if the maximum population of Britain at that time was, as mentioned, about three million, this means that there were only roughly 40% of this number, i.e. about 1.2 million people who could in fact have been your direct ancestors – compared to the 1,048,576 we theoretically need – still credible but only just.

So let’s see what the doubling of our ancestors leads to after 30 generations, i.e. going back to around the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. After thirty generations we would seem to have needed 1.1 billion direct and distinct ancestors! Yes more than one thousand million direct ancestors at the time of William the Conqueror! Obviously this is impossible as the total world population in the eleventh century has been estimated to have been only about 250 to 300 million.

So the number of our ancestors can’t really have kept on doubling in an exponential manner as we go further and further back. Consider just one additional fact: it has been shown that the human race, homo sapiens, went through at least one population bottleneck during our history. At certain times it appears that humankind almost went extinct. Around 70,000 years ago scientists have suggested that the total world population dwindled to only a few thousand – the so-called Toba catastrophe. So sooner or later the number of your ancestors must have stopped exploding and had to have started to shrink, and shrink fast.

Such a phenomenon is called ‘Pedigree Collapse’, a phrase coined by Robert C. Gunderson. The mathematics of this are quite complex; I will attempt to explain what it all means without using maths. Essentially there are two interrelated reasons why the number of your direct ancestors does not keep on exploding and why their number will sooner or later start to contract. The first has to do with ‘cousin marriage’. When you look back at your ancestry you will find that again and again your ancestors married, or better said, bred with their ‘cousins’. This is not a conjecture, this is a fact. Although there will be much to say on the level of cousin marriage. Second, we need to understand the nature of the available ‘breeding pool’ that our ancestors had; and this means considering issues of migration.

The first factor, cousin marriage or inbreeding if you like, can help us explain why the number of your ancestors first grows and then will eventually shrink. The second factor, migration or ‘outbreeding’, helps us to understand why the onset of this narrowing and shrinkage is sometimes pushed farther back in time.

Inbreeding with your cousins

Nowadays we rarely marry or breed with a close relation. In some societies it is either illegal or societally unacceptable. In England since the time of Henry VIII there has been no law restricting who you can marry (remember he wanted to marry Catherine Howard and thus abolished religious consanguinity restrictions so that he could), but this is not the same everywhere in the world. In England today cousin marriage is very rare indeed, yet as we will see this was decidedly not the case in the past. In fact not only was ‘some form’ of cousin marriage likely, it had to have been extremely prevalent. Without it we couldn’t even attempt to make sense of the development of human numbers over the centuries and millennia.

The first effect of cousin marriage is to reduce the rate of growth of the actual number of our ancestors, as compared to the theoretical maximum.

Before we look at a simple example let me explain a little of the genealogical nomenclature involved. When you think of your cousin you are usually thinking of your so-called ‘first cousin’. This means that you and your cousin are related because one of your parents and one of your cousin’s parents are or were siblings. And that means that you share one common pair of grandparents. A second cousin just pushes the relationship back another generation. You and your second cousin share a common pair of great grandparents.  And so on through third, fourth and fifth cousins. In terms of relationships, we can even quite easily take into account such relationships as a ‘third cousin once removed’ or even various types of ‘half cousins’ or even, God forbid, intergenerational marriages with nieces and grandnieces etc. Mathematically and genealogically these relations can be expressed as the equivalent of first, second or more cousins. For example a third cousin once removed is mathematically equivalent to a fourth cousin.

So what happens to the number of your ancestors when cousins marry or breed? Let me build this up one step at a time. The first steps will no doubt be obvious, subsequent steps perhaps less so.

