21 Genealogy Research Tips to Help You Find Your Ancestors

Top Tips to Break Down Genealogy Brick Walls

Everyone hits a genealogy brick wall at some stage in their family history research, which is a barrier that seems impossible to break through.  I hope these genealogy research tips will help you break them down.  They also include some hurdles I have faced (and overcome!) during my own research, showing that breaking down that brick wall is not always impossible.

Review your Genealogical Research

I cannot stress how important it is to note down all information from a record you have perused.  You may find that an item of information that did not seem important at the time, such as the witness to a marriage, may give you another avenue to explore.  

Cite Your Sources 

Cite sources whenever possible - it is useful to know where you obtained information for future reference.

Wherever possible, it is important to verify the information you have collected using primary records.

You should also note where you found the information.  Was it from a genealogical library or record office?  Did you find the information online?  If you found the information on a family tree on the internet, did the author note where they obtained the information? If not, try and obtain proof before adding the details to your own family tree.

It is also important to note what type of document the source is.  Is the source reliable?

Do Not Always Rely On Internet Resources

Although much information is now available online, you must remember, however, that although plenty of information is accessible, and is being added to all the time on sites such as Ancestry, there are still many documents, such as indentures, wills, quarter sessions records, maps, electoral registers that are not yet available. 

You should always try and make a visit to a record office if possible.

It must be borne in mind that although you may find a record online, such as a marriage date, not all the information contained in the record in the original register is always transferred. 

Make use of card indexes in Record Offices

You should always make use of all the sources available to you in Record Offices.  Card indexes are indexes prepared by Record Office staff and volunteers of the documents in their care, and can sometimes help you to track down that record that will help you to break down that genealogy brick wall and progress with your research.

I was unable to ascertain who the father of my ancestor Joseph Scrivener of Potterspury was because there were two possibilities, Richard and Edward, and the parish registers did not exist for that period. 

By looking for Joseph, Richard and Edward in the card indexes provided by Northamptonshire Record Office, I was able to determine that Richard was Joseph's father because an indenture dated 10 October 1808, written by Joseph's son Joseph included a pedigree, in which it was stated that Joseph (who wrote the indenture) was the son of Joseph, and that Joseph, in turn, was the son of Richard. 

I had finally tracked down that elusive ancestor, and broken down a genealogy brick wall.  I had finally had my eureka moment.  I cannot tell you the elation I felt that day.

Not only had I managed to track down my elusive ancestor, continuing to read through the indenture, I also found more relatives because Richard's uncle William Addington was also mentioned, stating that in his will dated 29 December 1755 he had given Richard his house, giving me yet another avenue to explore.  It really was a wonderful document.  

Search For An Ancestor With An Uncommon Name

I am sure you will find as you progress with your research that one or more of your ancestors had a relatively common surname.  If this is the case in your family, it would be prudent for you to search for the ancestor with the least common first name, as this may help you to track down other family members more easily.

Look For Your Ancestor's Brothers And Sisters

Whenever you cannot track down your ancestor's birth certificate, try obtaining any possible sibling's certificate instead - this may assist you in determining their mother's maiden name.

Your Ancestor May Have Changed Their Name

If you find a surname was common in a village, some members of a family may have changed their name. For example William Smith of Potterspury became known as William Smith alias Kent and Richard Heel of Pattishall became Richard Heeler. 

You should make a note as to why you think these are the people you are searching for for future reference.

If your ancestor has two christian names, such as John Henry, and you are unable to track him down, it may be that he prefers his middle name and has started using that name instead.

Spelling Inconsistencies

Try alternative spellings of your ancestor's surname whenever you cannot discover their record.  A document could have been transcribed incorrectly - for example 'in' mistaken for 'm'. I have come across this in my own research where the surname Heel was incorrectly written as Steel.

If your ancestor has a name such as Hall, and you are looking for your ancestor in older records, it may be that the spelling of the name has changed over time, and you may find that the surname Hall could have been written as Hale or Halle.  You should always consider that possibility. 

Levels of literacy were lower in earlier centuries, so your ancestor may have been unable to tell a census enumerator how their name should be spelled, and would not be able to tell him that their name had been spelled incorrectly. 

Try saying your ancestor's surname out loud - you may be able to think of other possibilities for how the surname could have been spelled.

Find a Marriage Date by Searching Two Years Either Side

If you cannot find your ancestor's marriage, but think you know the year the event took place, it is important to check one (or more!!) year(s) either side of this date.

I have found during my research that a date written in a family bible was changed from 1893 to 1892 even though the marriage took place in 1893 because she was pregnant when she got married and was attempting to hide the fact! 

This incident shows how important it is to check the official records and not just work solely from information provided to you!

