What Is Genealogy And How To Start?

Have you ever wondered how to:
  • Find out more about who you are and where you come from?
  • Look beyond your grandparents in the family tree to discover more about your past?
  • Or do you ever find yourself thinking about the people, places, and events that led to you being born?

If so, this guide on Genealogy will look at the hows, whats, and whys of genealogy, providing an in-depth look of how it works. 

It’s part of human nature to ask questions. We’re an innately curious species, always wanting to learn more, make new discoveries, and find out new things about ourselves and the world around us.

It’s a fascinating subject, and the results of research into genealogy can be eye-opening and inspiring in ways you never imagined. You might find your own family coat of arms, discover long lost relatives, or find out that you are descended from a place and people you never knew about.

At least, those are the dreams of many people who take an interest in genealogy and begin to pursue it, drawing up their family trees, researching their ancestry, and delving into records in the hunt for new discoveries.

But does genealogy really work that way? Will you really be able to make astonishing discoveries about your past? How easy is it to get started researching your family tree?

Genealogy: An Overview

Before diving into the specifics of genealogy and how it all works, let’s take a look at two key terms and their definitions:

Genealogy

The term 'genealogy' is made up of two Greek words which essentially translate to 'family science' or 'family theory' [1]. In simple terms, it's the study of families, lineages, ancestors, and the connections that bind people together.

Family History

While genealogy is traditionally an almost scientific or scholarly discipline, 'family history' is more about the story and biographies of your own family members, and doesn't always involve going back too far in the family tree.

If you start looking into genealogy, you might see these two terms appearing quite often and many people are confused at first, worrying about the difference between them.

In reality, even though they have different definitions on a base level, both terms are used more or less interchangeably in modern times. When most people talk about family history, they’re referring to genealogy, and vice versa.[2]

The History of Genealogy

We can see countless examples of genealogy throughout history, even in religious texts, like the Bible, which aims to show the descent of all of mankind from the likes of Adam and Noah, as well as Jesus Christ’s descent in the New Testament from David.[3]

In Ancient Rome, similarly, the concept of genealogy was an important issue in both myth and reality, with storied heroes and ruling leaders like Julius Caesar believed to be descended from the gods.

As well as being popular in Western nations for many years, genealogy also has plenty of history in other parts of the world. The family tree of Chinese philosopher Confucius, for example, has been kept for more than 2,500 years and is actually featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest family tree known to man.[4]

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

Michael Crichton

The history of genealogy goes back thousands of years, but for a very long time, it was mainly reserved for nobility or royalty. It was vital for kings, rules and other important people to trace their lineage and descendancy in order to assert their claims to power.

As time went by, however, societies changed and evolved, leading to more and more people of different classes and backgrounds taking an interest in genealogy. Eventually, this shift led to the modern era, where almost anyone, anywhere, can find out more about their family tree.

Genealogy in Modern Times

Genealogical research began to become more significant for a wider audience in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was during this period that various institutions, societies, and organizations dedicated to genealogy were founded.

The Genealogical Society of Utah, for instance, was founded in the 1890s and later went on to become the biggest genealogical library worldwide.

The American Society of Genealogists was also founded several decades later, along with various other societies both in the United States and beyond, all focused on preserving remnants of the past and aiding people in tracing their family lineages.

It was arguably in the 1970s, however, that the modern fascination with genealogy truly began to take hold with the publication of Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family.[5]

Haley’s story follows the tale of an 18th century African slave, following his life and the lives of his descendants, leading all the way to the author himself.

It’s a work of fiction, but it was based on Haley’s own research into his family past and it helped to stimulate a major interest in the notion of looking into the past to learn more about how we came to be and the stories of our ancestors.

In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.

Alex Haley, Roots

In the years that followed, the rise of the internet, along with the advent of DNA tests, ancestry kits, and a greater number of genealogical resources available for public use, continued to fuel public interest in this matter and have made it easier than ever to find out more about one’s family tree.

