Genealogy is the study of the descent of families and persons from an ancestor or ancestors, while Family History applies to biographical research into one's ancestors.

A Genealogical study creates a skeleton of the family while family history puts flesh onto the bones of the family.

There are of course accepted standards and norms for doing genealogy properly, regardless of where in the world such a study is undertaken, and this section aims at providing you with a basic understanding of what these standards are, and so enable you to do your own study correctly.

If correctly undertaken, genealogy is a richly rewarding and pleasantly addictive pastime or hobby, at least to the person concerned.

To begin, you should first determine what it is that we want to achieve. You need to develop a plan, with a goal or an objective at the outset, go to Developing a Goal.

Perhaps most importantly genealogical research has to be conducted logically, step-by-step, gathering information in such a way that the answer to one question provides a clue to the next question and so on. Please go to the secion on the logical genealogical process.

We next need to to understand that genealogical research is time consuming and can cost money. Very few people are lucky enough to have their own family history, pedigree or genealogy handed to them on a plate.

By the same token one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we are a composite of a great many other families, any one of whom may have been researched before. Go to checking other research.

Another very important point to remember is that records should be maintained of all sources of information. One doesn't want to have to redo previously conducted research with the added costs and time taken to obtain the information for a second time. Please go to the section on maintaining source information.

Information gathered is kept on specific types of charts and forms, and more recently of course on computer. Please go to the section on charts and forms.

Information about our families can be obtained in a number of different ways from a number of different sources broadly categorised as Informal Sources, Formal Sources and General Sources.

Finally one needs to be aware of a number of general factors concerning dates, surnames and the like, which are contained in the additional notes section.

It only remains for me to wish you "good hunting" in tracing your elusive ancestors.

Developing a Goal

There are of course many reasons for becoming interested in tracing the origins and descent of your family. Suffice it to say that you have your own personal reasons and that you are here to discover how to go about doing so.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to trace your ancestry, you need to first decide what it is that you want to achieve.

Think about which lines to follow. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. You have to draw the lines somewhere. You can use your time better if you develop a plan to guide you.

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?
Do you want to find out if you are related to a particular historical person, who has the same surname as you do?

Only once you have decided what you want to achieve can you decide what to look for.

It is recommended that you set yourself an achievable goal, one that is possible and relatively easy to achieve. Say set yourself the goal of tracing your family back in both paternal and maternal lines for five generations.

Once you have achieved the five generations then you can set another goal, perhaps that of taking particular lines further back in time.

Whatever aim you set yourself, it is best to concentrate on just a small part of the tree or chart, so to speak, at any one time - you can always move to another part when you get stuck.

Return to Introduction.

The Logical Genealogical Process

Regardless of what it is that we want to achieve, the one simple golden rule in genealogy is that we need to to start our ancestry search with ourselves and work back through our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, into the unknown.

Keep in mind that if you wish to trace your family back in both the paternal and maternal lines, each generation doubles up. You start with yourself, two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on.

Theoretically the number of ancestors in a genealogical chart spanning thirty generations, would be in the region of 1 073 741 904 individuals.

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 historical figure or your descent from a common progenitor or from a particular historical 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 to him or her. Imagine the wasted time, effort and money, not to mention the embarrassment.

Return to Introduction.

Checking other Research

Before even starting your research, or as soon as you have built up some information, you should try and 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 and you start adding surnames to your genealogy.

Nothing can be worse than working in isolation on your family for years and then discovering that someone else has done the work before you.

By the same token you should also try and make contact with others who may be in the process of researching your or an allied family with a view to sharing information. You will discover that genealogists are a friendly bunch and are always open to sharing information and of course costs.

Return to Introduction.

Maintaining Source Information

Always note the source of information that you record or photocopy, and date it too. If the material is from a book, write the name, author, publisher, year of publication, ISBN (if it has one), and also the library where you found it (or else photocopy the title page). Occasionally you'll find that you need to refer to a book again, or go back to great aunt Matilda to clarify something she told you.

It may be a good idea to use a Research Log, a sample of which can be seen by pressing the highlighted words.

Make photocopies or keep backups of all letters and e-mail messages you send. This will save you from wondering which of your correspondents' questions you've already answered, and which of your questions they have or haven't answered.

Don't procrastinate in responding to letters or messages you receive. If you don't have time to write a detailed reply, send your correspondent a quick message or postcard to acknowledge receipt and tell her/him approximately when you'll send them a more complete reply. Then be sure to write back as you've promised.

Make frequent backups of your computer disks. Store your backups and photocopies of your irreplaceable documents where you work or at someone else's home.

Return to Introduction.

