The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Genealogy is the study and tracing of family pedigrees. This involves collecting the names of relatives, both living and deceased, and establishing the relationships between 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 sometimes these terms are used distinctly: the former being the basic study of who is related to whom; the latter involving more "fleshing out" of the life histories of the individuals involved.



Genealogists search written records, 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 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.

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

Genealogical and historical societies are a great help to researchers piecing together their family history and putting it in a historical context. Some such societies focus on tracing the lineage of participants in one historical event. Among these in the United States are the Daughters of the American Revolution, The Society of Mayflower Descendants , and United Daughters of the Confederacy. Another type of society focuses on a particular geographical area rather than on particular individuals. Among these geographically oriented societies, the New England Historic Genealogical Society founded in 1845 is the oldest in AmericaPhpmyfamily. One phenomenon over the last few years has been that of large genealogy-related databases going on-line, attracting a flash crowd, and having to suspend service within days to make hurried upgrades after collapsing under the unexpected magnitude of traffic load: this happened with the Mormons' genealogy database and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's listing of war graves. In January 2002, the much-anticipated British census for 1901 went online. Within minutes it was inaccessible due to the server and network load, and it had to be taken offline. Later in the year, after upgrades had been made, it came back online.


Volunteer efforts figure prominently in genealogy both as a source of enriching data sources and as a means to obtain information from geographically remote sources. For instance, there is an organization of >4500 researchers that share their time under the phrase and associated web site "Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness".Rootsweb User Database listing provides an example of the broad range of such individual volunteer efforts. Among more formal volunteer transcription efforts is the USGenWeb Census Project that matches volunteers with census transcription opportunities.

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, the major events were documented with a license, permit or report which was sent to a local, regional or national office or archive. A genealogist locates copies of these records, wherever they have been stored, and rearranges the information about each person to discover family relationships and recreate a timeline of each person's life once again.

Records that are used in genealogy research include:

In most cultures, the name of a person includes in one way or another 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 all cultures.

Reliability of sources

Experience shows that genealogical facts can be unreliable. The top five, in order of decreasing reliability, are:

1. Place Names - Normally the most accurate because it is long lasting, and apart from rare occasions is rarely wrong. Things to look out for include variable spellings by partially literate scribes, small places of the same name in neighbouring counties (e.g. the name of the village of Brocton occurs six times in the border area between the English counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire), old county borders (outlying and detached areas belonging to one country with another county, particularly in C17th-C19th England), and incorrect county on census returns. The place where the ancestor recalls growing up may not be the place of birth or where the records are eventually found. Many families have been historically very mobile. A good set of detailed maps (such as the British Ordnance Survey (OS) maps) and use the OS Old Map website. Old records may contain references to Middle Age villages that have ceased to exist due to disease or famine. In general, there is a good likelihood that the place (parish) of a birth for a girl is the place she marries (unless 'sent abroad' as a servant), and that the place of residence for a man is where he is buried; certainly a neighbouring parish. Useful references: maps (online), gazetteer (place name dictionary), census returns, birth, death & marriage records, Domesday Book.

2. Occupations - Can be partly right. Many unskilled ancestors had a variety of jobs depending on the season and local trade requirements. Occasionally skilled trades pass from father to son. Census returns may contain some embellishment from Labourer to Mason, or from journeyman to Master craftsman. Workmen no longer fit for their primary trade often have less glamorous jobs later in life. Look out for old or unfamiliar local occupations that may cause confusion if poorly legible - an ostler (a keeper of horses) and a hostler (an innkeeper) can be confused. For example, someone who has a perplexing description "ironer of rabbit burrows" turns out an ironer (profession) in the Bristol district named Rabbit Burrows. Several trades have regional preferences, for e.g. shoemaker or cordwainer, and many apparently obscure jobs are part of a larger trade community such as watchmaking, framework knitting or gunmaking. References: trade directories, census returns, birth, death & marriage records.

3. Surnames - At least correct if viewed phonetically! Some surnames can be spelled a multitude of way by partially illiterate ancestors or scribes. The further you go back, the more bizarre the variations you encounter. Some names become interchangeable between married and maiden names, and previous husbands' names. Some family names are not always obvious (examples include MORDECAI interchangeable with MORT). Confusion can result from using step-parents or adopted parents names, as well as a woman using her lover's name. Common-law marriages were still common in Victorian times in England, even though this type of legally recognised informal marriage was abolished in 1753, so records of a marriage simply may not exist. References: trade directories, census returns, birth, death & marriage records.

