To carry out successful research you may need archives, libraries, Internet resources and genealogical societies. However, the starting point for any family history research is your own family, and you may find a wealth of genealogical data among your living relatives.|
There are a few simple steps in starting to trace your family history.
Step 1. Establish your goal
Family history research can be a never-ending activity so if you establish an initial goal this can help you structure your research. The structure may change as research progresses but clear goals along the way will help make the most constructive use of your time.
Common goals are to:
These goals are of course not mutually exclusive. There are no rules as to how you proceed and you may wish to do all or none of the above depending on which lines you follow. Your goals may also change depending on how successful you are.
- Produce an extended family tree by following all descendants and spouses from one ancestor.
- Produce an ancestry chart by following only direct ancestors of both male and female lines.
- Produce a family tree by following male line ancestors, including wives and siblings. (As wives usually lose their maiden names when they are marry female lines are harder to trace).
Step 2. Begin with what you know
Whichever goal you have chosen, your starting point will be with what you know, yourself.
Collect and record your own genealogical information, birth date and place, marriage, occupation etc. Do the same for your spouse and children and then work backwards through all living relatives, recording full names, dates and places of birth, marriage and death, going as far back as you can. Your family history includes more than names and dates. Family stories and biographical information will add life to the branches of your family tree.
When you have exhausted your own knowledge start interviewing all living relatives for clues and family stories. You could interview people in person, over the telephone, by letter, using a tape recorder or video camera. Bear in mind that not all family stories will necessarily be accurate.
Ask relatives for any useful material, which may provide clues or verify stories. This might include; photographs, letters, diaries, school records, books with inscriptions and dates, maybe family trees created by other relatives, obituaries, wills, deeds, military records, passports, or even addresses of other relatives to contact. Birth, death and marriage certificates will help verify your research, but any information containing family names, marriages, births, deaths, locations and relationships will all be helpful.
Don't worry if you haven't got a huge amount of information to start with. Remember it is important to start with what you know, be that a little or a lot.
Develop a clear system of organizing research documentation and notes. Set up a folder on your computer where you can put e-mails and other electronic data. File letters, photographs, official documents and other research material, including photocopies of all original documents.
Genealogical software programs are also available which can help organise research. (Check Cyndi's List - www.cyndislist.com/software.htm and Genealogy Software Springboard - www.gensoftsb.com for recommendations)
Keep a research log to record where you have looked and what was discovered.
Record the source of all the information you gather. This will be important in verifying facts in the future, allowing readers to find original records, and essential if you wish to publish the results of your research.
Develop a consistent style of writing names, dates and places, for example:
- Names can be written as: John Robert SMITH (forename, middle name, capitalised surname). For married females use the maiden name.
- Dates as: 22 Nov. 1701 (day, abbreviated month, year).
- Places as: Bideford, Devon, England (parish or town, county, country).
Step 4. Construct your family chart
Organise your research results by constructing a family chart. There is no correct way of doing this. The main thing is that the chart is easy to read and understand. Genealogists often use the following pre-printed charts
These, and other useful documents can be downloaded for free from Genealogy Mall - www.genealogy-mall.com/freechar.htm, purchased from the SoG bookshop - www.sog.org.uk/acatalog, or you can create your own.
- Pedigree chart - tracks bloodline ancestors. Some printed pedigree charts (usually American forms known as Ahnentafels) show only four generations, but many charts on the market have spaces for more generations. For example, the Society of Genealogists (SoG) - www.sog.org.uk - publishes a birth brief that has space for five generations up to the 16 great grandparents.
- Family group record - shows parents and children of the same family.
Eventually you will be able to create a family group record for each set of parents on the pedigree chart. Leave spaces on the charts for information that is not yet known.
Keep family history notes to record personal information, such as physical attributes, likes/dislikes or events, which do not fit on the charts.
Step 5. Identify missing information
You should now be able to identify the gaps in the information on your chart. Gaps may be because information is missing, unverified or conflicting.
