How To Get Started With Genealogy
Where, in the past, the in-depth tracing of ancestry and family history was the sole preserve of the very rich or titled, in recent years genealogical studies have been embarked on by everyone from celebrities on television shows (such as the popular ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’), to your workmates and next-door neighbours.
According to MIT Technology Review, as many people purchased consumer DNA tests in 2018 as in all previous years put together, proving how much of an increase there has been in public interest in recent years. As stated by the Review, more than 26 million people had entered their own DNA into the pool by the start of 2019, according to data from four of the leading commercial ancestry databases, and if the trend continues we could see in excess of 100 million DNA samples catalogued before the end of 2021.
People are also finding that supplying their DNA to such databases is having wider-reaching benefits than simply learning more about their ancestors. Since the sudden uptick in interest, DNA websites have been able to recognise genetic predisposition to certain illnesses and diseases, and have also been used to resolve long-closed cold cases.
There have been privacy concerns cited by some, as DNA provided by family members is able to pinpoint offenders years after they last offended – prolific serial killer the Golden State Killer was finally found and jailed thanks to genealogy website Ancestry.com – as outlined in this article.
In response, many American states have created legislation that prevents police from surreptitiously using these databases as a way to catch criminals. The UK police force has no plans at this time to begin using genealogy databases in their investigations.
It is worth checking the current laws in your area regarding the sharing of this data, and ensuring that you are happy with where your data will go after you have collected it, before you proceed.
What Resources Are Available?
If you are interested in tracking your ancestral history or finding out more about your DNA, there are plenty of resources available online. The most popular way to do this is through genealogy databases online, as these make it fairly simple for you to supply DNA or information and then keep all of your research in one place.
Some of the most popular sites in the US and UK alike are:
For those who want to take a more proactive role in researching their family history and putting together a personal genealogical study, the records that are most commonly used by genealogists include:
- Census records
- Military records
- Immigration records
- Naturalization records
- Land records
Some of the sites listed above offer access to these, but researchers can also look elsewhere online, in local libraries and records offices, and even in their own homes.
Why Do People Research Their Family Tree?
There are hundreds of individual reasons that a person might decide that they want to look further into their family tree. As the process becomes more popular, curiosity is likely to increase across society as a whole, meaning that individuals could become interested purely because people they know are getting involved with the process, or as a way to expand other family members’ research.
Aside from this, some of the most common reasons to research family heritage include:
- To find out if there is anyone famous or notable in your family tree
- To find out if family stories and legends are true
- To assess your risk for certain inherited medical conditions
- To find birth parents/to obtain proof of paternity
- To settle matters of land or estate ownership
- To find out more about a close relative after their death
- To learn more about your namesake (the person you were named after)
- To find out and pass on this knowledge to future generations (create a family legacy document)
The reasons listed above are mainly practical, but there are a number of common psychological reasons for the desire to research family genealogy, as discussed here. These mostly relate to issues of identity and a wish to feel more connected to your heritage, as human being often feel that they want a deeper understanding of who they are and where they have come from.
Research for your genealogical study will always start in the same way, regardless of whether you choose to go with a genealogy website or do your own research – with what you already know. Make sure that you stick to the proven facts about your family, and avoid blind faith in rumours and anecdotes, or you could find yourself going off track and losing time.
Write down as many basic facts as you can – this is the basis of your research.
Interview Living Relatives
From here you can widen your research out to include family members, asking what they know and what they can add to the bare bones that you have already laid out.
Close family members are likely to have the most detail, but you will be able to find out more and expand your research further if you get in touch with older relatives and those farther out in the family tree. You can choose a specific ancestor to research, or simply ask for details of their own immediate families.
Example Questions For Relatives
- Full names of family members, including middle names and any nicknames
- When did they die? How did they die? Where are they buried?
- Were they married? What was the name of their spouse? Where did they get married?
Did they have children? How many? What were their children’s names?
- What job did they do? Where did they work?
- Where did they live? Did they move? Where and when?
