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Genealogy (from Greek: γενεά, genea, "descent"; and λόγος, logos, "knowledge") is the study and tracing of family lineages and history. Genealogical research is a complex process that uses historical records and sometimes genetic analysis to demonstrate kinship. Reliable conclusions are based on the quality of sources, ideally original records, the information within those sources, ideally primary or firsthand information, and the evidence that can be drawn, directly or indirectly, from that information. In many instances, genealogists must skillfully assemble indirect or circumstantial evidence to build a case for identity and kinship. All evidence and conclusions, together with the documentation that supports them, is then assembled to create a cohesive "genealogy" or " family history." Traditionalists may differentiate between these last two terms, using the former to describe skeletal accounts of kinship (aka family trees) and the latter as a "fleshing out" of lives and personal histories. However, historical, social, and family context is in any case essential to achieving correct identification of individuals and relationships.


Historically, among Western societies the genealogical focus was the kinship and descent 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. Many claimed ancestries are considered fabrications by modern scholars. An example of this is the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers who traced the ancestry of several English kings back to the god Woden, the English version of the Norse god Odin.

In modern times, genealogy became more widespread, with commoners as well as nobility researching and maintaining their family trees. Genealogy received a 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, leading to genealogy becoming an even more popular hobby. 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. The Internet has also become not only a major source of data for genealogists, but also of education and communication. According to some sources, genealogy is one of the most popular topics on the Internet.

Genealogists typically pursue their own ancestry and that of their children and spouses. Professional genealogists may also conduct research for others, publish books on genealogical methods, teach, or work for companies that provide software or online databases. Both also 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 social 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.

Genealogists and family historians often join family history societies where novices can learn from more experienced researchers. Such societies may also, usually on a volunteer basis, index and preserve public records and cemeteries to make records more accessible.

Genealogical research process

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.

To keep track of collected material, family group sheets and pedigree charts are used. Formerly handwritten, these can now be generated by genealogical software.

Genetic analysis

Because a person's DNA contains information that has been passed down relatively unchanged from early ancestors, analysis of DNA is sometimes used for genealogical research. Two DNA types are of particular interest: mitochondrial DNA that we all possess and that is passed down with only minor mutations through the matrilinial (direct female) line; and the Y-chromosome, present only in males, which is passed down with only minor mutations through the patrilinial (direct male) line.

A genealogical DNA test allows two individuals to find the probability that they are, or are not, related within an estimated number of generations. Individual genetic test results are collected in databases to match people descended from a relatively recent common ancestor. See, for example, the Molecular Genealogy Research Project. These tests are limited to either the patrilinial or the matrilinial line.

In addition to supporting the patrilineal line of one's pedigree by matching the Y-chromosome DNA of others descended from the same alleged progenitor, a Y-DNA mis-match can reveal a Non-paternity event (NPE) (i.e., a hidden adoption or illicit relationship on the part of the mother) in a person's ancestry, a fact that may not detected by any means other than DNA testing.

Sharing data among researchers

Data sharing among genealogical researchers has grown to be a major use of the Internet. Most genealogy software programs can export 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. Many genealogical software applications also facilitate the sharing of information via CD-ROMs and DVDs.


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

On the informal side are the many popular and useful message boards and mailing lists on particular surnames, regions, and other topics. These forums can be used to try 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 publish the indexes either off- or online. These indexes can be used as finding aids to locate original records. Other projects transcribe or abstract records. Offering record lookups is another common service, and those projects are usually organized by geographic area. Volunteers such as those involved in RAOGK do record lookups in their home areas for researchers who are unable to travel.

Those looking for a structured volunteer environment can join one of thousands of genealogical societies worldwide. 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 may offer a broad range of services. It is common for them to maintain libraries for members' use, publish newsletters, provide research assistance to the public, offer classes or seminars, and organize record preservation or transcription projects.

Records in genealogical research

A family history page from an Antebellum era family Bible.

To keep track of their citizens, governments began keeping records of persons who were neither royalty nor nobility. In much of Europe, for example, such record keeping started in the 16th century. As more of the population was recorded, there were sufficient records to follow a family.

Major life events, such as births, marriages, and deaths, were often documented with a license, permit, or report. Genealogists locate these records in local, regional or national offices or archives and extract information about family relationships and recreate timelines of persons' lives.

In China and other Asian countries, genealogy books are used to record the names, occupations, and other information about family members, with some books dating back hundreds or even thousands of years. In the eastern Indian state of Bihar, there is a written tradition of genealogical records among Maithil Brahmins and Karna Kayasthas called " Panjis", dating to the 12th century CE. Even today these records and are consulted prior to marriages.

