Sunday, September 26, 2010

Where does genealogy end and history begin?

What exactly is genealogy? Sometimes we take our research so far that I'm not sure when it leaves genealogy and becomes history.

I've been trying to work through in my mind the difference between genealogy and history. Add to that the concept of a reasonably exhaustive search and I get a little confused.

In my mind, genealogy is mostly about people, dates and building family relationships. History is a broader category of events that happen to society as a whole whether local, statewide or national.

Is a reasonably exhaustive search restricted to those items that relate to dates and family relationships? When a genealogist reads a detailed journal about an ancestor that adds "meat to the bones" does that go beyond genealogy and embark on history?


To help me think through this I decided to look up the definition of genealogy. has this definition:


–noun, plural -gies.
1. a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc.
2. the study of family ancestries and histories.
3. descent from an original form or progenitor; lineage; ancestry.

Next I checked out the definition of history:


–noun, plural -ries.
1. the branch of knowledge dealing with past events.
2. a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle: a history of France; a Medical history of the patient.
3. the aggregate of past events.
4. the record of past events and times, esp. in connection with the human race.
5. a past notable for its important, unusual, or interesting events: a ship with a history.
6. acts, ideas, or events that will or can shape the course of the future; immediate but significant happenings: Firsthand observers of our space program see history in the making.
7. a systematic account of any set of natural phenomena without particular reference to time: a history of the American eagle.
8. a drama representing historical events: Shakespeare's comedies, histories, and tragedies.

The definition of genealogy seems very specifically about tracing ancestry.  But it doesn't define for me exactly what items are considered essential for genealogy.  The definitions of history are broader and relate more broadly to people as a whole group.  However, genealogy would appear to be a subset of definition #4 above.

As genealogists, sometimes we do very extensive research so much so that we can write biographical summaries of our ancestors that could be considered history.  Where is the line between the two?

Am I a genealogist when I connect the dots between my ancestors, a local historian when I research in-depth the life of one ancestor, or an historian when I look at the events that impacted the lives of generations of my ancestors?

Someone please tell me if I am a genealogist, local historian, historian or all three!  How do you separate genealogy and history? And what do you consider yourself?


  1. very good question. As I write this book I am thinking it is historical, however it originated from genealogical research -so maybe I am a genealogcial historian. Even though History is not a strongpoint with me. Hummm!!

  2. At some point I tend to begin writing what I consider biography! You can find so much detail on a few ancestors that after compiling pages and pages I'm sure it has crossed over into biography. However, since I'm always looking at cousins, siblings, ancestry, and the other minutiae of cluster genealogy this is different from what most other biographers write.

  3. Hi Marian,

    I really do not think you can separate the genealogist from the historian. When doing genealogy you are chronicling ancestral or family history. It all works together. That is how I view it.

  4. I agree with Lucie - I think of genealogy as one of the components or building blocks of history. It tends more toward the micro level, then local history is a little broader, and so on. A smart historian will use the results of well-done research of all types when it is relevant.

  5. I'm a historian that works as a genealogist. There is no "line" for me.

  6. History and genealogy walk hand in hand. If you disconnect the connection, you are not doing either justice and only get half the story.

  7. You can get a Ph.D. in history at any major university. At best you can get a certificate in genealogy. One is an accredited academic pursuit and the other is a hobby (which some people pursue as a livelihood). Annette Gordon Reed used genealogy in her Hemingses of Monticello, but it was a history (and she just won a MacArthur Genius Grant). Genealogists do not get pulitzer prizes nor genius grants.

    It is scale. Even if you are a good genealogist and analyze records correctly, you are just providing analysis for one individual or one family. A historian analyzes records and provides a basis for entire communities and nations on why things happen. It may be the doing of one person, but it has larger ramifications. Most of us do not have the types of ancestors a historian would study.

    So a family historian may have the essential skills and scope of a regular historian, but they lack the scope of impact on a community, culture, nation and the world that the subjects of a historian would have.

  8. I agree with those who have stated that you cannot separate history from genealogy. They are one. Our culture's accepted understanding of a "historian" is one that chronicles a large story. But, without the stories of each soldier, mother, inventor or farmer, there would be no large story. Some of us choose to chronicle the untold individual stories that impact the community as well as our own families. Thanks for posing this question. Your thoughts inspired some interesting responses.