Genealogy is all about researching your ancestry and finding your roots. It is an interesting and exciting journey to take and thanks to the internet, genealogy has become something you can start at any time from the comfort of your own home. Although, this doesn’t mean it’s easy or that you should only rely on online sources to fill in the gaps of your ancestry. As there is so much to be discovered, it can be difficult to know how to begin or where to start your search. This guide will help you get started with piecing together your family history and discovering the stories of your ancestors.
Approach Your Family
Before you even open up an internet browser you should speak to your living relatives. You may be surprised by the documents, photographs and letters they have kept safe over the years. Starting now and working back is the easiest way to begin creating your family history. Collect all the information you can from your family and keep an eye out for key documents including; birth certificates, death certificates, military records, newspaper clippings, diplomas and yearbooks. Be sure to make copies of all the documents you find. When talking to family members, note down all the details that are mentioned, even if they are not exact dates, as these nuggets of information may be able to help you find the facts later on. Although, remember that not everything you hear will be true so it’s down to you to weed out the myths and solidify the truths with facts and documents.
Make sure the information and document copies you collect are all safely stored and properly organised so you can easily access them throughout your genealogy journey. Decide now whether you want to keep a digital record or a paper record of your ancestry. If you want to keep a paper record, buy a folder or notebook dedicated to your family history so you can keep everything together and neatly organised. Discovering your family’s past will involve a lot of going back and forth between key documents in order to confirm various information and check that details match, this is why having the information you have found so far organised and on hand is important.
Begin the Family Tree
You can use the information you have already gathered from your living relatives to begin drafting your family tree. Start with yourself and record all the key information including birth, occupation, marriage, divorce and the places these events took place. Repeat this with your parents, siblings and grandparents if possible. If you discovered birth and death certificates in your family home, include this information on the family tree too. Work backwards and fill out as much of the family tree as you can. Once all the relevant factual information you have has been recorded, it is time to look online to explore the records, fill in the gaps and find out more about your ancestors.
Key Family Tree Information
- You may have never seen or created a family tree before so here are some key terms and abbreviations you may come across during your search:
- Vertical lines indicate relationships between parents and offspring
- Horizontal lines indicate siblings from one set of parents
- Dotted lines indicate a presumed relationship
You may come across the following abbreviations:
- b = born
- bapt = baptised
- [=] / m = married
-   = first/ second marriage
- d = died
- bur = buried
Some common genealogical terms you may see include:
- Relic = widow
- Testatrix = a woman’s will
- Dower = property rights of a woman in her husband’s estate
Finding out your family history does not need to be expensive, a lot of information can be found online for free or for a small fee. There are several important records that are commonly used in genealogy, each record provides certain information that will help you to not only know more about the person in question but will also help you to find other family links and records too. When you are looking through records it is best to focus on one person at a time, don’t try to fill in all the blanks at once as it is easy to become confused and overwhelmed by multiple names, dates and unsolved mysteries.
Where to Start
When looking for records, the best place to start is with birth, marriages and deaths. It has been a legal requirement for these events to be officially registered for over 150 years (in the UK) and there are usually records regarding these events available before these dates too. These certificates will be able to provide you with vital information including names, ages, dates, addresses and occupations, all of which will help you to find out more about the life of that particular person.
Although, it’s not just information on that specific person that is found on these certificates; birth certificates will also be able to give you the names of the parents (the next generation of ancestors on your family tree) and marriage certificates will detail the father of the bride and groom too. You can search for certificates online for free but to obtain an official paper certificate costs a fee, viewing digital copies may be possible for a small fee on some commercial genealogy/ family history websites.
The next port of call should be census records. A census has been taken every ten years since 1790 in USA and since 1841 in the UK so you should be able to find census information on relatives that were alive well over a hundred years ago. Census records allow you to piece together generations of your family and discover crucial and very interesting information about who was living where, what they were doing and who they were living with.
The census is essentially a population schedule that documents the members of each household, their relationship to the head of the house as well as their birthplaces, ages and occupations. You can use these records to track the movements of your ancestors and gather clues about their lives. Generally, the later the census record is, the more information it will have. When information was first gathered the census only listed the head of the household and the number of people living in the house but as time went on more and more personal information was recorded. Census returns are very easy to search and are available online and in local libraries.
Other Important Information Sources
Another record that may help you to put together the pieces of your ancestor’s life are their wills. The information contained within a will can vary greatly but they can be a great place to find names of relatives and particularly names of children. In the UK, the record of wills dates back to 1858. Although earlier wills may be found within local repositories as they would have been under the jurisdiction of church courts.
Other important sources of information include; baptisms, marriages and burials which can be found in church registers, deed and land records which can be found in county courthouses or sometimes online, passenger lists which can usually be found online and obituaries which can be found online and in newspaper archives.
There are countless websites dedicated to helping people on their genealogy journeys, many of the sites contain millions of records and may prove to be an invaluable tool in helping you to connect the dots in your family history. Some of the websites are free to use while others run on a payment or subscription basis. There are also sites that are dedicated to certain records for example military history or particular newspaper archives so don’t forget to make use of these troves of information when you’re searching for certain records.
Using Offline Resources
Although you can gather a lot of information from your computer, there are also important offline resources that hold millions of records that should be utilized during your search. It’s very important to point out that not all records are available online so you could miss out some vital parts to your ancestry puzzle if you restrict your search to online sources. These offline resources include:
- The Family History Library
The Family History Library has over 2,000 branches across the world and holds the largest collection of genealogy materials in the world. If you are able to go to a Family History Centre you will be able to access billions of records and the centres experienced staff will be able to help you navigate the records and make progress in your search. Although it may feel daunting to go to a resource centre such as this, as long as you have an idea of what you are searching for before you go in and you talk to the staff if you’re unsure, you will find that these archives are interesting, informative places that are well worth taking the time to visit.