But why are so many people motivated to spend time studying genealogy?

The Reasons and Motivations Behind Genealogy

John Garland Pollard, a politician and lawyer who served as the 51st Governor of Virginia, once quipped that genealogy was simply “tracing yourself back to people better than you are”.

Meanwhile, famed comedian, Fred, Allen, also opined that he had no cause to investigate his family tree since “I know that I’m the sap.”

While both of these great men made light of the concept, tracing one’s family tree back and discovering more about our ancestors can have a variety of practical and logistical outcomes, as well as simply being a fascinating personal pursuit or pastime.

There are many reasons you might take an interest in learning more about your past, including, but not limited to, the following:

1

The Discover More About Your Family

Quite plainly and simply, one of the most commonly cited reasons for investigating the family tree is to learn more about one’s family. Many people enjoy the idea of knowing a little more about their ancestors and delving deeper into their family past, beyond the grandparents and great-grandparents.

2

To Make Sense of Things

Perhaps you have a large and complex family tree, with many cousins or distant relatives, and you want to truly find out how you’re all connected. Putting together a family tree and learning more about your common ancestors can help to demystify parts of your family life you don’t quite understand.

3

To Develop A Connection to One's Ancestors

Many people enjoy learning more about family history as it enables them to feel closer to the people who played a key role in their own existence and their family story. Finding photos, names, dates, and building biographies on people from the past can help them become more relatable.

4

To Discover Long Lost Relatives

One of the dreams of many people who choose to investigate genealogy is the hope that they might find a distant cousin or other relative they never actually knew about. This doesn’t always happen, but it can be a thrilling moment.

5

To Seek Out the Truth

Maybe there’s a myth, legend, or story in your family. Maybe one of your grandmas has always believed that the family is descended from English nobility or that you have ties to a famous celebrity from the past. Genealogy can help you confirm or deny these stories, or even discover other intriguing connections that nobody in your family was aware of.

6

Legal Reasons

There are plenty of legal reasons that might push you to take on a genealogical investigation. These reasons can be connected to wills, land ownerships, inheritance, taxes, and more. You might need some professional legal help along the way for this one.

7

Medical Reasons

A lot of health conditions and issues are passed down from one generation to the next. Knowing your family medical history can actually save your life, as those who are genetically at-risk of certain ailments can take preventative measures and get the help they need before issues become more serious.[6]

8

Finding Someone

You might be looking for someone specific. Perhaps your grandpa was adopted and you’d like to track down his birth parents, for instance, or maybe a family member was never sure who their father was, and studying the family history can help you track them down.[7]

9

A Hobby

Some people take an interest in genealogy purely as a hobby or pastime. It’s very educational and interesting, especially if you have an inquisitive mind and a love of puzzles or problem-solving in general. Even former president Barack Obama spent some of his free time learning more about his family history to write a book.[8]

10

Preserving the Past

Without people making efforts to discover things about their lineage and pass that information down to the next generation, many stories, secrets, and truths will be lost forever. Many people therefore almost feel a sense of duty to their ancestors to learn about them and keep their stories alive.

The Importance of Starting Early

There are countless people out there who have a ‘passive interest’ in genealogy. They like the idea and they always tell themselves that it’s something they’ll get around to eventually.

However, if you want to truly stand the best chance of getting real results and sharing the info you find with other family members, it’s vital to take that passive interest into an active one.

Taking action and starting your genealogical research as soon as possible is the best way to succeed in your searches. Why? There are several reasons, and they’re all related to the same core idea: the longer you wait, the harder it will be.

As time goes by, records can get destroyed or lost, even in this digital age. Not only that, but people, particularly older relatives who can be vital sources of information when researching one’s family history, can pass away.

They take their secrets and stories with them to the grave, unless that information is shared beforehand. It’s never truly too late to start researching your lineage and family past, but the sooner you act, the more data you’ll be able to secure from the people and resources around you.

With that in mind, let’s look at some top tips for getting started with genealogy.