In the unlikely event that your own parents were first cousins we know this means that they shared a common pair of grandparents – this in turn means some of your ancestors are ‘duplicates’. Think about your own family for a minute.  Rather than your parents having the maximum of 8 grandparents they would in fact have had only 6! This is a 25% reduction in their grandparental ancestry – i.e. 6 is 25% lower than the maximum of 8. Now even if that were the only case of cousin marriage in your entire ancestry it would start to reduce the number of your distinct or non-duplicated ancestors. Starting from your great grandparents (‘Generation 3’ in the terminology I am using) your ancestors would double in every generation back from there. This means for you that you would have 6 great grandparents, 12 great great grandparents and so on. You can quickly see that the number of your ancestors decreases by 25% in each and every generation back from there. Note that for you this reduction, stemming from one unique first cousin marriage of your parents, only starts with the generation of your great grandparents. You still would have two distinct parents and four distinct grandparents but only 6 great grandparents.

On the other hand, if your parents were only second cousins the reduction in the rate of increase in the number of your ancestors would start one generation earlier and would be less severe. They would have a common pair of great grandparents. This means that you would have two parents, four grandparents and eight great grandparents, but only 14 rather than 16 great great grandparents. This is only a one eighth or 12.5% reduction. Such a one eighth reduction would then continue throughout your own ancestor line. Are you still with me?

But still the relentless doubling of the number of your ancestors would proceed apace, even if the start of the doubling is pushed back a generation or two. If your parents were first cousins then you would still theoretically have about 802 million distinct direct ancestors 30 generations ago, or 936 million if they were second cousins. Still far too many for it to be true. So I guess it’s pretty clear that the occasional marriage of cousins can’t explain the problem of ‘missing ancestors’.

Let’s take the next step and, perhaps rather extremely, assume that every single one of your ancestors married a second cousin. This seems extreme because historically the level of second cousin marriage was nowhere near as high. What would such 100% second cousin marriage mean for the number of your ancestors? Could this explain our conundrum of having too few ancestors? It turns out that it can’t. Remember than if your parents were second cousins this would lower the number of your distinct ancestors by one eighth in each generation – so you would have 14 great great grandparents rather than 16 and so on. Now if all your grandparents were also second cousins then rather than you having 28 great great great grandparents (i.e. 14 great great grandparents x 2) you would have only 24, that is one eighth lower than 28. Each generation reduces the number of your ancestors by one eighth and these reductions cumulate as we go back. Once we look back thirty generations to around the time of the Norman Conquest, although 100% second cousin marriage reduces the actual number of your direct ancestors by a staggering 96% from the theoretical maximum of over about 1.1 billion, it would still mean that you should have had about 4,356,616 distinct direct ancestors (from one generation) alive at the time! Still well more than the estimated total British population – even without taking account of the fraction of the population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people alive at the time who had no descendants or whose descendant line died out.

To recap so far: I have tried to demonstrate without using any complicated mathematics that the number of your direct ancestors does not double every generation. This is because they tended to marry, or at least breed with, their own relatives. Visualize if you can your own ancestor pyramid. One or a few marriages of cousins (of whatever degree) will have the effect, from a particular point on, of narrowing the pyramid of the number of your ancestors. It will not however stop the inextricable increase in their number. The pyramid starts to become narrower, more pointed, but it’s still a pyramid. Not only that, even though the growth in the number of your ancestors can slow down very fast, for example if all your ancestors married second cousins, it still wouldn’t go into reverse.

So no matter how much individual cousin marriage there was in your ancestry this doesn’t on its own seem to be able to explain why, when you go back far enough, you always seem to need more ancestors than there were people in the country, on the planet or even more than the number of people who have ever lived! Yet we know that sooner or later the number of your ancestors needs to start to stop increasingly, even at a slower pace, and needs to go into reverse and start (quickly) declining. At some point in history the number of your ancestors absolutely must contract.

The reason why the pyramid becomes a diamond is that when your ancestors married or bred with a cousin (of whatever degree) they also very often had more than one cousin relationship with their spouse – sometimes many more.

