Researching your family tree is a hobby that’s grown enormously in popularity over recent years. Programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are might partly be to thank for an increased interest in genealogy. But there’s no doubt that the recent surge in popularity has certainly piqued our interest to explore lost connections, and sometimes surprising, family history discoveries.
One question to ask, is where do you start with something that might seem like such a huge, daunting task? Of course, some experts make a living by tracing family trees for people, and there are also websites you can sign up to that take a lot of the work from it. However, if you want to do it yourself, there are plenty of ways to get started. We’ll examine the best tips and advice for researching your family tree in this blog.
Start from yourself and work backwards
Starting with yourself and working backwards to connect each generation together is an excellent start. Although it might be tempting to search for a specific ancestor, it could get confusing and offer results that take a while to link together or untangle. Take the first step by working out what you already know about your family and start from there.
Ask your family and find out what they know already
You can find information and clues by talking to your family and writing to relatives. You’ll probably start to feel a little like a detective as you begin to piece the clues together! This stage of the research might also mean visiting local graveyards and memorials, and potentially old houses or important locations, together with record offices.
There is an incredible insight to be gained when you speak to your family and relatives. For instance, they might know about nicknames or name changes. They might also know about family stories, what your ancestors did for a living or what they looked like. If they have documents, letters, or photos, then you’ve hit the jackpot!
Search for heirlooms and scrapbooks
As we touched upon in the point above, important clues like documents, letters and photos are the jackpot for family history research. Keep an eye out for things like vital records (birth and death certificates), school records, diaries, letters, old photographs, and memorabilia boxes that tell stories. You might find incredibly useful information in places you don’t expect. For example, family bibles are particularly helpful because they record family members’ births (and perhaps marriages and deaths) – some might even go back centuries!
Many families have a collection of heirlooms, which may well tell you about your immediate ancestors, and it’s always worth asking relations to see what they have hidden away in a safe place. It isn’t impossible that some family members might already have old genealogical information from other relatives who have also worked on the family history that can help jumpstart your search.
Focus on one family story at a time
Rather than trying to tackle your entire family tree at once, select one or two families or people that interest you instead. Focusing on them, one at a time, can help you organise your research and increase productivity. Naturally, this will lead to other discoveries, which is great as you go further down the line. But spending time carefully gathering and documenting your history in smaller pieces will help you towards your larger goal of ultimately completing your family tree. It might take more time and it might feel slow, but it’ll be a better, more effective way to do it in the long term.
The internet offers endless resources
One of the reasons why tracing your family tree is easier than ever is the readily available information online. The internet can be a useful tool, not only for finding data but also for tracking down and contacting relatives. A number of brilliant websites (some are free, some charge a fee) include:
- Find My Past
- The Genealogist
- My Heritage
- Family Search
- The British Library also has an incredible in-depth list of resources, especially this guide about sources.
Remember to use the General Register Office
The General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) holds records for all births, marriages and deaths registered in England and Wales from 1 July 1837, which can help you in your search. There’s more information on the website, including a very helpful downloadable document, which could be a good first step to get started when it comes to research.
Use online research guides and read online newspapers
One way to focus research is to follow one of the step-by-step guides featured online – these are a great starting point for beginners. Some of the best for UK research are:
• The National Archives research guides
• Society of Genealogists’ Record Guides
Online newspapers are an amazing tool. Reading these newspapers means we can easily learn more about the personalities and lifestyles of our ancestors. You can discover fascinating details on inquests, divorces and other court cases. Or you may learn something new about them, such as their talent at sport, music or drama. The British Newspaper Archive (also available on Findmypast) now covers every county in England.
Explore books too
There are at least 300,000 websites devoted to genealogy, but that doesn’t mean they’re better than books. Dozens of new family history books are published each year – exploring every topic, from general guides to telling the stories of individual families. If you are looking for a guide, choose the most up-to-date one you can, as older books will miss out the latest websites and releases of new records. However, they can be difficult to find in bookshops, so you might be best buying them through the publisher’s own websites or via Amazon. These include Family History Partnership, Pen & Sword and Society of Genealogists.
Remember to search with name variants and place names
When searching databases, always be open to spelling variants in the forenames, surnames and residences. To ensure you’ve found all the relevant material (and even when you’ve found entries for a relative), try searching again with different options, including varied forenames and nicknames (and also without a forename, or without a surname). And be aware that a contemporary document may record an individual as ‘Mr’, ‘Dr’, or just with an initial. Another important filter is an ancestor’s residence. You can find out everything about your ancestors’ home address, village or town, using online maps such as http://maps.nls.uk and social histories through http://visionofbritain.org.uk.
Keep your research safe and save it online if you can!
There’s nothing worse than putting all the time and effort into researching, only to lose or misplace it. To avoid that awful situation, it’s best to record everything online, if you can. That way, it’s safe, recorded, and easy for you to share with others. Data-organisation sites such as Evernote, together with cloud-saving sites such as Google Docs, are good places to start. You can also access online trees at subscription sites (and for free at FamilySearch Tree) can help you to save your research in the comfort that it won’t be lost.
Utilise social media, as well as offline social events
Social media can be a great tool. Many well-known genealogists and family history organisations, such as Family Tree magazine, are on Facebook and Twitter. Using these platforms is a great way to keep up with family history news and make contact. Together with keeping up with news and updates, social media can be a useful tool to find others who share you research interests and collaborate with them through talking points and initiatives such as #Ancestryhour on Twitter.
There are other ways you can be social offline too. Take a look at your local genealogical society or family history events in your area. These can be nice ways to connect with other genealogists and family historians. Attending local classes about family tree research and discovering tips to avoid brick walls in the process, is a great way to discuss with other like-minded people and a way for beginners to find answers from others.
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