How to Get Started with Genealogy

If you’re ready to get going with genealogy, there are some top tips to follow to get your journey off to the best possible start.

1

Start with What You Know

It can be quite overwhelming to start off with genealogy, as it feels like there’s so much you have to discover and so many unknown stories out there. That’s why it can help to start simply with what you do know, rather than what you don’t know. Write down names, dates, and other information of the family members you’re already aware of.

2

Make A Family Tree

Following on from the previous point, it’s perfectly possible for anyone to at least draw up a small family tree, based on the relatives they already know. This can actually help to inspire you a lot, as you start to see where the different branches might lead and can start to follow those paths.

3

Speak to Your Family

Before diving out into the world and looking through library archives or joining a genealogist’s society, speak to the people around you. Elderly relatives, in particular, may be able to shed a lot of light on the family past. Visit them, ask them to share their stories, find out what they know about your distant relatives and write everything down.

4

Make Notes

As stated above, writing down what you learn is so important throughout your genealogical investigations, especially at the start. It’s easy to forget little details, and little details are absolutely vital at unlocking the doors of your past. Make physical notes or digital notes on a computer, as you prefer, but make sure everything gets written down and organized.

5

Head to The Attic

Again, following the theme of sticking to what you know, you can actually ask parents or grandparents to search their attics and family homes. You might find old records, journals, photos, or other physical evidence that can be used to trace your lineage back.

6

Broaden Your Search

Once you’ve exhausted the resources that surround you in your own family life, it’s time to cast a wider net. Fortunately, there are absolutely dozens of different resources out there for you to use and so many possible options to explore.

Now let’s look at some of the many different resources you can make use of when starting up your genealogical journey, beginning with one of the most important resources of all: the census.

The Census - Your Best Toolkit

The census is one of the most vital tools in the genealogist’s kit. Taken every decade since 1790 in the United States, and also taken in many other countries on a regular basis too, the census is a goldmine of information on the entire population of a country. [9]

It includes names, dates, addresses, and so much more, and the vast majority of census data from the past is fully and freely available today.

The archives have been digitized, ensuring that these valuable and vital records are never lost, and with the internet at your fingertips, it’s never been so easy to simply browse through census data.

Here’s a complete overview of the census and how it can play a key role in your genealogical investigations:

What Does It Contain?

In the early decades of the US census, it included the name of the head of each household, along with some basic data on the other members of the household. Those early census records are therefore a little vague.

From 1850 onwards, however, the census started to list more detailed information on every person in every household. It includes names, dates of birth, occupations, places of work, and even a whole host of additional details like education level and income.

How Does It Work?

In the modern era, digital technology like the internet help to make the census collection process a lot simpler and more reliable. Back in the days before all our gadgets and devices, however, it involved a more traditional method.

Census takers would go out, door to door, and request information directly from household members. If they weren’t home, they’d usually get the information from neighbors instead.

Possible Issues?

There are some issues when it comes to relying on the census as a tool for genealogical research. For starters, the early censuses can be classed as a little unreliable in many ways.

Some people didn’t speak good or any English. Some didn’t understand the questions. Some gave vague or inaccurate responses. This means that the data you find cannot be counted on as 100% reliable every time.

A Truly Vital Source?

So, since the census can have mistakes, misprints, and other issues that prevent it from always being the most reliable source of information, should you still use it? Definitely.

Even with its flaws, it’s still an extraordinary source of data and can provide so many clues and leads for learning more about ancestors and long lost relatives. It won’t always give you the answers you need, but it’s a perfect place to start any search.

The Types of Records

In addition to the census, here are countless different types of records that can be investigated in the quest to learn more about one’s past. It can take time to research these many documents, and the process can be long in many cases, requiring a lot of patience on the part of the researcher.

You may even find that some documents have perished or simply cannot be found for one reason or another, but with so many options out there, there are always other avenues of research just waiting to be explored. 

