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Basics of genealogy research
Genealogy research was once a hobby for grandmothers and an arcane research tool of academics, but now everyone wants to trace their family roots. The motivation for doing so can be as simple as curiosity, as time-sensitive as a serious diagnosis, and as complex as applying for dual citizenship.
Recently made popular by television shows that reveal the family histories of celebrities, genealogy research used to require hours of sifting through birth and death records and contacting archivists in dusty church basements for marriage and baptism documents. Now the proliferation of internet tools, the digitization of records, and the ready availability of DNA testing has pushed the need to know one’s ancestors to the front burner.
What you can learn
At its most basic, genealogy research allows one to find relatives, living and dead. Starting with immediate family members, the research branches out, like a tree, connecting cousins and grandparents and traveling back in time until records are exhausted.
Some research is done in the name of self-identity: knowing more about your ancestors may unlock clues to your appearance, your strengths, and even your potential diseases.
At other times, genealogical research may reveal unpleasant truths, such as children given up for adoption, intermarriage in a family, and mysterious deaths.
Under certain circumstances, establishing a family link to another country may make one eligible for a passport from that country or provide data for entry into selective social groups.
The basic tools of genealogical researchers are primary documents including birth, death, and marriage certificates, coupled with census data. Much of this information is not available from original sources online because cities have been slow to digitize historical data, but unofficial certificates are usually available by mail-order. Using this information as well as researching census and possibly church records should provide the structure of a family tree.
Research groups are numerous and easy to find. These folks are experienced researchers willing to help those who have just started their work. Find a local branch of the Federation of Genealogical Societies to visit a meeting or ask questions regarding your stage of research.
Depending on the depth of research one chooses to pursue, these are some key secondary research assets:
- The National Archives may provide additional information through military records as well as passenger lists from ships arriving in U.S. ports, Native American census documents, and immigration records;
- S. Census tracts will show residency and occupations;
- Cities may have historic resident information that includes street addresses, occupations, and information about ownership;
- Obituaries often provide valuable links to distant family members as well as further information about background, education, and occupation.
While medical testing is the most appropriate path to take in diagnosing even genetic issues, genealogical research can provide clues to ailments that could be inherited. For instance, a pattern of early sudden deaths found in obituaries can point to inherited heart disease, as can more vaguely ethnically-passed concerns such as sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease.
Inherited medical conditions can be of particular importance to those who were adopted. If the birth parent allows her identity to be known, it’s possible for her offspring to research their own family tree using information provided on the birth certificate and by locating other primary documents such as census tracts.
In the United States, the Church of Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons, have digitized and made public tens of thousands of historical records useful in family research. Due to the church’s mission to save souls through posthumous baptism, these records have become key to the modern church’s purpose. It has also established hundreds of small research centers across the country called Family History Libraries.
Other private businesses have similar databases available online with products that help researchers organize and understand the information they’ve found.
While the LDS Church online archives may allow some access to records that originated in other countries, international research carries some particular challenges. Language issues can compound hurdles of decentralized recordkeeping and higher standards for records retrieval, such as proof of direct lineage. In addition, records held in countries that have experienced wars and upheaval of governments may have been destroyed over time. Fortunately, there are many options available for hiring professional research help in those countries. Another resource is the U.S. national genealogical society which may provide assistance with or guides for international research.
Where to begin with DNA testing
DNA testing kits are available from a number of sources but the type of test and size of the database determines the general accuracy of results. The most common test claims to map your personal genome through an autosomal test and compare it to others in its database, allowing for educated assumptions about the test subject’s lineage. Such a link to others based on DNA is limited to the database that is currently available, and because certain populations are under-represented in DNA testing, results that point to certain areas of the world will be less specific.
The National Institutes of Health cautions that some types of DNA testing will limit results to the male heirs, and that historic migration of ethnic groups due to wars, famines, and other reasons may skew test results. Other experts in the field discount the connection between DNA and ancestry, saying the two are related only by the marketing campaigns of DNA testing companies.
Further, an individual may choose to share results with others in the database, effectively skipping ahead on the research for the family tree by instantly matching with others who share closely similar results. This was the method that California police used in 2018 to narrow their search for a killer by matching the DNA of a suspected killer to individuals in a genetic database. Some experts have raised concerns about the potential misuse of genetic test results by private companies that may seek to monetize the samples submitted to them.
Benefits of genealogical research
Aside from perhaps finding distant and unknown cousins or feeling grounded in your identity, genealogical research can provide some ancillary benefits, including eligibility for dual citizenship. Several European countries require only a grandparent’s proof of birth from that country to apply for a passport or dual citizenship from that country. Rules vary from one country to the next but establishing lineage by collecting documentation is the first step.
If you seek entry into an exclusive society then genealogical research is the starting point. Several organizations that base membership on ancestry include the Mayflower Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of Union Veterans, and others.