Standard Issue: The Evolution of Genealogy Research

Standard Issue: The Evolution of Genealogy Research

Learn how your favorite family history tools were born. Our timeline traces the roots of nine genealogy research staples, from family tree charts to DNA testing.

Some resources are so integral to family history research we take them for granted. Can you imagine trying to keep track of your genealogy research without pedigree charts? Once upon a time, though, family historians had no other choice but to record their lineages free-form – on rocks, scrolls or the insides of their tunics – until some pioneering pedigree recorder came up with the standardized family tree format we all know and love.

Which got us thinking: How the heck did some of our favorite genealogy tools come into being? We decided to find out. This timeline traces the roots of nine fundamental family history resources, revealing how yesterday’s genealogical innovations grew into the standbys today’s researchers rely on.

1400s: Family tree charts

Where better to start than the basic manifestation of the family tree itself? The familiar layout of modern ancestor pedigree charts traces back to 15th century France, where genealogists indicated lines of descent with three branched lines. Because the design resembled the shape of a crane’s foot – pied de grue – it spawned the French word pedigree. The Art of Family: Genealogical Artifacts in New England edited by D. Brenton Simons and Peter Benes (New England Historic Genealogical Society) chronicles the rise of the pedigree chart in America: In the late 18th century, printed family registers for recording milestone events were popping up in Bibles, and creating genealogical artwork with tree motifs became a popular pastime for schoolchildren. By the mid-19th century, Americans were displaying their family trees as decorative pieces in their homes. Today, we have a dizzying array of options for charting our lineages, from online trees to plain-vanilla research worksheets (such as our downloadable ancestor chart), to pretty fill-in posters to the family tree charts you can create with your genealogical software. You can go on Pinterest and find several creative ideas for creating your family tree. 

Genealogy Research at a glance: timeline 

1845: Genealogical societies

Two heads are better than one, as the saying goes – and it didn’t take long for American researchers to embrace that concept by establishing the first genealogical society. In 1845, a group of men interested in saving history and the stories of American families banded together to form the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS). They started collecting books and manuscripts to build a research library. Two years later, the group began publishing the country’s first scholarly journal dedicated to family history: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The Register contained memoirs, genealogical tables, lists of names from documents and ancestral data. By encouraging the development of family history as a hobby and scholarly pursuit, NEHGS paved the way for the huge network of genealogical societies US researchers can now turn to for genealogical advice, assistance and camaraderie.

1894: Family History Library

If you have any question about the importance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library (FHL) in genealogy, just count how many times it shows up in this magazine: We bet you run out of fingers before you get to the end. The FHL was a natural outgrowth of the church’s emphasis on family history – Mormons trace their ancestors so their families can be united in heaven, and church leaders saw the need for a resource to help them do that. In 1894, the church established the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) and began organizing the FHL. After GSU purchased its first camera in 1938, the library pioneered the microfilming of genealogical records around the world. The FHL’s collection now encompasses 2.4 million rolls of microfilm and 310,000 books, making it the world’s largest genealogical resource – and it’s open to anyone with an interest in family history, through the Salt Lake City facility and thousands of branch Family History Centers around the country. Today, the FHL continues to pioneer genealogical records preservation and access: In 2005, the library announced long-term plans to index and digitize its entire collection and make it all available online – for free.

1969: Genealogy conferences

The annual conferences put on by the National Genealogical Society (NGS) and Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) are a relatively recent tradition: Only during the past few decades could you pack your bags and join in a national gathering of the genealogical community. The first family tree confab, the 1969 World Conference on Records, took place in – where else? – Salt Lake City, says NEHGS librarian David Dearborn. Six years later, the newly formed FGS held a small seminar in conjunction with Chicago’s Newberry Library. The Western Reserve Historical Society sponsored a 1976 Bicentennial Conference in Cleveland; in celebration of its 75th anniversary in 1977, NGS organized a gathering in Silver Spring, Md. Those events got the ball rolling and annual conferences became popular soon afterward.

