Taking the Level-Up Challenge!

Last week, I wrote about evaluating my family tree in terms of completeness, or simply counting how many ancestors I have identified (with at least some confidence). There is much more to genealogy research, though, than simply putting names on a tree – even if you have one or more pieces of evidence that seem to suggest that the names are correct. For one, to be as confident as we can be in even naming the parents of each of our ancestors, we should be striving to research each generation to an extent that meets the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). And both as part of meeting the GPS and as part of striving to truly understanding our family histories, we can push ourselves to go beyond basic names and dates. This will enable us to have more confidence in the conclusions we make as part of our genealogy research. It may also allow us to appreciate our ancestors as more than just basic statistics. 

Last year, Dutch genealogist Yvette Hoitink wrote a very interesting blog post challenging us all to join in on her “Level-up Challenge.” I like this idea of taking a closer look at not just the actual gaps of missing names in my tree, but also at how sound the conclusions are for the ancestors in my tree, and how much I truly know about each of them. I encourage everyone to take a look at Yvette’s post, as well as an example provided by another genealogist, Ann Raymont, discussing her look at the challenge.  

For my take on the Level-Up Challenge, I downloaded Yvette’s excel template, but modified the levels slightly to evaluate my tree. Here’s the current state of my tree, with a column added to the template for approximate birth years for each generation and locations of origins of some of my lines at the bottom of the figure. Everyone in at least the most recent three generations of this tree was born in the United States; the unlabeled branches came from European countries (probably mostly England) but those immigrations happened earlier than the generations shown here. Also, as you’ll see in my descriptions below, I added an additional low level, so if my numbers appear to be higher and my figure looks greener compared with Yvette’s original, it is probably artificially inflated by my extra level. But I’m not really aiming to compare my tree’s levels to those of others. 

The levels I used were similar to those in Yvette’s original post, but I’ve modified them I’ve as follows:

Level 0: No name is known for this person.

Level 1: Only a first name is known for this person. This level was the one I added, since I have a few (female) ancestors for whom I only know a first name. To me, this is better than nothing, but it’s certainly not as good as a first and last name. I have to have at least one documented source (not an unsourced online tree) showing their first name as connected to the family to count someone at this level.

Level 2: The first and last names are known for this person, from at least one documented source naming them in connection with the family. But little (or nothing) else is known at this point. 

Level 3: At least some birth/marriage/death dates (and locations) are known for this person; this information might just come from one or more census records at this point. 

Level 4: At least some additional biographical information beyond vital statistics is known for this person. This likely means that I have identified most (if not all) of this person’s children and spouse(s), as well as their occupation and some additional details about where they lived their lives between birth and death; I probably have found this person in most relevant census records. 

Level 5: At least some additional records (beyond vital and census records) have been found for this person, possibly including military, religious and/or newspaper records. Not quite to the level of reasonably exhaustive research, but getting there.

Level 6: I have proved parentage for this person, meeting GPS. To meet this standard, by definition, I have written up my conclusion about their parentage, likely in a proof argument or proof summary.

Level 7: A biography of this person’s life has been written in a narrative format, reflecting reasonably exhaustive research into their parentage and other important life events, and including analysis of the evidence and discussion of any context information needed to understand the evidence and analysis. 

So, it’s a start – my tree is more than just names and dates. But I definitely still have some work to do. Assigning these levels (using my definitions) to the people in my tree is somewhat subjective. I do like labeling each person using levels such as these, but I’m also finding it helpful to think about my overall progress with broader categories. I’ve added percentages to each generation based on the number of ancestors in that generation that’s in level 0 or 1, level 2 or 3, level 4 or 5, and level 6 or 7 (see table). 

Looking at my overall progress based on these level groups, it’s clear that most of the ancestors in the earliest generation shown (my 4th great grandparents) are hardly known to me. These people would have lived much of their lives pre-1850, and records in both the United States and Ireland from that time can be a bit harder to come by, so perhaps it is not surprising that I have not found as much information about them so far. I’ll spend more time on them someday, but since many of them are in generations further back, I think I’ll try to shore up my research into more recent generations first (see below).

I find it interesting that overall, there are few ancestors in my tree who I’ve put into level 2 or 3. For the locations and time periods I’ve been dealing with, if I’ve been able to come up with evidence for the person’s full name, I’ve often been able to find out more about them. Hopefully I can dig into these folks a bit more soon to learn more about their lives. 

A lot of people in my tree fall into in level 4 or 5. Even though they have been labeled as being at a relatively high level here, they do still need some work. At first glance, my research about them may seem to be in relatively good shape; I apparently have multiple sources tied to each of them, providing me with various bits of information about their lives. I don’t want to get overconfident about these ancestors, though. Until I actually evaluate all of the evidence for each of these relationships carefully, I still worry that I might have made a mistake somewhere along the way. And I would really like to get to know more about these ancestors, to have them seem to me to be actual people more than just names or graphics on a family tree.

I feel good that I’ve gotten at least a couple of ancestors to levels 6 and 7. Most of this was due to assignments that I completed as part of my participation with a ProGen Study Group, and I am so glad that I got the opportunity to push myself to complete these assignments, to have others carefully review my work, and to evaluate others’ projects. I’m working on building a portfolio worthy to submit for Certification with the Board of Certified Genealogists, so there are some other lines of ancestors that I would like to bump up to levels 6 and 7 both for the sake of my own family history research, and possibly for inclusion in a portfolio. 

Note – I have not incorporated DNA evidence at all into this evaluation. In Ann Raymont’s post, a commenter asked about considering DNA among the other types of evidence. As Ann pointed out, DNA evidence could be used for ancestors who are at different levels of research progress, so it may be difficult to define a single level as a DNA level. I’ve been working on defining and assigning a separate set of levels to my ancestors to evaluate the degree to which I have analyzed and incorporated DNA evidence into my research for each of them. Stay tuned for more!

I enjoyed this exercise and look forward to using my research to bring these ancestors to higher levels. Have you taken the challenge yet to see where your tree stands and to level up your ancestors?

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