Dec 2020: Bring the family together – how to trace your family tree

We think that genealogy – researching your ancestry – is one of the most satisfying pastimes there is. Tracing your family tree can bring your family together, resolve mysteries and unearth fascinating facts, and helps in understanding how you came to be, who you are and where you find yourself in the world. And who hasn’t wondered whether they’re descended from royalty or villainy, infamy or bravery? The success of the TV show Who do you think you are? has made tracing your family history more popular than ever and the internet has made it easier than ever.

How to start tracing your family tree

But the internet isn’t where you should start. Step one – probably with a big piece of paper – is to write down your existing, known family. Siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. Take the time to draw the tree, running horizontally or vertically, and fill in the names and dates of birth of everybody you already know.

Step two is where the fun really begins. It’s time to talk to all those people already on your sketch. Arrange a time with each person when it will be convenient to chat – after all, it's a good way to reinvigorate relationships with people you don’t often talk with. Those three or four generations of the family tree may have a lot of knowledge between them and will help you fill out some of the information you need to go further: full names, dates of birth and death, places of birth or towns where relatives grew up, the jobs they held, whether any went into military service, and when they got married. The more information you have, the easier it is to be sure you’re identifying the right people when you start looking at historical records. Of course, some people aren’t as keen as others to look back into the past, and if you have a family member who doesn’t want to be involved, don’t apply pressure. There are lots of ways to find the information you need. You’ll be double-checking information online anyway, because it’s worth recognising that even well-known family history can include misremembered stories which have become accepted facts!

Using the internet to trace your family tree

The internet, digitalisation of records and genealogy-focused websites have made researching your family tree easier and faster than ever. And with so much history to go back through, and so many records to look for, that’s encouraging news.

Your starting point is always the information you have gathered in steps 1 and 2. Where you use that information is up to you.

There are quite a few specialist genealogy websites, such as Ancestry.co.uk, Findmypast.co.uk, Familysearch.org and Myheritage.com. Some require a monthly subscription – but usually offer a free trial to get you started – and others are free.

The advantage of these genealogy websites is that they will automatically add confirmed ancestors to a visual tree for you, they offer lots of tips and advice, and they also provide direct access to some of the databases and archives you will want to explore on your search. Another possible advantage is that distant relations you may not (yet!) know about could have created an open family tree, which could allow you to access their research and save time. It’s worth

What are the most common historical records you can access and search?

The usual starting points for any search are the national censuses, the Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) Registers, and parish registers. The www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk service is invaluable here, allowing free access to BMD data between 1837 and 1992, free access to 19th century UK censuses, and free access to registers of baptisms, marriages and burials from 1538 onwards!

www.forces-war-records.co.uk gives access to information on ancestors with military service. The National Archives (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/), the Scottish ancestry website ScotlandsPeople (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) and the General Register Office (www.gro.gov.uk) will all be worth investigating, and the sites www.billiongraves.com and www.findagrave.com allow you to search gravestones from the comfort of your armchair.

Top tips for tracing the family tree

  1. Remember that people’s memories aren’t always 100%. It’s always worth trying to talk with every family member you know – one memory may differ from another!
  2. Genealogy websites usually offer the purpose-built trees to help you keep track of all the information you uncover in one place. They usually have an app, too, so you can access your research wherever you are.
  3. Wherever possible, look at the original scanned copies of documents as well as any digital transcriptions – it’s not uncommon to see names or dates typed up wrongly, while the original document scan tells the real story.
  4. Make it a team project. With two or more family members involved in the research, you can head along different branches of the family tree faster.
  5. Make it fun – but be sensitive. Tracing family trees is a wonderful hobby, enlightening and fascinating and a great chance to be nostalgic, to discuss shared history and unknown family facts with relatives of every age, bringing everyone closer together. But do be mindful that not everyone may want to join in, and may have good reason for not taking part.

Good luck and enjoy discovering where your family’s many and far-ranging roots!

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