Genealogy, also known as family history, is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral interviews, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members. The results are often displayed in charts or written as narratives.
The pursuit of family history and origins tends to be shaped by several motivations, including the desire to carve out a place for one’s family in the larger historical picture, a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations, and a sense of self-satisfaction in accurate storytelling. More people are finding it important to learn about their family histories, where the family came from, traditions and so many other fascinating facts. An example I would share is, I was born and raised in New York State, and in doing research on my family, I know that we have a Danish, German ancestry. I know some of my relatives that live in Denmark and have even traveled there. I have also learned that I have a grandfather (several greats) that fought in the US Civil War, who enlisted when he was about 60 years old. He was born in 1800 and passed away in 1914 (at the ripe old age of 114). They can gather history of any medical conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, Diabetes and more.
Hobbyist genealogists typically pursue their own ancestry and that of their spouses. Professional genealogists may also conduct research for others, publish books on genealogical methods, teach, or produce their own databases. They may work for companies that provide software or produce materials of use to hobbyist and other professional genealogists. Both try to understand not just where and when people lived, but also their lifestyles, biographies, and motivations. This often requires—or leads to—knowledge of antiquated laws, old political boundaries, migration trends, and historical socioeconomic or religious conditions.
Genealogists sometimes specialize in a particular group, e.g. a Scottish clan; a particular surname, such as in a one-name study; a small community, e.g. a single village or parish, such as in a one-place study; or a particular, often famous, person. Bloodline of Salem is an example of a specialized family-history group. It welcomes members who can prove descent from a participant of the Salem Witch Trials or who choose simply to support the group.
Genealogists and family historians often join family history societies, where novices can learn from more experienced researchers. Such societies may also index records to make them more accessible, and engage in advocacy and other efforts to preserve public records and cemeteries. Some schools engage students in such projects as a means to reinforce lessons regarding immigration and history. Other benefits include family medical histories with families with serious medical conditions that are hereditary.
The use of the terms “genealogy” and “family history” are often used synonymously, but some offer a slight difference in definition. The Society of Genealogists, while also using the terms interchangeably, describe genealogy as an “Establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next” and family history as “A biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived”. Sometimes the term used is based on region, with societies in Europe often using the term “family history”, and those in the United States more often using the term “genealogy”.
Family history plays a part in the practice of some religious belief systems. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a doctrine of baptism for the dead, which necessitates that members of that faith engage in family history research.
Until the late 19th century, family histories were almost exclusively of interest to persons who had obtained their wealth or rank by inheritance. Other people, who had inherited nothing, might, in extreme cases, suppress their family history as a matter of shame.
In countries such as the United States or Australia, there was by the 20th century growing pride in the pioneers and nation-builders. Establishing descent from these was a concern in groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, and helped differentiate those descendants from later immigrants with lower status.
In Nazi Germany, family histories were compiled to affirm individuals’ affiliation with the “master race” and to adhere to legal requirements for marriage. In Germany today, family history is still often perceived as a threat to privacy rather than as a source of self-esteem. Most 20th-century sources remain unavailable to the public on privacy grounds. Funding of support for family history at archives is limited. German family historians thus tend to emphasize instead how family history can contribute to learning and science.
The growing interest in family history in the media coupled with easier access to online records has allowed people with a curiosity to start to investigate their ancestry. This curiosity can be particularly strong for those with lost family histories, for example, because of adoption or separation from family, perhaps as a result of bereavement. Historically, in Western societies the focus of genealogy was on the kinship and decent of rulers and nobles, often arguing or demonstrating the legitimacy of claims to wealth and power. The term often overlapped with heraldry, in which the ancestry of royalty was reflected in their coats of arms. Modern scholars consider many claimed noble ancestries to be fabrications, such as the Anglo-Saxon chronicles that traced the ancestry of several English kings to the god Woden. With the advent of the Internet, the number of resources readily accessible by genealogists has vastly increased, resulting in an explosion of interest in the topic. According to some sources, genealogy is one of the most popular topics on the Internet. The Internet has become not only a major source of data for genealogists, but also of education and communication.
