Genealogy

Genealogy is the study of family history, and usually involves the preparation of a pedigree (family "tree") and an accompanying narrative. Traditionally, genealogy and heraldry have been the preserve of the educated, the leisured and the high-born, but since the 1960s there has been a phenomenal expansion of the hobby. The Centennial Year celebrations in 1967 and Alex Haley's popular book Roots (1976), which was made into a TV drama, sparked the explosion of interest; however, Canadian genealogical pioneers such as Cyprien Tanguay (1819-1902), Edward Marion Chadwick (1840-1921), Placide Gaudet (1850-1930), Pierre-Georges Roy (1870-1953) and William D. Reid (1905-69) were busy compiling studies of our forebears long before the pursuit became popular. Today, increasing numbers of Canadians have the spare time and the means to embark on this personal journey into the past.

A genealogical study begins with the researcher recording everything one knows about one's immediate family. This information can be supplemented by oral tradition from elderly relatives. Family papers such as letters, deeds and diaries can help verify these recollections, as can old photographs. When such sources are exhausted, the researcher must turn to the public holdings of archives, libraries, government agencies and other institutions. These repositories contain a surprising wealth of data in church registers, newspapers, cemetery transcriptions, censuses, assessment rolls, wills, historical journals and monographs, passenger lists, petitions, maps and atlases, vital statistics, naturalization papers, Indian land claims, etc.

Genealogical Handbooks and Other Resources

Guidance for the novice is available in numerous genealogical handbooks, journals and newsletters. An excellent beginner's manual is Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada (12th ed, 1996, rev by Lorraine St-Louis-Harrison and Mary Munk), available from the National Archives of Canada. Each province has at least one genealogical society. These organizations offer publications, lectures, workshops and conferences on finding one's "roots." More specialized associations can also sometimes furnish useful information.

The reluctant researcher has the option of commissioning a professional genealogist. At some point the amateur genealogist may need to hire an expert in Canada or abroad, to overcome a particular difficulty (eg, a search of records in an unfamiliar language), but most family historians find it more satisfying to discover their lineage firsthand. Research need not involve costly commissions and extensive travel. Local public libraries can often borrow required books and microfilms from other libraries and archives. Additional resources can be found in university libraries and family history centres of the Mormon Church; at the latter one can examine microform and electronic records from the world's largest genealogical collection in Salt Lake City, Utah. A wide range of useful sources is now also available on the Internet (eg, Canadian Geneology Sources http://www.iosphere.net/~jholwell/cangene/gene.html).

Preserving the Findings

After the gathering of information, it is important to preserve the findings for posterity. Ideally a genealogy should include not only pedigree charts but also a documented, written history of the family. Some genealogists add illustrations and others even publish their work. However modest the content or the format may be, it is worthwhile to distribute copies to relatives, libraries and archives so that fellow researchers may benefit from the results and reciprocate. Some family historians now post their latest findings on personal home pages of the World Wide Web so that other researchers from around the globe can access the information instantly.

Genealogy is an absorbing, lifelong pastime. Every search, every family has its own story. Although detective skills and patience are often tested, the curious and imaginative genealogist is seldom disappointed. Along the way each family historian acquires a personal link with the past and a greater sense of self-identity.