2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Recreation

Genealogy is the study and tracing of family pedigrees. This involves the collection of the names of relatives, both living and deceased, and establishing the relationships among them based on primary, secondary and/or circumstantial evidence or documentation, thus building up a cohesive family tree. Genealogy is sometimes also referred to as family history, although these terms may be used distinctly: the former being the basic study of who is related to whom; the latter involving more "fleshing out" of the lives and personal histories of the individuals involved.


Genealogists collect oral histories and preserve family stories to discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists also attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also their lifestyle, biography, and motivations. This often requires — or leads to — knowledge of antique law, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.

Genealogists and family historians often join a Family History Society where novices can learn from more experienced researchers, and everyone benefits from shared knowledge.

Even an unsuccessful search for ancestors leads to a better understanding of history. The search for living relatives often leads to family reunions, both of distant cousins and of disrupted families. Genealogists sometimes help reunite families separated by war, immigration, foster homes and adoption. The genealogist can help keep family traditions alive or reveal family secrets.

In its original form, genealogy was mainly concerned with the ancestry 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 the quarterings of their coat of arms. Many of the claimed ancestries are considered by modern scholars to be fabrications, especially the claims of kings and emperors who trace their ancestry to gods or the founders of their civilization. For example, the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers traced the ancestry of several English kings back to the god Woden (the English version of the Norse god Odin). If these descents were true, Queen Elizabeth II would be a descendant of Woden, via the kings of Wessex. (See euhemerism.)

In fiction, it is common to give a character a complicated fictional genealogy to make his or her background more interesting. A picturesque one is the genealogy for Godwulf of Asgard.

Modern research

Genealogy, an extremely popular hobby, received a big boost in the late 1970s with the premiere of the television adaptation of Alex Haley's fictionalized account of his family line, Roots: The Saga of an American Family . With the advent of the Internet, the number of resources available to genealogists has vastly increased; however, some of these sources must be treated with caution due to issues of accuracy.

Research efforts sometimes specialize on: types of relationships among people such as kinship to 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 person such as Winston Churchill or Jesse James.

LDS collections

In the 20th century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) engaged in a large-scale program of copying all available records of genealogical value onto microfilm. The project entailed the compilation of the International Genealogical Index (IGI). The IGI contains information submitted by Mormon researchers for vicarious ordinances, records obtained from non-Mormon contributors, and data taken from various birth or marriage records that Church members have microfilmed; in all, the IGI contains hundreds of millions of records of individuals who lived between 1500 and 1900, primarily in the United States, Canada and Europe. By making so many resources available, the LDS Church has helped contribute to the increasing interest in genealogy since the 1970s. Its information is available free or at a nominal cost. Resources include the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and its 4,000+ branches (called Family History Centers). In addition, FamilySearch, an interactive internet site, provides free access to extensive files for personal and family information.

Genetic analysis

With the discovery that a person's DNA contains information that has been passed down relatively unchanged from our earliest ancestors, analysis of DNA has begun to be used for genealogical research. There are two DNA types of particular interest. One is the mitochondrial DNA which we all possess and which is passed down with only minor mutations through the female line. The other is the Y-chromosome, present only in males, which is passed down with only minor mutations through the male line.

A genealogical DNA test allows for two individuals to estimate the probability that they are (or are not) related within a certain time frame. Individual genetic test results are being collected in various databases to match people descended from a relatively recent common ancestor, for example see Molecular Genealogy Research Project. These tests are limited to either the direct male or the direct female line.

On a much longer time scale, genetic methods are being used to trace human migratory patterns and to determine biogeographical and ethnic origin. The results can be used to place people within ancient ancestral groups, for example see The Genographic Project. Participation in all such projects is, of course, voluntary.

In a related development, non-genetic mathematical models of ancestry have been devised to determine the approximate year when the most recent common ancestor of all living humans existed.

Sharing data among researchers

Data sharing among genealogical researchers has grown to be a major use of the Internet. Most genealogy software programs can output information about persons and their relationships in GEDCOM format, so it can be shared with other genealogists by e-mail and Internet forums, added to an online database such as GeneaNet, or converted into a family web site using online genealogical tools such as PhpGedView. Many genealogical software applications also facilitate the sharing of information on CD-ROMs and DVDs made on personal computers.

