Genealogy (and the Problem of Family Trees on the Web)
Genealogy or the study of family lines is not a new science, but the availability of online research tools has transformed the hobby from a rather exclusive pursuit into something anyone can do during their free time.
Using the Gov.uk site to search the General Register Office is just one way people can track down their long-lost ancestors – or even their parents and siblings.
But where does this interest come from? Specifically how can you get started in Humberside?
Targaryen family tree
It is undeniable that fiction has a role to play in creating buzz around genealogy. For example, if you’re a fan of HBO’s medieval series Game of Thrones or the related House of the Dragon, you’ve probably spent at least a few moments trying to figure out who’s related to whom — and how.
In true George RR Martin fashion, there’s always a question of whether the newlyweds are siblings (or aunt and nephew, as is the case with two of the protagonists). It’s a bold writing decision that has at least some relevance for the modern world. The real medieval period was full of all sorts of family oddities, including secret marriages, hidden children and, worse (for the time), divorces.
In real life or fiction, one of the best ways to unravel the brotherhood of generations is with family trees. House of the Dragon introduces the character of Rhaenyra Targaryen, who descends from two people who sit on the Iron Throne, namely Jaehaerys I and Viserys I. However, looking at the Targaryen family tree, it is evident that several other clans, like the Baratheons, are involved in maintaining the group.
So let’s say you want to create your family tree in and around Beverley and Hull. Where to start ? Unfortunately, genealogy services in this part of the UK seemed to have coalesced online, which takes away the joy of physical research and archival research. Even libraries in the East Riding of Yorkshire rely on FindMyPast and Ancestry for their family tree tools.
Genealogy websites can be powerful tools, but they come with some caveats that don’t apply to in-person studies. For example, FindMyPast offers “hints” for potential family members, based on the people and details you’ve already entered. This is a time-saving feature, but accepting the site’s findings without doing research can produce a family tree full of inaccuracies.
Of course, this is one of the great difficulties of genealogical studies of all kinds. Oral family histories begin to erode after three generations. Considering that a generation lasts 20 to 30 years, this means that the first-hand knowledge of family members dies out in less than a century. In the end, unless you’re a celebrity or someone with similar fame weight, that’s how long it takes for you to be forgotten.
Finally, genealogy websites suffer from the same demons as any other website. In 2020, the GEDmatch company went through a crisis that seems quite dystopian in hindsight, when the privacy settings of its 1.45 million users were reset. While this might sound like one of the most innocuous pranks played by hackers, it unlocked everyone’s stored genetic information.
Don’t worry, though. Attacks of this magnitude and type are rare – but, arguably, there is still no better resource for genealogy than a much-needed book or journal.
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