Genealogical research in the United States was first systematized in the early 19th century, especially by John Farmer (1789–1838). Before Farmer’s efforts, tracing one’s genealogy was seen as an attempt by colonists to secure a measure of social standing within the British Empire, an aim that was counter to the new republic’s egalitarian, future-oriented ethos. As Fourth of July celebrations commemorating the Founding Fathers and the heroes of the Revolutionary War became increasingly popular, however, the pursuit of ‘antiquarianism,’ which focused on local history, became acceptable as a way to honor the achievements of early Americans. In the 1820s, he and fellow antiquarians began to produce genealogical and antiquarian tracts in earnest, slowly gaining a devoted audience among the American people. Though Farmer died in 1839, his efforts led to the creation of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), one of New England’s oldest and most prominent organizations dedicated to the preservation of public records. NEHGS publishes the New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
The Genealogical Society of Utah, founded in 1894, later became the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The department’s research facility, the Family History Library, which has developed the most extensive genealogical record-gathering program in the world] was established to assist in tracing family lineages for special religious ceremonies that Mormons believe will seal family units together for eternity. Mormons believe that this fulfilled a biblical prophecy stating that the prophet Elijah would return to ‘turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.’
Genealogists begin their research by collecting family documents and stories. This creates a foundation for documentary research, which involves examining and evaluating historical records for evidence about ancestors and other relatives, their kinship ties, and the events that occurred in their lives. As a rule, genealogists begin with the present and work backward in time. Historical, social, and family context is essential to achieving correct identification of individuals and relationships. Source citation is also important when conducting genealogical research. To keep track of collected material, family group sheets and pedigree charts are used.
Genealogy software is used to collect, store, sort, and display genealogical data. At a minimum, genealogy software accommodates basic information about individuals, including births, marriages, and deaths. Many programs allow for additional biographical information, including occupation, residence, and notes, and most also offer a method for keeping track of the sources for each piece of evidence. 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. Genealogists use a wide variety of records in their research. To effectively conduct genealogical research, it is important to understand how the records were created, what information is
Family names are simultaneously one of the most important pieces of genealogical information, and a source of significant confusion for researchers. In many cultures, the name of a person refers to the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, surname, or last name. Patronymics are names that identify an individual based on the father’s name. For example, Marga Olafsdottir is Marga, daughter of Olaf, and Olaf Thorsson is Olaf, son of Thor. Many cultures used patronymics before surnames were adopted or came into use. The Dutch in New York, for example, used the patronymic system of names until 1687 when the advent of English rule mandated surname usage. In Iceland, patronymics are used by a majority of the population. In Denmark and Norway patronymics and farm names were generally in use through the 19th century and beyond, though surnames began to come into fashion toward the end of the 19th century in some parts of the country. Not until 1856 in Denmark and 1923 in Norway were there laws requiring surnames.
The transmission of names across generations, marriages and other relationships, and immigration may cause difficulty in genealogical research. For instance, women in many cultures have routinely used their spouse’s surnames. When a woman remarried, she may have changed her name and the names of her children; only her name; or changed no names. Her birth name may be reflected in her children’s middle names; her own middle name; or dropped entirely. Children may sometimes assume stepparent, foster parent, or adoptive parent names. Because official records may reflect many kinds of surname change, without explaining the underlying reason for the change, the correct identification of a person recorded identified with more than one name is challenging. Immigrants to America often Americanized their names.
Surname data may be found in trade directories, census returns, birth, death, and marriage records. Another example is in some areas of Germany, where siblings were given the same first name, often of a favorite saint or local nobility, but different second names by which they were known. If a child died, the next child of the same gender that was born may have been given the same name. It is not uncommon that a list of a particular couple’s children will show one or two names repeated.
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. 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.