In both Register and NGSQ styles, biographies include a lineage or parenthetical lineage list.1 While these can be more complex and the styles have typography requirements, a basic lineage line uses names and generation numbers to summarize the relationship between an individual and earlier generations or ancestors. (The summary is placed in parenthesis, thus the nomenclature, parenthetical lineage.)

US researchers commonly assign the immigrating ancestor a generation number 12 for these lineage lists. Each successive generation (more recent) is assigned one number higher. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.'s relationship to his immigrating ancestor, Patrick Kennedy, is used as an example of a parenthetical lineage line/list, below.

John Fitzgerald5 Kennedy, Jr. (John Fitzgerald4, Joseph Patrick3, Patrick Joseph2, Patrick1)

What should I do if I haven't yet know the identity of the immigrating ancestor?

Other than in biographies, I use parenthetical lineages/lists frequently in correspondence, because it helps distinguish among the many descendants of the same name and same era.

I think the answer is to assign the number one (1) to the most ancient descendant of or immigrant. If that person is not the immigrant, then some clarification could be made. So the relationship of my great grandmother (Ellen Miller) to her most ancient Carle ancestry would be described:

Ellen Rebecca5 Miller (Rebecca Firestone4 Carle, Dirck Low[e]3, Joseph2, Ephraim1*)

*Ephraim Carle's ancestry is unknown.


1 BGC Genealogical Standards Manual, 2000, p. 101-102

2 Joan F. Curran, Madilyn C. Crane,and John H. Wray, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, rev. ed. (Washington: NGS,2008).

5 Answers 5


I tend to get a bit twitchy when faced with old rules that I don't agree with whole heartedly. The requirement that the starting person in particular genealogical reports be an immigrant ancestor is one of those rules.

A couple points to consider. First, numbering always has to recalculated whenever a new discovery is made. To insert a new child in a family in the NEHGS numbering scheme (and all others) requires renumbering at the point the child is added until the end. You can't think of the numbers as permanent tags or even as long term attributes of the persons; they are always relative and based on the current state of your research and the specific report you are interested in writing or generating. I think an obvious related point here is that without software support the chore of keeping any numbering scheme consistent is difficult. Many genealogical software programs can generate these types of reports, or at least provide you with the up to date values of the numbers.

Second, worrying that person number 1 is an actual immigrant ancestor misses the needs of many genealogists. Many researchers don't know who all their immigrant ancestors were, and have essentially no chance of finding out. Many people are much more interested in some "key" ancestor, key for who knows what reason, but well known by the researcher, and they want to write an article of the "Descendants of John Doe" type. Giving John Doe the number 1 in such an article makes imminent sense regardless of his immigrant status.


The convention as you describe it (assign the immigrating ancestor a generation number 1) places a special emphasis on the person who arrived in North America. As someone (outside the USA) who has an interest in my pre-migration ancestors, I wonder how you would reference the parent of the immigrant (as generation 0 or -1?).

My naive understanding would be that you want to proceed from the earliest known direct ancestor, who will be allocated generation 1, with the understanding that new findings may cause renumbering. Hence any given set of numbers refers to a particular report at a given point in time, not to some immutable position in history.

If you particularly wanted to indicate that Ephraim was the earliest confirmed direct ancestor but that he was not the "original american" then he could be allocated "2" with no "1" listed (thereby making Ellen generation 6). While that has an internal logic, I cannot vouch for its acceptability to the NGSQ.

  • The earlier (before immigration) ancestors are assigned letters (ascending) instead of numbers; but there are questions/considerations there, too. Fodder for a future question or two.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 31, 2012 at 0:04

I can only attempt to answer using logic, rather than knowledge of BGC etc., numbering.... But it occurs to me to ask - what would be the numbering if you knew details beyond the immigrating ancestor? Surely the optimum would be to continue in one single list, which would therefore imply that the only sensible approach would be to assign "1" to the earliest known ancestor outside the USA. And so by analogy, why not assign "1" to the earliest known ancestor inside the USA if you don't yet know further back. As you suggest.

Any alternatives that I can think of are mathematical but definitely not sensible....

  • 1
    The earlier (before immigration) ancestors are assigned letters (ascending) instead of numbers; but there are questions/considerations there, too. Fodder for a future question or two.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 31, 2012 at 0:04
  • So the "numbering" goes 4, 3, 2, 1, a, b, c? Well, it's a workable idea, I guess. Can't say I'm keen on it, because it's rather US centric, it's unhelpful to those who can't get that far back - and how would my Windsors get numbered, who emigrated to the US, then to Canada, and back to the US all in different generations? I'd cut the Gordian knot and number them all descending numerically, as you suggest.
    – AdrianB38
    Oct 31, 2012 at 17:41
  • 1
    That scheme is US centric. For immigrants to North America, it probably works, but it would not seem to offer much benefit to families where no immigration occurred. (I had considered that it was US centric, but not how impractical it would be for families that hadn't immigrated.)
    – GeneJ
    Oct 31, 2012 at 18:34

I start with the first known ancestor as #1. Going back to 1580 in Germany, he has 30 or 40 descendants who immigrated to America. So my 5th, 7th, and 9th cousins all have different immigrant ancestors shown in his descendancy report.


I agree with the other answers given here that one should simply start with the earliest confirmed ancestor, regardless of whether they are an immigrant or not. I would just like to add a quote from someone who faced a similar problem many years ago.

In the year 1876 the Author of this book compiled and published a genealogical work entitled "Records of the Descendants of David Johnson, of Leominster, Mass.," making the said David the starting point of the line he was tracing, though in fact he was of the Fourth generation of an English ancestor at that time unknown.

From Records of the Descendants of John Johnson of Ipswich and Andover, Mass. 1635—1892. Compiled by Rev. William W. Johnson, 1892.

So the problem of not knowing the immigrant ancestor is clearly not a new one. Reverend Johnson did use the register style, or a variant thereof, for his books, in case you were wondering.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.