Select which individual to research next. It is easier to move from the known to the unknown, so choose someone a single generation back rather than two where possible. You will need at least their surname and an idea of where they lived.
List all the information you know about the individual. The most useful information will include each place they lived and the time they lived there, and all jurisdictions that might have kept records about them (town, parish, district, county). Note whether these facts have been verified or not. If they haven't you may want to try to confirm the information you have first.
Identify your research objectives by listing the information you would like to find out, for example, birthplace, birth date, marriage, any children etc. It's important to keep this in mind as you research as it can be easy to become distracted by the search itself and forget exactly what was the point of the exercise.
Record the objectives in your research log. Use the log to document which records you have searched and the source of the records. This will help you make efficient use of your time.
Step 6. Where to start searching
Where you start your search will depend on what information you are looking for and what information you already have. There are two kinds of records to research:
Check compiled records first to see if the research you are planning has already been done. Then you can verify any information you find by searching for the original records.
- Original (primary) records - accounts of specific events, written at or near the time of the event, for example, civil and religious authorities may have recorded events such as births and marriages.
- Compiled (secondary) records - created by genealogists or historians possibly years after the event. They may be compiled from original records or from other compiled records.
Compiled records may be found at:
- Origins.net - www.origins.net
- International Genealogical Index - computerized index containing millions of names extracted from birth, christening, marriage and other records, available at the Family History Library, FamilySearch™ Center and at many Family History Centers - www.familysearch.org
- Local libraries, Historical, Family History & Genealogical societies - Look for family or local histories, newspaper files containing obituaries, other news items and military records. Society members and librarians may have recommendations of where to look, or it may be worth joining a society which publishes or keeps relevant information or has activities to support your research - see Websites.
- In biographies
Bear in mind geographical changes. Boundaries may have moved and urban areas increased while rural communities may have disappeared. It may be useful to do some research into the local area and identify what changes have taken place.
Names may have been spelt in many ways. Spelling was less important in the past and mistakes may have been made during indexing or transcription of handwritten records. Immigration may also have led to anglicised or changed names.
Step 7. Where to look next
How you go about researching original records will depend upon the country and dates you are looking for. The list below outlines the main record categories in the UK and Ireland. It is by no means comprehensive.
Vital records (Birth, Death, and Marriage records)
The national registers of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales began in 1837, Scotland in 1855, Ireland, protestant marriages 1845 rest in1864, separate index for Northern Ireland from 1922. Guernsey in 1840, Jersey in1842, Isle of Man 1849.
Some public libraries and record offices have the indexes on microfiche and most of the indexes are also available online. The Family History Library has many vital records on microfilm, accessible through Family History Centres.
If you are searching for vital records before the national registers began you will have to rely mainly on parish registers. English and Welsh parish registers were first introduced in 1538 although a few pre-date this. Many only survive from 1558 and there are often gaps in the sequence - especially around the time of the English Civil War. Most church records for England & Wales over 100 years old will be deposited in the appropriate record office. However churches may have more modern christening, baptism, confirmation, marriage, or burial records. Try contacting churches in the area that you are researching.
The Society of Genealogists - www.sog.org.uk - has copies of many thousands of registers from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland along with overseas sources. Family history and parish register societies have indexed many of the registers. The Genealogical Society of Utah has indexed millions of names from the parish registers in the International Genealogical Index - www.familysearch.org.
For Scotland, the old parish registers of the Church of Scotland have been deposited with the General Register Office for Scotland (at New Register House, in Edinburgh, with a few held at the National Archives of Scotland, next door at General Register House). The original parish records of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland are held still at parish level, though a full set of copies is available at the National Archives for Scotland - www.nas.gov.uk/default.asp.
Most Church of Ireland parish registers, and Irish census records, were destroyed when the Irish national archives were burnt in 1922 although some substitute records can be used. Many Catholic parish registers survived but not many exist from before 1800.
