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Family History, Genealogy, and Family Tree Research

It has been said that genealogy is the study of family history, while family history is the study of genealogy and everything else--including the background, location, and circumstances of people's lives. Writing in The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val Greenwood remarks that "if you can understand the forces which shaped men's lives then you can better understand those men." He goes on to say: "to successfully research an ancestor is to determine the events in which he may have been involved, to determine whether those events would have been recorded and, if so, to determine where the records are located."

This interpretation of family history fits squarely with the view that all family history is contextual, i.e., it cannot be viewed in isolation or separated from its historical framework. This is only one interpretation, of course, and even Greenwood comes down on the side of the classical definition of family history: "All good genealogists now agree on the importance of compiling complete families with complete data on the family members." And he goes on to quote the father of American genealogy, Donald Lines Jacobus, saying that it is advantageous in doing genealogical research to consider the family group, not to look upon each ancestor as an isolated individual.

For a more in-depth discussion on the differing approaches to the study of family history, consider reading one or more of the following:

Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, by Donald Lines Jacobus
This book encapsulates the thinking of Donald Lines Jacobus, the greatest American genealogist of the 20th century. It was Jacobus who established the standards of genealogical scholarship in this country. Genealogy as Pastime and Profession describes his principles of genealogy research, the evaluation of evidence, and the relationship of genealogy to chronology, eugenics, and the law. First published in 1968, its findings and advice are as valid today as they were 35 years ago. On top of everything else, Jacobus was a wonderful writer; so if you're looking for some genealogy bedside reading, look no further.

The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd Edition, by Val D. Greenwood
This third edition incorporates the latest thinking on genealogy and computers, specifically the relationship between computer technology (the Internet and CD-ROM) and the timeless principles of good genealogical research. It also includes a new chapter on the property rights of women, a revised chapter on the evaluation of genealogical evidence, and updated information on the 1920 census. Arguably the best book ever written on American genealogy, it is the text of choice in colleges and universities or wherever courses in American genealogy are taught.

Psychic Roots: Serendipity & Intuition in Genealogy, by Henry Z Jones, Jr.
Have you ever been "guided" to a fortuitous discovery? Have certain places in your research ever held an unexpected resonance for you? Have you exhausted all the tools of logic only to come up empty-handed? Whatever, the role of the psychic dimension in genealogical research is too important to ignore, and you will find plenty of fascinating and illuminating accounts of it in Psychic Roots.

Family History and Your Ancestry

So it appears that there are two distinctly different ideas about family history: one places emphasis on the family in its historical framework, the other focuses on the family as a group, identifying all family members descending from a common ancestor without regard to cultural context. But these views are not mutually exclusive, and some of the best family histories have elements of both.

Here are some specific titles illustrating the varied approaches genealogists have taken in recording their family history:

Tidewater Virginia Families, by Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis
Covering an incredible 375 years, this book sets forth the genealogical history of some 40 families who have their roots in Tidewater Virginia. Starting with the earliest colonial settler, the origins of the following Tidewater families are presented: Bell, Binford, Bonner, Butler, Campbell, Cheadle, Chiles, Clements, Cotton, Dejarnette(att), Dumas, Ellyson, Fishback, Fleming, Hamlin, Hampton, Harnison, Harris, Haynie, Hurt, Hutcheson, Lee, Mosby, Mundy, Nelson, Peatross, Pettyjohn, Ruffin, Short, Spencer, Tarleton, Tatum, Taylor, Terrill, Watkins, Winston, and Woodson.

Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families, by Douglas Richardson
Would you like to know if one of your ancestors was descended from the Plantagenets? If so, the first place to look is the book Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families, by Douglas Richardson. Richardson's contribution to royal genealogy documents lines of descent (legitimate and illegitimate) for approximately 185 17th-century North American colonists from the dynasty that ruled England from 1154 to 1485. It features hundreds of biographical sketches as well as over 14,000 citations to published materials, making it the most documented sourcebook of its kind. Plantagent Ancestry also features scores of remarkable discoveries that are certain to change the ancestry charts of many living Americans.

