Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Guide to Starting Your Family History in 10 Very Basic Steps -- Introduction

Whatever your present perception of family history or genealogy, this series of posts is intended to demystify and explain the process in 10 very basic steps. Before I get to Step One, I need to explain some of the terminology and background to the topics I will cover in this Guide. I also need to give you an introduction to some of the terms and concepts you will need to begin your family history experience. So, here I go.

What is family history?

Family history is the process of recording information about yourself, your immediate family and your ancestors and relatives. In this context, the terms "family history" and "genealogy" are synonymous. They mean exactly the same thing even though there are many people who try to make a distinction between the two terms.

What is included in my family history?

The simple answer is anything you want to include. Essentially, you are telling a story about yourself and your family. You can make your story as detailed or as simple as you like. There are plenty of people who are ready to tell you what they think you should include. You can choose to listen to them or not. It is your family history and you can do it the way you want to do it.

What is a pedigree?

Families consist of people that are related in some way. You, your spouse and children are usually considered to be a family. However, families can also include a huge variety of other types of relationships across the world and in different cultures. Families can be based on blood lines, adopted lines and many other formal or informal culturally defined relationships. The most common Western European and U.S. relationships are based on blood lines. A pedigree is a chart that represents your relationship to your ancestors.

Who are my ancestors?

As my Grandmother used to say, you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your ancestors. Blood line ancestors are those who are are your biological parents and their parents in turn back into the past. In the English speaking world, we call them parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so forth depending on how many generations of ancestors we go back in time. We also have definitions for others to who we are related. Here is a commonly used chart to show how you are related to people in your family according to the Western European model.

By Sg647112c - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Consanguinity is a fancy word for blood relations. This chart is only one way of expressing what can become a complex web of relationships. Your own cultural background may define other types of relationships. For example, you may not know your biological parents and have been raised as an adopted child. Your parents may have been formally married or not. Your parents may have been married and are now divorced. No matter how this chart is modified, all of those potential types of relationships fit within the definition of your family history and you may have to design your own version of the chart.

Who are my cousins?

Children of your grandparents are your aunts and uncles. Children of your aunts and uncles are your cousins. You can see from this chart that there is literally no end to how far back the line of your grandparents can extend or descend. Sometimes we can get overwhelmed thinking about how far back our family might extend and how many cousins we might have. You will find people who are involved in their family history or genealogy that think they are in a competitive sport and will try to impress you with the number of people or ancestors they have accumulated. Don't be intimidated. The number of people accumulated is merely a function of the fact that the number of your grandparents doubles in each generation and the number of their descendants increases proportionately.

Who are my relatives?

The concept of a "relative" is culturally determined. Depending on where you live in the world and what language you speak, someone may or may not be a relative. As we grow up, we become acculturated to our surrounding culture and language. Even without consciously knowing it, we acquire a kinship system and recognize some people as relatives and others as outside our family in an expansive sense. Family historians and genealogists often work from a standardized definition of relationships, such as the one shown above in the chart. This does not make your particular sense of relationship either good or bad or true or false. This is a case where one size or definition does not fit all. But you will find that there is a predominate definition of relatives and family relations accepted by the Western European culture that saturates most of what you will hear about family history and genealogy. Just adapt the common definition to your own cultural heritage.

Why should I care about my family history?

This is a very good question and family historians and genealogists have struggled with the answer to this question for a very long time. Family history or genealogy is more than genetics. We are each the cumulative product of our physical, biological and cultural heritage. Who we are is to a great extent determined by our ancestral inheritance. Since the earliest human experience, there has been an innate quest to "know ourselves." We learn about ourselves by learning about our family heritage or family history. Many cultures have formal family historians who record the history of the tribe or other organizations. Whether you feel the urge or not to investigate your own family history, there is something basic in learning about your family history that satisfies a basic human need. Some people are motivated by religious or social reasons to investigate their family history. Others are motivated by mere curiosity. Each person who undertakes to investigate his or her family history has to answer this question individually.

Isn't family history only for old people?

It is unfortunate that an interest in family history in our Western European culture has focused on family history as an activity for old people. Family history is as broad or as limited as you wish to make it. It is presently true that more older people than younger people are formally involved in collecting and maintaining their family history. But there is no real reason why this is the case other than a cultural bias. An extensive discussion of the age related issues involved in family history is outside the scope of this basic discussion.

Don't I need formal training to be a family historian or genealogist?

The answer to this question is "no." There are people who practice genealogy or family history as a profession. Some of them are highly trained in research and history. Some family historians and genealogists believe that only those with a certain highly developed set of skills should be allowed to "practice genealogy." However, there is really no one who can tell you how or why you should begin to learn and record your family history. You should not be deterred from investigating your own family history because someone else has formal training or experience. As with any interest, you may wish to become proficient. In this case, there are many opportunities to learn more about the process of discovering your family connections. There are books, classes, webinars, websites, conferences and many other avenues of instruction. There are national and international organizations dedicated to learning about family history. But whether family history is a casual pastime or an all consuming passion depends on you and your needs and decisions.

So now let's get started with Step One of my ten very basic steps to starting your family history. This series will be continued in subsequent posts. Stay tuned.

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