Let’s use a very simple hypothetical example to elucidate this. Imagine again that your parents were first cousins, so they share a common pair of grandparents. But they could also be second cousins as well, in which case they would also share a common pair of great grandparents. As we have seen, the first cousin relationship would reduce the number of your ancestors in Generation 3 from 8 to 6 and in Generation 4 from 16 to 12. The addition of the second cousin relationship between them would reduce the number in Generation 4 further – from 12 to 10. As we go back in time such multiple relationships between spouses proliferate. Spouses might be second cousins twice over and third cousins and fourth cousins three times over for example. Such multiple relationships have an additive effect on the reduction in the number of your ancestors. The further we go back into your history the more likely you will find that this has been the case – in fact it is absolutely inevitable. At least intuitively for now I hope you can see that with enough multiple relationships, with if you like enough inbreeding, the cumulative effect of removing duplicate ancestors will at some point eventually outweigh the doubling-effect and the number of your discreet ancestors will start to shrink. The pyramid will at some point become a diamond.

Again without using mathematics, one way to illustrate the effect of such inbreeding on the number of your ancestors is to stop thinking about going back in time and consider a hypothetical example moving forward.

Imagine a Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe abandoned on a remote desert island many centuries ago. (You could name them Adam and Eve if you want). This might seem a very unlikely example, but history and genetics is riddled with such so-called ‘founder events’. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe enjoyed their new environment and happily produced several healthy children. Let’s imagine they produce four children who live to sexual maturity, two girls and two boys. Of course, unless these children want to mate with one of their parents (which is not out of the question) they will need to pair up with each other – possibly (though not necessarily) monogamously – one boy with one girl. All these children’s children will now be first cousins. They will share the same grandparents. Subsequent generations will all be second, third and fourth cousins and so on.  Not only that but as time passes they (the breeding couples) will all be related to each other in multiple ways. Ignoring for the moment the fact that such an inbred family would after some generations quickly start to show genetic degeneration, similar to various Royal families, Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe could have thousands upon thousands of descendants – indeed theoretically they could have millions of descendants after 30 generations. Take any one of these descendants and you would find that his or her ancestry would, by mathematical logic, have at first expanded and then contracted to only two – Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe themselves. This is an unavoidable fact and is, as we have seen, due to the cumulative effects of inbreeding. I think that you might also notice from this illustrative example that the expansion and subsequent contraction in ancestor numbers can even happen more than once. All Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe’s thousands if not millions of descendants would be able to prove that the number of their direct ancestors first increased and then fell to just two. But as the ‘founder’ couple themselves had many ancestors of their own (unless you literally believe in Adam and Eve) then the numbers would start growing again; before reversing yet again as the effects of multiple inbreeding kicked in again, and so on. But that would take us further back in time than I can consider in this short essay.

In the real history of Britain there were certainly many founder effects similar to the Robinson Crusoe example, but most of them happened thousands of years ago in the period after the end of the last Ice Age when Britain started to be repopulated from a number of Ice Age refuges. Once a decent size British population was again established such genealogical (as opposed to older genetic) founder effects were rare.

Given the many gaps in the available genealogical records, and the fact that in Britain systematic records of births, marriages and deaths only started in the sixteen century and only achieved a reasonably full coverage a century or so later, it would be extremely hard, and in most cases impossible, to demonstrate for your ancestors or mine when exactly your ancestor ‘pyramid’ reversed to become a ‘diamond’. As I suggested earlier, accurately tracing your ancestry back to the middle of the seventeenth century (i.e. 10 generations from 1947) following only some of your lines is itself a major achievement. Doing it with any certainly along all your lines is for most of us impossible. To the extent that you have managed to do so you will have undoubtedly found that some families keep marrying each other. But can you precisely identify all the cousin relationships? More importantly, can you always spot when some of your ancestors in a particular generation were the same people? To the extent that you can then you could also probably show how the rate of increase in the number of your direct ancestors had already started to slow down somewhat over the last three hundred years, but it is very unlikely that you could demonstrate an actual shrinkage in ancestor numbers over such a period – although it is theoretically conceivable that there was one. The major problem is that 10 generations isn’t very long in genealogical terms and it’s only a blink of the eye in genetic terms.