One phenomenon over the last few years has been that of large genealogical databases going online and attracting such large flash crowds that the database's host server collapses, causing service to be quickly suspended while hurried upgrades are made to accommodate the traffic load. This happened with FamilySearch, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's database of war graves, and in January 2002 with the much-anticipated British census for 1901.


Volunteer efforts figure prominently in genealogy. These efforts range from the extremely informal to the highly organized.

On the informal side are the many popular and useful message boards and mailing lists regarding particular surnames, regions, and other topics. These forums can be used with great success to find relatives, request record lookups, obtain research advice, and much more.

Many genealogists participate in loosely organized projects, both online and off. These collaborations take numerous forms of which only a few are mentioned here. Some projects prepare name indexes for records, such as probate cases, and often place the indexes online. Genealogists use the indexes as finding aids to locate original records. Rather than index, some projects transcribe or abstract records, especially when genealogists may want to search the records by something other than surname. For example, a genealogist using the cluster genealogy research technique might want to search records by land description. For this reason, deeds are a good candidate for transcription. Offering record lookups is another common service, and projects are usually organized by geographic area. Volunteers such as RAOGK offer to do record lookups in their area for researchers who are unable to travel.

Those looking for a structured volunteer environment can join one of thousands of genealogical societies worldwide. Like online forums, most societies have a unique area of focus such as a particular surname, ethnicity, geographic area, or descendency from participants in a given historical event. These societies are almost exclusively staffed by volunteers and can offer a broad range of services. It is common for genealogical societies to maintain a library for member's use, publish a newsletter, provide research assistance to the public, offer classes or seminars, and organize efforts such as cemetery transcribing projects.

Records in genealogical research

Records of persons who were neither royalty nor nobility began to be taken by governments in order to keep track of their citizens (In most of Europe, for example, this started to take place in the 16th century). As more of the population began to be recorded, there were sufficient records to follow a family using the paper trail they left behind.

As each person lived his or her life, major events were usually documented with a license, permit or report which was stored at a local, regional or national office or archive. Genealogists locate these records, wherever they are stored, and extract information to discover family relationships and recreate timelines of persons' lives.

Records that are used in genealogy research include:

  • Vital records
    • Birth records
    • Death records
    • Marriage and divorce records
  • Adoption records
  • Baptism or christening records
  • Biographies and biographical profiles (as in Who's Who, etc.)
  • Cemetery records, funeral home records, and tombstones
  • Census records
  • City directories and telephone directories
  • Coroner's reports
  • Criminal records
  • Diaries, personal letters and family Bibles
  • Emigration, immigration and naturalization records
  • Hereditary & lineage organization records, e.g. Daughters of the American Revolution records
  • Land and homestead records, deeds
  • Medical records
  • Military and conscription records
  • Newspaper columns
  • Obituaries
  • Occupational records
  • Oral history
  • Passports
  • Photographs
  • Poorhouse, workhouse, almshouse, and asylum records
  • School and alumni association records
  • Ship passenger lists
  • Social Security Administration (within the USA) and pension records
  • Tax records
  • Voter registration records
  • Wills and probate records

As a rule, genealogists begin with the present and work backward in time. Written records have the property of hindsight in that they only tell where a person might have lived and who their parents were, not where they and their descendants might subsequently reside. Two exceptions are when a genealogist might interview living relatives as to who and where their children and grandchildren are, or tries to locate long-lost relatives who may already have traced their families backward to an ancestor they have in common (which is forward in time from his/her point of view).

Types of genealogical information

The classes of information that genealogists seek include: place names, occupations, family names, first names, and dates. Genealogists need to understand such items in their historical context in order to properly evaluate genealogical sources.

Place names

While the place names of an ancestor’s residence or location of their life events are certainly core element of a genealogist's quest, they can often be confusing. Place names may be subject to variant spellings by partially literate scribes. Additionally, locations may have the same or substantially similar names. For example, the name Brocton for villages occurs six times in the border area between the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire. Shifts in political borders must also be understood. For instance, county borders in C17th-C19th England were frequently modified, with outlying and detached areas being reassigned to other counties. Old records may contain references to Middle Age villages that have ceased to exist due to disease or famine.

Many sources provide locations for our ancestor’s life events and place of residency; these include vital records (civil 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 birth, death or marriage location, circumstantial evidence may provide a probable answer based on the place of residence of the individual or the individual’s family at the time of the event.

Maps and gazetteers are important sources for understanding the places where our ancestors were born, lived, married, and died. They show us the relationship of the area to neighboring communities and may help us understand migration patterns.