Charts and Forms

Without being able to set out the information you collect in a logical, clear and unambiguous manner, you will soon become confused. Genealogists therefore normally use preprinted forms, the most common of which are:

The Pedigree Chart
The Family Group Sheet

Other formats for presenting your research include:

Descendant and Ancestral Charts.
Circular and Semi-Circular Charts.

In all parts of the world there is a method of laying out information for the descendants of people, the only difference being the symbols and numbering system used.

In this modern day and age, with easy access to computers, one can choose and use a multitude of genealogical software programmes that make it easy to store and retrieve information and to print it out in the correct format

Return to Introduction.

To see a sample of the most important of these forms go to the working documents page.

Informal Sources

This comprises basic information that is easily obtainable from personal sources and information in the possession of personal sources, including your own, as follows:

Personal knowledge.
Parents' knowledge.
Grandparents' knowledge.
Other relatives including brothers and sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles and aunts, etc.
Friends, acquaintances and others who may have associated with the person/s being researched.
Family histories,
Family bibles,
Certificates of birth, marriage or death,
Baptism or Christening certificates,
Journals, diaries or biographies,
Old letters,
Memorial cards,
Apprenticeship and other work records,
School records,
Military service records,
Pension records,
Baby books,
Marriage books,
Photograph albums and loose photographs,
Wedding announcements,
Newspaper clippings,
Obituaries and funeral programmes,
Copies of wills, deeds and mortgages,
Land grants,
Citizenship or naturalization papers,
Inscribed books given as presents.


Talk to all your older-generation relatives (before they're all gone and you're the older generation!) Even a distant relative or a family friend can be a goldmine of information about your ancestors.

For a sample checklist for informal or home sources please go to the checklist.

Return to Introduction.

Formal Sources

In most countries of the world there are certain requirements concerning the registration of births, marriages and deaths.

Before the official registration of births, marriages and deaths, these human events were recorded by churches of various denominations

In addition, most countries require information for taxation purposes, conduct a census on a regular basis and all people who die with a last will and testament have their estate administered to ensure that all who are supposed to get money or property from the deceased do so, including the government of course, in the form of death duties or taxes.

People apply for passports, serve in the military, contribute to and receive welfare in one form or another. All of these activities require that records be kept and in many instances these are retained long after a person has died, and copies can be obtained.

The method in which these official records are kept, the length of retention and the availability of them varies from country to country and can be discovered by writing to the authority concerned or by consulting a reputable genealogical book on the subject.

For South African official records please consult the sources page.

Return to Introduction.

General Sources

These include sources not mentioned above under Informal and formal sources and these include the following:

The Family History Centers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Genealogical Societies.
Other associations and societies such as the Huguenots, 1820 Settlers or one-name family Associations.
Schools, etc

Return to Introduction.

Additional Notes

The following information is aimed at preventing you from making mistakes in your own research and includes information on surnames, dates, family traditions and other general considerations:

The spelling of surnames may not have remained constant over time. In earlier times many of our ancestors did not have surnames or spoke a language other than that spoken by the record keeper or were illiterate and couldn't tell a record keeper how their names should be spelled. In addition people changed or anglicized their surnames as a result of war or to fit in better in the countries in which they settled.

When recording surnames on your working documents always write them in CAPITAL LETTERS or underline them. Many surnames can be mistaken for given names.

Write dates using an unambiguous format: Americans interpret 5/6/1881 as 6 May 1881, but in many other countries it would be read as 5 June 1881. It is recommended that you record dates using the format dd.mmm.yyyy, e.g.., 06 Aug 1956.

Place names should be recorded in full, including parish or township, county, state or province, and country. Many settlers named the places where they settled for the places that they came from so you have a Heidelberg in South Africa and one in Germany.

Family traditions such as "we should have received a vast sum of money from great-uncle Percy but were cheated out of it by other members of the family," should never be taken as fact. In most instances family traditions do contain a kernel of truth and may be used a guide until proven true or not.

Family traditions mentioning close connections to famous people are usually false, however there may be a more obscure relationship involved. For example, perhaps the famous person spent a night at your ancestor's inn instead of (as the legend goes) marrying into the family.

When searching for relatives in records, don't pass over entries that are almost (but not quite) what you're looking for. For example, if you're searching for the marriage of John BROWN and Mary JONES in 1850, make a note of the marriage of John BROWN and Nancy SMITH in 1847: this could be a previous marriage in which the wife died shortly after.

Double-check all dates to make sure they are reasonable, for example, a woman born in 1790 could not have become a mother in 1800.

Don't assume modern meanings for terms used to describe relationships. For example, in the 17th century a step-child was often called a "son-in-law" or "daughter-in-law," and a "cousin" could refer to almost any relative except a sibling or child.

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