author:  Robert W. Penry @2023

History of Genealogy

  • History

    is a series of past events connected with someone or something.  

  • Family History is a subset of history.  Family history is researching a series of past events associated with a family. 

  • Family History is what we do.  Genealogy is how we do it.

  • Genealogy defines the skills needed for  gathering family information.

  • A genealogist researches the history of families, using the techniques, tools, and rules defined within the genealogy skill.  

When Did Family History Begin?

Family history began when man learned to speak. This made it possible to tell stories about one’s family. The only genealogy skills needed were the ability to remember and to communicate. Sometimes these stories were drawings on cave walls, or perhaps told around a campfire. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing when man first began to speak.

Man Learned to Write!

The earliest writing was on stone tablets, metal plates, papyrus and linen.  Paper was developed about A.D. 205 in China

Family History information began to be collected to prove lineage or increase one’s stature in the community.

Egyptians kept the lineage of their leaders (Pharoes) on stone tablets or stelae sometime in the 4th millenium B.C.  Religious texts such as the bible contained genealogical information recorded between 1500 B.C and about A.D. 70.

When Did Family History/Genealogical Research Become Popular?

Although records have been kept for many centuries, they were not researched by the majority of people. In the late 1800’s, genealogical and heritage societies started to form as society elites found it increased their stature by proving they were descendants of important immigrants such as the passengers of the Mayflower, or having an ancestor serving in the Revolutionary War. The New England Historic Genealogical Society was the first to be formed in 1845. The Genealogical Society of Utah was founded in 1894 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was founded in 1890. The Mayflower Society in 1897. Soon societies began throughout the U.S. in States and Cities.


It took longer for the world to start genealogical societies. In England, there are now over 100, but most have been founded after 1974!


Genealogical research becoming popular in the world is a 20th Century phenomenon.


However, there is one group that made up the majority of people doing family history research in early days. This was the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This research began to grow following the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893. Family History Research is part of the religious doctrine of the church. Latter-Day saints research their lineage to have religious covenants such as baptism performed vicariously. Almost all interest in family history/genealogy is the result of the LDS Church developing standards, books and forms, and serving in many genealogical societies world-wide.

Salt Lake Temple
World's Largest Genealogy Event - Annual SLC
Utah Historical Genealogy Society - SLC

Events that Have Made Family History/Genealogy Popular

  • Publication of the Book “Roots” and the TV Series “Who Do You Think You Are?”

  • Development of a set of standards called GEDCOM.

  • Publication of Instructional Materials (books and forms).

  • Invention of the Personal Computer.

  • Development and Sale of Computer Applications for recording family information.

  • Growth of The World-Wide Web and YouTube.

  • Development of Genealogical Databases.

Each of these events will be explained in detail in the following pages.

In 1976, Alex Haley (1921-1992) wrote the book “Roots:The Saga of an American Family“. Alex Haley was a descendant of slaves. He traced his linage back to Africa. ABC adapted the book as a miniseries in 1977 with 130 million viewers. This jump-started an enormous interest in family history in America and quickly spread world-wide.


In 2004, BBC began a British genealogy documentary series “Who Do You Think You Are?” that ran for 19 seasons, tracing the lineage of British celebrities.


In 2010, NBC started an American version of “Who Do You Think You Are?“, in partnership with and Shed Media that traced the lineage each week of a chosen celebrity. This show ran for 11 seasons.


Who Do You Think You Are?” also has had genealogy documentary versions in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and has had a great impact in the growth of world-wide family history research.


Genealogy Standards - GEDCOM

As we collect information and put it in a computer program, we may wish to share that information with another, perhaps a relative, or upload the information to an online database like FamilySearch or 


If everybody in the world used the same genealogy program, just copying the file and either sending it by e-mail or on a disk or thumb drive would be fine.  But everybody does not use the same program.  Can one program read a file directly copied from another program?  Not usually. 


Genealogists were aware of the problem, so a special data file was designed.  It is called GEDCOM (GEnealogyDataCOMmunications).  A special committee was established in 1984 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to determine standard data elements for Genealogy.  There are hundreds of data elements in the GEDCOM.    

Most fields were designed to expand the five basic fields of Name, Sex, Birth, Death and Marriage.  Your author has been a contributor for design modifications. 


GEDCOM standards make it possible to enter data in an established format to eliminate error and confusion.  


