Houston Health Department


The Practical Importance of Genealogy

Genealogy offers a wealth of information and sometimes its findings have a significant impact on people’s lives. Throughout history, kinship and descent often demonstrated legitimate claims to power and wealth. Although not many people these days have an official claim to an iron throne, there are still several reasons why outlining a family tree can lead to big life changes.

Medical History

It’s no secret that many health conditions and ailments are hereditary, meaning that they were transmitted at birth from one’s parents. For those who have been or could have been passed down a hereditary medical condition, preventative measures can lead to much-improved health. This is where genealogy can be a literal life saver. Studying family health history can identify the necessary steps to avoid harm. For example, someone with a family history of skin cancer can take preventative measures like staying out of the sun and loading up on the sunblock. Additionally, doctors use family medical history to determine the type and frequency of screening tests, make recommendations for lifestyle changes, assess risk, and identify other related conditions. In order to create and track a family health history, individuals can use My Family Health Portrait, a tool provided by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Legal Reasons

Being able to prove that you’re related to someone can also have significant ramifications in regards to taxation, land ownership, estate administration, and forms of inheritance. Additionally, when conducting family history research, there are many genealogy-related terms that may pop up on legal documents. For example, a “dower” is the share of a husband’s real estate to which the widow is entitled upon his death and a “relict” is the widow of a deceased individual. Navigating the legal landscape can be difficult without the help of a professional, but there are resources out there that can aid the amateur genealogist. One is the FamilySearch Genealogical Dictionary of Legal Terms and another is the paperback book Genealogy and the Law

Proof of Lineage

There are various reasons for why family ties are severed over time, but fortunately, there are numerous resources available to individuals looking to retrace family connections. This may apply to the adopted who are looking to find their birth parents or mothers looking to find their children given up for adoption. Alternately, genealogical resources can be used to determine the biological father of a child.

History of Genealogy

As mentioned earlier, throughout most of history, kinship and descent were often the impetus for maintaining genealogical records. Their primary role was to demonstrate legitimate claims to power and wealth, while heraldry was also used to track the ancestry of royalty through armorial bearings. In the United States, several organizations emerged in the 1800s that began to gather genealogical records, including the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Genealogical Society of Utah, which later became the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and they eventually launched FamilySearch. Today, especially after the spread of the Internet, interest in genealogy has expanded largely due to access to resources, which range from websites to societies.

Getting Started

While all this talk of legal terms and genealogical societies may seem intimidating, one of the most efficient ways to research family history is to simply talk to relatives. Don’t be afraid to put pen to paper and start sketching out a family tree, because grandparents can offer a wealth of information. The key is to start at the present and work backwards. Relatives can offer invaluable leads that will fill in the blanks and save time. To keep track of collected material, you can employ a pedigree chart, such as this free one offered by Progeny . Or you can print out a family group sheet, such as this free one offered by Ancestry. Once you’ve collected all the information available and have your leads, you can begin the hunt for official records.

Types of Records

There are dozens of different types of records that can be obtained to shine a light on one’s ancestry, though the process can often be time-consuming. In order to properly organize a search, it’s important to figure out what type of information you’re looking for and where to access the related records. Relevant records may include—but are not limited to—the following:
  • Medical
  • Criminal
  • Birth and death
  • Immigration
  • Census
  • Marriage and divorce
  • Wills
  • Obituaries
  • Religious, such as Baptism or Bar/Bat Mitzvah
  • Military
  • Social security
  • Tax
  • Cemetery and tombstones
  • Voter registration

Reliability of Sources

  • When dealing with decades-old paperwork and online searches, it can be difficult to determine which sources are accurate. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to help ensure information is authentic.
  • To start, begin research with your family (as mentioned above). Chances are much higher that your relatives have collected documents, photos, and memorabilia that pertains to your family tree.
  • Next, search for original sources. These are defined as the first recording of a document or event and can include facsimile microforms, photographs, unaltered digital reproductions, and the like.
  • Finally, derivative sources can also offer information but do not include original recordings. Derivative sources can include transcripts and indexes, as well as compiled records like local histories, books, and websites—all of which are compiled by a third party.

Tools for Your Search

There are many different sources for obtaining genealogical records and it’s important to cast a wide net in order to get the best results. Here are some ways for you to start your search.

Local Library

Some libraries have entire departments or buildings dedicated to genealogical records. With the aid of a short list of names or a family tree outline, reference cards can get you the leads you need. Reference cards are often organized in a few different ways: by surname, geographical region, historical event, historical society, or local departments like the police or political office. Assuming your last name isn’t one of the most common, searching the surname will hopefully give you a handful of solid clues, possibly directing you to books, newspapers on microfilm, etc. Even a simple obituary can help fill in the blanks by sharing birth date and location, when or where a person moved, who they married, maiden name and marriage date, and the names of children and their locations.

Ships’ logs may also be available. Most ships back in the 1600s and 1700s kept ship logs that with information about who was on the ship, where they went, and sometimes even what trade they were in and who they were traveling with. Local census records might help you find potential relatives, but won’t likely offer too much information. Some might provide townships or addresses, while others will simply list first and last names. Additionally, many libraries keep yearbooks tracing back to the 1970s, and some much further back than that. If you have a library with a thorough section, you might even find school records and photos from the 1800s.

Online Resources

The Olive Tree
 Clayton Library
 Texas State Library
 National Archives and Records Administration
 Digital Public Library of America
 Surname Index
 Find A Grave

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The Houston Health Department (HHD) does not endorse or recommend any commercial products, processes, or services. Therefore, mention of commercial products, processes, or services on HHD's Web site, www.houstontx.gov, cannot be construed as an endorsement or recommendation. In general, it is not HHD's intention to provide specific [genealogical] advice to users of its Web site, but rather to provide users with information.