WHERE should I start my family history?


13 November 2023
Here are a few simple tactics to help you work out where to start your family history. They will help you think about: • what it is you wish to find out • how to build an online family tree • & will DNA help you find your ancestors?

In tracing your family history you will learn so many fascinating new things. These tactics below are to help you make the most of your research time and energy and have the maximum fun along the way.

Question 1: What do you wish to find out in family history?

This is a great question to ask – ‘What do you wish to find out?’. Keeping this question in mind it will keep your thoughts organised: you are setting yourself a RESEARCH GOAL. You can break your goal down into bitesize chunks. For instance:
Q: ‘What do you wish to find out?’
A: ‘To trace my mother’s family.’

This can be broken down into 2 steps: 
i. Finding my mother’s birth certificate – and noting the names of her parents on the birth certificate – i.e. finding the names of your grandparents. Neat huh? (Two generations found on one record - cha-ching!)
ii. Finding my mother’s marriage certificate – and noting the occupation of her father and any addresses provided. Be sure to look at the names of the witnesses too (are they friends or relations?).
As you can see by the example above, a record such as a certificate can hold many clues that relate to numerous people. i.e. a marriage certificate doesn’t just give clues about the bride and groom. 

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Top family history research how-to tip!

  • Get into the habit of looking carefully at every record you find.
  • It’s tempting to rush on to the next thing.
  • However, by taking the time to explore all the details you will be helping yourself to discover more – there and then.

Question 2: Where do you find family history records?

This depends where in the world your ancestors were. Each country organises its records differently: some have many national collections, whereas others are held at a more localised level.

An excellent place to start finding out about the records available for your country/countries of interest is the FamilySearch wiki: www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Main_Page
It has more than 91,000 genealogy topics worldwide that you can explore by place or record.

Download FREE printable family tree charts from the Family History Workbook for Beginners’ resources web page:

(What? You're giving away free printable family tree charts? Yes we are because we're nice like that - enjoy your genealogy 😉).

Question 3: What sort of records are useful for family history?

Typically the sorts of records you are looking for are:
• census records
• birth, marriage and death records
• newspapers
• Plus: electoral registers, phone books and trade directories, maps, military records, parish registers, passenger lists.
These are just a tiny selection of the many sorts of records that can be used for genealogy.

Top family history keeping organised tip!

Get in to the habit of making a note of what you have looked at. This includes BOOKMARKING useful webpages (so that you don’t lose that gem of a site you’ve found), and also creating a RESEARCH LOG.

What is a family history research log? And how do you make a family history research log?

Your research log can be paper or digital. Set up a file with a few key columns:
• Date of research
• What & where you were researching
• What you found (and what you didn’t find)
• What you want to find out next time

Need a hand setting up your research log? Head over to www.family-tree.co.uk/information/fhwfb and download your template research log. (Yes we really are that nice, just head over there and download it. We want to help you create a great family history research log).

Top family history research tip

Get in the habit of learning about the record collections you use (whether online or in an archive).

Why is it important to know about the websites and record collections that you search for your ancestors in? It's important, because if you don’t find your ancestor in a record collection you need to know whether this is because ...
a) the online collection isn’t complete (and is a work in progress) - [i.e. your ancestor's details may turn up in the collection in the future]
b) the archive collection isn’t complete either (perhaps records were lost in a fire) - [i.e. your ancestor's details are not turning up because the record has been destroyed - that ancestor may well have lived in the place you thought, worked in the line of work you thought, etc - but you are going to need to seek out alternative record collections to find them]
c) there are spelling mistakes/variations that you are not aware of and haven’t searched for - [i.e. your ancestor's details may have been written in handwriting that is hard to read today - so the modern-day people who made the search database may have made a mistake when working on the file, or your ancestor may have spelt their own name a very different way (or number of ways), way back when]
d) Or is it that your ancestor really was never listed in that record collection? - [this can be for any number of reasons]

Question 3: Where can you create an online family tree?

There are numerous places to create a free online family tree. Examples include:

Question 4: How do I make a good online family tree?

1. Think about privacy of living people

Wherever you build your online tree it’s important to think about protecting the privacy of living people. Most online trees will do this automatically (hiding living people from public view, so that only you, as the tree creator, can see them).

2. Think about family photos, stories and memories

Have a think about photographs, stories and memories that you add to your online tree, however. These are not always automatically set to ‘private’ by the online tree providers. So, in order to be a best-practice family history researcher, you have a choice:

  • You can ask living relatives for permission to share items relating to them on your online tree.
  • You can set your entire tree to private (where settings of the online tree provider allow).
  • You can decide not to include such items in your online tree, and instead share them with family members another way.

3. Keep notes of what you do and where you found the information

Hopefully you are keeping notes of where you look, what you look for and what you find.

This will save you time - as you won't unnecessarily be doing something twice.

It will also mean that you can validate your research steps. You will be able to look back and reflect on what you found, where you found it, and why you assessed that that bit of information, that new fact, was correct. Using these details, you can create 'source citations' to show exactly where you found your detail about your ancestor. This does take time to add source citations to your family tree but - a few weeks, months or years from now - you will thank yourself if you start to do this today. Most online family trees have provision for you to add a source citation when you add a new piece of information about your ancestor.

Question 4: Will DNA help you?

Definitely yes. DNA will help you learn more about your family history. It will help you verify the family tree you are building and it will also be of vital assistance if you are seeking an unknown parent or grandparent, for instance. It is also extremely enjoyable to make connections with DNA matches – distant cousins with whom you may never have made contact otherwise.
As with all types of family history research, with DNA research you do need to be very aware that you may receive unexpected information about your relatives – or may find new relatives. If you were to receive such information you need to have a think about how you would feel, and if/how you might share such information with any relevant family members.
That said, for millions of people DNA testing is simply an excellent addition to the range of tools and resources that family historians use to trace their family trees. 

For more tips and ideas to help you trace your family tree, see the Get Started section of the Family Tree website: www.family-tree.co.uk/getting-started

P.S. Have you signed up to the FREE Family Tree enewsletter?

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