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Beginning Genealogy: Glossary of Research Terms

This is a guide to print and online resources useful to the study of family history and genealogy. Many of these materials are available through the Government and Heritage Library.


Summary of the most important facts in a document or record such as date, description of transaction, names, relationships or roles of named persons (i.e., son, widow, witness, executor, bondsman, etc.), and sometimes whether or not a person signed with a signature or mark.

A person from whom another person is descended, usually used to describe the generations prior to grandparents.

Ancestor Chart (family tree)
A chart that shows the direct ancestors from whom a person descends. See also pedigree chart.

Bible Records
Birth, marriage, and death information written in family Bibles. An alternative to official vital records.

A document by which a person obligates himself or herself to fulfill a duty. This is a legally binding agreement that involves forfeiture of money if the obligation is not fulfilled.

An enumeration or count of the population generally conducted by the government.

Census Day
The day on which a census is taken. The information relates to that day even if the census taker arrives at a later date.   

Collateral Relatives
Individuals such as cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.,  who are not in the same direct line of descent, but who are connected by a common ancestor.  The descendants of the siblings of a great-grandfather, for instance, would be collateral relatives.

Court Records
Official documentation created during proceedings by the judicial branch, which is responsible for the administration of justice.  These records can vary widely in both scope and quality, but can include minutes of proceedings, indexes of respondents and plaintiffs, occasional transcripts, decisions of judges, and/or summary rulings.  

A written document that officially transfers property from one party to another.

Descendant /Descendent
Direct lineal child of a person.  Can include adoptees.

The hereditary material found primarily in the nucleus of all cells. Several types of DNA tests are used by genealogists, including Y chromosome (passed down from father to son), mitochondrial DNA (passed on by mothers), and autosomal DNA (inherited from both male and female ancestors). DNA testing also is used to provide clues to the geographic origins of an individual’s ancestors.

A person who counts. Usually used to denote census takers.

Enumeration District
A small geographic area within a county that was usually covered by a single census taker.  Enumeration districts were first used in 1880 and had limits on the number of people within each district so that the count would be conducted more quickly.

The assets and/or property of an individual. Often the word refers to the assets  in the possession of an individual at the time of death.

Extended family
A group related by blood, marriage, or adoption, and encompassing multiple generations.

Family Group Sheet
A form on which to record genealogical information about a nuclear family -- parents and their children. A family group sheet usually includes birth dates and places, death dates and places, and marriage dates and places.

Family History
1) A book that details the basic genealogical facts about one or more generations of a particular family. 
2) Collection of stories and genealogies of a particular family.

FAN Club
Family, Associates, and Neighbors of an individual.  The lines and pages preceding and following an ancestor on a census schedule are a good place to look. Their names also may appear in various documents with ancestors or in letters, diaries, and journals.  Concept by noted genealogists, Elizabeth Shown Mills. 


A dictionary of geographic places.

A compilation of a person’s ancestors or family history.

Interlibrary Loan
A system by which books, documents, microfilm, etc., held by one library may be borrowed by another library on behalf of an individual borrower.

When a person dies without a valid will.  The term is also used to refer to the person who dies without a will.   

Land Grant
The transfer of government land to a private person.


When a person is freed from slavery.

The movement of people from one place to another, generally with the intention of establishing a new community or seeking new opportunities for wealth creation or property acquisition. Migration patterns refers to the general trend of these movements, such as following the movement of a substantial portion of a heavily populated state to a newly opened territory.

The process by which a foreign-born person  can become a citizen of a new country.

Pedigree Chart
A chart or form showing the lines of direct ancestors generation by generation. Pedigree chart and ancestor chart are often used interchangeably.

Primary sources
Documents or objects created by participants or eyewitnesses to an event. For example, government records, census records, journals, diaries, letters, photographs, newspaper accounts, oral histories, etc. Objects include items such as quilts, clothing, paintings, or furniture.

The process of legally establishing the validity of a will before the court authorizes distribution of an estate. The term also refers to the legal process used to appoint someone to administer the estate of someone who died without leaving a will (intestate).

A place or institution that stores items for preservation and safekeeping.  

Research Log (research calendar)
A list of items searched along with a description of each item, the location of the item, and the results of the search.

Secondary Sources
Any type of record for which information is provided long after an event occurred or by someone who was not present at the time. Secondary sources usually include interpretation of or commentary on primary sources. 

A system that uses codes in place of surnames. Because it is based upon the sound of a name rather than its spelling, surname variations and misspellings are often assigned the same code.

Vertical files
File cabinets that contain alphabetically filed subject folders of family history information, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, cemetery listings, obituaries, local history information, photographs, and more.

Vital records
Records maintained by a governmental authority of major life events, usually birth, marriage, and death.