Occupational information may be important to understand an ancestor’s life. Two people with the same name may be distinguished by their occupation. Also, a person’s occupation may have been related to his or her social status, political interest, and migration pattern. Since skilled trades often passed from father to son, occupation may be indirect evidence of a family relationship.

It is important to remember that occupations sometimes changed or may be easily misunderstood. Workmen no longer fit for their primary trade often take less prestigious jobs later in life. Many unskilled ancestors had a variety of jobs depending on the season and local trade requirements. Census returns may contain some embellishment; e.g., from Labourer to Mason, or from journeyman to Master craftsman. Names for old or unfamiliar local occupations may cause confusion if poorly legible. For example, an ostler (a keeper of horses) and a hostler (an innkeeper) could easily be confused for one another. Likewise, descriptions of such occupations may also be problematic. The perplexing description "ironer of rabbit burrows" may turn out to describe an ironer (profession) in the Bristol district named Rabbit Burrows. Several trades have regionally preferred terms. For example, “shoemaker” and “cordwainer” have the same meaning. Finally, many apparently obscure jobs are part of a larger trade community, such as watchmaking, framework knitting or gunmaking.

Occupational data may be reported in occupational licenses, tax assessments, membership records of professional organizations, trade directories, census returns, and vital records (civil registration). Occupational dictionaries are available to explain many obscure and archaic trades.

Family names

Family names are simultaneously one of the most important pieces of genealogical information, and a source of significant confusion for researchers.

In most cultures, the name of a person references the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, or surname. It is often also called the last name because, for most speakers of English, the family name comes after the given name (or names). However, this is not the case in other cultures, e.g., Chinese family names precede the given name.

Patronymics are names which allow identification of an individual based on the father's name, e.g., Marga Olafsdottir or Olfa Thorsson. 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.

As with place names, surname and personal name data may be subject to variant spellings. Older records may include greater variation in spelling than modern records. Phonetic spelling may be the only link between two variantly spelled names; e.g., "Quilter" and "Kieltagh". Records may also include completely different variants of names, such as Mort for MORDECAI.

The transmission of names across generations, marriages and other relationships, and immigrations also causes significant inaccuracy in genealogical data. For instance, children may sometimes take or be given step-parent, foster parent, or adoptive parent names. 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 ( "maiden") name may be reflected in her children's middle names; her own middle name; or dropped entirely.

Official records do not capture many kinds of surname changes. For example, fostering, common-law marriage, love affairs, changes in career or location may all result in name changes which are not reflected as such in official records.

Difficulties can also arise when researching family lines with common surnames such as "Smith", or surnames common to a particular geographic area. Many times, an amateur researcher will assume that a person is a direct ancestor based solely on the given/surnames, only to later find out that this person is not related or is a more distant relative.

Surname data may be found in trade directories, census returns, birth, death & marriage records.

Given names

Genealogical data regarding given names (first names) is subject to many of the same problems as family names and place names.

Additionally, nicknames for personal names are very common — Beth, Lizzie or Betty is common for Elizabeth, which can be confused with Eliza. Patty has been used as a diminutive form for Martha. Also, Amy used for Alice, and Nancy/Ann, and Polly used for a number of feminine names including Mary Ann and Elizabeth. While the feminine names are the most confusing, masculine names can also interchange: Jack, John & Jonathan, Joseph & Josiah, Edward & Edwin, etc.

Middle names provide additional information. Middle names may be inherited, or follow naming customs. Middle names may sometimes be treated as part of the family name. For instance, in some Latin cultures, both the mother's family name and the father's family name are used by the children. Official records may record full names in a variety of ways: First, Middle, Last; Last, Middle, First; Last, First Middle; Last, First, M.

Historically, naming conventions existed in some places, where the name given to one's children was sometimes dictated by a particular formula. It is important to recognize, however, that naming conventions were not used in all families and did not always follow the same formula. They are just a pattern of naming that was common in a particular area during a particular time.

An example is Scotland, where the following convention existed:

  • 1st son - named after paternal grandfather
  • 2nd son - named after maternal grandfather
  • 3rd son - named after father
  • 4th son - named after father's oldest brother
  • 1st daughter - named after maternal grandmother
  • 2nd daughter - named after paternal grandmother
  • 3rd daughter - named after mother
  • 4th daughter - named after mother's oldest sister

If a child died, generally the next child of the same gender that was born was given the same name. Quite often, a list of a particular couple's children will show one or two names repeated, sometimes 3 or 4 times. Although this can be confusing, it can also assist a researcher in discovering the date of death for the previous siblings of the same name.

