Genealogy is the study of families and tracing of lineages and history. Genealogists employ oral traditions, historical records, and genetic analysis learn about a family and to show kinship and pedigrees of the members.
The Research Process
The process of researching one’s genealogy is extremely complex. It requires the research of vast amounts of historical records and the occasional DNA analysis to prove kinship. One can make a fairly reliable conclusion of kinship based on several things, such as information gathered from living relatives and original records such as county records or family Bible recordings to establish kinship. The genealogist will become quite adept at gleaning information, whether direct or indirect from anything they come across related to their bloodline. All of these conclusions, along with evidence supporting those conclusions are gathered to form a family tree or genealogy. Everything must be supported in this- remember writing those research papers in high school and college? Same principal applies here- all statements given must be supported by some kind of reliable evidence. Just because great-aunt Kay says, “you are Martin Luther King Jr.’s fourth cousin” does not make it so without proof.
The easiest way to begin is to start in the present and work backward. This way, there is a foundation for the research, names and dates to go from, as well as easily accessible documents. Parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles will all have birth certificates, marriage licenses and so forth for documentation. Family stories are another way to begin research. Great-aunt Kay says, “you are related to Martin Luther King, Jr.” - here is an opportunity to get proof.
Genealogical software can be a great help to the genealogist- it will help keep track of pedigree charts that were created by hand. Another great aid to the hobby is the myriad of volunteer effort. Many websites and associations are available to help in the tracking of one’s family line. Such things as blogs, message boards and mailing lists specifically traced to certain family lines are available. They can be used, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee, annual or otherwise. They are infinitely valuable for obtaining advice for research, finding records and finding living relatives.
Written records are a genealogist’s most frequently used tool. They are the most reliable and are readily available. While the first thing that leaps to mind may be birth and death records along with marriage certificates, there are many other forms of written record for the genealogist to use. Here is a list of the most widely used records-
• Vital records, such as birth and death certificates, along with marriage and divorce records.
• Adoption records
• Church records (baptism, christening, bar or bat mitvah, membership, funeral)
• Telephone directories
• Coroner reports
• Court records
• Family Bibles, personal letters, and diaries
• Immigration records
• Medical records
• County records, such as property holdings
• Military records
• Newspapers (obituaries, social news, graduations)
• Passport records
• Passenger lists (such as were used at Ellis Island)
• Social Security records
• Tax records
• Tombstone rubbings from the cemetery
• Voter records
• Probate court- wills and such
In the 16th century, the governments of such countries as England and Germany began to keep records of their citizens that did not have means to keep record for themselves like the nobility and royalty had. They began with the churches, keeping track of things like birth, death and marriage with a certificate or some other sort of report. These can be found in national, regional, or local archive offices and the genealogist will use them to retrieve information about possible kinship or to verify the timeline of an ancestor’s life.
For hundreds and up to thousands of years, genealogy books were used to keep records of names, occupations and other pertinent information in Asian countries such as India and China.
Until the Gaelic civilization died out in the 17th century, Ireland’s genealogical records were kept by families of professionals.
Types of genealogical information
While family names are certainly one of the most identifiable pieces of information, they also cause the genealogical researcher quite a bit of confusion. In searching through records, one can find families such as Smith, Smyth and Smythe. They could all be the same family. Information for surnames may be found in marriage records, birth and death certificates and trade directories.
Historical records pertaining to first names have the same problems as that with the surname, and place names. This is complicated by nicknames, which are very common, and Genealogical data regarding given names (first names) is subject to many of the same problems as are family names and place names. Additionally, the use of nicknames is very common. Kate, Kathy, Katie, Kat and Katherine are all interchangeable for a female, just like Bill, Billy, Will, Willy and William are for a male.
Help is found in this mix with the middle name. While someone may be named Catherine but go by Cathy in some records, the middle name is seldom changed. They are occasionally inherited or some cultures such as Latinos, include both the mother’s and father’s surnames when naming their children. Occasionally in Western culture, a woman will take her maiden name as her middle name after she is married, so to preserve her father’s name if there are no male siblings.
Brothers and sisters were often given the same first name in some areas of Germany- most frequently of a patron saint or some local authority, but they had a second name by which they were called. (Think George Foreman’s children.) If one of the children passed away, the next child of the same sex was given the same name.
