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Genealogy and Family History

How to Begin

Choosing a Strategy


For many people, researching Family History means tracing members of a family, showing the relationships among them, recording their family stories, collecting their treasured photos and documents, and sharing all that with other family members.

Genealogy, on the other hand, is often considered to be a more rigid, even scientific, activity that incorporates standard ways of recording information, rigorous methods for assessing evidence, an academic component providing formal learning, and professional accreditation. Genealogists plan and attend conferences; publish books and articles; contribute to other disciplines such as medicine, genetics and history; and promote and lead efforts to preserve and make accessible records of the past.

Specialized terms are used in family history and genealogy. Consult the Glossary to find out what they mean.

The first strategic principle is quite simple: begin your research with yourself and work backwards. Doing this helps to avoid the possibility of documenting people who are not your ancestors.

Many folks work happily on whatever branch of their family they find easiest and, when they hit a brick wall, they switch to another branch.

Some people focus on only one side of a family:

  • the paternal (father's) side of a family is often easier because the last name usually does not vary when traced back in time;
  • the maternal (mother's) side of a family is more difficult because the maiden names of women who assumed their husband's surnames are not often known.

Some researchers decide to follow a family surname and its variants broadly in a One-Name Study. Still other researchers may concentrate on a particular ethnicity that occurs in their family.

If you document blood relatives plus spouses, extend your research one step further to find the names of the parents and siblings of the spouse. Doing this provides information that can be useful when collaborating with other researchers to establish links between families.

Recording information about extended families means documenting persons who are part of your family through:

  • marriage only (e.g., your sister-in-law's brother's children);
  • adoption, fostering or guardianship (formal or informal)
  • married or unmarried unions (including same-sex partnerships);
  • "honorary" family membership (such as Aunt Jessie who wasn't really your aunt, but was a close family friend).

Most important: choose a strategy that suits your interest and brings satisfaction.