How to start your family tree
Wondering where to begin with your family history? Get started with our step by step guide.
1. Start with your own family
Begin by writing down the date and place of your birth (and marriage if applicable) for yourself, spouse and children, and the crucial dates for your parents, including birth, marriage and death. This is the start of your family tree and you can now work back generation-by-generation.
2. Gather family history records
Search your attic and ask other family members for family history treasures such as photos, birth, certificates, apprenticeship records, etc. These will form the basis of your research and will give you clues to start you on your journey of discovering the next generation of your ancestors.
3. Draw up a family tree
Now that you’ve collected some information, it’s time to draw up a basic family tree. Plot the youngest generation of the family at the bottom of the page, allocating a box to each person, with the oldest child on the left and subsequent siblings listed to the right of the previous name.
Next, create vertical lines to connect each sibling to the two parents (with the father shown to the left of the mother) and write the parents’ crucial dates as in generation one, creating a new horizontal line of ancestors for each generation.
4. Work backwards
However tempting it might be to try to prove a link to someone far in the past, always work backwards from yourself when creating your family tree, finding your parents, then their parents, and so on.
If you discover information about one of your ancestors on an internet forum or online tree, always double check the facts before adding the data to your own tree.
5. Discover those first crucial records
With your fledgling tree drawn up, it’s now time to start exploring birth, marriage and death records to discover more ancestors. You can search for certificates for each of these events using the free General Register Office indexes at websites such as Freereg.org.uk
A birth certificate will give you the names and occupation of the parents (your next generation of ancestors); marriage certificates provide age and occupations, plus details of the father of the bride and groom (another generation); whilst death certificates give age and cause of death.
6. Explore the internet
Family history doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby, there are lots of free of charge websites to get you started.
The National Archives catalogue allows you to search 32 million records to find out where in the UK and online more than 2,500 different archives are located. Cyndi’s List is another great starting point for exploring family history online.
7. Keep track of your research
As you discover new ancestors, it’s all too easy to lose track of your paperwork or online research. Start a research log as soon as you can and use this to record which ancestors you’ve searched for and where you looked; saving yourself from repeating the same search further down the line.
If your findings are mainly recorded electronically, use a memory stick as a safeguard should you lose access to your data.
8. Join a family history society
Consider joining a family history society either in your local area, or the society that covers the area where your ancestors lived.
Not only will you benefit from a regular journal, talks and events, you’ll also be able to socialise and share tips with other enthusiasts, both in person and online.
9. Break through that brick wall
If you reach what seems like a dead end with our family tree, don’t despair! Even the most experienced family historians face research challenges. Online forums can be a great source of help and encouragement, or consider leaving the query and moving to another branch of your tree, coming back to look at the problem with a fresh eye further down the line.
10. Visit an archive
Now that you’ve mastered the basics, plan a trip to your local history or library, where you can consult original documents, browse maps and plans, or perhaps attend a help session or workshop.
One of the best things about tracing your ancestors is that this is a quest which you can enjoy for years to come.
We wish you the very best on your ancestral adventures and we're always here to help you along the way.
Join the Family Tree community and share your questions, findings, and family stories with thousands of like-minded family historians.
Receive regular tips and advice by signing up to the free Family Tree e-newsletter (you'll receive an informative, friendly e-mail from us once a month) and by reading Family Tree magazine (the UK's original and best genealogy magazine, bringing you expert advice for more than 30 years).