Genealogy Defined

Genealogy is the study of individuals and families from earlier ancestors. Essentially genealogy is a hunt to document family, blood relationships, but is often extended to include relationships by marriage.[1] In the past this has only been performed for influential families who could afford to pay. Experts would record the details of ‘who begat whom’ (there are many pedigrees given in the Bible). In some cultures records were kept by memory. Today the same self-interest drives people to learn ‘Where did I come from?’: there may also be legal, or financial interests.

Research may be limited to a particular group: perhaps a Scottish clan; a particular surname, such as in a one-name study; a small community in a one-place study; or just one particular person.

The technical resources now available have made genealogical research much easier. The computer, internet, telephone, DNA testing, and modern printing are all helpful tools to support family hobbies.[2] However the resulting volumes of information demand careful preparation before starting, to avoid later revision. Visit a few genealogical sites on the internet to see the need for standards.


Family names are perhaps the most important genealogical information, and often a source of confusion. Spelling varies with cultures and languages and care should be taken in changing any spellings from the original as that may confuse the original sources research.

In many cultures, the name of a person refers to the family to which he or she belongs. This is called the family name, surname, or last name. Patronymics are names that identify an individual based on the father's name. For example, Marga Olafsdottir is Marga, daughter of Olaf, and Olaf Thorsson is Olaf, son of Thor. Many cultures used patronymics before surnames were adopted or came into use. The Dutch in New York, for example, used the patronymic system of names until 1687 when the advent of English rule mandated surname usage.[20] In Iceland, patronymics are used by a majority of the population.[21] In Denmark and Norway patronymics and farm names were generally in use through the 19th century and beyond, though surnames began to come into fashion toward the end of the 19th century in some parts of the country. Not until 1856 in Denmark[22] and 1923 in Norway[23] were there laws requiring surnames.

Given names (first names) may be as confusing as family names and place names. Additionally, the use of nicknames is very common. For example Beth, Lizzie or Betty are all common for Elizabeth, and Jack, John and Jonathan may be interchanged. Middle names provide additional information. Middle names may be inherited, follow naming customs, or be treated as part of the family name. For instance, in some Latin cultures, both the mother's family name and the father's family name are used by the children.


Sources are the key to the accuracy and thus usefulness of your information. The sources you choose to use will define the data that make up your genealogy. Great Aunt Sue may tell you that she remembers the names and dates of birth of all her siblings, but how good is her memory? A faded newspaper clipping may reveal family information, but how accurate was the original report? You may find a family member's name on someone else's internet database, but how accurate was the research? These issues should make clear that you must assess both the source and the information itself. Moreover you add confusion if you fail to note your own sources, since your own memory will fade and you will create problems should you find later information that disagrees with your record. You must anticipate how to weigh and assess your information in the light of new information and you can't make such key assessments without knowing the reliability of your sources.

To succeed with larger family data bases each source should be assessed to indicate the reliability of the source. Your ability to assess sources will increase with time and experience as you review family details in the light of new information. Few of us have full access to original information and so we use secondary sources, when we seek information beyond living memory. There are many potential sources available on the internet, but their accuracy varies enormously. You can assess your sources by analysing their encorporation of original sources. You should be able to identify quickly the enthusiastic family sources, and thus infer assessment of their data. More professional genealogists will identify, and perhaps quote, credible historical sources, which have been accepted by the academic community. In the end you must make your own assessments, since family information is often best known by families and even the most professional genealogists err.

There are many sources of information: parish registers, family bibles, tax records, census records, land records, wills, militia muster rolls, military service records, tithe maps, electoral rolls, etc. These different records were all created for some specific purpose and their interpretation may be difficult. Familiarise yourself with such sources one at a time, as the need arises. British records are extensive, but are held in a variety of different national and local collections. In England and Wales you should be able to trace your family roots back to 1837, when national birth, marriage and death registration began. Scottish registration started in 1855, but some parish records date back to 1553. Many Irish records were lost in the Dublin fire of 1922. Many people use the Family History Center, of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons), which has a very large database.