Over a longer generational time-span we can illustrate how inbreeding will lead to pedigree collapse by considering the case of breeders of pedigree horses and dogs. Because both horses and dogs both live much shorter lives than humans and start to breed at a much earlier age, breeders of ‘pedigree’ animals often have detailed ‘stud books’ recording parentage – sometimes going back thirty generations or more. They are therefore often able to definitively and graphically demonstrate how pedigree collapse has played out. Not only how ancestor numbers first expanded and then contracted but also how this can happen more than once. Such studies demonstrate unequivocally that inbreeding on its own, if severe enough, can and will lead to pedigree collapse.

The main problem with applying this analogy to humans is that animal breeders are usually consciously trying to breed pedigree animals; they are artificially and deliberately restricting the opportunities for dogs or horses to breed outside a very restricted group. Just as in a similar way how the inhabitants of our hypothetical Robinson Island have also been restricted in their breeding – by geographic separation.

Migration and outbreeding

How could this narrowing of the ancestral base have been attenuated? To put it another way, how could the available ancestor pool have been increased between the present day person and Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe, so that their descendant alive today has more than just two ancestors thirty generations back? Here we have to address the issue of the available ‘breeding pool’ at different points in the past – and how migration leads to outbreeding.

Perhaps some time over the past few hundred years another man or woman arrived by canoe on Robinson Island and bred with one or more of the people there. Or perhaps a Viking came and raped someone. The immediate effect would have been to expand the number of actual ancestors represented in the Robinson Island population. Every time this happened the number of ancestors for the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe would have increased significantly. If an immigrant came from Africa or a Viking from Scandinavia he or she would inject the genealogical inheritance of countless people in Africa or Scandinavia. Every such immigrant or migrant adds considerably to the pool of collective ancestor diversity and the numbers of possible ancestors of future generations.

Every time that one of my or your ancestors moved, into or out of one of their ‘ancestral’ areas, whether a few miles or hundreds or thousands of miles, they brought or took with them an untold number of ancestors of their own. These ancestors have become your own. If people hadn’t moved at all we would all be able to trace our descendants to one ‘Adam and Eve’ founder couple in the not too distant past, just like in our Robinson Crusoe example.

In the British or English examples I used earlier I was implicitly assuming that the total available pool of a British person’s ancestors was limited, throughout the generations and within a particular generation, to all the people alive in Britain. Of course this is not necessarily true. It might be that the available breeding pool of your family was less than this or more than this. For any individual’s ancestry this will depend on how often and how far your ancestors tended to move from their ancestral homes. If for many centuries your ancestors really were somehow hermetically sealed within a closed community (a walled village or district similar to Robinson Island) then the narrowing of your ancestor pyramid could have been quite fast and it might be that their numbers started to shrink sometime in the last few hundred years. In reality, however, such a degree of cousin marriage, and therefore resultant inbreeding, was probably quite rare. 

I’ll try to illustrate this by referring to my own ancestry. I am English. In fact I am so English it is somewhat embarrassing. For at least 400 years that I know of, my ancestors almost all originate from very specific locales in the English counties of Shropshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and Norfolk. During all this time I had no known ancestor who came from outside the British Isles – and just a few from Wales plus a couple from Scotland and Ireland. The great majority of my ancestors were born and were raised in a very limited number of specific areas – a village or a few villages. For hundreds of years most of them married others from within only a few miles radius. Generally of course couples married in the parish of the woman; but they tended to live thereafter in the husband’s home. But move they did. They had access to a breeding pool much larger than that available to the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Crusoe. In fact from time to time they moved further away. Why else would my own family (and probably yours too) originate from several places? In the 19th century my ancestors moved from Norfolk, Shropshire and Cumbria to Lancashire, to join other ancestors already settled there since at least the 17th century.

