If you are just starting out on what may be a long journey to find your ancestors and know more about your genealogy you might be coming to the conclusion that what you thought would be fun is turning into a nightmare jumble of dates and names. That happens to many people at first, and what you should do is stop, have a breather and then start at the beginning.
That isn’t inferring that you should start all over again – on the contrary! All of what you have found so far will be very useful. However you must take stock, and understand what it is that you are trying to achieve. You want to find your ancestors, so going back to the start means that you should write down the names of all the relatives you know about. Choose either your mother’s side of the family or your father’s – it doesn’t matter which, but start on just the one. That cuts your work by half – at least initially.
Where to Start with Genealogy Research
To find our more about your ancestry and genealogy, contact all the living relatives on your list and ask them what they know about their relatives. What did their parents tell them when they were young about great grandfather George, or did they mention any relatives of Aunt Mary that they knew about? Some of your elderly relatives may be able to remember their past as clear as if were yesterday, even though they may have forgotten what they did yesterday.
Some of these tales will be misleading – the result of Chinese whispers – but many will contain enough fact to give you a lead where to look next. Write down everything, even though it might seem irrelevant at the time. The more living relatives you can get in touch with the easier it will be to explore your family’s past. If more than one person tells the same story, then the more likely it is to be true! Use a voice recorder so you miss nothing, particularly if you are interviewing a group of elderly relatives, each trying to get in first!
Use Keepsakes and Photographs
There are a few things you can do to help them. Show them old keepsakes you may have found and ask for the stories behind them, and ask them if they have any old family bibles: they can give you masses of valuable information about your ancestors. Many families wrote their family history in their family bible, or even just the names and addresses of those who owned them as they were passed down the generations.
Another useful ploy is to pull out the family photograph album or even old wedding albums where the elderly relatives of the happy couple often feature. Ask them if they can remember the names, or even who they were – their position in the family. Try to get as much information about the photographs as you can.
Make sure that your whole family knows what you are doing and that are looking for help. Let them know not to wait till you contact them individually but to volunteer any information they have, particularly old photographs, letters and documents. Perhaps somebody else in your family is doing the same as you are, and you can compare notes.
Researching the family tree is a popular activity these days, and it’s likely that somebody else is also researching your family. Maybe if somebody else expresses a desire to do the same you could ask them to look at the other side of the family – if you are researching your father’s family, they could focus on the maternal side.
Where to Look – Online Resources
What sources can you use in your research? In the old pre-electronic days, people researching their family tree would first check out the records in their local registry office. Today, however, most start with the internet. There are lots of websites and online records that might be of help to you. Ancestry, Genes Reunited and Family Search are the most popular, but if you Google ‘genealogy sites’ you will find a whole host of them. They are easy to use and come with instructions on how to use them to research your family. Some contain details of specific surnames, while others offer advice on carrying out your research.
Most are free, although it is possible to purchase software to speed up the process. Family Tree Maker and Legacy are two of the better reviewed packages at under $50, and they will certainly help, but you still have a lot of work to do yourself. You can also register for eMail lists of people doing the same as you, and though they may help they could also block up your email system with hundreds of emails if you register with too many. Stick to one or two till you understand how they work. Genuki is a useful example for UK-based searches.
A specific benefit of most genealogy software is that it enables you to easily map out a family tree and also to store your information in logical sequences and files. You can collect a large amount of information when researching your ancestry, and without some means of storing them so they are easily found and accessed when needed, you can end up where we started above: a “nightmare jumble of dates and names”.
Other Sources of Help
The Family History Center, administered by the Mormons, is a very useful source of information on genealogy, particular if you have American ancestors. Mormons are very meticulous in researching their ancestors, and their records tend to be very exact and accurate. Their services are free other than small charges for copying and distribution of records, but you can go to Salt Lake City and do it yourself. That’s fine if you are American, but Europeans can do everything by email.
In the UK and other parts of Europe, the churches were responsible for keeping records until it became a civil duty. Many churches retain their old parish records, and if you find a relative in bygone days that lived in a particular parish the records of their families, and their ancestors, may not be difficult to find if you have rough dates. Populations were lower then, and you will have fewer records to examine.
Another factor that you may not think of, but that can provide some useful clues, is geography. If you map where each of your ancestors have a) originated from and b) spent their married lives, you may be able to spot a pattern that might give you a clue as to where to look next. It’s usually easier when you look at something diagrammatically, such as a map, to see connections and clues for further investigation.
You can also use genetic genealogy techniques, and make use of private DNA testing to establish relationships between families with the same surnames. By contacting a number of people with the same surname that may be related to you from way back and sharing the costs of the DNA testing, you can establish relationships between you all without any reasonable doubt. Ancestry DNA testing can offer a more general overview of your ancestral past.
Genealogy is a fascinating pastime, and while it can take up a great deal of your time it is also very rewarding. If you make use of the resources available to you: church records, local authority records and the power of the internet, you should be able to dig deep and research much farther back than your own forebears were able to do even 20 years ago. Don’t let that mass of information on genealogy deter you – the more you have, the better you are doing.