Researching your roots can be an exhilarating, fascinating and frustrating experience – all at the same time! Often having children spurs us on to find out more about our own families, but genealogy, the study of family history, is very much an activity that can be shared with children as well. It may be slow moving, it may be surprising, and it very well may be sensational. Welcome to researching family history!
The one tip any genealogist, be they amateur or professional, will pass on is to get organised! During the course of your research you are likely to interview multiple relatives, print out many sheets from the Internet, photocopy countless records and possibly even photograph a few headstones. Finding a way to keep all of this organised early on will become invaluable later. A few tried and true methods include:
- Folders for each family.
- Boxes for each family.
- Computer programmes specialising in organising genealogical research.
- Backing up digital information on hard discs or memory sticks.
- Creating a family tree to keep the lines clear as you work your way backwards.
Think About What You Know Already
When we start on a family history hunt, many of us have more information than we realise. Begin by writing down all the names of family members you can remember. Older family members, including parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents, often know even more so make sure you systematically interview each living relative to find out what they know too. During these interviews, ask about:
- Names of ancestors.
- Occupations of ancestors.
- Places of birth of ancestors.
- Places of death of ancestors.
- Educations of ancestors, including secondary schools and colleges or universities.
- Military service of ancestors.
- Religions of ancestors.
Obviously most of what you will glean from family interviews will be concentrated on the family members who have lived most recently. This is your starting point. When you find records that can document your relatives’ stories, you will be able to then work back towards discovering another generation.
Listen to Legend
Most families will have legends that are handed down from generation to generation. If you come across such a tall tale in your family, by all means document it with as much detail as you can find. However, DO NOT treat these tales as truth until you are able to externally verify them, such as with a record or photograph.
Familiarise Yourself with Records
Public records, from birth certificates to marriage certificates to death certificates, are the backbone of genealogical research. Certificates are often the only proof you will find about an ancestor’s life, and for this reason they are the gold standard of family history research. Most of these records will be public records, those kept by the government. During your research, you may become familiar with:
- The Public Record Office/National Archives
- The Office of National Statistics
- The Patent Office
- The LDS (Latter Day Saints) Family History Centres
- Local history collections
- Religious records (especially for baptism and marriage)
- School records
- Civil registration records
- Tax records
- Military records
- Voter registration rolls
- Census forms
A Tip for Tracing Emigrants
Many families will find that at some point, a relative emigrated from the United Kingdom. In order to complete your family history, this may mean that you will need to begin researching in another country. While it will be rare that you will find a passenger list in order to document when, where and how your relative travelled, it is highly likely that the country (s)he entered will keep such records.
By their very nature, family historians are an inquisitive lot. Take advantage of this to make friends and elicit help. It is likely that at some point your research trail will cross with another’s anyway, so share and share alike!
Researching your family history can be an addictive activity, so get ready for the greatest treasure hunt of your life. Keep family and friends appraised of your activities, and at the next get together you may not be able to stop sharing the family secrets!