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First Steps To Tracing Your Family Tree

September 25, 2013 0 Comments

Tracing Your Family TreeSo are you ready to start tracing your family tree? Then let’s get cracking…

It all starts with you…

Before you can meet your ancestors you need to start with yourself. It’s tempting to launch straight into searching records online with your surname and seeing what comes up, but resist that urge! You need to start with what you know and work your way back methodically. Otherwise you could find yourself putting all your time and energy into tracing the wrong line.

You don’t want to end up having an emotional Who Do You Think You Are style moment with dear old Archibald Coggles only to find he’s a complete genealogical stranger…

…And your real great, great grandfather is still locked away in the records, rolling his eyes and wondering where your shoddy detective skills came from.

So, get yourself a pen and some paper, whack the kettle on, crack open a packet of biscuits and simply record everything you already know.

Start with yourself by writing down your full name and date and place of birth. If you are married, record the details of your marriage and spouse. Do you have any children? What about brothers and sisters?

Next record your parents’ full names and the places and dates of their major life events, such as birth, marriage and death. Do the same for your grandparents and any generations before them that you know of. What did they do for a living? Did they have any brothers or sisters? Write it all down, it could provide useful clues later on.

Sketch out a family tree going back as far as you can. Unsure of the exact dates? Simply put an approximate date preceded by a c. for circa. Don’t worry if you’re not 100 percent sure whether some details are accurate or not. This first stage is all about getting a starting point to begin your research.

Gathering the evidence

Now you’ve recorded what you already know it’s time to raid your cupboards and lofts in search of official documents and family memorabilia.

Birth, marriage and death certificates, photographs, medals, letters, passports, wedding invitations, newspaper cuttings…

…anything that provides evidence for what you’ve already recorded or reveals new facts and stories about your family.

Top of your wish list are birth, marriage and death certificates. The information they provide is genealogical gold dust and will form the foundations of your research.

You can always obtain copies of certificates if you don’t have the originals. But there are costs involved, so make sure you’ve conducted a thorough search to avoid wasting money later on.

So what have you got? Photographs of unknown ancestors you want to identify? A military medal hinting at a potential war hero? Or a couple of birth, marriage or death certificates to get you started?

Don’t worry if your attic doesn’t contain any genealogical gems. It is still possible to trace your family tree even if you have no handy documents to get you started.

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Time to interrogate Aunt Maud…

Once you have written down all you know, and made that cupboard even messier than it was before you started pulling out the family archive, it’s time to ask the family.

Parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins…

Talk to as many people as you can. Living relatives are often your greatest source of information. They can recount tales of your ancestors’ antics and give an insight into their character that you may never get from official records.

You may hear stories, rumours and family legends that pique your interest and fuel your research. Even if your relative didn’t meet your ancestor in person they may have heard stories about them from their parents.

But before you get distracted by the stories try to find out the following information about each ancestor they are aware of:

Full Names: Don’t forget to ask for middle names as they are a great way to narrow down the search for your ancestors in official records. Especially if you are searching for someone with a common surname. Also be aware that the names you hear could be nicknames.

Date of Birth: A full date is great but even if you can just get a rough idea of the year it’ll help. They may know what month their birthday was in, or roughly how much older or younger than them the person was. Any extra details are useful.

Place of Birth: Knowing someone’s place of birth will make the process of tracking down their birth certificate and census records much easier. Don’t assume people were born where they currently live. Even if your interviewee isn’t sure where your ancestor was born maybe they know where they were Christened?

Details of Marriage: Place, date, maiden names, bridesmaids, best men…were either of the couple married before?

Date and place of death: This gives you evidence to help you track down the death certificate or a will if you don’t already have it. Plus it is possible to work out a birth date from a death record which could help you track down their birth certificate.

Other Family Members: Did they have any brothers, sisters or cousins whose names they are aware of? Names of siblings can be a great way to ensure you are looking at the right family on the census records.

Occupation: Not just an interesting fact but also a useful detail to narrow down a list of potential ancestors with the same name in official documents.

Once you have recorded these basic details just let your relatives talk about their memories and stories. Just asking a simple question such as “What were they like?” “What did they do?” can produce amazing stories and insights that all add colour to your family story.

Other questions that can give you a lead to start your research include:

  • Did they fight in the war?
  • Did they travel abroad?
  • Did they move around the country?
  • What were their hobbies and interests?
  • Were they rich or poor?

You may also want to bring any photos you found so your relative can identify people you don’t recognise. Do they have any photos you can see or copy to include in your research?

Do they have any official documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates that they can let you copy? If not then do they know who does?

Keep in mind that not everything you hear may be fact. Memories can become distorted over time, stories mixed up or 19th century rumours passed down as fact. Dear old Aunt Maud may be telling porkies without even realising it.

It is important also to remember that not everyone may be comfortable talking about certain episodes in your family’s past. Stories may have been fabricated to cover up a scandal that still affects those living today.

And just because you find Somerset’s number one sheep rustler Great Uncle Jack a bit of a hoot doesn’t mean others will too. This is also important to remember when sharing your research. So tread carefully.

Take lots of notes, as some details that may seem insignificant at the time can suddenly become incredibly useful or meaningful later on when added to official documents.

You could even take an audio or video recording of the interview. As well as being useful, a recording is also a great thing to pass down to those future members of the family who will never get to meet Aunt Maud in person.

What do you want to research?

So you’ve exhausted all the sources of information about your family from documents you or others already own and from speaking to your family. It’s now time to figure out what you want to research.

Have you got a specific story or family rumour you want to investigate?

Or do you just want to see how far back you can go and see what stories unfold?

If you want to trace as many ancestors as possible and don’t have any preference where you start your research I’d advise starting with the least common surname in your tree. Or the line you already know the most about.

Researching common names can be tricky, so it’s good to start your research with a less common name whilst you cut your genealogy teeth. After you’ve traced one line and learnt how to search the records available then you can tackle the Smiths and Joneses with more ease.

So, once you’ve decided where you want to start it’s time to go online and start piecing together the evidence available to you to unlock your family story.

In the next issue I’ll show you how to get started online with birth, marriage and death records.

Get Our Latest News and Advice Straight To Your Inbox!

Once a week you'll receive how-to guides, updates on the latest record releases and our essential tips to help you unlock your family tree...

I respect your privacy and will never share your email address with anyone else.

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