The best example is the date.  If I write a check and enter the date as 3/11/23, you assume that the date is Mar 11, 2023.  But if you wrote the check in Europe, 3/11/23 would be Nov 3, 2023!  The European date format creates a lot of confusion for visitors from the U.S. and would cause many mistakes in entering dates in genealogy programs.  GEDCOM establishes a single format used everywhere.  That format is dd/mmm/yyyy.  The check example above would be entered on a genealogy form or computer program as 03Nov2023. The dd (day) is always two digits – 01 thru 31. The month is always alpha – Jan thru Dec.  Why year as yyyy?  Centuries are needed in genealogy.  Using just yy could mean 2023 or 1923 or even 1523.  


To repeat –  The establishment of data entry standards eliminates error and confusion.


The GEDCOM file is a text file, and every Genealogy Program and Database has been designed to import and export GEDCOM files, thus making it possible to share information.

Sample line from a GEDCOM file.

n  OBJE @<XREF:OBJE>@  {1:1} G:\FamilyHistory\Media\Adams.jpg


I can export my data file from my genealogy program as a GEDCOM file and e-mail it to my son in Arizona who can open his genealogy program and import my GEDCOM file.  This allows an easy exchange of data, and we do not even need to be using the same program.  

Instructional Materials

As family search became popular, a market for instruction grew.  Genealogists started writing and publishing books.  Various organizations and companies began to develop forms for capturing information.


The internet opened another market.  Websites (such as this one) were written to teach people how to do research and to enter information into programs.  YouTube has so many videos about genealogy, I couldn’t count them all.  I stopped at about 300 and the list was still being populated.


Local genealogy societies and public libraries have a wealth of information in books, microfilm, microfiche, cemetery records, probate court records, etc.


How many books, websites and YouTube Videos are there.  There are THOUSANDS!!!  Cyndi’s List is a website that is nothing but links to internet genealogy websites, and currently has over 70,000 links! 


The instructional material can be very specific.  If I am interested in researching Gypsy families of Hungary, I will be able to find a wealth of information.  Can you find information about the families of Tonga.  Yes!  Can you find anything about Floyd County, Kentucky?  Yes!  Any place or family name that you can think of will have information available.

A genealogy guide book
Microfilm Roll
YouTube Videos

Personal Computers

When I taught high school, one of the courses was “Computer History”  Scientists began designing machines for computing, many were simple calculators, as far back a the 1930’s.  World War II created a demand for machines that could compute. IBM and Hewlett-Packard were formed during that time. Those early computers used vacuum tubes and filled entire rooms. They were not used for genealogy, but for scientific and engineering applications. These computers did a single function. The first computer to be able to do multi-functions, both commercial and scientific applications, was the IBM 360 in 1964. These mainframe computers were not in homes and were very expensive. 


The first commercially available personal computer was the Kenbak-1 Digital Computer in 1971. Only 50 were produced and the company closed in 1973.


Soon after came the first Apple Computer, followed by Tandy (Radio Shack) TRS-80. The IBM PC was introduced in 1981 and was the first to use the Microsoft Operating System (DOS 1.0) and sold for $1,565.  


The market then become flooded with competitors, with almost all using versions of Microsoft DOS.  Examples were Gateway, Commodore, Compaq, Dell, Acer, Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft.  Computer stores also assembled computers from available parts and sold them under their store brand name such as Micro Center’s PowerSpec.  


The chips that are used in personal computers are also used for other devices.  There are Gaming Systems such as Atari, Microsoft X-Box, Nintendo, and Sony PlayStation.  


Personal computers are fantastic tools for genealogists, but we must also include the peripheral devices that are crucial as we work.  The printer which allows us to print messages, documents, forms and articles, and do so even in color is a mandatory device. The scanner allows us to scan in a paper document and create an image which can be attached to a genealogy file. We don’t always consider the shredder, but I no longer file paper documents. I scan and keep them on my computer (which I back up frequently); I once had five file cabinets, now I have two.  


You can purchase printers that are multi-functional — they can print, scan, copy, and fax.  But, can they make a cup of hot chocolate?  No, not yet, maybe in the future!

