Last updated: December 12, 2018
Searching for Your Genealogical Records to Trace Your Family History Online
Have you thought about tracing your ancestry and family history but weren’t sure how to begin? If so, you aren’t alone.
Genealogy is the quest to discover one’s family history in as accurate a way possible. And it has quickly become a popular hobby.
Multiple resources can help users find answers about their family history and separate fact from fiction. Whether one is adopted, separated from family members, or simply looking for more information for their family tree, the field of genealogy is vast and incorporates multiple branches. With various types of records, documentation, and multiple streams of research, anyone can begin researching their family history and document their genealogy.
History of Genealogy
No one knows exactly when genealogy originated. It may be that as soon as humans began keeping written accounts, people started keeping genealogical records. We have genealogical records dating back at least to the 6th century BC Chinese philosopher Confucius.
In early human history, people kept genealogies of one form or another to show social status or establish a royal pedigree. Kings and queens ascended to the throne by birthright, and the need for accurate, written records of lineage was clear.
In the Middle Ages, churches began keeping records of patrons, thus establishing records used in genealogical research. It has long been a hobby for people. But it wasn’t until modern times, when the advent of the Internet allowed everyday people tools needed to trace their ancestry, that genealogy became as popular as it is today.
Modern methods help weed out fake histories, thereby enabling genealogists to document an accurate account of a family line. Some of the oldest known genealogies include those of early kings and pharaohs, dynastic leaders, and records found in the Bible and other religious books.
Many genealogies date back thousands of years, but whether or not they are proven verifiable is often a matter of debate. In modern genealogies, the search for verifiably accurate records is paramount to establishing a legitimate family tree.
Types of Records and Documentation
Oral history has often been passed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, this is not a good source of accurate genealogical information. Oral histories tend to suffer from what we see in the game Chinese whispers or telephone: errors accumulate over time, eventually swamping the original message.
Luckily, numerous records and documents exist that can help create a genealogical record that withstands careful scrutiny. Some records and documents commonly used to establish genealogy include:
- Birth and death certificates
- Military records
- Immigration, naturalization, and emigration records
- Church documentation
- Funeral services
- Other religious rites of passage
- Court records
- Wills and probate
- Criminal records
- Guardianship and adoption
- Census records
- Property ownership, deeds, and other land titles and records
- Tax documents
- Employment records
- Voter registrations
- Social Security indexes
Although oral histories may be unreliable, they are often priceless as a starting point for a genealogical search. They can be used to start looking for documents that are much more likely to be accurate.
Identifying Reliable Resources
We’ve already discussed how oral history can be corrupted over time. The same is true for written records, although clearly not as likely. What’s more, just because a bit of information was written down, doesn’t make it true. As we know from our experience today, there are some things that are printed that just aren’t true. Sometimes, this is just the result of incompetence — which can be hard to uncover. But in many instances, it is the result of a writer with an ax to grind. These cases are easier to discount.
Primary and Secondary Sources
When identifying reliable resources for accurate genealogies, keep in mind that there are two types of sources of information: primary and secondary. A primary source of information is the originator of the record. For example, church records regarding a baptism or funeral service written at the time of the event would be primary. A written account twenty years later based on an interview with the priest who performed the service would be secondary.
Look for primary sources given by informants who were witnesses to the event at the time it occurred to ensure greater reliability.
Types of Information
In order to create a reliable history, certain key elements must be known, gathered, researched, and then scrutinized for reliability. The most important types of information genealogists use include:
- Family and given names
- Locations or names of places
- Work-related or occupational data
Understanding customs or practices that were widely used throughout the period, place, or culture a person may have lived in is also of great value.
Distinguishing Between Similar People
One problem that frequently arises when trying to establish reliable genealogies is distinguishing people with the same name. It’s important to use all available tools at your disposal when separating a person’s identity from other same-name people, those who use nicknames, and those with similar occupations.
Some records may list a person by their given name and then use a nickname, causing the unsuspecting researcher to think there were two people in the family line when truly there was just one. The spellings of town or city names may change from one record to the next. And this gets worse the further you go back. Knowing variations of a spelling over time will help the genealogist create a more accurate record.
Modern-day genealogists have a special tool only available quite recently: genetic analysis. DNA testing can be used to trace or verify a particular lineage. Genetic analysis can also show what region a person’s ancestors originally came from, thus providing more information that may be used to find reliable records. Modern researchers often find that genetic testing is what puts the missing pieces of a puzzle together and creates a full picture.
The Research Process
Genealogists have a host of tools available at their disposal to use when researching family histories. In general, the research process begins with oral traditions and histories. It then moves onto written records and documents — often networking together with other researchers. Finally, results are confirmed through genetic testing.
Genealogy is one of the fastest-growing and popular hobbies worldwide. You may find more information about genealogy and how to begin the search for your own family history with the links below.
- What is Genealogical Research?
- Genealogical Resources from Rutgers University
- Genealogical Resources and List of Links
- Genealogy Articles at the National Archives
- Information Regarding Genealogy at the US Census Bureau
- What is Genetic Ancestry Testing?
- Genealogical Information from the US Department of Interior
- Genealogy 101: Family History and More
- You’re a What? Genealogist (PDF)
- Genealogy Resources in Texas
- US Government Genealogy Resources by State
- Large List of Genealogy Resources Selected by Librarians
- Genealogy Tools and Resources from Maine Public Library
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