Genealogy or family history, as it is often known, is the study of a person or family groups ancestors. It is derived from a Greek word genea which means race or family, and logy which means the study of an area of interest, so genealogy means the study of race or family. Genealogy has been around in some form or another since man first walked the earth, first in the form of oral stories, then being written down, and then from about 1500 the birth of the more modern form of genealogy with the keeping of written records.[note]Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Genealogy’. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genealogy. Accessed 14 September 2016.[/note]
You have come to this website because you are interested in your family history and want to learn how to start tracing your ancestors. This is where I want to help you because I know that you already know more than you think you do. The first rule of family history research is to start writing down what you know – names, dates, and locations.
Step 1 : Write down what you know
You need to start with yourself and work backwards noting names, dates, and locations of your immediate family. There are a number of different ways you can do this:
- Use a Pedigree Chart – in this chart you start with your name and relevant dates, move onto your parents and grandparents with the knowledge you have.
- Build a tree using an online database, like Findmypast.
- Purchase family tree software to create your tree. There are many available Family Tree Maker (this is the one I use), RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree to name a few.
Whichever method you use it is important that you need to remember to document each step you take and prove each bit of information as you find it to ensure you have the right people in your tree.
Step 2: Talk with your relatives especially older ones
Quite often family stories are not recorded anywhere and valuable information is lost when an older relative dies.
- oral recording or write down what they tell you
- look at photos to get more information
- look through documents, letters, diaries – it is amazing what secrets you can uncover!
Step 3: Look for spelling variations in names
Quite often you will be searching for a family member but are unable to find them anywhere and this could be because of a varied spelling of their name. There are many reasons why these variations occur:
- many people only had basic literacy skills so would spell things how they heard them or phonetically e.g.
- local accents could lead to a different spelling of names e.g. Pritchard to Prichard
- trying to improve your social standing by making the name sound posher e.g. Smith to Smythe
- anglicising of names (especially common during WWI and WWII) e.g. Schmidt to Smith
So think outside the square when it comes to the spelling of names.
Step 4: Keep good records of your research
It is important to keep records of any research you have done. Using a research log to record when and where you found a source, what it contained and any comments you have about that record. Keeping a good record of your research enables you to return at future date to revisit that record if you require it again. There is nothing worse than discovery you failed to write down where you found something and spending time chasing your tail trying to find it again – lesson I learned the hard way! The National Genealogical Society, Virginia, USA has a great list – Guidelines for Sound Genealogical Research – that shows what is considered sound research in genealogy.
Step 5: Document all your sources
This should be easy to do if you are keeping a good research log. When you document your sources it shows that you have integrity in your research and allows others to track what you have done. As with the research log if you have routinely documented all sources you should be able to put your hand on that source again without too much hard work.
Step 6: Remember to keep an analytical mind to all your research
Every record, document, certificate, newspaper article, or internet site you look at, analyse it to ensure it is a piece of information relevant to your ancestor. Just because someone has a person in their tree on Ancestry.com does NOT mean it is correct. I have often found my relatives on another person’s tree but found that they have linked facts to them that belong to another person with the same name. Check, check, and recheck all your information to ensure you are adding the right information to the right person. Just because your grandma is adamant you are related to a famous historical person with the same surname does not make it true – you need to prove or disprove the fact.