Getting stuck in to your family history for the first time can seem daunting. Here at Knox Family Histories, we’d be happy to help you out and can research your family tree for you with just a name or two as a starting point (have a look here at what we can offer!). BUT, if you fancy having a go at it yourself, here are a few tips to get you started!
1. Ignore the adverts (for now!)
If you believe the ads for the big online family history sites, you’d think that all you need to do to research your family tree is enter your name in their search engines and off you go. However, as anyone who’s ever tried this will know, it isn’t really that simple. Don’t get me wrong, these sites can be amazing for later on in your family history journey, but if you don’t have your facts straight first, they can quickly lead you down the wrong path. So, before you type your name into that search box, there are several essential ‘offline’ steps to go through first.
2. Make a choice about what you want to research
The first of these ‘offline’ steps is to decide what you’re trying to find out. Do you want to do your dad’s side or your mum’s side? Are you only interested in direct ancestors (parents, grandparents, great grandparents etc.) or do you want to include everybody (siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles etc.)? It doesn’t matter which you choose (and you can get to it all eventually if you want!) but it is helpful to decide before you start to keep your research focussed.
When professional genealogists research trees, we always start with the person whose tree we are researching (let’s say, you) and then work backwards along the line they’ve chosen (so, your mum’s line would take us from you, to your mum, to her parents, to their parents etc.). However, when you are starting out, this can get very confusing very quickly and has the danger of missing people out along the way. So, for starters, I would recommend going the other way: Once you’ve decided which side to research, try to think of the earliest person you know about on that line. Maybe you remember your mum’s grandad Herbert or your dad’s great grandma Anne. For this stage, think of them as your starting point and yourself as the end and aim to fill in everyone in between.
My person page starts with what we in the trade call “vital information” - i.e. the date and place of birth, marriage and death (if the latter two are relevant). This is what you’ll need to start building your tree and finding earlier ancestors or connecting online if that’s what you choose to do later on. Further down the template, I’ve also included sections on “occupation” and a miscellaneous “notes” section to record the nebulous info that doesn’t fit anywhere else (e.g. “we think she got divorced around 2000”, “went to boarding school in Hampshire”, “joined the RAF in WWII”, “her favourite scent was lavender”). Although you don’t necessarily need these pieces of information to build your tree, it will be essential for fleshing out your family story and the characters within it.
4. Ask your family members for help
Once you’ve jotted down everything you know, it’s time to turn to family members to help you fill in the gaps. If you don’t know grandma Mabel’s maiden name, where cousin Trevor got married or whether Aunty Faith had two or three children, maybe your mum or your uncle might?
This stage can actually be one of the most interesting and enjoyable parts of family history. Discussing your shared history is great fun with any family member but it’s also an especially good excuse to reconnect with those you might have lost touch with along the way. “I’m researching our family tree. This is what I have so far, could you add anything to it?” is an easy conversation starter, even across the miles and years. It’s important to encourage them to contribute not just with names and dates, which will help you get the structure of the tree straight, but with stories and memories too. It’s these that really put the flesh on the bones (sorry, bad analogy!) of your ancestors.
If you’re chatting in person, ask if they mind you using a dictaphone (or your smartphone) to record the conversation or, otherwise, write notes as you go to keep the stories straight in your mind. That way you will have a clear record of all those tales and tidbits (Oh, I remember when we went to Edinburgh to see them…; Auntie Sarah was a wonderful cook; she taught me to make sponge cake when I was 7 etc.). If you have any old memorabilia or photos, they are a brilliant prompt for stories – (Is that uncle Jeff as a little boy? Who’s that next to them? Is that their house? Why isn’t Bob in the photo?). If you don’t have any, ask your relatives if they do.
5. Venture online
By this point, you will be the proud keeper of the collective knowledge of your family. Armed with this wealth of offline information, it’s now time to venture online. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the online family history resources here (let me know if you’d like me to do a future blog on them!). Suffice it to say, that there are some great options, most of which, like ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk and even genesreunited.co.uk, have the same basic stuff (UK censuses, vital records indexes, parish registers and the option to share your information and connect with other people). Some of the websites have particular USPs. For example, familysearch.org is free and contains a wealth of parish record information collated by the Mormon church; findmypast.co.uk includes the British Newspaper Archive which is very wide ranging and can reveal a lot of unusual details if you are lucky enough to have family members mentioned in print.
Check out the following key sources:
And if you want to buy birth, marriage or death certificates, get them straight from the General Register Office (gro.gov.uk) – they have a pdf service on certain certificates which only takes a few days and it is cheaper to go direct to them than go through one of the secondary websites in the list above.
When you go online, don’t get carried away and never copy someone else’s tree research unless you are convinced it’s right! Offline and online research should follow the same key rules:
6. Ask us for help!
If you’ve done all this and still can’t get anywhere or it all just seems a bit too much, don’t worry! This is our specialty! We can help you out when you get stuck (see our Genealogy Tutorials, or Brick Wall Bulldozer options) or do the hard work for you and build your tree from scratch (see our Family History Essentials, Presentation Tree, and Family History Book options). If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or get in touch today for a free, no-obligation chat about how Knox Family Histories can help you!