If I were able to go back another ten or twenty generations and identify all the connections, it’s pretty clear that because people moved I would find some of my ancestors from nearly everywhere in Britain (or at least England) and probably quite a lot from abroad as well. Although there is a lot more to be said on the issue of migration, I think for now it is true to say that even for an English person such as myself, having recent ancestors from only a few specific and limited locales, over say a thousand years my ancestral’ breeding pool’ did probably encompass the whole of the country and possibly some of Europe as well.

When did the reversal in ancestor numbers happen?

There is a general rule involved here, based on the mathematics of genealogy and demographics:

When and how the number of your direct ancestors stops growing and starts to shrink is determined by the  interplay of the cumulative negative effects of inbreeding and the positive effects of expanding the ‘breeding pool’ – via migration or so-called outbreeding.

How do these two opposing forces play out in reality? More particularly at what point in history did this inevitable reversal in the number of ancestors happen – in your family and in general?

Over a period of about ten generations in my family tree I can certainly notice that I had some ‘duplicate’ ancestors because of cousin marriage, and there are surely many more I haven’t spotted. Yet I think it is clear that over this ten generation time period the degree of inbreeding in my family was is no way large enough to have had a very significant effect on the dramatic increase in my direct ancestor numbers, and it certainly wasn’t enough to reverse the process. 

But let’s look at the numbers again. Depending on our assumptions regarding generational length, historic population numbers, the percentage of a population accounted for by one generation and the percentage of people who have left no descendants, then at some point in Britain or England, probably in the High Middle Ages as we shall see, the cumulative effects of inbreeding must have become large enough to reverse the tendency for anyone’s ancestors to double in each generation. As I demonstrated earlier, this can be seen by the simple fact that at about this time the maximum number of an English or British person’s direct ancestors would exceed the possible pool of their ancestors in the country.

At this point I would like to highlight one of the seminal articles on this subject, called Ancestors at the Norman Conquest, published in 1980 by Kenneth W Wachter, a Berkeley statistician and demographer. Wachter assumed that ‘England’ was a closed society, with basically no international immigration. He uses the example of a hypothetical, strictly English, person born in 1947 (let’s please not open a debate on what ‘English’ means) and assumes an intergenerational length of thirty years. He then makes some assumptions about the average degree of cousin marriage based on an analysis of his own family tree – such cousin marriage being in fact quite rare. He then uses these assumptions in a mathematical model which calculates a probability distribution for the actual numbers of distinct (or unique if you like) ancestors in each generation. Such distributions obviously have an average or ‘mean’ value. He could then compare this average number with both the theoretical maximum number of any individual’s ancestors (i.e. the simple doubling in each generation) and the estimated total population in England at different points in time. The results are illuminating to say the least.

For example, even 15 generations ago in 1527 the mean calculated number of distinct ancestors is still 31,438, not much less than the theoretical maximum of 32,768, and only about 1.5% of Wachter’s estimated English population of 2.2 million at the time. To put this in another way, fully 96% of this person’s ancestors in the 15th generation are distinct people and only 4% are duplicates or ‘non-distinct’. This seems to accord quite well with my earlier observations regarding my own ancestry. But then something peculiar starts to happen.

Going back only five more generations (to Generation 20), or to about the year 1377, the number of distinct ancestors has grown enormously, to 628,576, but this is now ‘only’ 60% of the theoretical maximum of 1,048,576 – meaning that 40% of the theoretically available ancestor ‘slots’ are now duplicates or better said non-distinct. Also if the English population at the time was about 2.25 million as Wachter assumes (remember the Black Death decimated the English population starting at about this time) then this individual’s ancestors in 1377 (and only in one generation) now account for fully 28% of the total population alive at the time.

25 generations ago, in about 1227, this individual would seem to have 2,012,114 distinct ancestors; or 80% of the estimated English population of 2.5 million. Not only that but only about one sixteenth of his/her ancestors are distinct people, this rest are at least duplicates.

