Genealogy (from Greek: γενεά genea, "generation"; and λόγος logos, "knowledge"), also known as family history, is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral interviews, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members. The results are often displayed in charts or written as narratives.
The pursuit of family history and origins tends to be shaped by several motives, including the desire to carve out a place for one's family in the larger historical picture, a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations, and a sense of self-satisfaction in accurate storytelling.
Amateur genealogists typically pursue their own ancestry and that of their spouses. Professional genealogists may also conduct research for others, publish books on genealogical methods, teach, or produce their own databases. They may work for companies that provide software or produce materials of use to other professionals and to amateurs. Both 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 socioeconomic or religious 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. Bloodlines of Salem is an example of a specialized family-history group. It welcomes members who can prove descent from a participant of the Salem Witch Trials or who simply choose to support the group.
Genealogists and family historians often join family history societies, where novices can learn from more experienced researchers. Such societies generally serve a specific geographical area. Their members may also index records to make them more accessible, and engage in advocacy and other efforts to preserve public records and cemeteries. Some schools engage students in such projects as a means to reinforce lessons regarding immigration and history. Other benefits include family medical histories with families with serious medical conditions that are hereditary.
The terms "genealogy" and "family history" are often used synonymously, but some offer a slight difference in definition. The Society of Genealogists, while also using the terms interchangeably, describes genealogy as the "establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next" and family history as "a biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived". The term "family history" may be more popular in Europe, "genealogy" more popular in the United States.
Historically, in Western societies the focus of genealogy was on 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. Modern scholars consider many claimed noble ancestries to be fabrications, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that traced the ancestry of several English kings to the god Woden.
Some family trees have been maintained for considerable periods. The family tree of Confucius has been maintained for over 2,500 years and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest extant family tree. The fifth edition of the Confucius Genealogy was printed in 2009 by the Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee (CGCC).
Genealogical research in the United States was first systematized in the early 19th century, especially by John Farmer (1789–1838). Before Farmer's efforts, tracing one's genealogy was seen as an attempt by colonists to secure a measure of social standing within the British Empire, an aim that was counter to the new republic's egalitarian, future-oriented ethos. As Fourth of July celebrations commemorating the Founding Fathers and the heroes of the Revolutionary War became increasingly popular, however, the pursuit of 'antiquarianism,' which focused on local history, became acceptable as a way to honor the achievements of early Americans. Farmer capitalized on the acceptability of antiquarianism to frame genealogy within the early republic's ideological framework of pride in one's American ancestors. He corresponded with other antiquarians in New England, where antiquarianism and genealogy were well established, and became a coordinator, booster, and contributor to the growing movement. In the 1820s, he and fellow antiquarians began to produce genealogical and antiquarian tracts in earnest, slowly gaining a devoted audience among the American people. Though Farmer died in 1839, his efforts led to the creation of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), one of New England's oldest and most prominent organizations dedicated to the preservation of public records. NEHGS publishes the New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
The Genealogical Society of Utah, founded in 1894, later became the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The department's research facility, the Family History Library, which has developed the most extensive genealogical record-gathering program in the world, was established to assist in tracing family lineages for special religious ceremonies which LDS adherents believe will seal family units together for eternity. LDS members believe that this fulfilled a biblical prophecy stating that the prophet Elijah would return to "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers." There is a network of LDS Family History Centers all over the country and around the world, where volunteers assist the public with tracing their ancestors.
Family Name in Genealogy
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 refers to the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, surname, or last name. Patronymics are names that identify an individual based on the father's name. For example, Marga Olafsdottir is Marga, daughter of Olaf, and Olaf Thorsson is Olaf, son of Thor. 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. In Denmark and Norway patronymics and farm names were generally in use through the 19th century and beyond, though surnames began to come into fashion toward the end of the 19th century in some parts of the country. Not until 1856 in Denmark and 1923 in Norway were there laws requiring surnames.
The transmission of names across generations, marriages and other relationships, and immigration may cause difficulty in genealogical research. For instance, 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.Children may sometimes assume stepparent, foster parent, or adoptive parent names. Because official records may reflect many kinds of surname change, without explaining the underlying reason for the change, the correct identification of a person recorded identified with more than one name is challenging. Immigrants to America often Americanized their names.
Surname data may be found in trade directories, census returns, birth, death, and marriage records.