Use a Site's Search Facility and Wildcard Search

The wildcard search is of great use to the family historian.  It is best to place a * after the second or third letter of a surname which bring up many alternative spellings, like Min*, which will show Minter, Minton, Mintorn etc.

This method also works for Christian names - Ann* will show Ann, Anne, Annie etc.

You can also place the * at the beginning, such as *inton, which will bring up Hinton, Minton, Winton etc.  It will also show Adlington, Elkinton, Darlinton etc.  

Other option, although it is more time consuming, is to try searching only for your ancestor's first name on a site such as Ancestry, but to try this step, it is important that you know some basic information about your ancestor, such as their name, age and place of birth, which will help to narrow down your search. 

You could also try searching for only your ancestor's surname and a place of birth.  This may not only bring up your ancestor, but could also bring up other people with the same surname who were also born in that place.  These people could be relatives previously unknown to you.

If this also fails to bring up the information you are seeking, another more drastic option is to search using only a location, date and keyword(s) to see if that gives you that eureka moment. 

You may find that you have to spend a long time going through all the returned results, but it may be worth while if you track down that elusive ancestor. 

I have found whilst conducting research that an index may not always be completely accurate, and one of your ancestor's may have been indexed by the wrong surname, thus making them impossible to trace.  

Find Your Ancestors In Newspapers

Do not underestimate how useful newspapers can be when conducting family history research. 

I was able to knock down one of my own brick walls by looking in a newspaper because my ancestor, Ann McJannett, had an illegitimate daughter, Jane, in 1845. 

Jane's father was not mentioned on her birth certificate, but I found a reference to Ann McJannett (her surname was listed as Jannett) in a newspaper index for the Leicestershire Mercury (date 30 August 1845), and I found it related to her illegitimate daughter, which I knew had to be Jane.

Lo and behold it was a reference to a court record in which it was stated that the reputed father was said to be John Shingler from Broughton, thus I was able to go back several more generations. 

As this breakthrough has demonstrated, if you have reached a dead end in your research, it does not necessarily mean that you have to give up, just that you have to choose another avenue to explore.

Was Your Ancestor Born Before 1875?

Civil registration of births was not compulsory until 1875, so it could be that your ancestor's birth was never registered.  Under these circumstances it may be prudent to search through parish registers or nonconformist records.

Cannot Locate Your Ancestor's Marriage? Look For Their Children

Should you be unable to find a marriage, look for the birth dates of any possible children.  Their children's ages may give you an approximate marriage date.

Your relative may have married more than once to a person with the same name as their previous partner - if you see children baptised to Abraham and Ann for example, you should consider Ann may not be the same wife.

I have seen an example of this in that my relative Abraham Devonshire married Ann Rolls and then after she died, he married another Ann Rolls, the previous Ann's cousin - so confusing!!!

Your Ancestor's Age Could Vary In Different Records

If you find your ancestor in a census record, and it states that they were born, for example, in 1840, and you cannot find their birth record or baptism record, it may be prudent to check later census returns. 

I have sometimes found that a person was 40 in 1901, but only 45 in 1911.  It may be that your ancestor simply did not know their exact date of birth.

If a man wanted to join the military or to obtain employment to help bolster his family's finances, he may have lied about his age.

Cannot Find Your Ancestor In A Census Index?

If your ancestor cannot be found in a census index, it does not necessarily mean they are not on the census.  Sometimes looking for a specific address rather than looking by name can yield results.

Should you be unable to find your family in a census, try obtaining the birth certificate of a child born nearest to the census date - this gives you another avenue to explore. Sometimes a child's baptism record gives their parent's address so try looking there too.

You could also try looking for your ancestor's neighbours - if they were still living in the same place 10 years later, you may find that your relatives are still living next door to them, and they were simply indexed incorrectly or their name was misspelled.

One reason your ancestor may not be in the census indexes is because they were not at home at the time, and because the census is only one night of the year, this is entirely possible. 

He may have joined the army or was travelling abroad at the time, so you should try checking military records or passenger lists.

You may find that because 'John' was known as 'Jack' to his family, this is the name that may have been entered on the census return.  Under these circumstances, you should also look for his birth registration under the name John.

Research Another Line Instead

If you have hit a brick wall with one family line, try researching another line instead.  If you are able to progress further in time with this line, you may find relatives you did not know existed and they may have records that you have not yet discovered, so can share research with them.

Wills May Help You Determine Your Ancestor's Parentage

Do not discount wills if you have hit a dead end - sometimes family members are mentioned.  This is especially helpful if a child was baptised in a period where the parish register is missing, but you suspect you know who their father was.

I have first-hand experience of this in that my ancestor Joseph Scrivener mentioned his daughter Eleanor in his will, thus proving the connection.  I had been unable to find her baptism in the parish register because the registers were in bad condition, and the years I needed to peruse were missing. 