4. First Names - One of the most confusing aspects of research for a wide range of reasons. Nicknames 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. There is Amy used for Alice, Nancy/Ann, and Polly for a number of girls names including Mary Ann and Elizabeth. While the girls names are the most confusing, boys names can also interchange: Jack, John & Jonathan, Joseph & Josiah, Edward & Edwin, etc. The use of middle names is more common than you may think - very often names appear back to front on a wide range of documents. The same name can also be given to several children, often the result of an earlier child dying young, however this is not always the case! You may conclude that there is both a John senior (i.e. "elder") and John junior (i.e. "younger") alive at the same time (not to be confused with the use of Sr. and Jr. as - usually - referring to father and son). It is also common to confuse relatives (father and son, nephew & uncle, etc.) and family groups - you will find a period in time where everyone seems to be a child of a couple named William & Mary or Samuel & Ann, with several couples of the name living in the district you're researching, all with children named with the most popular names of the times! The sex of some names is not always clear - examples include Treasure (male) or a Frances (actually male - "Francis") marrying Eli (actually female - "Elly").

5. Dates - the general rule is to never trust a date! Accurate dates of birth may be given for modern registrations and in a few church records at baptism. Family bibles may be a help, but can be written from memory long after the event - beware of the same ink and handwriting for all entries; a sure sign the dates were written at the same time and therefore will be less reliable. Women will commonly reduce their age on marriage, and perhaps those under "full age" may increase their age upon marriage or joining the armed forces. Census returns are notoriously unreliable, particularly when looking for a date for a husband's death - if the woman is at home while the husband is away, she could be given as Head of household or assumed a widow. The 1841 census in the UK is rounded down to the next lower multiple of five years. Dates around birth may be confused between birth and baptism. Some families wait 3-5 years before baptising children, and adult baptisms are not unheard of. Both birth and marriage dates can be 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. In 1752 the date of the new year was changed in England. Before 1752 the new year started on the 25th March, 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 a 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

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 descendents 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. (See Rohde's On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans)


Below is a list of computer software (listed alphabetically) which helps genealogists gather and structure the information related to genealogy. Lists of software in this category have been compiled elsewhere, such as the Software & Computers category @ Cyndi's List, the Society:Genealogy:Products and Services:Software category @ Open Directory, and Business and Economy:Shopping and Services:History:Genealogy:Software category @ Yahoo Directory.




Webserving (available for multiple operating systems)

  • GeneWeb: Site for acquiring software that can be installed on a webserver, in which case CGI mode can be invoked, or on a local PC, in which case it functions as its own webserver. The software is free and has been developed by a group of individuals that appear to be otherwise unaffiliated. GeneWeb is distinguished by the implementation of unique consanguinity and relationship algorithms. {site visited 2005-01-27}
  • PhpGedView
  • phpmyfamily: Site for acquiring software that can be installed on a webserver for building and hosting a genealogy website. The software is free and development is hosted on Current prerequisites are PHP and MySQL. {site visited 2005-01-27}
  • The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding© ("TNG"): A powerful way to manage and display your genealogy data on the Internet, all without generating a single page of HTML. Instead, your information is stored in MySQL database tables and dynamically displayed in attractive fashion with PHP (a scripting language).

Java (cross-platform)

  • @rbre - open 3D genealogy (Java-X3D-P2P): Site for acquiring software. This is a GEDCOM file viewer, relying on other software to produce a GEDCOM file. At an early stage of development, @rbre provides a unique 3D visualization of family trees. The main webpage is only available in French, but Babel Fish translations to English and German are available. {site visited 2005-01-27}
  • GeneaPro- based on the GenTech Genealogical Data Model. Geneapro is a multi-user, cross-platform Genealogy database program. Currently in alpha planning stage and not suitable for normal use. Written in Java using the Eclipse Rich Client Platform (RCP), Hibernate persistance, and SQL/JDBC databases (HSQLDB, MySQL, PostgreSQL). {site visited 2005-02-14}



  1. The mythological origin of English kings is related in a number of derivative sources, such as The Scyldings, an article at Ancient Worlds. In this article one primary source cited is the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". The following passage appears in the entry for A.D. 449: "Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also." In this context "royal kindred" refers to English kings. Reference: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Part 1: A.D. 1 - 748, part of The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Retrieved 2005 Mar 11.
  2. ^  Homepage for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Retrieved 2005-02-05.
  3. ^  Homepage for "Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness". Retrieved 2005-02-06.

External links

Referring to many of the links in this section


United Kingdom

prior content has been moved to Wikibooks:Genealogy:_UK; feel free to contribute new content to this section or contribute directly to the Wikibooks:Genealogy Courtland 18:16, 2005 Apr 6 (UTC)

United States of America

prior content has been moved to Wikibooks:Genealogy:_US; feel free to contribute new content to this section or contribute directly to the Wikibooks:Genealogy Courtland 18:19, 2005 Apr 6 (UTC)









Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:35:28
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13