Family history  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Family history is the systematic narrative and research of past events relating to a specific family, or specific families.



While genealogy is the convenient label for the field, family history is the over-arching term, since genealogy in the strict sense is only concerned with tracing unified lineages.Template:Dubious Other sectors of family history, such as one-name studies, may pay only rudimentary attention to lineages, or may emphasize biography rather than vital data.

Forms of family history research include:

  • genealogy (tracing a living person's pedigree back into time from the present, or an historic person's descendancy to the present, using archival records)
  • genetic genealogy (discovering relationships by comparing the DNA of living individuals);
  • one-name studies (an investigation of all persons with a common surname)
  • one-place studies (population histories including the German Ortsfamilienbuch)
  • heraldic and peerage studies (inquiries into the legal right of persons to bear arms or claim noble status)
  • clan studies (inquiries into groups with a shared patrilineal or matrilineal connection to a tribal chieftain and his servants, although they may not be related by blood and may not share the same surname)
  • family social and economic history (telling the story of a family's place in society or economic achievements using oral and written records, or inferring information about lives from wider historical sources; this subject is treated below)
  • oral history or recording individuals' history to leave to future generations

Unlike related forms of micro-history, such as corporate histories or local studies, family history research begins with only an approximate notion of the extent of the entity - the extended family - and never fully defines it, since the early origins of all families become invisible in prehistorical times.Template:Clarify DNA genealogy offers some hope of moving this boundary further back into time.


Family history needs little justification in communitarian societies, where one's identity is defined as much by one's kin network as by individual achievement, and the question "Who are you?" would be answered by a description of father, mother, and tribe. New Zealand Māori, for example, learn whakapapa (genealogies) to discover who they are.

Family history plays a part in the practice of some religious belief systems. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a doctrine of Baptism for the dead, which necessitates that members of that faith engage in family history research.

Until the late 19th century, family histories were almost exclusively of interest to persons who had obtained their wealth or rank by inheritance. Other people, who had inherited nothing, might, in extreme cases, suppress their family history as a matter of shame.

In societies such as the United States or Australia, there was by the 20th century growing pride in the pioneers and nation-builders. Establishing descent from these was a concern in groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, and helped differentiate those descendants from later immigrants with lower status.

In Nazi Germany, family histories were compiled to affirm individuals' affiliation with the "master race" and to adhere to legal requirements for marriage. In Germany today, family history is still often perceived as a threat to privacy rather than as a source of self-esteem.Template:Citation needed Most 20th-century sources remain unavailable to the public on privacy grounds. Funding of support for family history at archives is limited. German family historians thus tend to emphasize instead how family history can contribute to learning and science.Template:Citation needed

Modern family history explores new sources of status, such as celebrating the resilience of families that survived generations of poverty or slavery, or the success of families in integrating across racial or national boundaries. Some family histories even emphasize links to celebrity criminals, such as the bushranger Ned Kelly in Australia.

The growing interest in family history in the media coupled with easier access to online records has allowed people with a curiosity to start to investigate their ancestry. This curiosity can be particularly strong due to lost family histories, for example, through adoption or bereavement.

The single family history

In the narrower sense of the term, a family history is a biography of a single family over several generations, based on a tested genealogy and fleshed out with the fuller story of the family's place in society, the dramas of its achievements or failures and its acquisition or loss of wealth and rank.

Such a study mainly draws on oral history for the recent period and archival records for the period beyond living memory. Where an individual's own story is unknown, much can be inferred from other literature. For example, a single soldier's experiences can be inferred from the history of his military unit, or a migrant's journey can be described from the shipboard diary of a fellow traveler.

Conducting family history research

Family history can either be in the form of a printed document, electronic document or sound or video recording that preserves this history for future generations. The readers will expect it to describe where the family originated from, name the members of the family and state who they married.

Family Histories are often created as a memorial for the deceased and are written to be passed down to future generations.

Some records that are used to create family histories are:

Today many people are using these records to recover their family history. But most of these records include only technical details of a person's life, such as their birth date, whom they married, the jobs they did, and so forth, but they contain very little about the person themselves such as their likes, dislikes, hobbies, hopes and dreams. These personal details can only be gleaned by more detailed research, and the use of social history. Some family histories are published and become useful historical records in their own right.

Family history websites and indexes are also useful, and for modern researchers they are often the main source of information. Some offer resources (e.g. censuses or civil registration records) that have previously only been available in microform or as hard copies; some are designed for individual researchers to share their information with others; some exist primarily to link people who share the same ancestors, or the same research interests. Some websites offer useful free resources to family historians in addition to helpful hints and tips.


The benefits of family history projects may vary according to the people who pursue the hobby. Some schools engage students in such projects as a means to reinforce lessons regarding immigration and the history of the nation.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Family history" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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