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What is Genealogy (and How Do You Start Yours)?

With so much information available on the subject, sometimes it's good to start with a simple question: What is genealogy?



October 31, 2020

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Interest in genealogy has skyrocketed over the past few years. There's now an entire industry that helps individuals better understand where they came from. However, even with the growing number of products and services designed to help you learn about their genealogy, you may still be asking: what is genealogy?

Genealogy is a term that gets used often and seems like it can cover a broad range of subjects related to your family and its past. The truth is that its definition is actually quite specific. Understanding what goes into genealogy is a great way to begin researching your family history.

  1. First things first: What is genealogy, exactly?

Simply put, genealogy is a field of study concerned with the lineage of an individual or family. The term genealogy is often used interchangeably with “family history,” but they’re not necessarily the same. The Society of Genealogists, an education charity based in the United Kingdom, defines genealogy as establishing a pedigree or lineage for an individual based on valid evidence.

A family history differs in that it is more concerned with the biographical rather than the biological. It takes into consideration the history of the family and the various communities to which it belongs. Still, before you can begin filling in your family history, you have to outline it with your genealogy. One of the easiest ways to do this is with a pedigree chart. 

  1. It starts with a pedigree chart.

A pedigree chart is a simple tool for mapping out family relationships. You’re likely already familiar with pedigree charts, as they typically go by a more common name: a family tree! 

Start with our own family first. List out you and your spouse’s names in one row and your children’s names underneath. 

Then, work backward using any information you know to be true without doing any additional research. Add in your parents, as well as any of your siblings. 

Repeat this process for your spouse’s side of the family.  Once you add your parents’ siblings and their families, you'll see how large your project can become. And that’s just with names!


  1. What kind of information should I include in my genealogy?

Remember, your genealogy won't include all the details from your family history. Still, you should add some key elements to your pedigree chart to make it more informative. For each person on your chart, it’s important to include  - at the very least - their name, date of birth. You should also include dates of death and dates of marriage where they’re applicable. 

Beyond that, most professional genealogists tend to include important locations for each individual. These include where they were born and where they lived. They also like to include the person's occupation. These pieces of information might not be right for your pedigree chart, but they’ll prove essential when you move onto your family history. 

Finally, you can add pictures of your family members to your pedigree chart. This is one of the best ways to make your ancestry come to life! 

  1. Why it’s important to keep going.

While these first simple steps can become intimidating based on the size of your family, it’s likely that once you’ve started filling in your family tree, you won’t be able to stop! 

However, if you find yourself worried about the amount of work, it’s important to take a step back and consider why you should follow through on your genealogy.

Discovering your family’s genealogy is a way to give yourself a sense of belonging. You'll feel closer to your family, community, and the world. Working with extended family to fill in each branch of your chart brings you together. It’s also a great way to show your kids where they came from and teach them that they’re a part of history. 

There’s also the fact that researching your genealogy helps you learn more about your genetics, which could uncover familial health issues. That kind of information could greatly benefit you and your loved ones. 

  1. Your genealogy is just the beginning.

Think of your genealogy as a map of your family history. As you fill it in, you’ll find yourself encountering more and more opportunities and obstacles. There are many historical documents to consult, from birth certificates to deeds and military records. 

Eventually,  you’ll probably need the help of your local historical or genealogical society. You can also hire a genealogical professional or sign up for a genealogy site to make the process easier. 

As you tell your friends and family about your project, you can now answer their inevitable first question: what is genealogy? 

Learning about your genealogy and expanding and filling in your pedigree chart is a wonderfully fulfilling endeavor. You can look forward to hearing countless stories about your ancestors and learning about your family's place in history. 

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