Personal names go through periods of popularity, so it is not uncommon to find many similarly-named people in a generation, and even similarly-named families; e.g., "William and Mary and their children David, Mary, and John".

Many names may be identified strongly with a particular gender; e.g., William for boys, and Mary for girls. Other names may be ambiguous, e.g., Lee, or have only slightly variant spellings based on gender, e.g., Frances (usually female) and Francis (usually male).


It is wise to exercise extreme caution and skepticism with information about dates. Dates are more difficult to recall years after an event, and are more easily mistranscribed than other types of genelogical data. Therefore, one should evaluate 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 reliable 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, at least, 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 perhaps 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. The 1841 census in the UK is rounded down to the next lower multiple of five years. Also, caution should be used when estimating a date for a husband's death based on his absence from the census. A woman at home while her husband is away could be identified as head of household or assumed to be a widow.

Baptismal dates are often used to approximate birth dates; however, some families wait 3-5 years before baptising children, and adult baptisms are not unknown. In addition, both birth and marriage dates may have been adjusted to cover for pre-wedding pregnancies. It is very common for the first child to be born before or within a few months of a marriage and sometimes baptised in the mother's name, later adopting the father's name after the parents' marriage. The father's name can be used even if no marriage has occurred.

Calendar changes must also be considered. In 1752 the date of the new year was changed in England and the American Colonies. Before 1752 the new year started on the 25th March, but in 1752 this was changed to the 1st January. This was part of the transition to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar. Many other European countries had already made the change, and by 1751 there was an 11 day discrepancy between the date in England and the date in other European countries. The date continued to be recorded as usual in 1752 until 2nd September 1752, the following day became 14th September 1752. Dates that were recorded in the older system can be shown by "double dating". For example; Original date: 24th of March 1750; Modern date: 24th March 1751; Double dating: 24th March 1750/51.

For events occurring before 1752 in countries where the Julian calendar was still in use, it is best to use double dating whenever the exact year can be ascertained. When transcribing an original record where the exact year is evident but not expressed, the double date can be written as, for example, "24th March 1750[/51]".

One should also be aware that, in those places using the old Julian calendar, the numbering of months also varied. The "1st month" of the year was considered March, the second April, the third May, and so on. Those 24 days in March which fell before the beginning of the year were generally regarded as being part of the first month.

NOTE The foregoing may be true for British genealogical records but does in no way apply to records in other countries. A notable exception is the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, which have very detailed and mostly accurate records in the form of church records from the 18th century onwards.

But there, as in any historical research, a critical review of all information and an assessment of the reliability of each source is required.

The "maximum relationship"

One of the aims in professional genealogy circles has been to determine the maximum degree of separation which currently exists between all people in the world. That is to say, how many generations back is the first common ancestor that the two most distantly related people on earth share.

Latest models, taking into account sexual differentiation, monogamy and realistic migration patterns suggest that the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all humans probably lived 75-150 generations or 2000-4000 years ago. Moreover, the MRCA is likely to have lived somewhere in Southeast Asia (increasing the likelihood of his or her descendants reaching the remote islands of the Pacific), is equally likely to be a man or woman, and is not characterized by an unusually large number of children. These models also show that while a large group (indeed all humans) share recent common ancestors, a given person is likely to share the vast majority of his or her genes with a very small local group.


Genealogy software is computer software used to collect, store, sort, and display genealogical data. At a minimum, genealogy software tends to accommodate basic information about individuals, including births, marriages, and deaths. Many programs allow for additional biographical information, including occupation, residence and notes. Many genealogy programs also offer an easy method for keeping track of the sources for each fact.

Certain programs are geared toward specific religions, and include additional fields relevant to that religion. Other programs focus on certain geographical regions.

Some programs allow for the import of digital photographs, and sound files. Other programs focus on the ability to generate kinship charts, family history books and other publications. Some programs are more flexible than others in allowing for the input of same sex marriages and children born out of wedlock.

A move is on to incorporate fields for the input of genealogical DNA test results, though this information can be added into the "Notes" field of almost all genealogy software.

Most genealogy software allow for the export of data in the GEDCOM format that can be shared with people using different genealogy software. Certain programs allow the user to restrict the information that is shared, usually by removing information about living people to protect their privacy.

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