Numbering a Genealogy 1: Immigration

Numbering a Genealogy 1: Immigration

2018-05-15T09:51:43+00:00March 30th, 2016|Education|15 Comments

By Judy Kellar Fox, CG®

Meet the Walkers: William, Margaret, their children, and grandchildren. In several posts we will use this family to explore issues encountered when numbering a genealogy, one of the relationship-formatting options of Standard 65, Genealogical formats.[1] This first post will show how to number the Walker family abroad and after immigration to the United States. Successive posts will show how to number adoptive children, those of unknown paternity, and children of successive spouses.

In all cases our authority on numbering is Joan Ferris Curran, Madilyn Coen Crane, and John H. Wray, Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, ed. Elizabeth Shown Mills, rev. ed. (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2008). Posts assume readers are familiar with writing a genealogical sketch that covers basic vital information.[2] The examples are highly abbreviated and omit source citations to save space.

Part of the genealogical sketch, the parenthetical summary of descent, outlines each descendant’s ancestry. It appears after the descendant’s name in the first line of the biographical sketch, for example, “8.  Margaret Maitland2 Walker (Thomas Watta-1, WilliamA, ThomasB) was born . . .”

We will be focusing on three numbers. All can be seen in the entries for William and his family below.

  • Individual numbers are arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) that uniquely identify each descendant in the genealogy. They begin with the first person in the genealogy, the progenitor (William Walker here), and continue sequentially with his children in birth order.[3] The sequence continues with the children of Generation Two and succeeding generations. Each person has a unique number. Spouses do not receive an individual number, as they belong to the genealogy of another surname.
  • Generation numbers are superscript numbers or letters in italic font (1, 2, A, B, a, b) that designate a person’s generation. They appear after the first names of 1) each individual and 2) each person in the parenthetical summary of descent.[4] Whether to use letters or numbers depends on where the person was born. In the simplest terms, letters of the alphabet designate foreign-born people, and numbers designate those who immigrated to or were born in the American colonies or the United States.[5] Capital letters indicate those who stayed in the home country, beginning with A, the parent of the immigrant(s), and increasing with each more distant ancestor. Lowercase letters indicate successive generations of foreign-born descendants, beginning with a.[6]
  • Birth-order numbers are lower case roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv) that indicate placement of children in a family. They are assigned sequentially to all children of the couple in question. William and Margaret had four children, numbered i–iv.

Generation One

 William has an individual number (1) and an italic superscript (A) for his generation. His father also has a generation number in William’s parenthetical summary of descent.

Individual number and generation “numbers”

Did you notice how we worked with the numbering system and the Numbering Your Genealogy examples to justify WilliamA’s individual and generation numbers? We didn’t make them up. There’s a reason for each one. Let’s see how the numbering plays out for William’s children.

Each of William and Margaret’s children has both an individual number and a birth-order number. While the individual numbers place them in the context of the whole genealogy, the birth-order numbers refer only to this particular family.

After WilliamA’s death, all of his children immigrated to the U.S. with their mother. Those children take a two-part generation number, a-1: a, because they are children of a parent who did not immigrate and 1, because they themselves did immigrate.[7]

The generation number of eldest son Thomas Watt, a-1, is implied for younger brothers William Henry and John James.[8] However, their youngest brother Edward died in England before the immigration. He is simply generation a, the child of A, William. His generation number tells us at a glance (by the lack of a number 1) that he did not immigrate with the others.[9]

Individual numbers, birth-order numbers, and generation numbers

That’s a skeleton of William Walker’s biological family. What it doesn’t show is that Margaret gave birth to a daughter Margaret Ann a year or so after William’s death. She, too, bears the Walker surname, so how does she fit in this genealogy? Next time we’ll look at Margaret Ann, and the complexity of children of unknown parentage.

How does the Walkers’ numbering compare to your family’s? What questions does it raise?


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Ancestry Imprint, Turner Publishing, 2014), 36–37.

[2] For examples, see issues of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly that include winning submissions of the NGS Family History Writing Contest (usually December). For guidance on writing a genealogical sketch see Carmen J. Finley, Creating a Winning Family History: Including a Guide to the NGS Family History Writing Contest, rev. ed. (Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2010), 31, section (1).

[3] Numbering Your Genealogy, 9.

[4] Numbering Your Genealogy, 10.

[5] Numbering Your Genealogy, 10, paragraph 1.

[6] Numbering Your Genealogy, 27, “Solution.”

[7] Numbering Your Genealogy, 27, bullets 1 and 2.

[8] Numbering Your Genealogy, 10, paragraph 1.

[9] Numbering Your Genealogy, 27, bullet 3.


  1. Eunice Massie March 31, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Why did you choose to use William as number one and not the child who actually immigrated?

    • Judy Kellar Fox March 31, 2016 at 10:25 am

      If I had chosen Thomas, William’s son, to be Individual Number 1, the whole genealogy would have begun with him and his family (wife and children). William and Margaret would have been mentioned, but not Thomas’s siblings. As you’ll see in the next post, Thomas’s half-siblings offer some great complications for our numbering discussion.

      A genealogy can start with anyone. It depends on what you know about whom. I could have started with ThomasB (William’s father) as Number 1, but I know less about his grandchildren than I would like.

      Great question, Eunice!

      • Eunice Massie April 1, 2016 at 9:29 am

        So then the numbering does not stay with the person after you find more information, it is specific to this “published” genealogy only? If you later find more you can publish it all with a different number 1?