- National Archives – National Archives is another fantastic offline option. They are a great place to find military records, early census records, passenger lists, passport and naturalization records and so much more. Importantly, you can find records in National Archives that are not yet available online.
- Local and State Libraries – Libraries can help you find resources such as local history, newspapers, family history books and more. Consider visiting the library that is local to where your ancestors lived, you may be able to find clippings and information about the family there.
- Courthouses – Courthouses contain valuable records including birth, marriage and death certificates, divorce decrees, adoption records, deeds, wills, tax records, court cases and some military records too. Visit the courthouse that is local to where your ancestors lived and you may be able to uncover a wealth of information about them.
- Churches – Churches can be very useful resources too as many church records are not available online. However, finding the church that holds your ancestor’s records and actually accessing the records can be a challenge. Unfortunately, many church records have been lost over the years due to damage and neglect but if you can identify the church that holds your ancestor’s records and the records remain intact, it is certainly worth the effort.
Something slightly different that has only recently become possible is taking DNA tests to help pursue and locate ancestors and family branches. The information obtained from doing a DNA test depends on the type of test used. It is an expensive avenue that may leave you with more questions than answers but can be very insightful if you have specific questions that you are struggling to find answers to.
There are three types of DNA tests currently available:
1) Autosomal DNA
An autosomal DNA test provides information from chromosomes inherited from both parents so looks at all recent ancestors. This test helps you to locate living relatives and people who are related to you within the past five generations. It can help to produce your ethnic profile and the general location of ancestors.
Y DNA tests help you to trace your paternal lineage which is the Y-chromosome inherited from father to son. Due to this, the Y-DNA test can only be taken by males so if you are a female and are interested in the paternal line of your family, ask your brother or father to take the test for you.
3) Mitochondrial DNA
A mitochondrial DNA test helps you to trace your maternal lineage, it looks as mitochondria which is passed from mother to child. The test can help to find matches in genetic genealogy databases and will help to test ideas you have about your female ancestry.
Although DNA testing may present as an exciting and interesting way to investigate your ancestry, there are questions regarding its accuracy. There are many reports of people taking multiple genealogical DNA tests and receiving wildly different results from each company used. There are also scientific limitations to these tests which should be kept in mind if you decide to take this route.
If you have a question you want answered regarding a relation to someone specific then this could be a good approach to take but also keep in mind it takes around 6-8 weeks to receive the results of the test back. Ultimately, this may be a fun, unique but expensive way of getting information regarding your DNA lineage but cannot give you the accurate information you are likely searching for and therefore should certainly not replace the methods of gathering ancestry data we have discussed.
Genealogy Top Tips
Putting together the pieces of your family’s past can be challenging, at times you may hit a wall but don’t give up. When you find new information that fits the puzzle all the effort is worth it. Our top tips will help you to keep on the right track:
- Always use birth (maiden) names to keep all the records of that one person together – It is easy to lose track of a married woman who has taken the surname of her husband, to help simplify your records keep everything on each woman stored using her maiden name. When you are looking for records, search using their maiden and married names to see what you can uncover.
- Be organised – Although you will start with just a handful of documents, as you continue to dig and research your family you will accumulate more and more information and documentation. To avoid getting confused or misplacing important documents, make sure you keep them organised and filed. By being organised you will save yourself time and the next time you need to reach for that file to confirm a fact you can do so with ease.
- When you find new information, verify the information using your primary documents – It is exciting to find a common thread during your research. However, before you file it as a fact, first compare the new information with your primary documents to confirm the information. Make sure the new information is backed with documentation and is definitely concerning one of your ancestors, not just someone with the same (or similar) name/ birth date.
- Don’t rely purely on the internet – We mentioned earlier how important offline sources are. It may be tempting to limit your search to the internet but there are many records that are not yet available online so it is absolutely worth using offline resources during your investigations.
- Check if anyone else is researching into your family history – Someone else in your family may have already developed a comprehensive family history that can be of huge help to you. Ask around in the family before you begin your research in case the information has already been collected.
- Remember that name variations are likely to occur so be open to variations when searching records – The older the records are, the more likely it is that there are spelling errors or name variations. The spelling of a name may be for phonetic or maybe a nickname or middle name has been used. If you are struggling to find records of a certain individual, try to use name variations to broaden your search.
- Never assume, always look for concrete proof of links between individuals
Our final tip is to never assume because before you know it you could be unknowingly making your way through someone else’s family tree. Confirm any assumptions you have with concrete proof to avoid errors.
Something that happens to absolutely everyone during their genealogy journey is hitting a wall. It can be so frustrating to not be able to find information on a particular ancestor but don’t stress. If you’ve not been able to uncover the information by yourself, connecting with others by approaching genealogy groups and societies can be a great way to get help and advice.
The Society of Genealogists
This society provides a combination of research material, guidance and practical support for people looking into their family history. Getting involved with a large charity such as this can be a huge help as you will be able to access thousands of records, unique research and more. The Society of Genealogists has the largest family history research library in the UK and this vast collection is open to members as well as non-members for an hourly or daily fee.
There are also local societies and groups that may be able to help you with your family history. A quick online search can tell you about local groups in your area that may be useful to join. If you would like an expert to do the research on your behalf, there are professionals who offer this service too.
Start Putting Together Your Pieces of History Today
Now you have everything you need to begin your journey into the past. Make the most of all of the resources available to you and remember that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find out about your family ancestry. Start close to home by talking to your relatives and work from there. Before you know it, your family tree will begin to take shape and the names on the page will come to life as you gain knowledge of their occupations, marriages, children and more. Enjoy this unique and wonderful journey, be patient and don’t be afraid to ask others for help and advice.