Many people consider researching their family tree but are put off by the misplaced perception of how daunting such a task might be. The key, however, is to start small: collect important information from as many sources as possible; take your time; and take advantage of all the modern tools now available for you to research and record the details of your ancestors’ lives. The aim is to find out more information about your family and where you come from – it should be an enjoyable process, not an arduous one. So, where to start?
1. Ask as many living relatives as possible about their family members.
People often reveal more than books and paper ever can, so be sure to extract as much information as possible from your grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts and family friends. It is here that you will find out information that you will not find in historical documents. The existence of illegitimate children or adopted children, for instance. These are the family skeletons that have never been written down and whose secrets may die with family members. The type of events which may change the entire direction of your inquiries and may be such that even a professional would not uncover them without being privy to the secrets circulating within the family.
2. Consider family heirlooms.
Ask relatives for family heirlooms, correspondence, photos or documents from the past. These can usually be found collecting dust somewhere – unused and unnoticed – but you would be surprised how much information these documents can reveal. If you can, sit down with your relatives to discuss the content of anything you find. People love to reminisce and documents may jog people’s memories about the past. One very important step is to identify where your family came from originally. This will help you to isolate your search to relevant geographical areas and to dismiss others from your search.
3. Start with births, deaths and marriages.
When commencing the task of putting together an individual’s basic biographical information, it is useful to start with the records of the person’s birth and death. In the UK, there are certain dates after which it was a legal requirement to register all births, marriages and deaths (England and Wales 1837, Scotland 1855, Ireland 1864). This means it is relatively straightforward to trace your relatives’ births, deaths and marriages after these dates. Prior to these dates, the task is less straightforward but still entirely possible.
4. Consolidate research at archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres.
If you are keen to get to the bottom of your family history, you will need to undertake more solid research in order to collect concrete proof of family links. To do this, you will need to frequent archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres. These offer vast amounts of information but sometimes the relevant information is difficult for a beginner to find. Fortunately, these treasure troves of information are stocked with experienced and helpful staff whose job it is to assist people just like you. Often, it is best to call in advance to ask for advice. They will also inform you whether you will need any identification to commence your research.
5. Try genealogical research websites to expand upon what you already know about your family tree.
Websites such as Ancestry.com have powerful software that, based on the information that you provide, trawl through historical records to suggest the details of people you may be related to. Starting with just a small range of information about your immediate family is often sufficient to begin the process of revealing dozens of ancestors you previously knew nothing about. Click here to start your Free Family Tree at Ancestry.com.
6. Write your ancestors’ biographies.
Once you have uncovered some background information about your ancestors and your family tree, collaborate with family members and friends to record what you know about the various relatives in your family tree. The Family Tree function on The Biography Site allows you to collaborate with relatives and friends to write your ancestors’ biographies posthumously, and link those biographies to your own and those of your living relatives in an interactive tree.
Don’t forget to write all about what you find in your own memoirs!