When you ask family members genealogy questions - bring a notebook, pencil, tape recorder (with fresh batteries), lots of blank tapes, and a camera. Having too many tapes is better than hearing only half a great story. If you record someone place the microphone close enough to ensure good sound quality – or risk being unable to understand your tape later. It is important to ask about all the dates and places but don't forget to ask for the stories. What was Aunt Ruth like? Why did Uncle Mike never marry? Why did they leave Ireland and why did they pick Canada as a new home? Many people will be more than happy to let you see their old pictures but reluctant to let you take them to make copies. If you have a camera, you can take a photograph. Write things down. That trivial piece of information may just be the clue you need later. Always record when and where you got information and tie that source record to the individuals concerned.

Transfer detailed information onto family history or paper pedigree charts, or into a genealogy software database and group people and their records into families. Organization is the key and since each record is tied to an individual a built-in structure helps to recover data. A basic family database will now exist. Now start looking for records. One of the first places to start is with the census records. Learn where a family lived and in what counties and take this information to search for other documents such as obituary notices, tax records, land records, wills etc. Each piece of information adds another piece to the puzzle. You will probably find that your own knowledge of history is necessary to help you look in the right places and to assess historical records.

Two notes of caution: the first is that you should beware that one shared relative does not dictate that all relatives are common; and the second is that genealogy involves a lot of work and data, which implies that some time at a library getting organised may be well spent. The pre-eminent source of genealogical information is the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). You might also visit a Mormon Church Family History Center for helpful advice. The Mormons, who have an online catalogue, have set out to create a worldwide database and have documented more than a billion names, however, their documentation may be incomplete and give baptismal, vice birth and death records.


Marital unions contracted between people biologically related (as second cousins or closer) are categorized as consanguineous. Consanguinity refers to decent from the same 'blood', or line of ancestors. Consanguinity is an important legal kinship concept as many jurisdictions consider consanguinity as a factor in deciding whether two individuals may be married, or whether a given person receives property when someone dies without a will. Since genealogy sets out to identify such relationships the resulting pedigree may serve a legal purpose. Many pedigrees show the degree of relationship for each individual relative to the subject. See chart below for illustration.[3]


Consanguineous Degrees



My database has required me to revise my initial efforts several times and still contains many presentation errors. The beginner might spend some profitable time considering the boundaries of an intended genealogical project, prior to starting. The following ideas are provided to help avoid frustration and repetition. I recommend that beginners immediately adopt professional standards, since history itself is made up of such family stories, thus others may be interested in your work. Like almost any pursuit, genealogy and family history, if they are worth doing, are worth doing well. Set yourself high standards of research, documentation and presentation of your results, and keep to them.

From painful experience I advise that you think twice before you add, or change, your own data. It is very easy to get excited and confused in handling information, which may reveal something about your own history. Resist the urge to change your data without a thorough verification of the accuracy of the new information; and a clear understanding of if and where it adds to your existing data. It may be helpful to copy the new information into a holding file. If you decide to hold such information it might prove helpful to make personal notes to help you remember where the data might fit.

Data Boundaries

This web site is a family history web site incorporating our modest genealogical results with some biographical and historical research. My intent has been to create some context for otherwise boring diagrams. My focus has been on my own family and NOT on the larger Mackenzie Clan: this neither purports to be, nor is an authorised Mackenzie history. There are some very good Mackenzie Clan histories and web sites separately available. This family history deliberately extends beyond the male lines and equally includes relatives by marriage to extend the breadth of interest. I have deliberately tried to correlate historical events with family members to create some excitement.

To create a Family Tree, or even your own pedigree, requires input and help from the family concerned. Before starting any research, or even making a serious plan, it may be useful to see who else shares your interest. Write to them and see if they share your curiosity. Quickly, I decided to include all my cousins, their families, and also to document both our male and female lines. The mediaeval law of primogeniture gave inheritance to the eldest male and his line and thus the known historical details of many wives and daughters are at best sketchy. Today, however, I have decided that my children would like to know about more, rather than fewer, relatives. The beginner should think about such issues prior to starting.

