I am starting a project to document historical family relationships of a family in Tanzania based on oral records. The data go back about 200 years. Many of the families involve multiple wives, some of whom may have also had previous or later husbands. In most cases we do not know the birth dates of children but we do know their sequence - that is the sequence of all the children of a father, and also the sequence of all the children of a mother. Looking at GRAMPS and GEDCOM they do not appear to handle the concept of a sequence of children - they seem to rely on knowing their birth dates to sequence them.

Any suggestions for suitable software?

One possibility I am considering is to design and build my own SQL database, load the data from a spreadsheet and then write queries to extract the data for import into a package capable of displaying the data as trees. But I may hit the same problem - that the target package cannot handle the concept of a sequence of children.

  • Can I suggest that you need to firm up on how you would like the "trees" to display the children? You imply a multiple set of sequences. Father A might have children 1, 2, and 3, but to Mothers B, C and B. Since trees normally show all the children to a given pair of parents, then the next pair, the normal ordering of those children would be 1, 3 then 2. Up to you whether that satisfies your need or whether your tree is better described by omitting one parent in the drawing and just getting a sequence for one mother (regardless of father) or vice versa. Interesting!
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 22:55
  • While you have no birth dates to sequence things, some software has the concept of a sort date. That's usually intended to sort events for one person by specifying a potentially made up date for each event. I have, I'm afraid, no idea whether such sort dates can be used outside a single person to sort the birth order. I'd explore that possibility if I were you. All experience of sort dates welcome!
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Sep 4, 2021 at 23:02
  • Thanks very much Adrian. Your first comment is very relevant - typically the trees would be shown from either a mother's perspective or a father's but not both at the same time. Thus each person in the system would belong to 2 sequences - those of the mother and father respectively. Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 10:09
  • Regarding sort dates - I thought of this but I see it as too complicated as you would have to get the dates synchronised between the mother's and father's trees. Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 10:13
  • I think that you're probably right on the complexity of cross synchronizing sort dates for births. Possibly worth bearing in mind for internal synchronizing within one tree but unlikely to be useful on a wider scale. As for drawing trees from the perspective of only one parent at once, that seems eminently sensible.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 10:29

2 Answers 2


With regards to your statement:

Looking at GRAMPS and GEDCOM they do not appear to handle the concept of a sequence of children - they seem to rely on knowing their birth dates to sequence them.

I think you are wrong on both counts.

The Gramps Family Editor Children tab allows you to change the order of children in the family. And in fact, Gramps does not use the birth dates to sequence them, but uses the order you select. I believe the default order is the order in which you added the children. If you want to order all the children in your database by birth date, you would use the Third-party BirthOrderTool Addon for Gramps.

GEDCOM keeps track of children using CHIL pointers within a FAM (Family) structure. GEDCOM 5.5.1 states on page 25 that "The preferred order of the CHILdren pointers within a FAMily structure is chronological by birth." That doesn't specifically state that the order of the CHIL pointers should be the order of the children, but most genealogy software developers have followed that standard and will output their order to the GEDCOM CHIL tags and respect the order in GEDCOMs when reading from them. See Tamura Jones' article on GEDCOM Order of Children.

With regards to your case of ordering children by father as well as by each mother when a person has multiple spouses or partners in a polygamous society, here is one thing you can do in your genealogical software program (Gramps or whatever):

Put each person into a family of their own with no spouse/partner. Connect the person with all his/her children and set the children up in the order you want. Birth dates are not required. Not linking to a spouse will prevent the software from trying to group the children by spouse and they will be displayed in the order you specify for each parent. Then all the people will have links to their children and the children will be displayed for each person in the order you want. If you want to record information about the marriage, set up another spouse for each one but don't add children to the marriages - they are just for the partnership information.

I would never recommend building your own SQL database. Genealogy software is special purpose software and using one has very many advantages over unpurposed software, not the least of which is the ability to export and import GEDCOM allowing you to make use of other tools and online family trees.

  • Thanks very much Ikessler. I shall do some experimentation along the lines you suggest. Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 9:36

One thing you might consider is using a graph database. Map out what you'd like to see on paper first, as shown in the answers to this old, closed question from Stack Overflow: graph database for genealogy.

Graph databases consist of nodes (say, a circle on a drawing) and relationships (the lines between them). Unlike a traditional GEDCOM, you should be able to define "sibling" relationships as well as parental ones. What I don't know how to do yet is whether you can define the directionality of the relationship. A relationship "elder sibling of N" can only go one way (two siblings can't be the elder siblings of each other).

Another strategy might be to define multiple child relationships instead of just one: first child of mother, second child of mother, and so on. The difficulty here comes about if you find new children. You would have to unlink some of the children to add a newly-discovered child and keep everyone in their proper order.

Some resources:

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