By the Number – The Importance of Using Numbering Systems

By Carolyn L. Barkley

The application of genealogical standards to our written work is a visual indication of the quality of its content and can signal the genealogical expertise of the writer. I frequently am contracted to edit or index a genealogical title that I know the author has spent much time – often years – in compiling. Unfortunately some authors create their own numbering systems when outlining ancestral lineages, and when I receive the manuscript, it is usually too late to convince them to revise their work. Sometimes they have developed an understandable system, but sometimes the author has devised a system that is difficult to comprehend thus lessening the accessibility and value of the information being shared. Simply put, don’t create your own system.

Several standard numbering systems are available for your use:

  1.  AHNENTAFEL:  According to the online Encyclopedia of Genealogy, this system with the exotic name is a “list of one’s ancestors with each one numbered in a sequential manner that makes it easy to calculate relationships.” The most commonly used system for ancestor lists, it is also referred to as the Sosa-Stradonitz System, and is the system provided on the pedigree charts you complete or that are compiled by your genealogical software. This system limits the inclusion of collateral family information and is useful for lineage applications. In ahnentafels, the focus person is number one and each individual has a unique identifying number. The father of each person is given a number twice his child’s number; the mother of each person is given a number twice her child’s number plus one. If you are the beginning person, your number would be 1, your father’s would be 2, your mother’s would be 3. Your paternal grandfather’s would be 4, and your paternal grandmother’s would be 5. Your maternal grandfather would be 6 and your maternal grandmother would be 7, and so on. While very clear in presentation, if your genealogy contains a large number of generations, ahnentafel numbers can become quite large.
  2. MULTI-SURNAME SYSTEM: This system is a descending system, as opposed to the ahnentafel’s ascending format, and traces an historical ancestor, usually through a male descent, through a series of generations to a more recent descendant. In writing a compiled genealogy, standard practice treats each surname in the descending list in a separate chapter. The Multi-Surname Numbering System is more complex than the ahnentafel. In addition to identifying numbers for each individual, it also includes birth-order numbers and generation indicators. Each surname line is numbered individually, beginning with the number 1 for the progenitor. Identifying numbers are uniquely personal and are Arabic in format. Birth order numbers are lower-case Roman numerals assigned to each individual’s children, and therefore are not unique. Generation indicators are superscript Arabic numbers and the same number is applied to all individuals who are in the same generation of descent from the progenitor.
  3. HENRY NUMBERS: The Henry numbering system is another form of a descending numbering system. Similar to the Multi-Surname System, Henry numbers assign the number 1 to the progenitor, but then go on to combine generation and birth order numbers in the numbering for subsequent individuals. As explained in the Encyclopedia of Genealogy: “The oldest child of person number one is given the number 11, the second child the number 12, and so on. In the third generation, the oldest child of person 11 is assigned the number 111; the second child of that person is 112, and so on.” Taken further, the third child of the third child of the progenitor would be 133. While the ability to look at an individual’s number and calculate birth order as well as the number of generations from the progenitor, a significant drawback (far more than with the ahnentafels) is the huge number of digits these numbers can take on, particularly in descents with many generations and in families with large numbers of children in each generation. 
  4. REGISTER SYSTEM: The Register System was created by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. The Society requires use of this system in article submitted for publication in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. As with the Multi-Surname System and Henry numbering, the Register System is used for the descendants of an individual. Again, the first person (progenitor) is assigned the number 1. Children of each individual are listed in birth order and are identified by lower-case letters. Children who have documented descendants are also assigned an Arabic number. As the system is applied, the descendancy takes on the appearance of an outline and is quite easy to follow. In a compiled genealogy, each generation is explored in a separate chapter. This system is much easier to use in a line of descent than one employing Henry numbers and provides the same information in what, to me, is an easier format to follow through several generations than is the Multi-Surname System.
  5. NGSQ System. While the Register System is specific to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society has adapted it for use in articles published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). There are, however, some differences. Where the Register System only assigns numbers to the children for whom further descendant documentation is provided, the NGSQ System assigns numbers to all and uses a plus symbol prior to the number to indicate if the line is discussed further.

A few words are in order concerning a sixth numbering system devised by respected genealogist William Dollarhide. The Dollarhide System allows for the numbering of all individuals in a database including collaterals such as in-laws, secondary spouses, half-siblings, and more. Complicated to describe succinctly, a detailed explanation can be found online in the Encyclopedia of Genealogy.

Ultimately, whichever system you adopt is a matter of personal choice; however you need to evaluate what numbering system will be best suited to the type of presentation you wish to write. Three main types of presentations include a lineage, a pedigree, and a genealogical compilation. According to the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, “lineage compilations trace the direct parent-to-child links in each generation between an identified individual and one of that person’s ancestors or descendants;” “pedigree compilations trace an identified individual’s direct ancestors for a specified number of generations;” and “genealogy compilations trace an identified individual’s descendants for a specified number of generations.” This source goes on to recommend that you should use one of the formats that “limits discussion of collateral lines” (such as the ahnentafel system) for lineages. It further recommends the Sosa-Stradonitz System (ahnentafel) or the Multi-Surname System for pedigrees, and the NGSQ or the Register Systems for genealogies. If you are planning to submit your writing for publication, be sure to check with the publisher to determine what system is required by their style sheet.
In addition, check your genealogy program to see what reports it is capable of generating. Master Genealogist provides, among other formats, pedigree charts, ahnentafel reports, and descendant narratives that appear to use a modified Henry system. Family Tree Maker 2009 provides simplified Register reports and ahnentafels. While all such software provide a variety of report styles, you can save yourself a lot of time if your software can provide the style you have chosen to use – but remember to edit the file for grammar and sentence structure!
To learn more about numbering systems, check the following sources:



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