To read more about how I managed to discover the connection, please read the post at the bottom of this article, my own eureka moment.

Using Monumental Inscriptions

Should there be more than one possible entry for your ancestor in a burial register, or you require more information than that noted, try looking at monumental inscriptions.

They can sometimes give further details about your ancestor and their family than can be found in a burial register, especially in earlier years.

Can Military Records Help?

If you cannot determine your ancestor's birthplace, try looking for their discharge or enlistment paper if they were in the military - they sometimes mention an individual's birthplace.

If you find that your ancestor was living, or was born, in a town such as Aldershot or Woolwich, but the father was not present, you may find that he was in the military because these towns had, and still have, a large connection to the British Army.  

Older Documents May Contain Unfamiliar Words or Phrases

Some older documents may contain unfamiliar words, such as yeoman, which is a farmer or farm tenant.  Another stumbling block is words may have a different meaning to what you imagine.

It is important to know details of the document you are reading to help you to have a better understanding of the document because may types of documents have certain phrases that are synonymous with the document, such as a will would begin with the phrase 'in the name of god amen' and include phrases such as 'I give and bequeath unto my son Richard the sum of...'

An indenture would often begin with the phrase 'this indenture made this...'

Deeds often include words and phrases such as appurtenances, which, by the dictionary definition of the term, is a possession or piece of property, and grantee, which is the person to whom the grant is made.

Be Prepared To See Latin Written In Older Parish Registers

As you progress further back in time you will find many documents were written in Latin.  Latin was also used in some parish registers. Some Christian Names were recorded in Latin, like Gulielmus for William, Davidus for David, Amabilia for Mabel and Alicia for Alice.  

How To Interpret Dates Written On Documents

Another tip to remember is that the Julian Calendar was used in England from 1190 to 1752, when the year began on 25 March, so January to March 1711 came after April to December 1711. The Gregorian Calendar began to be used in England in 1752, but some countries were using the calendar before this date.

When looking at some records and documents, especially those written in medieval times, you may find the date is written with reference made to a Feast Day. The year could have been recorded with reference made to the reign of a Monarch, such as the second year of the reign of George III.


Before decimalisation came into force in 1971, one pound was written as 20 shillings, and each shilling equalled 12 pence, so this should be borne in mind when examining older documents.

My Own 'Eureka' Moment

My Ancestor Eleanor Scrivener, who had married Edward Campion on July 2, 1795 in Potterspury, Northamptonshire, England had always been something of a mystery to me.

I knew she was born in 1769 from her age given at her death in 1837, and her probable place of birth, which was Potterspury, Northamptonshire.  "She shouldn't be that hard to track down," I thought to myself.

But how wrong that assumption proved to be.

As it turned out, the parish registers for the nonconformist church for that period were missing, and as she was not baptised in the local parish church either, I had no way of determining Eleanor's parentage.

I had drawn a complete blank and had hit a brick wall - or so I thought...

Further research determined that Joseph and Elizabeth Scrivener (nee Devonshire) had children in that time period, having married in Banbury, Oxfordshire, England on April 5, 1759.

The first three children, Joseph, Robert and Richard had all been baptised in Potterspury between 1760 and 1764, before the gap in the registers.  I suspected that Joseph and Elizabeth were Eleanor's parents, but how could I prove it?

That was when I had the eureka moment.

I knew that Joseph had been buried on April 25, 1807 in Potterspury, but had he left a last will? I looked in the will index in Northamptonshire Record Office for Joseph Scrivener, but unfortunately drew a blank.

Feeling despondent, I originally thought that this was where the trail would end.  I was then that I thought I should search through the index for wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury just in case.  With a sense of excitement, I typed his name into the index.

Bingo! There it was, proved on June 5, 1807.  It was so exciting, but now I had to look at the will itself.  This was when I was so glad the wills had been put online.  I could access the will instantly, rather than wait for the will to arrive in the post.

Frankly, I don't think I could have waited so long!

I eagerly scanned the pages, noting all the children that were mentioned in the will.  First there was son Joseph, then son Richard, son Robert and then daughter Ann.

"Oh come on," I thought, "Where is Eleanor?"

I carried on reading the will, finally coming across the name of ELEANOR! I had proved that Eleanor was Joseph's daughter, and could continue with my research.

Perhaps I had been lucky in that Joseph left a will and had provided so much detail in his will and had mentioned each child by name, but I will never forget the moment of sheer joy I felt when I saw her name listed in the will.

The moral of this story is that if you hit a brick wall, like I had, look at all of the possibilities.

Don't ever give up.  Because you never know: one day you may have that eureka moment like I did.

Good luck to you all in your own research journeys.  I hope you enjoy the ride!!

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