      • Judy Kellar Fox April 3, 2016 at 5:03 pm

        That is correct, although I can’t say that from personal experience. Good question, Eunice!

      • Corey O. April 12, 2016 at 3:20 pm

        If I am writing about a family in the U.S., and I do not know who the immigrant ancestor was (or how many generations there were prior), or I don’t want to write about prior generations, then I would give the oldest person in the line I’m featuring the #1? If I’m just writing about Thomas and descendants, would I leave out the paternal line next to his name because I won’t be talking about them? ex. “Thomas1 (WilliamA, ThomasB, etc.) was born…” Thank you!

      • Judy Kellar Fox April 12, 2016 at 5:39 pm

        Individual number one (1) can be a person from any generation. That’s your starting-point person, whether he or she is the immigrant ancestor or someone born generations later. You decide, for your own reasons, where to begin. You can give individual number one (1) to anyone from any generation, depending on where you choose to start your genealogy.

        Individual number one (1) can be the same as the immigrant ancestor (superscript italic 1), but this is not obligatory.

        When you know the ancestors of individual number 1, even though you have no intention of writing about them, you should include them and their generation numbers/letters in the parenthetical summary of descent. This helps identify your starting person in time place and gives the reader useful information.

        If you do not know the ancestry of number 1, you have nothing to put in his or her parenthetical summary of descent. For example, see Paul K. Graham, CG, AG, “A Love Story Proved: The Life and Family of Laura Lavinia (Kelly) Combs of Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia,” _National Genealogical Society Quarterly_ 101 (December 2013): 249, for no. 1, Juda Kelly, who is also generation 1.

      • Corey O. April 12, 2016 at 5:43 pm

        Thanks so much for your helpful reply! It clears up my confusion!

      • Judy Kellar Fox April 12, 2016 at 5:52 pm

        You’re welcome, Corey. That was a great question.

  2. Brad Stone March 31, 2016 at 9:38 am

    Thanks for the article, Judy. It is great to have additional explanation and examples to supplement the Numbering Your Genealogy book.

    One of the trickiest parts for me is not getting the numbering correct, but formatting the document so that it looks correct and is easy to change if a new relative is discovered.

    What have you found to be effective tools (e.g. MS Word, Google Docs, …) and what are the steps to follow within these tools to correctly format the document and allow easy changes when renumbering is required?

    • Judy Kellar Fox March 31, 2016 at 10:45 am

      Yes, formatting a genealogy is a challenge! To get WordPress to show the child lists correctly I created a Word table. The individual number and birth-order number columns are right-justified. I then used SnagIt to import the images.

      BUT there’s a better answer that addresses the issue of renumbering: “Appendix A: Using Microsoft Word for Genealogical Writing,” in Penelope Stratton and Henry B. Hoff, _Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History_ (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014). It’s based on steps outlined by Alvy Ray Smith and reprinted as “Writing Using WORD for Genealogy: Utilizing Microsoft(R) WORD in Genealogical Documents in _Register_ , or Modified _Register_ [NGSQ], Format,” in Michael J. Leclerc and Henry B. Hoff, eds., _Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: A Guide to Register Style and More_, 2nd ed. (Boston: NEHGS, 2006).

      Stratton and Hoff’s Appendix seems to be a streamlined version of Smith’s original work. I highly recommend either!

      Another great question! Thanks, Brad.

  3. David Bachman April 8, 2016 at 6:14 am

    Great article, Judy. It is nice to have explanations how to supplement the Numbering Your Genealogy book.

    But I’m interested in the aspects of doing that in Google docs. All numbering in our Genealogy book we’re doing by team and I wonder if you had some sort of experience of working in Google Docs.

    Thanks for the informative article!


    • Judy Kellar Fox April 8, 2016 at 10:47 am

      I don’t use Google docs, David. Perhaps another reader can offer some suggestions.

  4. Nichelle Barra June 17, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    I have an immigrant family that came over together. Both parents were born in Germany, and came to America with their young family. Six of their children were born in Germany and two were born in America. How would I number them? Would the father, Frank, be B-1? And then his children that were born in Germany but also immigrated, would they be A-1? Then the children that were born in America, would they just be 1?

    • Judy Kellar Fox June 18, 2016 at 10:42 pm

      This is a good question, Nichelle, as many families immigrated to America together, and often children were born in the U.S., while their siblings were born in the home country. Sometimes, too, siblings were born and died in the home country before the others left. How do we number them? The explanation below follows the principles set out in *Numbering Your Genealogy.* You should study this guide. See also Generation numbers, bullet two in the post above. The example in the post may throw you off because the first generation of the genealogy (William) did not immigrate. His widow and some of his children did.

      Generation Numbers: First of all, the oldest *immigrant* generation (in your case the parents) is 1. The children are all 2.

      Generation Letters: Capital letters are used only for the generations that remained in the home country, the non-immigrants. Your immigrant family would not have capital letters. Immigrants have lower-case letters in combination with numbers. The oldest immigrant generation (your Frank) receives the a-1 combination. The immigrant children are b-2. As you suggest, the letter distinguishes them from the American-born children, who are simply 2.

      *Numbering Your Genealogy* has an example of an immigrant parent and child on p. 34, no. 17. The child list normally only gives the first child a generation number. However, in cases where some children immigrated and some did not, it’s a good idea to give each child in the list a generation number, in your example, either b-2 or 2.

      Make sense? Unfortunately, although immigrant families are common, I know of none in the *National Genealogical Society Quarterly* to give you a published example! I hope that will change as more people work with numbering immigrant families.

      Good luck!

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