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Where do I start?

That's a good question!  There's a lot of information on this page. Have you got a cup of tea ready?.

If you are just starting with family history/genealogy, then you need to know where to start. Researching your family history can be a daunting task but by following our advice, your family tree should sprout it's branches much quicker.

First stop - the local stationery shop - to buy some notebooks. You will need two sizes initially. The small one should fit in your pocket or handbag (US. purse). This will come in handy when visiting relatives homes, so that you can glean as much information as possible from them. The larger size (A4) for when you are copying information at an archive room or other research centre. Also purchase a supply of 'pencils'! Most archives and other research rooms will only allow the use of pencils - NO INK - to protect their valuable documents. (Some will have facilities for you to use your notebook PC also).

When taking notes, always remember to write down the name of the person you are talking to. Also the date and location. This will come in very handy, months or even years down the line, when you are checking certain pieces of information. Where did I get this information from? Was it from a reliable source?

So, now to the actual researching. If, for example, you start off with your own family tree, then of course you start with yourself. .....Your next step, if you have a family of your own, is to work forwards............'Forwards?' I hear you say.......yes if you want to include your own children; grandchildren and maybe even great grandchildren (and their families as well).

Then the work begins in earnest! After all, the last part was the easiest! The next step will get harder. Now you're going to work backwards. If you can achieve this next step without a hitch, you are well on your way to becoming an experienced family historian!

  1. Two Parents.
  2. Four Grandparents
  3. Eight Great-grandparents
  4. Sixteen Great-Great-grandparents
  5. Thirty-two Great-Great-Great-grandparents!

Most of us tend to identify ourselves with one surname. However, this very strong identification with one family name is misleading. Even the most simple delving into your family history will show how mistaken this identification is. We all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents. To go back four generations is to realise that your surname at birth was borne by only one of your 16 great great grandparents. Go back further and this number doubles for every generation!

How's that for starters? Add to the above list - Aunts; Uncles; Cousins and Siblings of all these people and you could already have a list running into the thousands!

Don't go getting disillusioned at this point, because very few researchers will achieve this goal. But if you make it something to strive for, it will benefit you immensely.

Going back to the note books, what information do you require? As much as possible is the short answer. In reality, you may not get all the information you need at first. Get all you can. It all helps.

Here's a list of the information you should try to obtain:

  • Date of Birth (and time if poss.)

  • Date of Christening/Baptism etc.

  • Date of Confirmation etc.

  • Date of marriage - also name of spouse and his/her parents names.

  • Date of Death. Cause of Death.

  • Date of Burial/Cremation.

  • Copies of any Certificates.

In addition to the above, you may come across details of  where they worked; school records; addresses, or any manner of information that will help you 'Paint a picture' of the person you are researching.

Talking of 'pictures'. Don't forget to ask to see any old photographs your family members have in their keeping. You may be surprised to find how much information may be written on the back of these photos. Your family may let you have some of these photos for your collection. Or you may be allowed to have them copied. You may also have a scanner with your PC, so you can copy the photos, plus any documents you may come across. (Note: If you copy any documents such as birth certificates etc, I recommend that you print 'Scanned copy for research purposes'  at the top left hand corner or better still if your printer has a watermark feature, use this instead), you don't want to be accused of being a counterfeiter!

That's the apprenticeship taken care of. You will find lots more information on this site to keep you busy for a while. Don't forget to join you local 'Family History Society'. All the 'FHSs' work closely with each other and should point you in the right direction, if they don't actually have the information you require.

Here are some more tips...............Please excuse me if I repeat myself. I want to be sure you are taking it in!

*  Begin with yourself and your immediate family and what you know for certain.
Gather the information, papers and documents you and your immediate family have and study them.

*  Work backwards, proving each step, twice if possible, purchasing copies of certificates if necessary. Don't forget, if you can borrow original certificates, you can scan or photocopy them much cheaper.

*  Cross check - fill in pedigree and family group charts in pencil until you are quite sure you have all the details correct. When you visit research rooms or archives, many will insist that you use a soft leaded pencil.

*  Do not neglect siblings. It's not uncommon that your 5 times great grandmother had married her husbands brother after the husbands death. After all there were no state pensions in days gone by. A woman would often have to remarry to avoid the workhouse!

*  Remember an individual may have two or three given (Christian/first/middle etc.) names: and may use the last rather than the first;  may be known far and wide by a nickname that has nothing to do with any of them;  may be known by one name at home, another at school and a third in later life. Also it was not uncommon for a child to be named after a sibling that had died. Or for a person to remarry and give a name to a child, where a child from a previous marriage also has the same name ! (very confusing)

*  Try and kill off all (already dead) relatives, in other words find the death date.  An ancestor without a death date is, to exaggerate only slightly, a loose cannon on the deck of family history.  Could there be another family, another career, a mystery?

*  Almost certainly a skeleton or two lurks - the criminal (not just the wronged convict who made good), the illegitimate ('of course we never talked about her father'), the mentally ill ('your grandmother's Aunt Susan was always a little odd and she went to live in the Blue Mountains').  It may be fascinating to you (and explain some of those silences in your childhood), but be very careful of your relatives' feelings and privacy.  Handle the situation sensitively and you may be trusted with information in the future.

*  Always remember that some of your relatives may (a) be not interested and/or (b) consider you downright nosey.  But handled carefully and respectfully they may become both interested and helpful. Having said that, my wife and I have never experienced this.

*  Always be open minded about spelling. Many of our ancestors could just read and barely write (most of the British aristocracy could only just manage a signature before the sixteenth century), and names were frequently written down by someone unfamiliar with the name or the accent, making their own best guess.  Consider a family from the far west of Ireland giving information to a clerk from Birmingham, or a Glaswegian to a Welshman.

*  Take notice of how people misspell or mispronounce your name/s, try spelling and pronunciation out on strangers.  You will be surprised at the variants of something you consider quite straightforward, and it may help you find that elusive relative in an index.

*  Study a book on old handwriting (usually available from your local 'Family History Society') - your problem might simply be a misreading, as writing styles, vocabulary and abbreviations have changed.

Good Luck.     Go to:   Advanced Research

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Edited & Compiled by Robert Blatchford

The Family and Local History Handbook...

If you only buy one book about family history...then this is the one you should buy!

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