Genealogy A to Z

A Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Genealogy


A citizen of another country.

The relatives you descend from directly, including parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. Your number of ancestors doubles each generation you move backward; for example, you have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and 16 great-great-grandparents.

autosomal DNA
genetic material inherited equally from mother and father. It’s less useful genealogically than Y-DNA and mtDNA because it mutates more often. Genetic tests to determine ethnic origins—African, Native American, Viking—typically analyze autosomal DNA.


banns (or marriage banns)
Church-generated documents publicly stating couples’ intent to marry. The custom dates back to Colonial America; banns were posted or read on three consecutive Sundays.

A written, signed and witnessed agreement requiring someone to pay a specified amount of money by a given date.

bounty land
Land granted by the Colonial and federal governments as a reward for military service. Bounty-land warrants—documents granting the right to the land—were assigned to soldiers, their heirs and other individuals.


A census is an official count of the population in a particular area. In addition to counting the inhabitants of an area, the census generally collects other details, such as names, ages, citizenship status and ethnic background. The US government began collecting census data in 1790, and has done so every 10 years since then. Selected states have conducted their own censuses over the years.

a threadlike strand of DNA that carries genes and transmits hereditary information.

A group of family lines with common traits, usually genetic mutations.

collateral relative
Any kin who aren’t in your direct line, such as siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. 


A document transferring ownership and title of property. Unlike a patent, a deed records the sale of property from one private individual to another.

Abbreviation for deceased

direct line 
A line of decent traced through persons who are related to one another as a child and parent.

direct maternal line
A line of descent traced only from the mother’s maternal ancestry consisting only of the female parent. The mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, and so forth. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited directly from the mother and may be used to assess ancient ancestry of the mother’s direct line.

direct paternal line
A line of descent traced only from the father’s paternal ancestry consisting only of the male parent. The father, his father, his father’s father, and so forth. The Y chromosome is inherited from father to son allowing YDNA testing to confirm (or disprove) direct paternal ancestry.

the molecule that contains each cell’s genetic code, organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes. Genetic genealogy tests analyze your Y-DNA, mtDNA or autosomal DNA.


When an individual leaves their home country to live in another country.

An official count of the population in a particular area, especially during the years when only the Head of Household was listed.


Family History Library (FHL)
The world’s largest genealogical information collection, founded in 1894 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The main branch is in Salt Lake City, Utah, but many of the library’s microfilmed records can be loaned for use at one of its 3,700 worldwide Family History Centers.  The FHL’s FamilySearch Web site contains the Social Security Death Index, the Military Index, the Ancestral File and the International Genealogical Index, plus searchable census data from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

During the colonial era the term Freeman was used to designate men who were full citizens within their communities, property owners over the age of 21, church members, endorsed by other Freemen, who Swore Allegiance to the Crown. They were granted the right to vote in town meetings, to hold public office, elect deputies to the General Assembly, elect new Freemen, and were required to pay taxes. See sample Freeman’s Oath.


A person lawfully appointed to care for the person of a minor, invalid, incompetent and their interests, such as education, property management and investments.

The study of your family’s history; the process of tracing your ancestors back through time.

genetic marker
represents a specific location on a chromosome where the basic genetic units exist in a variable number of repeated copies

Guthrie Family Group
A group of genetically related Guthrie lineages proven by DNA testing to share common paternal ancestors.


an identification of the genetic group your ancient ancestors (10,000 to 60,000 years ago) belonged to; sometimes referred to as your branch of the world’s family tree

collectively, the marker values on your Y-DNA test results


When a person moves into a country from somewhere else.

indentured servant
A person who is bound into the service of another person for a specified period, usually seven years in the 18th and 19th centuries to pay for passage to another country.

In colonial Pennsylvania, this term was used in census and other records to refer to persons who lived in the house of someone else, sometimes in exchange for payment. They were typically not members of the family of the house owner, nor were they guests or servants. Lodgers and boarders would be inmates. This term also applied to heads of families who occupied cottages on lands of landowners in return from seasonal labor. [Source: The Legal Genealogist]

Of this month.

Description of a person who died without leaving a will.

Children, descendants, offspring.


Julian Calendar 
Calendar named for Julius Caesar and used from 45 B.C. to 1582, called the “Old Style” calendar; replaced by the Gregorian calendar.



land-entry case file
A file created when a person claimed land under an act of Congress, such as the Homestead Act of 1862. The person first filled out an application at the local General Land Office, and sometimes provided other information (such as marriage or immigration documents). The file also might contain receipts; affidavits of occupation, immigration, marriage and homestead application; or other materials. You can obtain land-entry file information for eastern states from the National Archives and Records Administration.

land claim
A settler’s application to receive public land.

land grant
Public land given to an individual by the government, usually as a reward for military service.

land patent
A document transferring land ownership from the federal government to an individual.


metes and bounds
A land survey method employing compass directions, natural landmarks and distances between points.

mitochondrial DNA
genetic material both males and females inherit from their mothers. Because it’s passed down mostly unchanged from mothers to daughters, mtDNA can tell you about your maternal line—but the results reveal only “deep ancestry,” not definitive links to recent generations.

mortality schedule
A section of the federal census listing information about persons who died during the census year. 