While the locations of ancestors` residences and life events are core elements of the genealogist`s quest, they can often be confusing. Place names may be subject to variant spellings by partially literate scribes. Locations may have identical or very similar names. For example, the village name Brockton occurs six times in the border area between the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Shifts in political borders must also be understood. Parish, county and national borders have frequently been modified. Old records may contain references to farms and villages that have ceased to exist. When working with older records from Poland, where borders and place names have changed frequently in past centuries, a source with maps and sample records such as A Translation Guide to 19th-Century Polish-Language Civil-Registration Documents can be invaluable.
Available sources may include vital records (civil or church registration), censuses, and tax assessments. Oral tradition is also an important source, although it must be used with caution. When no source information is available for a location, circumstantial evidence may provide a probable answer based on a person`s or a family`s place of residence at the time of the event.
Maps and gazetteers are important sources for understanding the places researched. They show the relationship of an area to neighboring communities and may be of help in understanding migration patterns. Family tree mapping using online mapping tools such as Google Earth (particularly when used with Historical Map overlays such as those from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection) assist in the process of understanding the significance of geographical locations.
It is wise to exercise extreme caution with dates. Dates are more difficult to recall years after an event, and are more easily mistranscribed than other types of genealogical data. Therefore, one should determine whether the date was recorded at the time of the event or at a later date. Dates of birth in vital records or civil registrations and in church records at baptism are generally accurate because they were usually recorded near the time of the event. Family Bibles are often a source for dates, but can be written from memory long after the event. When the same ink and handwriting is used for all entries, the dates were probably written at the same time and therefore will be less reliable since the earlier dates were probably recorded well after the event. The publication date of the Bible also provides a clue about when the dates were recorded since they could not have been recorded at any earlier date.
People sometimes reduce their age on marriage, and those under "full age" may increase their age in order to marry or to join the armed forces. Census returns are notoriously unreliable for ages or for assuming an approximate death date. Ages over 15 in the 1841 census in the UK are rounded down to the next lower multiple of five years.
Baptismal dates are frequently used to estimate birth dates, but care must be exercised- many religions do not perform infant baptisms- a person may not have been baptized until they were a child, or in some cases, an adult. Also, if there was something the family wanted to cover, such as a pre-marital pregnancy, the birth and or marriage dates would have been adjusted.
Calendar changes must also be considered. In 1752, England and her American colonies changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In the same year, the date the new year began was changed. Prior to 1752 it was 25 March; this was changed to 1 January. Many other European countries had already made the calendar changes before England had, sometimes centuries earlier. By 1751 there was an 11 day discrepancy between the date in England and the date in other European countries.
Reliability of sources
No one’s memory is perfect, and the longer an event happened, the more difficult it is to accurately recall it. When one is searching out genealogical information, the date on the record in relation to the date the event happened is of importance. Where errors in recall are most frequently found is in the accuracy of dates, particularly if the event is recorded by someone for whom the event had no particular importance. Another common error is found in cultural differences. For instance, if the event happened in a place or time where women are not considered important, the information recorded will be skewed toward a male perspective.
There is software specifically designed for use in family history searches and verification. This genealogy software will store such basic information as births, marriages and deaths. Other more complex programs will also hold other personal information such as location, occupation, church affiliation and other notes.
Most programs can generate basic kinship charts and reports, allow for the import of digital photographs and the export of data in the GEDCOM format so that data can be shared with those using other genealogy software. More advanced features include the ability to restrict the information that is shared, usually by removing information about living people out of privacy concerns; the import of sound files; the generation of family history books, web pages and other publications; the ability to handle same sex marriages and children born out of wedlock; searching the Internet for data; and the provision of research guidance.
Programs may be geared toward a specific religion, with fields relevant to that religion, or to specific nationalities or ethnic groups, with source types relevant for those groups. Additionally, there are now genealogy software conferences- the first one ever was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Here, one can investigate such technologies as handwriting recognition, GPS mapping, record digitization and digital preservation.
The study of genealogy has for years been a popular hobby for many people, and for many of them, it is more than a hobby. It is a connection to the past, a way of touching history through family connections. It can be as simple as just making out a basic family tree, or searching one’s roots out as far as one can. For some, genealogy becomes more than a hobby- they turn it into a satisfying career.