- Do you have any documentation I can see? (birth, death, marriage certificates, or a will)
- Are there photographs or newspaper clippings I could copy?
- What other personal details made them special? Did they have an accent or unusual quirks?
Look Around You
Look around your own home, and your parents’ or other family member’s homes (with permission!) for items of interest. This might be old photographs, letters, or documentation, or even things like old diaries.
No detail is too small when doing this stage of research, as it is what you find here that will branch off to larger details and points of interest later on.
If a relative has informed you of a particular story or point of interest about one specific family member, looking for evidence or reports of this could be a good jumping off point when looking through old photos and documents.
Depending on how thorough you want to be in investigating your family tree, many people find the next best step is to access an online DNA analysis database as mentioned above. These databases are popular because all you need to do is provide a saliva sample, which will be analysed by scientists against thousands of different genetic markers to give you a full analysis of where you come from.
You will be able to find out where in the world your ancestors came from, what illnesses you are genetically predisposed to and who in the world shares your DNA.
For those looking for a more thorough look at their ancestry, these databases offer a simple way to complete genealogy research.
This Mashable blog offers a comprehensive list of the best DNA analysis sites to help you to make your choice.
Genealogical software is designed to offer you an online resource where you can build your research project and add to it. Many of the DNA analysis sites provide genealogy software as part of the package, but you can also choose a separate site where you will be able to:
- Create your family tree
- Record important information about your ancestors as you find it
- Collate multiple family trees for different sides of the family
- Document your research and resources
- Share your findings with family and friends
- Give you hints and tips for widening your research
Family Tree has a useful blog that weighs up the benefits of an online tree vs genealogy software here.
Think Big Picture
Whilst your family history will be interesting to you no matter what you find out, it is useful to consider what was happening in the world at the same time as the people you are researching were living, to get a better understanding of how they lived and what life might have been like for them.
Thinking about what was happening, at the time, in the country they lived in, moved to or settled in can help you to understand their personalities and motivations. Were there wars, civil unrest or religious persecution in places that they left? Did they move to a new country seeking new opportunities?
Historical context can really flesh out your genealogical study and bring life to your ancestors.
A good place to get more information on the genealogical bigger picture is Genealogy Explained.
Sharing Your Family History Online
Sharing your family history online not only gives you the opportunity to showcase what you have learned with your own family and friends, but also allows you to collaborate with other people and widen your research exponentially.
You may find that other people are able to add to your research things that you otherwise would never have found out – or that you have the missing piece of someone else’s ancestral puzzle.
The easiest way to share this information with others is to do so through the genealogical software that you have been using to record and build your family tree. This can be done easily through the following steps:
- If you have already been using a genealogy database then it will already be ready to move to the next step, but if not you will need to enter your data into a database of your choosing. There are plenty of free genealogy databases available online, that can be found with a simple Google search. Make sure to cite your sources!
- Create a GEDCOM file of all of the information that you want to share. Each genealogy software will come with its own instructions for creating this type of file, but for most it will be a simple process of opening the document you want to submit and saving it as a GEDCOM or GED file.
- Upload your file to a website that accepts GEDCOM files. The majority of these sites are dedicated ancestry and heritage record sites, and are home to thousands or even millions of family trees that can be searched and viewed all over the world. Some of the most popular websites of this nature include:
- Pedigree Resource File. The Pedigree Resource File (PRF) is available via www.familysearch.org and consists of a wealth of family data including notes and sources, all searchable by the public. To upload your own data you just need to navigate to the homepage and click the share tab, following the instructions given. Registration is free, and you must register in order to share your data.
- OneWorldTree. Ancestry.com allows you to both upload your own family records, and download the family records submitted by others, and as one of the top genealogy sites in the world, the site is home to the family trees and history records for millions of people worldwide.
Using Ancestry.com, you are able to continue to add or change information as you find it out, even after it has been submitted as data, and others will be able to contact you through the website without finding out your personal details. It is free to submit your personal information and family tree, but you must pay for a subscription if you want to view other people’s records and do further research on the site.