You might decide to limit your documentation to direct relatives, or the male line. Science will soon have added an additional option of direct DNA relationships. You might eliminate late confusion and family confusion by defining your research boundaries in writing as a preamble to your data.

Recording Rules

If you are embarking on this adventure without much training or experience consider that you will need to define a few rules for yourself. You know Uncle Bill as Uncle Bill, but for your own history you should record full and proper names. If you record your auntie as Lizzie - what everyone called her - you might miss finding a match to other data that relate to her full name 'Elizabeth'. If you do not record full names you will preclude later efforts, or create a series of later changes. Think about your purpose in creating your family tree and how much effort it will require. You might best adopt a rule to use full names for this formal record. To define a rule has significant impacts that continue long after you have forgotten the original issue, as other people will use your results.

You may need other rules and you should consider the possibilities before starting. If your great-grandfather came from Europe the chances are that you will find non-British relatives. That will introduce a series of language issues for you to decide upon. A rule that you might have to consider is the use of non-English accents. If you introduce them they may become an unfamiliar bother: if you avoid them you may lose important information.

When you develop a database of at least a few hundred names the possibility increases that someone else has at least a few of your names in a remote database. You will then want to include his data in your own. This brings up copyright issues as well as accuracy of sources. Additionally living people are understandably cautious about their own information appearing in public. You may have to decide on many additional rules to clarify how to proceed.

The name and spelling issue is critical, because you will eventually have duplicate identities for what are actually the same people. For example you may have entered Bill Bloggins as a great-uncle, only later to discover that he has a brother (in your database) called William. Unless one of these men died early and William was a favourite family name, the two are probably the same person. You should review the facts, revisit your sources, and consider 'merging' the two names back into one identity. A common rule should be to eliminate duplicate names. The trick is to not lose key facts by merging names prematurely.

To help assess when you have duplicate names make sure you enter birth, death, and marriage dates in your database. The date need not be accurate (it should be as accurate as you can make it), but even if you guessed and were wrong by 10 years that might help distinguish someone - if the alternative choice were decades from a key time. You must indicate that you have estimated the approximate fact by using 'about' or 'circa' (often abbreviated to c).

The advent of the Internet has brought access to a much large choice of sources. The resulting increase in access to genealogical data is both a blessing and a curse. The probability of finding pedigrees and personal data is greatly increased, but the reliability of the information itself is far more questionable. You should assess your sources as they develop and try to confirm questionable information from more reliable sources. Since the Internet gives you world-wide access to cultural differences in spelling, you should anticipate spelling variations and try to verify possible duplicates from your own database prior to entering a new name. You might have entered Willem as somebody's child, only to find Wilhelm later as someone else's husband: is this one or two people?

Weighing information and assessing reliability requires some experience to know when something is 'likely', or 'feasible'. Of course, a probability does not confirm an identity, however, taken together with other clues such as dates and places, family activities, source reliability, you may be able to eliminate duplicates and decide on fact selection. Genealogy software choices usually provide advice and tools to aid in merging two separate names into a single identity, but the decion and responsibility will remain yours.


You have two parents, but in only 20 generations you have 1,048,576 collected 'parents'. Assuming most had siblings this would create an enormous number of relatives (names to track, details to pursue, etc) and since 20 generations would predate television and electric lights there were LOTS of siblings! That's the bad news: the good news is that I cannot imagine anyone being able to identify all their relatives back for 20 generations. Still the identifiable numbers are huge and some plan is required to limit your research.

There are three different basic approaches:

  • A Family Tree, which shows the male-line ancestors (father, grandfather, great grandfather, etc.) and the wives, brothers and sisters of these ancestors.

  • An Extended Family Tree, which shows all branches of a family, being all the descendants and spouses of some ancestor.

  • An Ancestry Chart (or database), which shows all direct ancestors, through both male and female lines.