1979: Family tree software

Perhaps no innovation has revolutionized the way we track our genealogical research more than family tree software. With a few clicks, you can organize your data, crunch numbers and share your findings. Of course, the first consumer genealogy applications weren’t quite so advanced, as genealogy technology blogger Dick Eastman explains in a history of early family tree programs. For example, Genealogy: Compiling Roots and Branches – a microcomputer program featured on the cover of Personal Computing Magazine in 1979 – required users to add the source code themselves. In 1981, ham-radio software company CommSoft issued ROOTS89, which went through several incarnations for IBM compatible machines in the 1980s. (Palladium bought the program in 1997 and renamed it Ultimate Family Tree.) Quinsept Software’s longtime favorite Family Roots debuted in 1982; early versions worked on such classic platforms as Commodore 64 and Apple II. Back in the ’80s, you could expect to spend $200 or more for rudimentary recording functions: no sources, notes or GEDCOM format for sharing or transferring your data to another program. The “budget” alternative was the FHL’s Personal Ancestral File (PAF), introduced in 1983 with a $35 price tag. Only a few of the programs born in the ’80s – including the now-free PAF and bestseller Family Tree Maker (1989) – are still around. Modern family tree software may leave its ancestors in the dust, but those pioneering programs set the stage for the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect.

1981: Digital cameras

Since its invention in 1839, photography has had a huge impact on family history, first allowing us to see what our ancestors looked like, then enabling the microfilming of records we need to trace them. The latest genealogically influential development – digital photography – began in Japan. That’s where Sony introduced the first camera with electronic images in 1981; seven years later, the company issued the ProMavica MVC-5000, which stored images on a still-video floppy disk. The earliest digital cameras definitely weren’t suited to family historians – they were too expensive and unwieldy, keeping them out of even most professional photographers’ reach. Aside from their $20,000 to $30,000 price tag, toting around an 11-pound monster with an external hard drive wasn’t all that practical. Now, of course, you can purchase a digital camera for less than $100 and use it for all sorts of genealogical applications: Shoot documents, microfilm, books and memorabilia to post on your family website. “Copy” records when you can’t use a photocopier. Capture the clan at the annual reunion and share the pics over e-mail – all with a device no bigger than your standard point-and-shoot.

1984: Message boards

Print periodicals have been publishing genealogy queries for decades. In fact, genealogical society journals and magazines such as Everton’s Genealogical Helper were traditionally the best places to publicize your pleas for ancestral information – until the World Wide Web took querying to a new level (and a much wider audience). The revolution started with the 1984 launch of FidoNet, a system for transferring messages between Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) via dial-up modems. As Internet technology progressed, genealogists who recognized the collaborative potential began forming newsgroups, e-mail lists and message boards – offering free and faster family tree-related networking. In the late 1990s, Roots Web and GenForum emerged as the premier genealogy message board sites of their day. Now, rather than pay to reach several thousand people in print, you can post your queries on dozens of message board sites frequented by millions of visitors all over the globe.

1996: Email newsletters

We bet you subscribe to at least one e-mail newsletter to stay up to date on happenings in the genealogy world (and we hope that includes our free Family Tree Magazine newsletter – if not, you can sign up at here on our website). It’s not clear who penned the first genealogy-related e-newsletter. But way back in 1996 – before we came to expect family tree updates in our e-mail inboxes – genealogy techie Dick Eastman launched his weekly Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. “I sent the first e-mail newsletter to about 100 people, mostly members of CompuServe’s Genealogy Forums. None of them knew in advance that the newsletter would arrive; I simply mailed it to people I thought might be interested,” he writes in a retrospective.

Since then, countless individuals, companies and organizations have jumped on the bandwagon, spawning such popular e-publications as Dear-MYRTLE and RootsWeb Review. And publication has become more frequent. In 2004, Eastman led the pack in adopting a blog format that allows for daily updates – though he still offers “old-fashioned” email delivery. 

2000: DNA testing

Bryan Sykes didn’t plan to set the genealogical world on fire when he began the research that inspired his DNA testing firm Oxford Ancestorsseventeen years ago. The Oxford University professor had been studying population changes when a chance meeting with a Sir Richard Sykes provided the spark: Their matching Y-DNA proved they shared an ancestor. Bryan Sykes began to collect samples from other Sykes men, which enabled him to chart the geographic origins of surnames. “It was not obvious that this was going to be big business,” he says – but that’s exactly what genetic genealogy has become. Since Sykes got his start, genealogy-focused DNA companies have sprung up and testing options have expanded. DNA has become the biggest trend in 21st-century genealogy.

Updated from the September 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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