Kenbak - 1971
Apple 1 - 1976
TRS-80 - Radio Shack 1977
IBM PC Model 5150
XBox-X & S

Computer Genealogy Programs

Is a computer genealogy program necessary?  No. Before computers, we used paper forms and pencils.  We still can.  However, we have found that tools are great for most things we do.  I could drive a nail with a rock, but I prefer a hammer. The computer lets me do genealogy quickly and accurately. The genealogy computer program is a tool, a necessary tool in today’s world. Is there an alternative to downloading or buying a program? Yes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an online website called FamilySearch, and anyone on earth can obtain a free account. It has a 14.3 billion database of individuals and images (as of May 2023). You can use this database and enter genealogical data into it. It has forms, reports and many instructional tools. But it has one problem. Anyone can enter data. Does that mean that everything entered is 100% correct. No? Data is only as good as the research obtaining the data. Even though I use and teach FamilySearch daily, I also maintain one of the programs listed below.  Why?  Because I know that the data I enter my program has been verified, by me, for accuracy and follows distinct rules for entry and verification. 
There are many computer genealogy programs which will be listed in a table below.  Each uses GEDCOM standards for data entry.  They differ mostly in design and what we call “bells and whistles”.  These include color coding, fancy charts, filtered reports, alternate views and other features.  Almost all have examples and explanation of features on their websites.  
WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?  I teach genealogy courses and have many of the programs on my computer for comparison.  I always tell those I teach, “Try the free versions of programs, and choose the one you like best.”  All programs can do the basic tasks.  
A good analogy is buying a car.  All cars can start and stop and get you from point A to point B.  But do you want a sun-roof, or a back-up camera, or be able to change the color of interior lighting, leather seats, heating for both seats and steering wheel, auto start from a fob or your cell-phone, etc.  These bells and whistles cost extra. 
Do you want a genealogy program for just entering data and care nothing for the extra features?  If so, go for a free version. Compare the bells and whistles of the various programs.  If you like the extra features, then buy the one you liked best.  
If you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church) then compatibility with FamilySearch is a must.  Choose a compatible program.  If using a Microsoft operating system PC, then choose Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree, MagiKey Family Tree, Roots Magic or Family Tree Maker.  If you have a MAC, then choose Ancestral Quest or MacFamily Tree.  All of these can import and export GEDCOM files.
Before we move on the table of programs, I wish to discuss the pioneer genealogy program.  In 1984 after personal computers entered the market, the LDS Church realized that this was the future of genealogy.  They contracted with a Utah software company “Inuit” to develop a computer genealogy program. Inuit designed “Personal Ancestral File” (PAF) which was offered free by the LDS church.  The last version was updated in 2002 and the program was discontinued by the LDS church in 2013.  However, if you have it on your computer, it still works.  
Intuit realized that the program needed bells and whistles, and designed and sold “PAF Companion”, a program which added features to PAF. 
Intuit also designed a full featured program “Ancestral Quest” which is available in both a free and paid version and is fully compatible with FamilySearch and other databases. 
 In the Table of Programs, clicking the program name will link you to the website where you can get further information and download or purchase the program.  
Any program written for a PC can also be run on a MAC using an emulator program such as Parallels Desktop or Windows Emulator.  






Ancestral Quest

$34.95 PC

$44.95 MAC

PC and MAC

Yes for both

South Jordan, UT - Incline Software

Ancestral Quest Basics


PC and MAC

Yes for both


Branches Pro

$29.95 PC

$69.99 MAC

PC and MAC

Yes for both

South Haven, MS - Sherwood Electronics Lab.

Brothers Keeper



Rockford IL

Family Historian



London, England - Calico Pie Ltd.

Family Tree Maker


PC and MAC

PC and MAC


Boston, MA - MacKiev Software




Corvalis, OR - RSAC Software



PC and MAC

Genealogy Community Project



PC and MAC

Montpelier, France

iFamily for MAC (Leopard)



Irvine, CA - KS Wilson & Associates

Kith and Kin Pro




Scotland - SpanSoft Ltd.

Legacy Family Tree




Utah -Millennia Corporation, purchased

by MyHeritage Ltd of Israel in 2017

Legacy Family Tree Standard








Rheinland-Pfalze, Germay - Synium Software GmbH

MyHeritage Family Tree Builder

or Yehuda, Israel - MyHeritage Ltd.




Pennsylvania - Leister Productions





Salem, Utah - RootsMagic, Inc.

RootsMagid Essentials





With each of the programs listed above, a datafile is created.  There are also programs that communicate with these datafiles (or in some cases GEDCOM files) to add more functions such advanced charting, atlas and mapping, analyzing, and story writing and publishing.   When you look at the websites of the various programs, you will also have the chance to purchase add-on programs and books and operational manuals.  

