The Genealogy Course: trace family histories

Lesson 1: Introduction

Genealogy - defined as 'an account of the descent of a person or family through an ancestral line', or alternatively, 'the investigation of pedigrees as a department of knowledge', is a high faulting description of what, to the rest of us, is known simply as 'tracing the family tree'.


Nostalgia, to the fore in recent years, has found a wealth of collectible interests emerging amongst a public ever eager to get hands on anything connected with the past: old postcards, postage stamps, paper ephemera, 195Os and '60s memorabilia - and family trees! It seems that today we are not content to know just how our ancestors lived - and I mean specific ancestors, namely those whose genes, characteristics and hereditary behaviour are the sum result of our very being. We want to know exactly who those people were: where they lived; what they did for a living; whether that story of highwaymen, criminals, and corrupt relatives is factual, or a figment of Grandma's over-active imagination.


Today so many people are eager to trace their own family histories that once desolate Public Record Offices are now able to operate a timetable system, for which those who now fill its halls to carry out their own research, must make an appointment to do so. These treasure chests of registers, records, census documents and various other documented pieces of evidence on the lives of those before us, are now little hives of activity, filled with enthusiastic researchers from the moment their doors open.


But a day is never enough; a day can sometimes culminate in mountains of useful information destined to provide a large proportion of one's family history; it might instead yield nothing.


Perhaps though, one of the very best things about researching your family tree, is the wonderful way it can bring the past to life as you not only read of who your ancestors were, but can also see the exact same things they saw in the course of their lives: churches they attended; street scenes and activities they might have taken for granted; special events; strikes and invaluable insights into yesterday's working environment; shops with staff posing outside, and much, much more.


What Is a Family Tree?


Perhaps so called because of the number of branches emerging from it, a family tree is very little more than a diagram with stems originating from one individual and leading to two parents, from whom two branches stem to each of another set of parents, and so on almost ad infinitum. Going back in time from the individual researching the history, the tree gathers branches with every generation; hence the name.


What Qualities does the Researcher Require?


Sometimes, especially where unusual names are concerned, and where families have remained in a particular area over several generations, a family tree can be created in a very short space of time. On other occasions, you will reach a dead end, perhaps spend weeks searching for one odd but essential fact, which might not materialise, but which. might. nevertheless, halt your work perhaps indefinitely.


Qualities then for the researcher include those of patience and clarity of mind, an ability to keep going when the going gets tough, an aura of confidentiality, discretion, subtlety.


What Problems might you Encounter along the Way?


Not the least of which problems will find the researcher sometimes faced with relatives who have the exact key required to open a few more doors on the history currently being researched; but they won't give you access to those doors. Sometimes they might even go so far as to directly hinder your work, their intention being to stop you at all costs from discovering that X is not the natural child of Y, or perhaps that Grandma might have been heavily pregnant at the time of her marriage with Grandad, who as Y is not quite happy to have his relationship with X called into question. All these secrets and more, which we in the modern world tend to accept and tolerate, were very real problems for our ancestors.


Problems not necessarily associated with the living might include inaccurate entries in records of births, deaths, marriages and other occurrences, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally. Again you might find your work severely hampered because an illiterate relative has had his or her name entered in official records by a well-meaning clerk who then proceeds to spell it incorrectly. That 'Smythe' then, could very well be the very same Mr. Smith for whom you have searched for so long.

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