By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.
Family history research can be an exciting and rewarding experience. Knowing who your ancestors were, where they lived and what they did for their living can provide a very strong sense of connection with history. Ancestor hunting is a step-by-step process based on logical thought and conclusions. To help you along that path, we have put together a list of ten top tips for success.
Tip 1 – Talk to elderly relatives
Your parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents may have a lot of information that can start you off in your research. Ask them what they know about their own parents and grandparents, but also question them about what life was like for them when they were small. Family history is more than just names and dates and places – you should find out as much as you can about the people in your family if at all possible. The more information your relatives can provide for you, the better your starting point will be. Remember, they may not always be around for ever and a common complaint in family history is ‘If only I had asked my grandparents about their relatives when I was younger…’
You can download our FREE guide to interviewing family members here.
Tip 2 – Work from the known to the unknown
Genealogical research is likened to following crumbs along a trail. You can’t jump ahead at any point and still be sure you are on the right track. Instead you have to work on a step-by-step basis looking for clues which we lead you to the next generation before them. Until you have proven a link with the preceding generation you can’t move on and still be sure you are researching the correct people. It is all too easy to jump ahead and end up tracing the ancestry of people who are not related to you.
Tip 3 – Record your progress
In your research you will amass a great deal of information, so at every stage you need to know exactly where you are and what you have discovered. It is a good idea to draw a pedigree chart showing how everyone is related, as this can then act as a handy reference work to your research. The ‘Family Tree’ feature found on the Ancestry site will allow you to create a chart of your family in easy and simple steps.
Tip 4 – Record your searches
As well as recording what you find, you will also need to record what you have looked for, especially if you haven’t found anything. If a particular record makes no mention of your ancestor, it is easy to simply not record the fact that you have looked at it. However, in a few months or years time you may return to that record and not recall that it has already been searched. Therefore to avoid duplicating searches and wasting your time, you should always note down details of all of the searches you have undertaken and the records you have consulted, whether the results are positive or not.
Tip 5 – Get a map
One of the problems researchers encounter is discovering that their ancestors have moved into a town or parish from another locality. In order to make your research more effective it is worth locating the places where your ancestors lived on a map. If you do this you will then see where they lived in relation to other nearby towns and villages. This may provide you with clues as to where they may have moved from by looking at roads, rivers and other lines of communication. Similarly, you may find that there are several places of the same name in the country in which you are researching, and a map will help make sure that you are concentrating on records from the correct locality and not the one with the same name three hundred kilometres away!
Tip 6 – Consider spelling variants
There is no such thing as the correct way to spell your surname, and a little research back to the 1800s will show you that names can be spelt in a wide variety of ways – sometimes even within the same document. Many people were not able to read or write and were reliant on someone else recording their name on important documents such as marriage certificates. That person would write down how they thought the name should be spelt, and this may be different from how we would do it today. You will therefore need to be flexible in regard to the spelling of the name you are researching. For example, Whittaker, Whitaker and Wittaker would all be pronounced the same way and could all therefore be encountered if you were researching a family of that name. Just because the spelling is different does not mean it is a different person being recorded.
Tip 7 – Do not make assumptions
You can’t rely on your ancestors to have necessarily acted in the way you would have expected them to do. The majority of people are married after the age of 20 and have children in the 15 years or so after that. However, that isn’t the case for everyone. People in England could marry over the age of 12 (for girls) or 14 (for boys) prior to 1929. Similarly, some people might not marry until their 60s perhaps. Many people might have a child prior to their marriage, and some women were able to have children over a 25-year period or more. It therefore pays not to assume anything about your ancestors and instead to make sure that you have covered all possible scenarios in your searches.
Tip 8 – Work as effectively as possible
Many records are now being made available online and the internet has revolutionised family history research. It can now be carried out much more quickly and also from the comfort of your own home. It is therefore important to discover what information is available online and what information still has to be sought in person in the various archives and record offices. As with any transcribed and indexed material it is good practise to make sure that you also check with the original documents if at all possible to make sure that the online details are correct. Sites like Ancestry, where you have access to digitised images of the original documents, make this much easier. By discovering what information is available online you can plan your research in an effective way so that when you have to make trips to an archive, you can maximise your research time there.
Tip 9 – Share your findings
One of the benefits of researching your family tree is, of course, discovering members of your extended family. Second, third and fourth cousins whose relatives have long since lost contact can soon be reunited. By sharing the results of your research with your family, and the wider genealogical community, you will encounter other people who have also been working on the same ancestry. This is a great way to learn about extra information and family memorabilia which may not have passed down to your own side of the family. By sharing the results of your labours on Ancestry, you add to the knowledge of the family history community and can reap the benefits of the research by others.
Tip 10 – Join a family history society
There are thousands of family history societies around the world, and it can be helpful to join the one which covers the area from where your ancestors originated. Similarly, you may also want to join the society in the area where you live so that you can attend their meetings. The societies do a lot of work making records from their locality available for researchers and they also provide a useful forum for swapping information and research. They also usually have an interesting education and lecture program from which you can learn about new research skills and sources.
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Jeremy Palmer has been a full-time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.