Massachusetts and Maine Families in the Ancestry of Walter Goodwin Davis (1885-1966). In Three Volumes, by Walter Goodwin Davis
This work is largely a compendium on "north of Boston" families. Almost anyone with considerable New England ancestry--and as many as 100 million living Americans, about 40 percent of the population, have some colonial New England forebears--will descend from one or more, often a dozen or more, of the 180 families herein.

The Great Historic Families of Scotland, by James Taylor
The 50 or so main families selected for inclusion in this compendium of Scottish families are thoroughly representative in character and are the progenitors of untold numbers of people living today. The narrative traces the families from their earliest recorded origins to the end of the 19th century.

Discover Your Family History

Regardless of your ultimate "philosophy" of family history, virtually everyone agrees you begin your family history with yourself. Why? Because you and your relatives are an enormously rich source of information about your family. You will see why when you consider this observation by the late Harriet Stryker-Rodda.

"Open your left hand. Let your middle finger represent yourself. Let the index finger represent your parents; the thumb, your grandparents. Let the ring finger represent your children, if you have any, and the little finger, your grandchildren. Your right hand can represent your spouse's family in the same way. Looking at the long middle finger, you can see how, as middleman, you are in a position, usually from your own knowledge, to re-create three generations--yours, your parents' and your grandparents'. Add to that the knowledge of your children and grandchildren as they arrive and you and your spouse, the middlemen, will each become the link among five generations-that is, three on your side and three on his or hers-to two current generations: your children and grandchildren. Gathering that knowledge to pass on is the beginning of the search into your family's history."

After you have gone through your own records and memorabilia, you may not be sure how to draw out additional information from your relatives. If so, you may wish to rely on the booklet Your Life and Times, by Julia and Stephen Arthur. Using this oral history handbook as a guide, you will be able to record your life experiences or the experiences of your loved one(s) on tape simply by answering questions that will lead you, step by step, through the precious moments of your life.

Once you have exhausted the collective memory of your family, it's time to sharpen your edge by reading a beginner's manual like William Dollarhide's Getting Started in Genealogy Online. Designed as a beginner's guide, Getting Started in Genealogy Online's 64 pages pack more clout than any 64 pages ever written on the subject of online genealogy. The book includes the author's unique seven-step system for gathering facts essential for any genealogical project and an invaluable state-by-state guide to the holdings of the major archives and libraries in the U.S. At the back of the book are Master Forms used to keep track of the information gathered.

You will also find excellent (and mostly free) guidance for getting started on your family history at the websites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ( and at the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. (

Build Your Family Tree

The ground rules of family history are universal, but the devil is in the details. Sound evidence is sound evidence in any language and for any era. If you decide to number your generations according to, say, the Register system, you must not change numbering systems mid-stream. All family historians must demonstrate patience, tenacity, and imagination at various times. On the other hand, you must not assume that all state archives or libraries organize their records the same way, or even have all the records you expect them to.

Consider this example. Between October 1914 and September 1917, some World War I Polish combatants served in the Russian Army. Why? Because prior to the Russian Revolution, Poland existed as the Duchy of Warsaw within the Russian Empire. Following the establishment of a Provisional Polish Government in September, 1917, the Poles serving for Russia were regrouped into a new Polish army. Other Poles joined the insurrectionary "Polish Legion" established in Vienna to serve the Empire of Austria-Hungary. Still other Poles served with the German army in Upper Silesia and East Prussia as the Polnische Wermacht, or with a Polish army on the side of France. In short, a Polish great-grandpa's service records could conceivably be in Russia, Germany, France, or Hungary, as well as in Poland.

The dispersion of Polish military service records for "The Great War" was not altogether unusual. Following the armistice, the victorious powers carved up the defeated nations and/or their territories. For example, if your Alsace-Lorraine ancestor fought for Germany, his records would have come under French jurisdiction after the Treaty of Versailles. For its part, Denmark acquired Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein from Germany. Similarly, the nations of Finland and Lithuania achieved their independence at the Soviet Union's (Russia's) expense.

