Building your family tree is an exciting journey and a fantastic project for anyone to take on. Thinking of starting yours? It can be overwhelming, and many people can be unsure of where to start, especially if they’re new to research and history, but don’t worry – we’re here to help.
Start close to home
Sometimes the answers are closer to home than you’d think. Before you go diving into census records, talk to family members, particularly those from older generations. Talking to these people is often the best place to start when researching family history: talk to grandparents, great aunts and uncles, parents, cousins and siblings to kick off your research.
Ask your relatives questions about family members and record any details that might help you later, including vital information (birth, marriage, and death dates); places they may have lived; jobs they’ve had and anything else you think might be important. Family photo albums and scrapbooks are often great sources for important clues that might help your research. Examine your home for vital records like birth certificates, diaries, school records and letters – these things can give important insights into your family.
Fortunately, the internet has done wonders for preserving historical records, making it a great tool for researching your family tree. There are a lot of websites out there dedicated to helping you research your family history – Ancestry.co.uk is the largest in the UK but other services dedicated to this cause include genealogy.com, genesreunited.co.uk, and findmypast.co.uk.
Before you start your search, you’ll need a few key pieces of information, including names, dates and places of birth for grandparents. These will serve as a starting point to help you put the pieces together by searching the census, military, parish and criminal records.
From here you can start to organize your results – keeping things organised will be important as you continue to find new details related to your family. This is where family tree sites will come in handy as they will help you navigate and organise your search, albeit at a price.
Search the census
Your family history will mostly be pieced together from records and sources throughout history that mention your ancestors. Birth, marriage and death records, wills, censuses, tax records, education, newspapers, military records, occupational records – the list goes on.
Censuses are a good place to start as they the largest resource for family history and a solid foundation for researching your family tree. Looking at census records will help you trace parents and grandparents through the census, recording their names, ages, birthplaces, immigration details, occupations, and residences as you build out your family tree.
Here are some examples of pay-for sites for basic genealogy:
- www.genesreunited.co.uk – contains birth, marriage and death indexes and census returns for England and Wales
- www.familyrelatives.com – contains birth, marriage and death indexes and census returns for England and Wales
- www.ancestry.co.uk – contains birth, marriage and death indexes, census returns and more for England and Wales
- www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk – contains birth, marriage and death indexes for Scotland and digitised images of many of the certificates and census returns for Scotland.
- www.findmypast.co.uk – contains birth, marriage and death indexes and census returns and more for England and Wales.
Search one story at a time
Perhaps the best way to start and organise your search is by focusing on just one or two families at a time. Select a few people you’d like to start researching first rather than trying to record your entire family tree all at once. Spend some time researching and documenting information in small pieces as you work towards filling out your family tree. Then you can join the dots, so to speak, by adding in details about other family members.
Stories can include those of careers (looking at paychecks or business records) or of military service (researching World War II military service records), or education (looking at school or college records) or even a family legend (perhaps someone in your family was a prominent individual in history). Whatever it is, identifying a potential story about your family is a great place to begin exploring. You can start by searching through newspaper archives and records relating to your family’s stories in your research.
It’s also worth checking to see if anyone else in your family has already started researching your family’s past before you start. There are social network sites out there like RootsWeb, Familyrelatives, LostCousins or GenesReunited that let you register your research interests and may help you find information.
Once you’ve covered the basics of your family’s genealogy – maybe you’ve even built a skeleton family tree – it’s time to start looking at more specialised websites. For example, those containing military or employment records, parish records or wills.
But of course you need those important basic details to use these services to their full potential: there’s no point in paying to look for details of your great uncle’s career in the Royal Navy if you don’t know his full name and date of birth. Without this vital background information, you will have trouble identifying your ancestor among the thousands of others. Essentially, you need to ensure you’re using these genealogical sites in the right order if you want to get the most out of them.
Here are some useful paid-for resources that can help you find more specialist information:
- http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline – contains wills, World War I Campaign Medal index, naval records and more.
- http://www.originsnetwork.com – contains numerous specialised records relating to British genealogy, including wills, apprenticeship records, military records and marriage indexes.
- http://archive.timesonline.co.uk – the Times Digital Archive, which can be searched from 1785-1985. A good place to research well-known or prolific ancestors.
- http://www.cwgc.org – Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, where you can find details of servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars.
This should be enough to get you started with your research, but it is just the tip of the iceberg! Keep checking the Reliving blog for more updates and information on family history. Want to make it easier for your relatives to continue completing your family tree? Try Reliving for free – we can make it easier to document and preserve your family history.