In Ireland, genealogical records were recorded by professional families of senchaidh (historians) until as late as the mid-17th century, when Gaelic civilization died out. Perhaps the most outstanding example of this genre is Leabhar na nGenealach/ The Great Book of Irish Genealogies, by Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh (d. 1671), published in 2004.

Records that are used in genealogy research include:

  • Vital records
    • Birth records
    • Death records
    • Marriage and divorce records
  • Adoption records
  • Biographies and biographical profiles (e.g. Who's Who)
  • Census records
  • Church records
    • Baptism or christening
    • Confirmation
    • Bar or bat mitzvah
    • Marriage
    • Funeral or death
    • Membership
  • City directories and telephone directories
  • Coroner's reports
  • Court records
    • Criminal records
    • Civil 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 property records, deeds
  • Medical records
  • Military and conscription records
  • Newspaper articles
  • Obituaries
  • Occupational records
  • Oral histories
  • Passports
  • Photographs
  • Poorhouse, workhouse, almshouse, and asylum records
  • School and alumni association records
  • Ship passenger lists
  • Social Security (within the USA) and pension records
  • Tax records
  • Tombstones, cemetery records, and funeral home records
  • Voter registration records
  • Wills and probate records

LDS collections

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has engaged in large-scale microfilming of available records of genealogical value. Their Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, houses over 2 million microfiche and microfilms of genealogically relevant material, which are also available for on-site research at over 4,000 Family History Centers worldwide.

The LDS church has also compiled indexes of the submissions of its members, resulting in several large databases: the International Genealogical Index, or IGI, which includes both data extracted from filmed civil and ecclesiastic records from various worldwide locales and member-submitted information; the Ancestral File, or AF, which includes the contributions of church members; and the Pedigree Resource File, or PRF, compiled from member and non-member submissions. The IGI contains indexes to millions of records of individuals who lived between 1500 and 1900, primarily in the United States, Canada and Europe. Although independent of the IGI, the AF and PRF often contain duplications of IGI records. All three of these indexes are available free on their website, FamilySearch. FamilySearch also includes an 1880 United States federal census index, an 1881 British census index, an 1881 Canadian census index, and the U.S. Social Security Death Index, as well as research guides and genealogical word lists.

Types of genealogical information

Genealogists who seek to reconstruct the lives of each ancestor consider all historical information to be "genealogical" information. Traditionally, the basic information needed to ensure correct identification of each person are place names, occupations, family names, first names, and dates. However, modern genealogists greatly expand this list, recognizing the need to place this information in its historical context in order to properly evaluate genealogical evidence and distinguish between same-name individuals.

Place names

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.

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.


Occupational information may be important to understanding an ancestor’s life and for distinguishing two people with the same name. A person’s occupation may have been related to his or her social status, political interest, and migration pattern. Since skilled trades are often passed from father to son, occupation may also be indirect evidence of a family relationship.

It is important to remember that occupations sometimes changed or may be easily misunderstood. Workers no longer fit for their primary trade often took 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 many cultures, the name of a person references the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, surname, or last name. Patronymics are names that allow identification of an individual based on the father's name, e.g., Marga Olafsdottir or Olaf 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. In Iceland, patronymics are used by a majority of the population; surnames made their way into the language in the 19th and 20th century, but are not widely used. In order to protect the patronymics system, in Iceland it is forbidden by law to introduce a new surname. In Denmark and Norway patronymics and the use of farm names were generally in use through the 1800s and beyond, though surnames began to come into fashion toward the end of that century in some parts of the country. Not until 1856 (Denmark - an earlier law was in effect in 1828, but was largely ignored in the rural areas) and 1923 (Norway) were there laws requiring surnames.

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 stepparent, 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 name ( 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 that are not reflected as such in official records.

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

Given names

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. For example Beth, Lizzie or Betty are all common for Elizabeth, and Jack, John and Jonathan may be interchanged.

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.

Historically, naming traditions existed in some places. It is important to recognize, however, that naming traditions were not used in all families and did not always follow the same formula.

An example is Scotland and Ireland, where:

  • 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

Another example is in some areas of Germany, where siblings were given the same first name, often of a favourite saint or local nobility, but different second names by which they were known (Rufname).

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.

Personal names have 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. Others 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 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. The 1841 census in the UK is rounded down to the next lower multiple of five years.

Although baptismal dates are often used to approximate birth dates, some families waited years before baptizing children, and adult baptisms are the norm in some religions. Both birth and marriage dates may have been adjusted to cover for pre-wedding pregnancies.

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.

For further detail on the changes involved in moving from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, see: Gregorian calendar.


Genealogy software is computer software 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.

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.

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