History matters, which is why researchers should study one or more of the excellent guidebooks available on the genealogical issues or problems associated with a certain state or nationality. Here are a handful of those publications:

Virginia Genealogy: Sources & Resources, by Carol McGinnis, devotes entire chapters to such subjects as Virginia land, people, and history; immigration and migration; vital records; Bible and church records; census records; land and court records; manuscripts and records abroad; ethnic Virginia; slavery and African Americans; counties and their records; independent cities and their records; genealogical collections; and genealogical societies. The bibliography alone runs to 125 pages and contains references to 1,421 books and articles on all aspects of Virginia genealogy. This is a real giant of a book--and the standard by which all future textbooks on Virginia genealogy will be measured.

Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry, by Kathleen B. Cory, is "the most comprehensive guide to the subject ever produced." The new Third Edition retains its emphasis on the holdings of Scottish repositories--especially New Register House and the National Archives of Scotland--while covering such new subjects as the digitization of records, the uses of local history in genealogy, and Scottish genealogy on the Internet.

The most comprehensive manual on its subject, Finding Your Hispanic Roots, by George R. Ryskamp, leads the researcher through such genealogy basics as: organizing and evaluating information, using the resources of LDS Family History Centers, finding Hispanic ancestors in U.S. sources, and reading documents in Spanish. The heart of the book focuses on original records, and the author helps the researcher to formulate a strategy for investigating each kind. The author devotes separate chapters, complete with facsimile reproductions, to Spanish civil registers, Catholic Church records, marriages, censuses, military records, and more. There is also a chapter listing published reference works for Spain and every Spanish-speaking country in the New World.

The Second Edition of John Colletta's Finding Italian Roots is the best guidebook in Italian genealogy. It provides comprehensive information about accessing and interpreting the vast universe of materials available for tracking Italian ancestors and recording their stories for future generations. Whether you are just beginning your investigations or have been doing genealogy for years, this guide will help maximize your investment.

Our CD-ROM publication, the German Genealogy Research Guide, combines four outstanding books designed specifically for Americans who are researching their German ancestry. The best known of the four titles, Angus Baxter's groundbreaking In Search of Your German Roots, is designed to help you trace your German ancestry not only in Germany but also in all the German-speaking areas of Europe. Ernest Thode's two celebrated reference works--the Address Book for Germanic Genealogy and the extremely helpful German-English Genealogical Dictionary--may also be found here. Lastly, Professor George F. Jones's German-American Names gives the spellings and variants of 15,000 names and explains the meaning of names borne today by Americans that derive from the German language or its dialects.

Family History Compendia

There is grace in family history, and it takes the form of research on YOUR family carried out by someone else. You do not want to duplicate the work of others if you can avoid it, and we mean to help you. has published hundreds of collections of family histories. They cover families from a particular geographical region, a particular ethnic group, a particular time period, even a particular class, some covering as many as eight or ten generations of a family, with some multi-family works showing descents from several common ancestors.

A lot of these books are actually compendia, or large collections of family histories, more or less complete for their declared area and period of coverage. Among the best-known works in this category are George Mackenzie's Colonial Families of the United States of America and Frederick Virkus's Compendium of American Genealogy. Today, many of these collections are available on inexpensive (by book standards) CD-ROMs and are fully indexed. Here is a sampling:

English Origins of New England Families
This Family Archive CD contains hundreds of articles that were originally published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and subsequently collected and reprinted by GPC in six volumes under the title English Origins of New England Families. Treating over 1,500 families and referencing 150,000 individuals, this work contains all the immigrant origin data published in the first 137 volumes of the prestigious Register. It is interesting to note that almost all living Americans with colonial Yankee forebears descend from several of the 1,500 immigrants covered in this work.

Genealogies of Mayflower Families, 1500s-1800s
This Family Archive CD contains images of the pages of four books published by GPC: Genealogies of Mayflower Families, Volumes I-III and Mayflower Source Records. Combined, these works refer to 111,000 Mayflower passengers and their descendants. These books contain birth, baptismal, marriage, death, and probate records, as well as cemetery inscriptions and descendant listings.

Genealogies of Long Island Families (CD)
Composed of articles originally appearing in "The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record," this Family Archive CD contains references to 60,000 individuals from the present-day counties of Suffolk, Kings, and Queens. Information in the articles varies, but typically the records include genealogies, censuses, newspapers, town records (including marriages and deaths), Bible and family records, wills, and deeds. Many of the genealogies establish the English or Dutch origins of a family.