Here are some examples of documents and records to investigate:

1

Birth Certificates

An integral element of the genealogical process, birth certificates give us a lot of information. They show not only when and where someone was born, but also provide data on the parents too.

2

Death Certificates

Just as important as birth certificates to genealogical researchers, death certificates show us the place and date of a person’s death, as well as often featuring information about the individual’s parents, spouse, and children. They also give us information on the cause of death.

3

Marriage Records

Marriage records show us the date of a wedding and the names of those involved. They often include information on the parents of the two partners too, and sometimes even names of friends or relatives who served as witnesses.

4

Baptism Records

Those looking for more information about their family trees with Christian roots can check out baptism records. They show names and dates of children being baptized, as well as data on the parents.

5

Wills

Wills are fascinating documents to take a look at while doing researching into your family tree. They can be incredible sources of information in some cases, offering names of relatives, friends, and other connections.

6

Criminal Records

Many people don’t dream of discovering that their ancestors were put behind bars for devious deeds, but this can be an intriguing part of the process. Criminal records can sometimes prove to be the ‘missing link’ when investigating a family tree and help to shine some light on a ‘black sheep’ member of the family.

7

Social Security Death Index

Similar to a death certificate, a Social Security Death Index entry shows us the date of death of an individual, along with their date and birth and some details about their social security number.

8

Obituaries

Also related to death, obituaries in old newspapers are often more personal than simple death certificates. They can include messages written by surviving family members or at least include the names of some close relatives after someone dies.

9

Deeds

Property deeds or records related to property or land ownership show us the names of buyers and sellers, along with the dates of transactions and can be of assistance while tracking family lines as well.

10

Passenger Lists

One of the most important documents for those researching their family history in the US, passenger lists show the names of all those who sailed or traveled to America. They often include names and ages of each passenger, along with information on their address, contact details, and more.

11

Naturalization Records

After arriving in the United States, naturalization was the next step for many people. Application forms for naturalization include names, addresses, jobs, places of birth, dates of birth, and lots of other information.

12

Family Bible

If your family happened to keep a family bible, you’re already off to a great start in your research of the family tree. These bibles usually track all major events in the family, including births, marriages, and deaths.

13

Cemeteries

You might not know, but many cemetery records are actually very detailed. As well as tracking the date, place, and name of a death, they can also include information on the deceased’s date of birth, place of birth, and their surviving relatives.

14

Graves

You can also actually visit graves of family members and ancestors, which often provide additional information like date of birth or the names of other family members too. Sometimes, relatives are even buried right beside one another.

15

Photos

One of the most thrilling moments for anyone tracking their family past is to actually find a photo of an ancestor and put a face to a name. This helps to establish a more direct and personal connection with that person, and you never know what you might find in old family albums to start with.

Top Tips for Genealogy

Genealogy can be a wonderful way to spend some free time, learning more about yourself, your past, your ancestors, and the many interwoven tales and threads that led all the way to your existence.

For many people, both professional and amateur, it’s a thrilling experience, fueled by a desire to learn and know more. But it isn’t always easy and it can be overwhelming at times. These top tips can help you make your genealogical adventures more enjoyable and fruitful.

Be Patient

When starting off, genealogy can feel quite intimidating. Many people don’t quite know where to begin, or those who have tried a few things and failed to make a big discovery can begin to lose faith.

One of the most important keys to being successful in your genealogical endeavors is to remain patient and keep at it. There are always other avenues to try, other resources to utilize, and other things to uncover.

It might take more time than you originally expected, but with effort and patience, anyone can reap the rewards of genealogical research.

Don't Expect Miracles

Following on from the point above, it’s important to set your expectations at the right level before you even begin to look into your family past.

A lot of people have read books like Roots or seen TV shows about individuals who discovered some incredible ancestral connection to Napoleon Bonaparte or an ancient ruler. In reality, however, these cases are rare.

In the vast majority of situations, researching your roots is not going to unveil some long lost celebrity uncle or extraordinary connection, but it can still be just as exciting to learn about your great-great-great-grandparents and their life story too.