The Internet

The internet is a world-wide system of computers in which a user on one computer can exchange information with another computer which can be located anywhere in the world (assuming you have permission to communicate with the other computer).  This information can be written, voice, or visual.  
We understand mail.  You can send and receive letters, packages, and publications anywhere in the world.  Mail is a network.  Phones are also a network.  Your phone can send and receive voice messages across the world.  It needs phones and transmission lines.  
The internet requires satellites, transmission towers, phone lines, cables, and a modem.  The internet, or just “the Net”, is a combination of thousands of networks.  Some are named.  Many are not.  Some are restricted.  I cannot access the Pentagon’s network, nor the WhiteHouse network.  
Even in restricted networks, not all computers are restricted.  Even the most secure network will have at least one computer than can receive e-mail.  
I can restrict access to my own computer.  It is password protected and I don’t share the password.  Even though I have e-mail, I can block certain messages.  If a message contains profanity, I can have it deleted and never see it.  In Facebook, which is also a network, I can block users.  
In the 1970’s, two DARPA scientists developed a communications protocol called “Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocal (TCP/IP)
When did he internet start?  January 1, 1983.  Before this date, networks had no standard way to communicate.  This changed when The US Department of Defense adopted TCP/ip  for the military.  Major corporations soon followed.  Then other layers, links, and routing techniques were developed and became standard.  The process of adapting standard protocols throughout the world was not a one-day event.  It is still in progress as new and better techniques and protocols develop.  It is a complex network with terms such as MAC addresses, link layers, packets, IP Addresses, that the majority of users do not understand.  The user just wants the “Net” up and running and doing its job. Thank goodness for help desks!  
Most genealogists, including me, live on the Net.  I check e-mail daily and am always checking for further information and submitting data to FamilySearch,, and MyHeritage databases.

Genealogy and the Data Base

File Systems vs database.  A file system is how files are arranged.  A database is the sum total of all the information in the files.
Most of us have folders of information.  We probably have them arranged in a way that we think is best.  This is a file system.  It can be physical folders in file cabinets.  It can be series of electronic file folders on your computer.  How you have these arranged is your file system.  
The database is not the folders.  The database is the content of the folders, the documents, pictures, etc. The database is whatever you have stored either physically or electronically.  
Every picture or document on your computer is an image.  The actual document or photo is not there physically.. You scanned the document or photo. What you see on your computer is just a picture of your document.  If you print it out, your printer recreates a paper copy.
Whenever you enter a person in your genealogy program, a record is created for that person and is assigned a number (a key).  This file of people with the information you entered is a database.  If you add images (documents, photos, videos), they are not actually entered in the program file.  The program creates a pointer, an address that allows the program to display the image on your computer.  Even though you may see the photo on a screen in your program, the pointer brings up the photo.
Why is this important to know?  If you create a GEDCOM, it only contains the data you entered.  The pointers are in it, but not the actual images. You must send along with the GEDCOM, a file containing the images.  From my personal experience, I recommend  keeping a copy of all images that you are using in your genealogy program in one directory.  You can let the people know to whom you are sending the image file, the name and location of the directory. They can then set up the same directory on their computers and place the images you send in it..  Otherwise, they would have to individually attach each image to their program one at a time by telling the program where the image is located  (setting up new pointers).  If they create the same directory on their computers, the pointers in the GEDCOM match and their program will be able to see the images.
To illustrate:  On my computer I have a file on my C Drive called “Images For My Genealogy Program”.  I copy each image I am going to use into that directory.  Note that I said, copy, not move.  The image is also in the original location.  For instance, I have a file on my computer named “Pictures of Bob” that has every photo ever taken of me.  But I wanted to use one of these in my computer’s genealogy program.  I then copied the photo from “Pictures of Bob” to “Images For My Genealogy Program”.
If I tell the person who is receiving my GEDCOM and a file of the photos, that the photos are located in a directory C:/Images For My Genealogy Program”, that person can create C://Images For My Genealogy Program” on his/her computer and copy the images I sent into into that directory.  Wow!  The pointers in the GEDCOM now match and all of the images can now be seen in that person’s genealogy program.  Does the person have to be running the same program I used.?  Absolutely not! Why?  All of the Genealogy Programs on the market import GEDCOM and understand the pointers and keys.
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