How to trace your UK ancestors in the British Isles


27 March 2020
Got UK ancestors? We can help you trace your family lines from America back to the British Isles

The British Isles’ greatest export over the past few centuries has been its people, meaning that many, many tens of millions of people today in America will be proud to claim ancestor connections back to England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These diaspora populations sometimes chose to come to America for the new opportunities it offered, and at other times were fleeing the terrible conditions in the British Isles.

Finding out about your family connections to the British Isles will be a revelatory experience, often taking in epic, dramatic and often tragic eras of history – everything from the devastation of the Irish Potato Famine and the brutality of the Highland Clearances, to the adventure of the Gold Rush, the pioneers and of course the Pilgrim Fathers and their quest for a new land full of promise to live and worship in the way that they wished.

Here are 3 steps to help you learn what you need in order to fulfill your quest to trace your ancestral connections back to Britain.

1. Take stock of what you know

Ensure that you have gathered every possible clue of names, dates and places relating to your ancestor in America, before trying to trace them back to Britain. This collection of clues will help you to identify the correct person in Britain.

Ask family members if they have handed down information, which may point you in the right direction, but beware that details may have become muddled over time.

Study the other people in the dwellings, neighbourhood, occupations and places of worship in which your ancestors lived in America. When arriving in a new place people often congregate with friends or family members, or people from the same country or place of origin. The clues you find out about your ancestor’s communities will help you learn more about where to look for their origins back in Britain.

Investigate their surname – while many surnames do have multiple places of origin, gaining some background information about the places your ancestor’s surname came from will give you hints about probable places they originated in Britain.

Content continues after advertisements

2. Now you’re ready to look at British records

If your ancestor arrived in America from Britain in the past few centuries then you’ll find there are a wealth of nation-wide collections of historic records that you can search. The reason why it’s good to be able to search nation-wide is that it will help you locate your ancestor in the records even if you’re not sure precisely whereabouts they came from in Britain.

Census records – the census records for England, Wales and Scotland will help you find ancestors from 1911 back to 1841. For Ireland the only complete censuses to survive are the 1911 and 1901 Censuses. The census (and birth, marriage and death records) for England and Wales are held together, with Scotland separately, and Ireland separately again.

Useful websites include:

Birth, marriage & death records

The birth, marriage and death records (BMDs) are searchable as national databases. These records began to be collected in the mid-1800s, like the censuses. The BMD records are available for:

  • England and Wales, BMDs from 1837 
  • Scotland, BMDs from 1855
  • Ireland, BMDs from 1864 for all (with marriages from 1845 for Protestants only)

Useful websites for BMDs are the same as those for the census listed above, and:

Parish registers of baptisms, marriages & burials

There is no one single place to find all the parish registers – but many are available online and more continue to be added. Parish registers continue to be kept up to present times, recording the baptisms, marriages and burials of people within a parish. They are useful as they have been kept for centuries.

Many of us will be able to use parish registers to trace our ancestors back into the mid-1700s relatively easily. Before that it does get progressively harder, as some records haven’t survived the passage of time, and because the level of detail kept can be scant. However if you’re fortunate you may be able to use parish registers to trace your family lines back into the 1600s and even 1500s – to the time of King Henry VIII.

Useful places to search for parish registers include the websites listed for the census above, plus:

Parish registers have often been transcribed by family history societies (see more below).

3. Exploring more deeply

Using the census, BMDs and parish registers you will have cast the net wide and hopefully found details to locate your ancestor in the British Isles, and to start to gather the branches of your family tree in Britain.

Other records

There are other records that will also prove well worth searching. Here are just some examples:

Passenger lists, Military, Land records, Newspapers

These may all be explored in the popular genealogy websites mentioned above. No single site has all the records – but they each hold millions of records.

There are thousands of archives around the British Isles. A very useful starting point is the UK National Archives website, which has a ‘Find an archive’ map:

The main national archives of the British Isles are:

Family history societies are also extremely well worth contacting. They tend to concentrate on the ancestry of a particular county or local area. This means that among the members there is a wealth of local knowledge and often when you become a member you will be able to access the records on the members-only area of that family history society’s website.

There are good listings of family history societies at:

Need a hand? If you have a query about tracing your British ancestors, email us at [email protected] and we’d be very happy to try to help you. Good luck with tracing your ancestors back to England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales – you’re sure to love the journey.

Content continues after advertisement