Going back 30 generations to around 1077, to just after the Norman Conquest, we saw earlier that the maximum number of ancestors in that one generation was just over one billion (i.e. 1,000 million). Wachter’s model calculates that this individual would have 952,279 distinct ancestors in 1077 – only around 0.09% of the maximum but representing fully 86% of the total estimated English population of 1.1 million. This is ultimately the basis for the assertion highlighted at the beginning of this essay that everyone with English ancestry today is descended from 86% of people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror.

In terms of the theme of ‘Pedigree Collapse’, the important point to notice is that between 1227 (i.e. generation 25) and 1077 (generation 30) the number of distinct ancestors more than halved, from just over two million to just under one million – and that means precisely and unequivocally that the ‘pyramid’ became a ‘diamond’! In his model the reversal point takes place somewhere around 1200. So even with an extremely modest level of historical cousin marriage this model clearly shows that such marriages of relatives will first narrow the pyramid and then put it into reverse – i.e. it clearly demonstrates the phenomenon of Pedigree Collapse.

You might ask, as I did, how can this be so? I showed earlier that even if every single one of your direct ancestors married a second cousin this couldn’t explain the seeming lack of ancestors. By 1077, under this scheme of 100% second cousin marriage, you should still have had around 4.3 million ancestors, way more than the population at the time. So how is it that with only very limited assumed cousin marriage Wachter’s model reduces the number of distinct ancestors to just under one million over the same period? The answer is logically (and mathematically) the result of the cumulative effects over many generations of the effects of multiple cousin relationships between couples. After a few hundred years these cumulative effects really start to bite – the remorseless effect of knocking out potential ancestor ‘slots’ does actually outweigh the generational doubling. The problem with the hypothetical 100% cousin marriage example wasn’t that the assumption was unrealistic (which it was) but rather that each marriage was independent and had only one effect on the number of ancestors, whereas in fact it would likely have had many.

Just as an aside, according to anthropologist Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, in his 2011 book The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, it is in fact likely that 80% of all marriages in all of history have been between second cousins or closer. In the context of our present discussion, and for now, I take this to mean not that during the time period we have been considering (and this is important) more than 80% of couples really were second cousins or closer (which they weren’t) but that the cumulative cousin relationship effect was equivalent to this.

In a very interesting and informative series of popular articles, based partly on Kenneth Wachter’s analysis, Brain Pears, a genealogist and physicist, argued that in general ‘the number of ancestors in any generation will be little different from that obtained by our simple doubling scheme’, (mitigated only slightly by a relatively modest level of cousin marriage) back to a point, around 1300 in his analysis, at which you are descended from almost everyone alive in the country at that time. He argued that further back from there the number of your ancestors would then have followed the (declining) total population (to be strict the total population per generation). Given the evidence for the limited degree of cousin marriage in Britain or England over the course of the last few hundred years, and even allowing for the fact that it no doubt was more prevalent further back in history, this would seem a reasonable conclusion.

However, a point worth highlighting is that this ‘reversal point’, in about 1200 in Wachter’s model, can only have happened because of inbreeding, there in no other mechanism – notwithstanding periodic bouts of the Plague. Pears states: ‘I accept that every couple will be related distantly many times over but not to anything like the extent necessary to limit the number or distribution of our ancestors significantly – it would only affect the timing. As we go back through the generations the number and distribution of ancestors will always increase until they cannot increase further. That limitation occurs when the ancestry encompasses the whole population. In earlier generations we would expect the number of ancestors to follow the population size.’ But again remember that the reversal of the pyramid to a diamond can only happen due to inbreeding, indeed being ‘limited by population size’ and ‘inbreeding’ amount to exactly the same thing. In fact assuming only limited cousin marriage (as we all do) but not accepting the cumulative effects of multiple relationships would leave us, I suggest, in a tricky position. If our ancestors really did keep on ‘nearly’ doubling until a ‘population limit’ was reached, then when that limit is reached what then? Wouldn’t we need a sudden and massive change in the pattern of inbreeding from very little to enormous to put the trend in the number of our ancestors into reverse? I don’t find this credible. In fact Wachter’s model clearly showed that before the point of reversal our ancestor pyramid had already narrowed enormously. For example, by the year 1227 the width of the bottom of the pyramid after 25 generations (when the number of distinct ancestors reaches a peak) is only one sixteenth as wide as if would be if doubling or near doubling had occurred!