Use Every Resource

As you’ve seen in the list above, there are a lot of different records out there to help out with genealogical research. Don’t limit yourself to just one or two of them. Pursue them all!

You never know what you might find by taking a different angle and seeking out a birth certificate, a deed, or taking a deeper look at census data. You can even use Google tools to help with genealogy, as seen in the video below:

Not only that, but there are many other resources available to you beyond the typical realm of records. You can read books on genealogy, watch shows and documentaries exploring the subject, or speak to other enthusiasts to learn more.

Network with Like-Minded People

Following on from the point above, networking with other genealogical enthusiasts can give you a lot of encouragement and even help you learn a thing or two, discovering whole new techniques, websites, or systems you weren’t aware of.

There are Facebook groups, forums, local organizations, and societies of all shapes and kinds dedicated to family history. They’re always welcoming to new members, with friendly people ready and waiting to answer your questions and help you find out more about the past.

Start with The Census

This has been stated above, but it’s worth repeating here: the census is the best resource to start off with. Once you know some names and dates of your relatives, which can be learned from talking to grandparents or looking through old family records, the census can become invaluable.

It’s able to shed a lot of light on your family tree, giving you more names, more addresses, more dates and more data to analyze and use in your future research. It’s also super easy to access online and simple to browse through too.

Remember Name Changes

Don’t forget that, when researching female family members in particular, names can change throughout the course of someone’s life. Women may have two, three, or even more surnames over the years, so if you don’t get results for one search, you can always try another.

Using birth names is generally the best way to get results when looking through resources like birth certificates, as these will often give you the most accurate results.

Stay Organized

When you start off investigating family history, you’ll find that information can quickly build up. A simple look at a census or a conversation with a grandparent can result in reams of names, stories, addresses, and other useful info.

All of this data needs to be collected, collated, and organized if you want the best chance of success. Having lots of information all out of order and without context can make the process feel quite overwhelming.

Use your own system, either physical, digital, or a combination of both, to keep your records and findings in order. Staying organized and being able to quickly check through your facts and cross-reference different bits of data can be highly time-saving.

Think About Context

A big part of looking back into the past is remembering that life back then was very different to how it is now. And thinking about this, putting some context around the facts you find, can make the whole process more enjoyable and exciting in a lot of ways.

For example, maybe you’ll discover some ancestors who came to America from Europe on a boat. That information is already quite fascinating, but if you delve deeper, you can learn where exactly they came from and think about what life was like in that country or area at the time.

This can help you develop a more personal connection to your ancestors, putting context to their actions, helping to understand the ‘why’, as well as the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘how’.

Consider A Kit

In recent years, DNA and ancestry kits have become quite popular with people wishing to learn more about their past. These kits come in various forms, including Autosomal DNA, YDNA, and Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.

Autosomal DNA kits can help you find relatives who are actually still alive, so can be a great option for those who want to connect with lost family members.

YDNA kits only work for men and allow them to trace the male line of their family back many generations. Finally, mtDNA kits work to trace the maternal line back many generations.

If You're Serious, Think About Hiring A Professional

Last but not least, if you’re really passionate about the past but find yourself struggling to make discoveries or just don’t have the time to pursue genealogy on your own, you might want to consider hiring a pro.

The rates can vary and the overall cost can be quite high, but pros are often able to get results when amateur researchers hit an obstacle. You may also find yourself needing to hire a professional translator for documents that are written in a foreign language, for example.

Conclusion

And there you have it, a comprehensive guide to the fascinating world of genealogy. It’s an intriguing subject and one that is attracting the attention of more and more people with every passing day.

The future is fascinating, but the past is equally exciting, and learning more about your personal family history can be quite a thrilling experience from start to finish.

Thanks to the internet and its bounty of free resources, anyone can get started with genealogy today, but as we’ve seen, the results can vary and are highly dependent on how much time and effort you’re willing to put in.

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