Does your family observe special holiday traditions that
have been passed down generation after generation? Are
you always hearing stories about how your mother's great-great-great-great-
grandfather was a wild adventurer or that your great-grandma
on your dad's side descended from royal lineage? Finding
out the truth about family folklore is often what motivates
people to trace their ancestry. Other people's interest
in genealogy comes from the need to discover their "roots,"
and to understand "who they are" by learning
where they came from.
The study of family history is called Genealogy, from
the Greek words for "race" and "theory."
Tracing your family history allows you to discover more
than just your ancestor's names and the dates they were
born and died. You may also find out what these people
were like, how they lived and how their attitudes live
in you. You may develop a new appreciation and perspective
of history and geography, and even discover a cultural
compass that explains a part of yourself.
Exploring genealogy means becoming an amateur detective.
Discipline and rigorous note-keeping is essential.. The
first step is to set up a record book. A three-ring binder
with loose leaf paper is handy because it will allow you
to move things around as you find information, or, if
you're computer literate, a special file and disc. It's
important to get in the habit of writing down everything
you do and every avenue you explore, including names of
experts or organizations, documents, book or source names
and reference numbers. Make entries even if a search comes
up empty and you don't find anything; it will help you
from duplicating your efforts or to re-trace your steps(1).
In recording findings of the surname you are looking
for, you should note all entries of the surname and its
variants. Always spell the names exactly as you see them.
Surnames were originally used by individuals to distinguish
themselves from their friends and neighbours, and these
are the names they died with. In time names became fixed
and were inherited, passed on from one generation to the
next. Surnames generally derived from personal nicknames(Whitehead,
Little), occupations(Wheeler, Smith), dwelling places(Hill,
Cornwall) or patronyms. An example of a patronym is Robertson:
a man takes his father's Christian name, in this case
Robert, and the suffix "-son" is added to make
the surname. This originally changed with every generation(2).
Most cultures traces their ancestry through the male
line. This is because the surname remains the same in
each generation. It is best to tackle only one side of
your family's history at a time, to avoid confusion. If
you get stuck with your paternal ancestry, then you can
turn to your mother's families, tracing them through the
male line as well(3).