Genealogy for beginners: How to trace your family tree
13th September, 2018

Back to school season is upon us, so what better time to try something new than September. Shorter days and cooler weather makes it the perfect time to start tracing your family history, but where do you begin? We’ve pulled together some hints and tips for genealogy newbies.

What do I know?

You may be surprised to find out how much you already know about your family history. Begin by writing down everything you know, or map your knowledge onto a family tree. Always start with yourself and then work backwards, noting as much detail as you can. If you struggle to think off the top of your head, old photographs can be great memory joggers. Obviously all of your photographs will be labelled and dated (#genealogygoals!) so you won’t spend hours trying to figure out who that man in the fur coat is. You could also talk to relatives, although do be prepared to take some stories with a pinch of salt until you can back them up with sources later on; it’s amazing how one piece of information can be relayed incorrectly over the years.

What do I want to know?

It’s all too easy when you start researching your family history to want to find out everything about everyone. Even with the best intentions and an infinite amount of time, this is an impossible task! Therefore it is important to set yourself achievable objectives so you go into your research with a clear sense of purpose. For example, you may want to find out where your grandmother was born or where your great aunt lived. If you find yourself getting side tracked make a note of what you’ve found and the source and plan to revisit it at a later date. It’s important you don’t overwhelm yourself with too much information as this is where mistakes begin to creep in.

How do I find the information?

The easiest place to start tracing your family tree is online. Some sites require one off payments and others monthly subscriptions, but there are some which you can use for free.

Census and BMD records are probably the best sources to start with as they don’t require definite information. Usually a name and a rough date will suffice.

Always start with a wide search and then narrow it down. You may know the date your grandmother was born but this could be recorded as five different dates across ten sources, as well as various addresses and places of birth. Census entries depend on the enumerator and their interpretation, particularly if your ancestor was illiterate. Documents written in shorthand may also record incorrect dates and spellings.

Other places to look include your local archive or the archive local to where your ancestors lived. Local churches can also help you with your research as they often hold their own records, although many of these are being digitised and may be available on some of the bigger genealogy websites.

In the early stages of your research it may be worth giving each of your objectives a time slot. If you can’t find what you want within 30 minutes or an hour, move on and revisit at a later date. The more experience you gain with these websites and databases the easier your research will become.

How do I record my findings?

Decide at the very start how you are going to record your findings be it on paper or digitally. Try to stick with your chosen format as much as possible to avoid confusion or going over the same ground again and again. For example, if you choose to record everything on paper use one (large!) notebook or if you decide to save everything electronically use one memory stick.

You may decide to keep lists, add everything to a family tree or even create your own database or referencing system. Whichever method you choose you will probably change your mind a few times over the course of your research, so have a play with a variety of methods before your family history story gets too big.

What next?

Once your research is established you can begin to look at ancestors in more detail and on an individual basis. You can also place your ancestors in the historical context in which they lived. The most important thing to remember is to follow your interests and to have fun along the way. Discovering your family history is a wonderful experience but do realise that a genealogist’s work is never finished!

Useful websites:
  • Ancestry
  • Find My Past
  • Family Search
  • Free BMD
  • Cyndi’s List