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland censuses have been carried out every ten years since 1801. Few of these early returns survive. Returns from 1841 onwards survive (except for Ireland) and are of most use for family historians. In 1841 names, occupations and approximate ages were recorded. Exact ages and places of birth were recorded from 1851.
Record offices and libraries will usually have copies of local census records on microfilm. The returns for England and Wales are held at The National Archives, Kew. Scottish returns are held by the General Register Office for Scotland. Irish censuses of 1901 and 1911 are at the National Archives of Ireland. Only fragments of earlier Irish censuses survive.
There are many indexes and finding aids that help to use the census and all of the full surviving returns are available online. To preserve individuals privacy, there is a 100 year closure on the census. The Society of Genealogists - www.sog.org.uk - holds most published census indexes in its library should you have problems locating individuals using the online indexes.
Cemetery records can give names and dates, which might not be found anywhere else. Headstone groupings and epitaphs can also help establish relationships. Many family history societies are recording tombstones inscriptions (monumental inscriptions). Thousand of these monumental inscriptions have been deposited with the Society of Genealogists - www.sog.org.uk. Unfortunately many graves and monuments have deteriorated over time. A few 17th century stones still exist but most are from later years.
Cemetery records, kept chronologically, may be held in local record offices or in the cemetery or crematorium office. The Federation of Family History Societies - www.ffhs.org.uk - is co-ordinating the National Burial Index for England & Wales that includes entries from burial registers, cemetery records and other related sources. The Third Edition, including over 18.4 million burials, was published on CD ROM in 2010.
Probate records, court records of wills and the court's decision on how the estate is divided, may provide names and family relationships. From 1858 English and Welsh Wills are recorded in the Principal Probate Registry in London and are fairly easy to find. Before this period English and Welsh wills were proved in local church courts and the records are to be found in Diocesan Record Offices. The records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (the highest church court that dealt with wills) are held by The National Archives (Kew). From 1826 Scottish wills were proved in local sheriffs courts. Before this period Scottish wills were proved in local Commissariat Courts. The records are at the National Archives of Scotland - www.nas.gov.uk. Copies of many probate records are on microfilm at the Family History Library - www.familysearch.org.
For more information on why wills are important and how to find them read Peter Christian's Introduction to Wills.
If you are tracing an ancestor who emigrated from the British Isles, it may be easiest to search in the country that they emigrated to. Immigration and arrival in a new country were more likely to have been recorded than leaving the British Isles, and it may be possible to find a record of where in the British Isles they came from. Most USA passenger lists from the National Archives are on microfilm at the Family History Library - www.familysearch.org or see the American Family Immigration History Center website - www.ellisislandrecords.org.
Other original records
Other useful sources of information might include:
Court records, deeds, voters records, any legal papers that might be kept by the courts, military records, taxation papers, business records, trade union information, records concerning civil service, police, doctors, schools, hospitals, pensions, old soldiers homes, merchant seamen, passenger arrival lists, passport information, Poor Law records, apprentice records.
Family History Library & Family History Centres
The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), located in Salt Lake City Utah, is the largest genealogical library in the world. It holds 2 million rolls of microfilm and more than 270,000 compiled family histories. There are 1,800 branches of the library worldwide. These Family History Centres are usually in LDS church buildings, where copies of the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and the Family History Library Catalogue can be viewed. The IGI contains millions of baptism and marriage records, many from parish registers. It is available online at the FamilySearch™ website - www.familysearch.org.
Using the Internet
Most of the information you need will probably be found as hard copies in libraries, archives and record offices, but some genealogical data has been digitised and is available online. There are also lots of genealogy websites covering a wide range of subjects, which may be useful.
Click here for a list websites which may be useful.
Thanks to Else Churchill, Genealogy Officer of the Society of Genealogists, for help with this article.
Updated: March 2012
More Family History Articles