When to Employ Reverse Genealogy

What is Reverse Genealogy?

There exists an unconventional research technique called reverse genealogy which, depending on your desired goal, can prove to be surprisingly effective.  In reverse genealogy you start with an ancestor and trace that person’s descendants continuing until you get to their living relatives.  It is basically working from the past to the present in an effort to locate living descendants.

The reason this topic is generally considered taboo by the genealogy community is because genealogists are taught from the very beginning to start with ourselves and methodically march backwards in time, linking one generation to the next.  This “golden” rule is so entrenched that many genealogists may not even realize the benefits of working in reverse.  Maybe it’s time to give this unorthodox method a closer look.

Benefits of Working Backword

The concept behind this technique is that unique benefits can be gained from starting research from some point in the past.  Specifically, by working back to living relatives allows a researcher to harnesses the power of a team of people interested in assisting in achieving a common goal.

The effectiveness of this technique comes from the combined efforts of still living and like-minded family members.  Alone we are only do so much, but as a community dedicated to a singular cause we are capable of so much more.  Reaching out to your extended family members is key to the success of this technique.  If you tend to have an introverted personality and prefer working alone, reverse genealogy is probably not well suited for you.

Another reason why this technique is powerful comes from the way family artifacts are passed down through a family tree.  The inheritance of family pictures, documents, stories and data often does not follow a predictable pattern.  This is because control of family artifacts are left in the hands of family members who may (or may not) have an interest in preserving family history.  Many times a distant cousin will have just the family story, picture or resource that you need to make a significant research breakthrough.

Practical Considerations

Since this technique is only applicable in certain situations, it is important to understand when it is appropriate to apply it.  Listed below are some examples of goals well suited to being solved as a team using this method.

  • Planning a family reunion attendee list
  • Trying to break through a research brick wall
  • Finding oral history subjects
  • Recruiting members for a DNA study
  • Locating cousins interested in sharing family photos, stories, data, etc.
  • Finding collaboration partners for a family book
  • Researching a family medical history

This is just a few of the many practical applications for reverse genealogy; its applicability is limited only by one’s imagination.  

Reverse genealogy uses many of the same records as traditional genealogy including census records, newspaper obituaries, city directories, and probate records.  The difference comes in when locating living people, where privacy laws require that less traditional research tools such as people finder services, Google searches and even Facebook be employed.  This technique requires the researcher to be part genealogist as well as part private investigator.

Tracing descendants instead of ancestors can get complicated, take a lot of time and require plenty of patience, but can lead to a big payoff in the end.  The important takeaway from this article is to understand when it is appropriate to employ this technique.  Some combination of traditional and reverse research can make for a powerful tool in your research toolbox.

Read related articles: Breaking Through Brick Walls


Genealogy Quick Start Guide for Beginners

Applying the Genealogy Proof Standard to your Research

5 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid

Google Genealogy Research Toolbox

Find Records

Requesting Vital Records

Researching Ancestors through Military Records

Using the National Archives (NARA) for Genealogy Research

Using U.S. Census Records

Finding Homestead Records

Canadian Genealogy Research using the Internet

Researching British Genealogy


Genealogy Source Citations Made Easy

Finding Family History Books

Listening to Genealogy Podcasts Made Easy

Using Cyndi’s List for Genealogy Research

Researching Ancestors Using Obituaries