Genealogy is the study of the descent of families and persons from an ancestor or ancestors. Genealogy creates a skeleton of the family, and family history puts flesh on the bones of the family.
Genealogical research has to be conducted logically, step-by-step, gathering information so that the answer to one question provides a clue to the next question. ALWAYS start with yourself and work backwards. Genealogical research is time consuming and can cost money. The information gathered is kept on specific types of charts and forms on paper or on computer.
Before starting, decide on what it is that you want to achieve. Do you want to trace all your ancestors on your paternal (father's) side? Do you want to trace all your ancestors on your maternal (mother's) side? Do you want to trace all your ancestors on both your paternal and maternal lines? Do you want to trace all the descendants of a common progenitor, perhaps the first person to arrive in South Africa with your surname? Only once you have decided what you want to achieve can you decide what to look for.
Always START WITH YOURSELF and work backwards to your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc... working from the known into the unknown. This sequence of starting with yourself and working back in time should be followed even if you want to try and prove a link to a famous person or your descent from a common progenitor or from a particular group. Nothing could be worse than trying to trace all the descendants of a particular person and then finding out that you are not even related.
Each generation doubles up - two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on.
Try to find out if anyone else has researched your family. Even if you don't find someone else who has researched your family, you should keep on checking, particularly as your research progresses. Make contact with others who are researching your or an allied family with a view to sharing information.
Always note the source of information that you record or copy, and date it. If the material is from a book, write the name, author, publisher, year of publication, ISBN, and the library where you found it. Make photocopies or keep backups of all letters and e-mail messages you send. Don't procrastinate in responding to letters or messages you receive. Make frequent backups of your computer disks. Store your backups and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents somewhere other than your home.
To keep information you collect in a logical manner, you should record the data on a Pedigree chart and Family Group sheet. You can also use Descendant and Ancestral charts. Genealogical software programmes make it easy to store and retrieve information and to print it out in the correct format. Three programmes that are very popular: PAF, Brother's Keeper, and Family Tree Maker.
Remember that the spelling of surnames may not have remained constant over time. When recording surnames always write them in CAPITAL LETTERS. Many surnames can be mistaken for first names. Record dates in dd.mmm.yyyy format (e.g. 25 Aug 2000). Place names should be recorded in full, including parish or township, county or district, state or province, and country. Use the place names as they were at the time of the event, and add a note if the place name has changed or no longer exists. Double-check all dates to make sure they are reasonable.
Look for information at home. This can include:
other relatives including brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles and aunts, etc...
others who may have associated with the person/s being researched
certificates of birth, marriage or death
baptism or christening certificates
military service records
copies of wills, deeds and mortgages
citizenship or naturalization papers
Talk to all your older relatives (before they're all gone). Once you've covered these bases, you are ready to move onto official and other records.
Family history research involves 6 basic steps...
Step 1. Remember Your Ancestors
Begin by remembering information about each member in your family that will identify that person. Each person can be identified by personal information, such as the following:
Other members of the family
Dates and places of important events such as birth, marriage, and death
Get forms or computer programmes you can use to record your family information. They make the task of recording and organizing easier.
If you prefer writing information on paper, you will need:
Pedigree Chart — A pedigree chart lets you list your pedigree (your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on)
Family Group Record — A family group record lets you list an entire family and their information. You will need several copies.
If you prefer using a computer, download the free programme Personal Ancestral File (PAF), or try Brother's Keeper which is shareware and very easy to use for beginning searchers.
Record the information you remember about your family on the forms or in the family history programme.
First fill out a form for your own family, and then work back to your parents, grandparents, etc...
You can quickly see what you know and what information is missing or incomplete.
Step 2. Use Sources in Your Home
Look for sources in your home that might contain the missing or incomplete family information. Add this information to your pedigree charts and family group records.
Record the sources of the information. This helps you and others know where the information came from.
Step 3. Ask Relatives for Information
Make a list of other relatives and the family information they may have. Contact the relatives — visit, call, write, or e-mail them. Be sure to ask specifically for the information you would like. (For example, "Do you know when Aunt Jane was born?"). Add the information to your pedigree charts and family group records.
Record the names of the relatives who gave you the information.
Once you have filled out family group records and pedigree charts with the information your family has, you are ready to look for information in other records.
Step 4. Choose a Family or Ancestor You Want to Learn More About
Look for missing or incomplete information on your pedigree chart and family records. Select a family or ancestor with missing or incomplete information. Start with the generations closest to you, and work your way back. Usually, it is easier to find information for a family member or ancestor born in a recent period.
Step 5. See if Someone Else Has Already Found the Information
A common mistake is to gather every reference to the surname even if the person is not clearly a relative. Stick to your direct lines in the beginning. Search for other researchers into your family history - on the Internet and off-line.
Step 6. Search Records for Information about Your Ancestor
This can be original records such as birth records, based on where the person lived and the time of his or her birth, marriage, or death.
Typical information that is required:
1. Full names and Surnames of principal family member.
2. Dates and Places of birth, death and marriages for all.
3. Details of spouse
4. Details of children
5. Details of parents
Step 7. Official Archival Records
Once you have completed as much of the above as possible in the above sources, you are ready to starting looking for official archival records. Read about them here.