What is Genealogy?
'Family history research' is said to be the fastest growing hobby in the UK, as well as being the second most popular topic on the internet. Tracing ancestors seems to go deeper than your average hobby, fulfilling some sort of basic need to get to know our origins and, presumably, understand ourselves better in the process. It can certainly throw up some great stories, quotable even outside your own family circle, and provide no end of fun and pleasure.
Based on the number of generations we have clocked up in a few centuries, and the remarkable effect of compound growth, we all have recorded ancestors in plenty. It seems that statistically even the most anonymous of 21st century families are the progeny of a motley congregation of the good, great, sick, sad, strange, evil, infamous and interestingly mediocre. Like leaves on a summer tree, those early branches (we must come from somewhere) soon make big numbers, harbouring more Toms and Marys, let alone thieves and paupers, than you would have thought a respectable family tree could bear. Each Tom and Mary has a story. Some, because of our rich genealogical resources and the internet, can be tracked down across the centuries. In a sense that true family historians know well, these people can be made to live again.
Tracking down your ancestors can involve family history, genealogy or both. What's the distinction?
- Genealogy usually refers to recording your family tree, or pedigree, as far back as you can go, over one or more family names.
- Family history, on the other hand, puts the people you find into their historical context and the aim is to find out as much about them and their contemporary history as possible - their stories. The history or story part is what makes it addictively interesting.
The US leads the way in family history as a serious hobby. Americans are probably better represented in research into UK, 'old country' ancestry than UK residents themselves. So, although some of the top websites are US biased, they none the less have plenty of content about British ancestry, useful to British researchers. The UK is certainly blessed with a wealth of archived material housed in public records offices and libraries, stretching back to the Norman conquest.
Anyone prepared to delve into a little Latin and Old English and expand their school history can search these very early dates - if not there is no end of help available. This is attractive to many thousands of new world descendants of the islands - including Australians - who have no less affinity with their Anglo Saxon roots than natives and whose ranks have fuelled the growth of family history to its present popularity.
Given commitment and enthusiasm, that world, and its citizens that held your name, is within your reach, just waiting to be discovered.