Conclusions and what about our descent from Charlemagne and so on?

So how many direct ancestors do you have?

The answer is I am afraid that you will never be able to calculate a precise number. On the one hand the number might be more than you imagined, as the seemingly relentless doubling goes on. Yet on the other hand we have seen that sooner or later your ancestor numbers will start to decline. It might be, though it is extremely unlikely in the time frames we have been considering, that your ancestry goes back to only one locale at a certain point in history or even to one ‘founder’ couple.

At the beginning of this article I highlighted just two of the many bold assertions that have been made about our ancestry: such as that everyone in Europe is probably descended from Charlemagne and that every person in England can trace their ancestry to 86% of the people alive in the country at the time of William the Conqueror. Are such claims really true? For 100% of the people presently living in either Europe or England today they are obviously not. For example many English or Europeans are very recent, or even first generation, immigrants – from Asia or Africa and elsewhere. Even though everybody’s lineage will have significantly reduced at some point in the not so distant past because of inbreeding, it is not mathematically self-evident that every English person will be descended from 86% of people in England at the time of William the Conqueror nor that not every European is descended from Charlemagne. Even if we ‘exclude’ such recent immigrants from our analysis and only consider ‘indigenous’ English or Europeans (whatever that might mean) such descent is still not completely certain in every single case, though it has to be said that it is highly probable. Such statements are about probabilities and averages not certainties!

Let’s finish by returning to the question of migration and our supposed common descent from Charlemagne. England, Britain or any other country are obviously not, nor ever were, ‘closed’ or hermetically sealed countries such as the hypothetical Robinson Island. People always moved ‘internationally’ – although the concept of ‘international’ becomes anachronistic as we go further back. At any point to the extent that international migration took place it would have had the effect for any individual we are concerned with today of increasing his or her pool of ancestors. As the whole science of ‘Small World’ networks shows us it only takes a few ‘long leaps’ to connect us in fact with the rest of the world – hence the term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. So without being able to explore this issue further here (maybe another time) because breeding across borders (i.e. migration) happened over the 1,200 years separating us from Charlemagne it is quite conceivable that the bulk of people in Europe might be able to ‘claim’ ancestry from him.

So overall and ‘on average’ it has to be maintained that both these statements are probably true! We are all much more related than we might think.

But let’s look at things another way. If you or I are indeed descended directly from Charlemagne then we are also inevitably descended from his gardener and cook as well. Maybe one of our zigzagging lines will take us back to Charlemagne, but 99.99% or more of our ancestry lines will show that we descend from countless numbers of simple, poor and exploited people – living in Europe around the year 800. People who ploughed the fields, built the ships, served in the armies or simply looked after their families. Whether we want to highlight the one or the many of our ancestors is a personal decision. For me what I find inspiring and humbling is that the vast majority of my ancestors were just simple people trying to make a living as best they could and trying to care for their families – often in the face of severe economic, social and political exploitation and repression. That they managed somehow to do so well enough so that I came into the world is, I would suggest, a testament to the greatness of human perseverance and the human spirit.


Kenneth W. Wachter, Ancestors of the Norman Conquest, in Genealogical Demography, ed. B. Dyke and W.T Morrill, Academic Press 1980; Brian Pears, Our ancestors, conceptions, misconceptions and a paradox, The ancestor paradox revisited and The ancestor paradox yet again,(available on internet); Douglas L. T. Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 2003; Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind, Harvard 2011.

In an earlier article entitled ‘ Old Soldiers don’t always fade away’, I wrote about one of my own ancestors: Levi Grisdale.


This was picked up by Who do you think you are? magazine. They interviewed me and wrote about Levi in the latest edition: