A beginner's guide to tracing your family tree
21st May 2019
Tracing your family tree can be fascinating. As a detective of your own past, you can reveal family secrets and preserve the history of those who came before you. Not only can your genealogy allow you to learn more about yourself, but it’s a fantastic opportunity to become closer with your family, bonding over stories and artefacts and sharing anecdotes of a time gone by. However, with so much history waiting to be discovered, it can be difficult knowing where to begin.
“It’s tempting to dive straight in and start researching members of your family on the large subscription genealogy sites”, shares Karen from Family Tree Magazine. “But this can go quickly awry and you may find yourself tracing the wrong family! So, I would say start with yourself and work backwards before hitting the internet, with good old-fashioned paper and pencil. Begin sketching out a basic family tree, recording your own life events, such as birth and marriage, and those of your immediate family and any older relatives you remember, such as aunties, uncles and grandparents. You now have a framework with which to begin your journey into your family’s past.”
From hiring historians to help trace back your roots to scouring through records, flicking through the lives, deaths and marriages of your ancestors, there are many different ways you can go about researching your family tree. Nevertheless, whatever you’re hoping to uncover, find out more about how to start learning about your genealogy in the guide below.
Where to begin
Upon deciding to trace your genealogy, the first port of call should be creating a family tree. This simple diagram allows you to present the current information that you’re aware of, including names and birthdays, so is a fantastic place to start. Beginning with your information at the bottom of the page, you should then work backwards, listing your parents, and grandparents names and dates of birth.
Most family trees follow a similar key in order to link important people together whilst clearly illustrating their relationship. Vertical lines can be used to demonstrate the link between parents and their children, whilst horizontal lines can be used to dictate siblings. This will become a crucial document whilst tracing your family’s history, so should be easy to understand. After jotting down the relationships between parents and siblings, as well as your grandparents, you can begin to add in marriages. These are usually portrayed with two horizontal lines joining the two names together, with dotted lines used for presumed relationships.
Beginning to trace your family in this way is recommended as it allows you to then work further back in time. Having both the names and birthdays means that diving into parish records will be easier, meaning that a skeleton of your genealogy can be quickly developed. Asking family members at this time will make it easier to establish if you’re following the right leads and can also provide you with fantastic stories about some of the people you’re discovering. These records became a legal requirement in 1837 as a result of the increase in population, so using this as your primary source of basic information should prove helpful on your quest to uncover your past.
As you get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to find people to speak to about your ancestors. However, talking with relatives and allowing them to share their memoirs is one of the best ways to start tracing your family tree. Not only will they have more insight to those who came before you than paper records can provide, but you may discover that they have photographs and letters to share with you.
Karen from Family Tree Magazine believes that talking to family members is crucial in your search: “The one piece of advice I’d offer to anyone thinking about tracing their tree is to talk to your relatives, especially older family members, if possible, but even siblings and cousins will have lots of untapped memories and family knowledge. They may reveal family stories you’ve never heard before and details of crucial dates such as birthdays. Perhaps they have a collection of birth, marriage and death certificates to share with you (ask to photograph or scan them so you have copies), which will save you buying them (and a small fortune). Ask around to see if anyone has any old family photographs or memorabilia too – they may just show you a wonderful old album of photos you never knew existed, a picture of a relative during the First World War, or a Family Bible with a handwritten list of your ancestors’ names and dates. Start talking about your family history with your family and you’ll be amazed at what you can find out.”
It may be possible that through life, your childhood memories have left you. However, during your early years, you may have met important figures in your past. Perhaps boxes of pictures have been passed down to you through the generations, collecting dust in your loft for you to sift through? No matter how big or small the back catalogue of information you have, this can be a great way of bonding with the younger generations of your family, making this an incredible experience for you both to share. Enlist in the help of other family members to find these photos out for you, especially if you use a curved stairlift installed in your home to help you remain mobile, as these boxes can often be tucked away in hard to reach locations.
“Tracing your family history is a real adventure”, shares Karen. “It's not just about collecting names and dates, it's about learning all about the lives of those that came before, to better understand who we are, and where we came from. It's sure to be a thrilling ride, so enjoy the journey!”. She shared a list of resources that are brilliant if you’re beginning to research your genealogy.
- Civil birth, marriage and death (BMD) records are the building blocks of every family tree and date back to 1837 in England and Wales (1855 in Scotland). Use FreeBMD to find the reference numbers and order the certificates from the General Register Office website or visit ScotlandsPeople for BMDs north of the border.
- Census records 1841-1911 (with the 1921 Census for England and Wales due to come online on Find My Past in 2022). These provide a snapshot of your family every 10 years and you can use them to trace their lives and corroborate facts on the BMD certificates. You can search census records on the large subscription genealogy websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past and The Genealogist and on ScotlandsPeople for the Scottish census or try these free sites: FamilySearch.org and FreeCEN.org.uk
- Historical newspapers and trade directories are another gold mine for family historians. Search the British Newspaper Archive (also on Findmypast) or the free Welsh Newspapers Online.
- Find historical trade directories on the genealogy sites or, for free, at Special Collections or, for Scotland, here.
- Military records will enable you to trace your ancestors’ service in the First and Second World Wars. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is your first port of call to locate relatives who died – search the war dead and cemeteries database.
- You military ancestor may have been awarded a medal. You may be lucky enough to have them handed down in the family but, if not, the go-to resource for WW1 research are the Medal Index Cards. Find these on the subscription genealogy sites or at The National Archives website where you will also find a wealth of free research guides.
- For Second World War relatives in the military, visit the Government site to apply for their service records.
- Family Tree magazine website is also packed with expert tips and free guides to tracing your family history.
We also spoke to Family Search, a useful tool for those who are looking to research their genealogy. They offered this advice to those who are looking to discover more about their family's past:
"In tracing your family tree, start by identifying what you know. Look through what records, including photographs and artefacts, you already have access to at home and other places. Gather all the information you have into one place. In addition to basic genealogical information, FamilySearch has places in the Family Tree to upload photos and add memories of your ancestors. There are also genealogy programs that you can download onto your computer to help you organize what you know. Don’t forget to check online to see what others have already found.
Next, decide what you want to learn about a specific ancestor. It’s better to begin with more recent ancestors and work your way back in time. Determine what sources may give you that information. These sources may include civil registration, census, and church records. Many of these are searchable online by clicking on “Search” from the FamilySearch home page. Search the records to gather the information you are seeking. Keep in mind that not all records are online. Some are held at record offices and other archives. If you are unable to travel to a records repository, use the FamilySearch Community to see if someone who has access to the required repository will look up a record for you. Other websites, like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness provide similar services.
Evaluate the information you find. Keep in mind who provided the information for the record and how close to the event it was when the record was made. Then add it to your records. Share what you have found by adding it to your family tree. This research process then begins again with a new ancestor.
Tracing your family tree is a rewarding activity and, with the technology available to us now, easier and more accessible than ever!"
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