Legally considered to be an individual with mixed black and white heritage. However, some individuals who were designated mulattos may have a slightly more mixed parentage, perhaps including Native American blood.


National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
The United States’ archive of all federal records, including census records, military service rolls and pension applications, passenger lists and bounty-land warrants. In addition to the primary archives in Washington, DC, NARA has a branch in College Park, Md., and 13 regional facilities across the nation.


A child whose mother, father, or both have died. 

orphan assylum 
An orphanage.


parent county 
The county from which a new county is formed. 

Ecclesiastical division or jurisdiction; the site of a church.

passenger list
List of the names and information about passengers that arrived on ships into the United States. These lists were submitted to customs collectors at every port by the ship’s master. Passenger lists were not officially required by the United States government until 1820. Before that date, the information about each passenger varied widely, from names to number of bags.

The practice of creating last names from the name of one’s father. For example, Robert, John’s son, would become Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson’s son Neil would become Neil Robertson.

pension (military) 
A benefit paid regularly to a person for military service or a military service related disability.

power of attorney 
Written instrument where on persons, as principal, appoints someone as his or her agent, thereby authorizing that person to perform certain acts on behalf of the principal, such as buying or selling property, settling an estate, representing them in court, etc.

Insures the right of the eldest son to inherit the entire estate of his parents, to the exclusion of younger sons.

Legal process used to determine the validity of a will before the court authorizes distribution of an estate; legal process used to appoint an someone to administer the estate of someone who died without leaving a will.

probate records
Records disposing of a deceased individual’s property. They may include an individual’s last will and testament, if one was made. The information you can get from probate records varies, but usually includes the name of the deceased, either the deceased’s age at the time of death or birth date, property, members of the family, and the last place of residence.

A direct ancestor. Used to indicate the earliest direct ancestor of a family line.


quarter section
in the rectangular survey system, one-fourth of a section of land, equal to 160 acres.

quit rent roll 
In early Virginia, a list of those who paid the annual fee to the King in exchange for the right to live on and farm property.


A row or column of townships lying east or west of the principal meridian and numbered successively to the east and to the west from the principal meridian.

real property
Land and anything attached to it, such as houses, building, barns, growing timber and growing crops.

rectangular survey system

The land survey method that the General Land Office used most often. It employs base lines, one east-west and one north-south, that cross at a known geographic position. Two large rectangles, called townships—each generally 24 miles square—are described in relation to the base lines. Townships are subdivided into sections.

relict / relictus 
A widow / widower.


A division of land within a township that measures one square mile (640 acres)—about 1/36 of a township. Sections were further subdivided into half sections, quarter sections and sixteenth sections, or into lots.


tithable a person taxable by law. 

tithe in English law, the tenth part of one’s annual increase paid to support noblemen and clergy; amount of annual poll tax.

In a government survey, it’s a square tract six miles on each side (36 square miles); a name given to the civil and political subdivisions of a county.

A parcel of land that isn’t fully contained within a single section. Tracts within a township are numbered beginning with 37 to avoid confusion with section numbers.


The preceding month


That which is legal and binding. 

Administrative group within a parish; the ruling body of a church.

vital recordsThe most basic information available for a person; these statistics—found in vital records—include birth (abbreviated b), marriage date and place (abbreviated m), divorce date and place if applicable (abbreviated div) and death date and burial place (abbreviated d and bur).


A document in which a person outlines what should be done with his or her estate after death. The legal process to see that those instructions are carried out is called probate.

A person who sees an event and signs a document attesting to its content being accurate. Although family members often served as witnesses, don’t assume that witnesses on a record are relatives—friends, neighbors and business associates also commonly witnessed documents.

writ of attachment court order authorizing the seizure of property sufficient to cover debts and court costs for not appearing in court. 

writ of summons document ordering a person to appear in court.


What the signer of a document would often write if he couldn’t write his name. A witness would typically label this “his mark.”


Farmer; freeholder who works a small estate; rank below gentleman.

Y chromosome
genetic material passed down from father to son. Because surnames also pass from father to son, Y-DNA tests can confirm (or disprove) genealogical links through a paternal line. Y-DNA surname studies are the most popular application of genetic genealogy.


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