The desire of people to understand their identities and origins through genealogy has grown almost as much as the ways and means used to do the research have expanded. What started out as a painstaking process of writing letters to obtain records or family histories, going through archived books, documents, and censuses and then through the wonders of microfiche has now become something that you can do anytime, anywhere via a multitude of websites and organizations. DNA matching has been paired with geography to suggest a picture of genetic and place origins.
Basic genealogical research should always begin at home. What documents do you have in your possession? What family stories can you remember? How many family members can you interview? Beginning genealogists should always start with their own family.
Your next step might be to either purchase some genealogy software or begin building a family tree online. Popular genealogy software packages include RootsMagic, FamilyTreeMaker, and Reunion (if you use a Mac). Many subscription and free websites are available for building a tree online. These include Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Geni, and many others. Most of these sites allow you to connect with others’ family trees and some have records available for research.
As you become a more advanced researcher you will want to be more careful about confirming the relationships between members in your family tree. It is never a good idea to simply copy and paste data from someone else’s tree into yours – always do your own research. Look for the records which support the relationships you are considering. Try to use primary source material rather than published genealogies. A wealth of genealogical education opportunities exists, many of which are free or nearly so. Quite a few are also available online.
DNA and Genealogy
If you are interested in the growing field of DNA-enhanced genealogy, an excellent place to start would be one of the major websites that provide DNA testing and tracing. From the cost of analyzing saliva samples/cheek swabs and monthly or yearly membership, these websites provide a way to engage with others with similar interests and/or background, and perhaps learn more about your potential heritage.
The most important thing to understand before beginning any kind of DNA research is the difference between the types of testing offered. On the marketplace today there are basically three kinds of tests – Y-DNA tests for men only, autosomal (or ‘ethnicity’ tests) which anyone can take, and mitochondrial DNA tests to determine a matrilineal haplogroup. The most relevant for use with traditional genealogy are the Y-DNA and mtDNA.
While the most popular tests are those which purport to reveal your ethnic roots (atDNA), it is important to remember that the algorithms used to predict your ethnicity are based only on matching certain markers in your sample with markers in other tester’s samples. The program then analyzes the ancestry self-reported by other testers which have matching markers to yours and bases your predicted ethnicity on the best fit from those reports. In other words, there is very little inherent in your own DNA which could be used to predict that your ancestors came from, for example, France rather than Germany.
The strength of autosomal testing is in confirming parent/child relationships as well as other relationships up to the second cousin level. The strength of Y-DNA testing is that, like a typical family surname, it is passed down virtually unchanged from a father to his son. This type of testing is popular with clan organizations which rely on a common surname for membership. Mitochondrial tests trace a mother’s line ancestry and, like autosomal DNA tests, can be used by men or women. This test is not as commonly used as the other two types, and often relies on finding an exact match to determine common ancestry.
The best place to go for accurate information about DNA testing is the International Society of Genetic Genealogy’s website. They have a well-developed Wiki which can answer almost all of your DNA questions.
If you decide to proceed with DNA testing, it is important to understand the similarities and differences between major testing sites, most specifically Ancestry, 23andMe, [FamilyTreeDNA,] and MyHeritage. Each offers a test and the ability to subscribe to their services, though the costs to do so are separate. It is also important to keep your expectations in check. Taking a DNA test will almost never allow you to solve a brick-wall ancestry problem, for example.
Ancestry has 18 million samples and user contributed lineages that it uses to identify 1400 respective regions, including ethnicities and geographic communities. One’s DNA is compared with existing samples in the database to suggest approximately 75-300 years of historical relationship to the respective community. It can also identify possible genetic similarities with other individuals within their database that have DNA percentages close to yours. Ancestry also provides suggestions as to where to look and/or whom to look for via their ThruLines feature. Ancestry’s greatest strength is the sheer volume of samples that comprises its database. Ancestry offers only autosomal DNA testing.
23andMe has a little more than half as many samples [as Ancestry] in its database, coming in at about 10 million. It concentrates on recent ancestor locations for about 1500 regions and 45 ethnicities. Though one can also build a family tree if a subscriber this function is not as sophisticated as that offered by Ancestry or MyHeritage. Both Ancestry and 23andMe utilize a saliva sample to make their determinations. This company also offers primarily autosomal testing, and the offerings do differ depending on where in the world you live.
By far the smallest in database volume at 4.5 million, it covers 42 ethnicities in a breakdown of 2100 regions. Its family tree building is good, but it is limited due the smaller number of participants. Dissimilar to Ancestry and 23andMe, it utilizes a cheek swab for its DNA test.
This company is one of the very few which offers all three types of DNA testing. FTDNA is also the host company for hundreds of specific surname projects. It offers the same ability to export test results to other companies and includes a wide variety of options for exploring (especially) Y-DNA matches.
This third-party company does not offer testing; rather it offers a suite of tools for analyzing your DNA results and finding matches with others who have uploaded their results. Ownership of this company has recently changed. The company accepts results from all three of the above testing companies plus many others.
Should you wish to purchase a test and/or subscription to the any of these services, it would be prudent to not only go to their respective website but also research some of the number of reviews and comparatives that are online [as well as consulting the ISOGG Wiki pages for more information on the company and testing in general.
Magazines and Books
As with websites, there are also many, many magazines that are devoted to genealogy and that can help provide information and direction for one’s search. These publications range from those providing beginning tips and tricks to peer reviewed journals featuring vetted articles written by very experienced genealogists. Some of these are:
Books are an additional source of information on genealogical research, and of which there are multitudes. Using the Internet, one can find those that best pertain to their research and needs. A basic one to start with would be Genealogy for Dummies.
There are times when one needs the help that only a professional can provide, especially when running into dead ends or similar obstacles. As professionals, they know how and where to access certain information or have additional options and avenues not known or available to the average person. However, they are not free. As such, there may be limits as to what one can afford in having this service performed or contracted. If this a direction that is desired, these websites can help make that determination:
By using these sites, identifying what is needed as well the finding the appropriate professional can be done more easily and more effectively. It should be noted that while the APG is the largest of these organizations, it is strictly a membership organization with no credentialing requirements.
The sheer depth and breadth of Internet sites relating to genealogical research can be intimidating when first starting. However, it provides the ability to research an incredible amount of information and avenues which to pursue. A sample of such sites includes, but is not limited to:
FTDNA (administrators Jim Kennedy and Kim Cannady)
Additional Genealogy Resources
- History at Home: A Guide to Genealogy
- Kennedy DNA Project
- Kennedy Family Genealogy Forum
- Scottish Genealogy Research & Advice page at Electric Scotland
- Scottish Genealogy Society
- Scottish Genealogy - Tracing your Scottish Ancestors at About.com
- Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet (categorized & cross-referenced links)
- FamilySearch (the LDS Church Family History site)
- PBS ANCESTORS companion web site
- Resources for Genealogists at the U.S. National Archives web site