Starting Family History Research? You need to read this

How To Start Family History Research

Starting Family History Research can be the beginning of a wonderful adventure - an adventure that takes you on a magical journey back to the past.  The first thing you should do when starting to trace a family tree is to gather together the information you already know about your family, such as the names and birth dates of your parents and grandparents etc.

Older relatives could hold the key to unlocking a mystery

When starting family history research, You should interview older relatives asking what they remember about their own parents and grandparents and also to ask them if they have any copies of birth, marriage or death certificates. 

These first-hand accounts can be a very useful resource when you are beginning your research, but please remember that there may be skeletons in the cupboard - this is probably the case in every family.

When I conducted my own family history research I discovered that my grandma's parents never actually married.

Your relatives may also have newspaper cuttings, diaries, letters and journals relating to your ancestors. 

It is possible they have already begun their own research into the family that they are willing to show you. 

When one of my relatives on my Mother's side knew I was researching my Scottish ancestry, she sent me pages of notes that she had made over the years!!  It was a wonderful starting point!!

Please remember, however, that your elderly relatives may have remembered some facts about the family incorrectly, so you should always double check these facts before adding them to your tree.

My own grandmother inadvertently informed my Aunt that one of my grandfather's relatives married a different person than was in fact the case.

Starting Family History Research - The Bible

Your relatives could have a family bible or other religious book passed down through the generations - you may find details about your ancestors have been written into the pages of the book.  

As the details were probably written from memory, you should always try and substantiate the information by checking official records.

As you can see in the bible extract below, Mary's marriage date is given as 1892.

It required further investigation to determine Mary Florance Adams married Henry Thomas Richardson on 16th December 1893 and not 1892.  

This was probably to hide the fact that Mary was pregnant when she got married as Lily was born on 30 May 1894!!

Front of Family Bibl

From the details written in the Book as per the extract above, we know Mary was probably born in 1869, and investigation has proven this information to be correct as Mary Florence Adams was born on 25 October 1869.

Names in Family Bibl

Her children with Henry Thomas Richardson were also written into the bible and investigation has shown the information was correct, with birth certificates obtained for Lily Florence Richardson, Harry James Richardson, Arthur Earnest Richardson, Alfred George Richardson and Harry Richardson (my grandfather).  The death date of Harry James Richardson was also correct.

Which avenue do I explore?

When starting family history research, it is up to you to decide which avenue you wish to explore first - whether to start with your father's or mother's line or investigate a line which has a more unusual surname, which could be easier to trace, but this is not always the case.

What you think is an unusual surname may not be as unusual as you think. Believe me, I have found that to be the case on numerous occasions!!  Some brick walls you may encounter in your research could be broken down by using some of my genealogy tips.  

For more information about how far back family trees can go, please read my article: how far back do family trees go?

What information do I include?

What information you decide to include when starting family history research is entirely up to you.  I originally researched my immediate family, focusing my research on one line and then branching out from there. You can read more about which relatives to include in my article: do family trees include spouses?

You, however, may decide to just investigate your immediate family or branch out and research more lines eventually.  It is important to focus your research when you first start researching you family tree, so you are not overwhelmed by all the information you will collect. 

You should always work backwards, finding your parents, then their parents and so on. It is entirely possible, as you conduct your research, that one particular relative captures your imagination, and you find that you would like to learn more about their life.

Those crucial first records and taking research further

The crucial first records you will probably use are birth, marriage and death certificates that you can order by finding the information in the GRO Index (Births 1837-2007, Marriages 1837-2005, Deaths 1837-2017).  This will give you your ancestors' basic biographical data, which you can use to build up your tree. 

From there, you can continue your research in record offices, using census returns, electoral registers, maps and plans, nonconformist registers, parish registers, quarter sessions records and school records to build up a picture of your ancestors and add meat to the bones of their existence.  It is crucial that you become familiar with the records available to you; this is where this site is helpful because it provides you with all the information relating to these records.

Once you have found extra information regarding your ancestors you may want to consider how you will begin recording your family history, maybe by using a family history chart, which will help you to keep track of your research.

32GB SanDisk Cruzer BladePlease backup your data frequently, whether it is on paper in the form of documents or digital data. If anything were to inadvertently happen, you can easily use the backups to restore any data you may have lost.

A great way of doing this is to use a USB flash drive for documents and information held on a computer. I personally use the 32GB SanDisk Cruzer Blade, which I find does the job very well. It comes in many different capacities, so you can choose the drive which best suits your needs.

Alright - I have researched my original ancestors. Where do I go from here?

Once you have begun your family history research, and become more experienced, it is entirely possible you would like to branch out and research more lines.  This is more difficult, but rewards may come from following this path because your distant relatives could have photographs and memories of your direct ancestors.  

If you find a family tree online compiled by someone else, it is very important to double check their facts are accurate before adding them to your tree - it saves a lot of heartache if you discover the information you added is inaccurate.

Do not assume you are the only person to have researched the family tree

Your own ancestors may have tried to trace the family tree and have pages of notes from this research, which they may be willing to show you.  It is important to ask relatives if they, or their ancestors, have already researched the family tree, and where, or if, those notes have been retained if that person has passed away.   Although you can use research compiled by other people as a starting point in your journey, it is also important to verify this information yourself.  I have written an article: are family trees accurate?

If you find your relative has no interest in the family tree, it is always prudent to ask them if they have passed on their ancestor's notes to the Local County Record Office.  These notes could prove invaluable to your research, especially when you are starting family history research.  

Other people who may have constructed a family tree could have used abbreviations for events such as births and marriages etc.  

Number of Ancestors in 20 Generations

It is not easy to answer the question of how many ancestors you could unearth during the course of your family history research.  Although it is easy to simply use mathematics to answer this question, you will quickly come to realise that although we all know we have 2 parents, 4 grandparents and so on, the further back you go, the more complicated it becomes. 

Taking that back through 1000 years of history, which would mean you would have to include many more generations than that mentioned in the chart above, you will find that you could have approximately 1 trillion ancestors, which is obviously impossible.

If you calculated that every ancestor you have had a child when they were in their mid to late twenties, as you progressed further back in time it would become apparent that the mathematics may be sound, but that the numbers you reached would soon eclipse the total number of people who have ever lived, making it statistically impossible for you to have that many ancestors.  

In earlier centuries, marriage was often between second cousins because the population was smaller, with people living in smaller communities.  People tended to marry in those communities and intermarriage was common, so you will discover that you are descended from the same individuals in many cases. 

For example, I have discovered that my ancestors Robert Cook and Catherine Peach (Peacey), who married on 8 November 1796 in Abingdon, Berkshire, England, are my 4 great-grandparents in two different ways because my research determined that their children Henry and Catherine both ended up marrying into the same family. 

Henry Cook married Mercy Wilcox on 21 November 1819, having Sarah Cook in 1835 who married George Adams on 26 May 1864, while Catherine married James Adams, having George Adams in 1840.  George was the man who married Sarah Cook on 26 May 1864.  

Further Information

You may decide that you would like to visit the area your ancestors came from - I have come across Britain Express - a great UK travel and heritage guide.

Related Pages

> Starting Family History Research


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