Genealogies of Virginia Families from VMHB
This disc contains all five volumes of Genealogies of Virginia Families from The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, published originally by GPC in 1981. The five volumes together contain all the family history articles that appeared in VMHB from its inception in 1893 to 1977.

Southern Genealogies
This blockbuster CD contains two classic works on Southern genealogy: John Bennett Boddie's 23-volume Historical Southern Families and Zella Armstrong's six-volume Notable Southern Families. The combined works deal with hundreds of Southern families and provide information on approximately l50,000 individuals.

The Deep South: Genealogical Records of Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi
This Family Archive CD covers the core genealogical works dealing with the Deep South. Altogether, some 150,000 individuals are named in a wide-ranging collection of census returns, probate, marriage, military, and vital records, and family histories--all brought together in this one CD with a single integrated index.

Relationships and Family History

Genealogy Researchers should also be armed with a working knowledge of relationships. Relationships and terms connected with them can be sources of trouble for the genealogy researcher. For example, Junior and Senior are terms we usually think of as indicating a father-son relationship, but in early records this was not necessarily true. They were used merely to distinguish between two persons with the same name, usually of different generations, living in the same locality. Also, in earlier times people often stated than an in-law connection existed when there was actually a step relationship. You will find a discussion of these usage variations in Greenwood. One of the best sources for explaining all of the various familial and in-law relationships, as well as degrees of consanguinity (blood relationships), is Jackie Smith Arnold's Kinship: It's All Relative.

Naming Practices & Family History

The lack of standardized spellings and the use of phonetic spellings in early records can create problems for the genealogy researcher, particularly with regard to the spellings of surnames and place names. For example, in the will that he made in 1754 in Pasquotank County, North Carolina, Jeremiah Willcox's surname is spelled two different ways--Willcox and Willcocks. In other documents it is spelled still other ways--Wilcox, Wilcocks, Wellcox, Wellcocks, Welcocks. Many people mistakenly assume that if the name is not spelled a certain way it cannot belong to the same family. There are also many common practices with regard to given names and nicknames that can help you identify your ancestors more easily. For more information, consult the following:

What's in a Name?, by Leonard R.N. Ashley. This book will tell you the facts behind the names of persons, places and things; about how names are chosen for business and for success; how they are used for everything from tracing settlement patterns to telling fortunes; how forenames have their fashions; where surnames had their origins; and all about names in the U.S. and around the globe.

American Surnames, by Elsdon Smith. "The book by Mr. Smith is the best work available on surnames borne by American families."--THE AMERICAN GENEALOGIST, Vol. 62, No. 1.

German-American Names, by George F. Jones. This is an A-Z dictionary of German-American names with the spellings, meanings, and variants of about 15,000 names.

Heirlooms of Ireland: An Easy Reference to Some Irish Surnames and Their Origins by Joseph F. Osborne. This is a concise directory of Irish surnames, with information on about 2,500 names.

Special Report on Surnames in Ireland, by Sir Robert E. Matheson. These two works-in-one are a valuable instrument for tracing Irish family origins.

Our Italian Surnames, by Joseph G. Fucilla. This book covers every facet of Italian names and naming practices.

The Scottish Surnames of Colonial America, by David Dobson. Genealogist David Dobson has compiled a list of Scottish surnames of the estimated 150,000 Scots who settled in the American colonies and provided explanations of their meaning and significance; given examples; and where applicable, named the clan to which the family is linked.

The Surnames of Wales, by John Rowlands and Sheila Rowlands, provides the reader with insight into the origins and occurrence of common Welsh surnames and identifies which surnames are associated with particular locales, thus helping to suggest a likely place of origin within Wales.

Additional Family History Sites

Modern methods of family history research rely more and more on huge databases available on the Internet-censuses, immigration records, and vital records, for instance. We have listed below a handful of the most helpful database or bibliographic sites in use today. At the same time, we would encourage you to remember that there will never be a substitute for good old-fashioned genealogical research. And in this connection we can recommend our own website ( for name searches in our 2,000 books and CDs, which reflect the combined efforts of the best genealogists working in the field for the past 150 years.

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