Starting your Family History

Tracing the family tree is a favourite pastime for many people and with the ever increasing number of sources available on the internet it is possible for most English people to trace their ancestry back to the eighteenth century or earlier without leaving the comfort of their own home.  However, transcripts of records can never be considered as 100% accurate so at some point you should endeavor to see (film or photocopy of) the original documents. 

When tracing the earlier generations of your family you have to accept what you find; good or bad.  There will almost certainly be illegitimacy somewhere in your tree and you may well find paupers or rogues, or sometimes you find the rich and famous.  The story that unfolds may be sad, traumatic or tragic, or it could be funny or bizarre.  Don’t judge your ancestors with twenty-first century values.  Depending on what you uncover you may want to research any number of different things.

Genealogy is about compiling a large family tree with just names and dates.  Family History is about putting flesh onto the bones of that tree.  As you discover more about your family you will inevitably gather a lot of information so organize that information in a manageable way from the beginning.  You might choose to have a folder for each surname being researched; you might opt for a pedigree sheet for each couple and their children together with a large chart or table to locate them on your tree or you might choose to use one of the many computer programs to organize your data.  The choice is yours.

Don’t assume that someone famous is related to you just because they have the same surname.  Many surnames, even the less common ones, have multiple origins, and not infrequently a family has changed its surname for a variety of reasons and not only because a woman has married.  If you are directly descended from the celebrity the link will be obvious when your research gets that far back.  If it’s a cousin link the common ancestor will be at least one, and possibly quite a few, generations further back so you would need to know the ancestry of the celebrity as well as your own to show a relationship.

The general rule of research is to start with what you know and work back from that.  Most people know or knew their parents or grandparents, but do you know where and when they were born, married or died?  Start with yourself and your parents and write down the following information as applicable:   Full name   Date and place of birth
  Names of parents
  Date and place of marriage(s)
  Spouse’s full names
  Date of death
  Date and place of burial/cremation
Now do the same for all four of your grandparents.
Are there any gaps in this information?  If so that is where you should start your research.  If you have been able to answer all of those questions write down the same information for each of your eight great grandparents.

Start by asking any older relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins etc) what they know about the family.  Be prepared for memories to be faulty and for people to exaggerate or try to keep skeletons firmly in the cupboard, but family memories are a good indication as to where to expect to find your ancestors.

It doesn’t matter which line you choose to research first.  A lot of people like to trace the male line for their own surname, but all of your ancestors contributed to what you are but it may well be easier to trace one of the other lines, especially if your surname is very common or if you are still living in the same area as those ancestors as you have a better knowledge of the geography of the area.

The most frequently used records for researching family history are:
  Civil Registration of birth, marriage and death.
  Census returns; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.
  Church records of baptism, marriage and burial.

See also the pages about:

Civil Registration          Census Returns          Parish Registers