Each of these alternatives creates different collection requirements and obviously implies different levels of data bulk. You should think through the implications of your realistic options and understand the impacts they will have on your data storage processes and facilities. Having weighed your options make your plan and try to stay within the implied boundaries: don't collect cousins' aunts, if you have decided to limit your data. Do, however, realise that cousin Jane will loose enthusiasm for your project if all her people are not to be included.

Work Backwards

Documentation and research must work backwards from you, otherwise you start trying to fit the facts to 'wishful thinking'. Document your own immediate relatives and extend that backwards from the known information about already-identified ancestors. Check to find what documents (certificates, letters, newspaper cuttings, family bibles, photograph albums, diaries, etc.) you have. Try to establish as carefully and completely as possible the basic genealogical facts (full names, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death) of as many of your near relatives as you can. Enter the data while it's fresh in your mind.

Documentation Issues

Basic documentation will soon bring you to your first issues: sources and names. You will probably record your data on Family Group Sheets. (See the Internet for examples.) You must document your sources of information, because you will forget how you learned a specific fact and will be unable later to decide how to weigh conflicting data. Family stories may provide a research guide, but like any other source, must be verified. I try to find three independent sources to verify the same data to gain confidence about the accuracy. (Be careful that your separate sources are not all quoting some single distant source.)

Disagreements on details will surface and will require some careful judgment to resolve facts. When facts cannot be resolved, competing data should be recorded with their different sources. You may wish to review your sources, or someone else may want to verify your research because your data suggested something. Others will want to find the exact, same records. Use standard university procedures for citations. Should you publish the results of your research, cite the exact sources you used and on whose accuracy you are relying.


Names may take a little longer to develop into problems, but many families marry outside their own communities and unfamiliar names follow. The issue develops in documenting great-uncle Bill who emigrated from France where he had been baptised Guillaume. Distant French relatives may also record information about Guillaume and you must decide whether to document him in your records as William or Guillaume. (Most genealogical computer applications allow nicknames.)

Rigorous spelling is a relatively recent development. German, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Russian, English versions of Fred, or Mike vary considerably. You may know your grandfather as Mike, because that was what the family called him. Mike could be a diminutive of Michel, Michael, Mikhail, etc. When seeking family data in distant records you must focus on formal, recorded names. The choice is to translate all names into your language (Alice, vice Alys or Alix), or to record names as known officially in whatever parent language (Friedrich, Felipe, Francois). Your recording options might reasonably be limited to the Latin alphabet, with transliterations for Greek, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc data.


The number of potentially interested people increases in relation to the size of a family database. Cousins, academics, and bureaucracies may all provide additional data. The probability of other research increases the farther back a family line goes. Places to check include libraries, government records, the Internet using the various directories (such as the annual Genealogical Research Directory) that are published for the purpose. There are many family sites online to see whether anyone else has already researched any of your family lines. The number of online sources is growing all the time. Check published genealogies and pedigrees if you find a reasonable family link. Should you find such pedigrees you still have to confirm carefully before you adopt any new data.


Make use of computers and computer-based systems to help you with your problems of storing, analysing and presenting information. Both free and commercial genealogy programs now exist, some of which are extremely helpful. The reason such wide research is possible today is because of the computer, but be aware that even 100 names generates large computer files, and ensure that your own system is sized to meet your needs. To verify your findings visit Wikipedia, Cyndi’s List, Stirnet, or similar web sites Confirmation may drive you to consider more than a just a dial-up communications link, and squinting all day at a 13” screen might be tiring. Try using library, or other free resources until you are at least familiar with the technology, the data processes, and your own ideas.


Produce and share an account of your findings, written in such a way that it will be of interest at least to other members of your family. Do not put off producing such an account until you have finished. A Family Tree or an Ancestry Chart will never be complete and will require updates. Send your updates to your family it may well result in further information and reminiscences. You might start this with the idea of finding a handful of people just for your own interest, only to find it blossom into a lifelong study. If you begin with some planning, some learning, and good documentation, then nothing is lost if it stays a small project, but you will reap great dividends if your little project turns into a big one.


1       I referred to the following amongst other sources.;;;,;;;;,

2       See BBC Report by Megan Lane,, dated 3 June, 2005.

3       See

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