Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History
Help and Guidance 2021: Modified Page: Version 1.1
This page, as its title suggests, will help you get started on the genealogy and history of your family.
- Genealogy and Family History
- An Outline Way Forward
- Key Places to find help
- About Sources
- Next Steps
- Selected references for further reading
- Other Introductory Accounts
Genealogy is the study of the descents of families and persons from an ancestor or ancestors. This study is undertaken by many people out of interest in their personal and family origins. As a hobby it can become pleasantly addictive, at least to the person concerned. However the study is also undertaken professionally, not just in order to provide a commercial service that can be used by people who are seeking help in researching their origins, but also for very serious legal and financial reasons. Thus there are accepted standards for doing genealogy "properly" - standards that we recommend you seek to learn and emulate.
The term Family History used to be regarded as synonymous with Genealogy, but now it applies to biographical research into one's ancestors - the aim typically being to produce a well-documented narrative history, of interest to family members and perhaps future generations. Thus the study of family history involves putting flesh on the skeleton that is produced by genealogy - and involves the study of the historical circumstances and geographical situation in which ancestors lived. (The resulting ability to associate historical events with particular generations or individuals of your family can help history come really alive for you.)
This server aims to provide you with information and sources of guidance on both genealogy and family history. However in this brief account we will concentrate on providing some very basic advice on genealogy - we hope it will help you whether you are an inhabitant of the British Isles, wanting to start by tracing your immediate forebears, or you live overseas, and have found that some of your perhaps distant ancestors came from here, and now would like to find out more about them.
However one word of warning - these notes of guidance should not be regarded as a substitute for good old-fashioned books. Especially if you are a beginner you are strongly advised to start by visiting your local library and doing some reading on genealogy. There are many useful introductory books on genealogy and family history which will provide you with more complete and coherent guidance as to how to get started than you will get here, or from merely posting a series of questions to the newsgroup or mailing list with which this server is associated.
Incidentally, if you are lucky enough to live within convenient reach of one of the many Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) make sure to pay the Centre an early visit to find out what facilities and information resources they have, and how you can use them. The volunteers who run these centres, which are freely open to all, will not do your research for you, but you are very likely to find them a mine of useful information and advice.
Develop a plan. Think about which lines to follow. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. You have to draw the lines somewhere. You can use your time better if you develop a plan to guide you.
There are in fact three commonly adopted plans:
- Some people aim to produce a "Family Tree" - showing their male-line ancestors (father, grandfather, greatgrandfather, etc.) and the wives, brothers and sisters of these ancestors. (It is of course possible to concentrate on female-line ancestors, but the types of records that were kept, and the common practice whereby a wife took her husband's surname at marriage, can make this difficult.)
- Others try to produce what is sometimes termed an "Extended Family Tree". Such a tree shows all the collateral branches of a family, i.e. all the descendants (with their spouses) of some earliest known (typically, but not necessarily) male-line ancestor. An extended family tree therefore will grow to include many of your distant cousins.
- Yet others attempt just to trace as many as possible of their direct ancestors, through both male and female lines, and so produce what is termed an "Ancestry Chart". (In fact, even if you're only trying to trace your ancestry it is wise to record any information you happen to obtain about your ancestors' siblings, since such information can sometimes help to resolve tricky questions of identification.)
However, whichever aim you set yourself, it is best to concentrate on just a small part of the tree or chart, so to speak, at any one time - you can always move to another part when you get stuck.
Almost invariably it is best to work backwards, from known information about already-identified ancestors, in seeking their ancestors. (See the description of the basic method of doing this using civil registration records.) Trying to work forwards, e.g seeking descendants of the famous historical figure that family legend claims as an ancestor of yours in the hope of somehow eventually reaching your own family, is very rarely profitable.
Start by talking with and writing to all your kinsfolk with your questions (while they are still alive), and do it soon. Check to find what documents (certificates, letters, newspaper cuttings, family bibles, photograph albums, diaries, etc.) you or they possess. Try to establish as carefully and completely as possible the basic genealogical facts (date and place of birth/baptism, date and place of marriage, and date and place of death/burial) of as many of your near relatives as you can.
Do not ignore family legends - but also do not take them as certain to be literally true. Rather, use them as yet another source of guidance for your efforts at finding out the truth about the past.
If you have the means, video-tape or audio-tape your family members as you interview them. This will allow you to capture their accents, some of their mannerisms and emotions as they respond to your questions. Tapes have been, for some people, the only record of them speaking after they've passed on. You should always ask permission to record someone. And in some cases you must accept restrictions on using those tapes around other relatives.
When you interview people, start with a list of notes about what you think you know about their relatives and try to confirm as much of that information as possible. Don't be surprised if people don't remember where their parents were married. Susan RENKERT of Alaska makes up a list of songs they used to sing, foods they liked, favorite flowers, sayings they used often, etc.. And these interviews can be taped and saved for the future. You can start by asking about schools, and which family members went to the same school, military service, holidays they took, etc.
You may need to review your sources again, someone may want to verify your research, your work may imply something to someone who will need to access the same records, or someone may need to pick up where you left off. Too many people underestimate, or never consider, the importance of documentation. If you have found information in a reference book, make sure you keep enough reference material to enable you to walk back into the same place five years later, locate the book and find the reference again. When you publish the results of your research, cite the exact sources (e.g. particular census returns, probate records, etc.) which you have used and on whose accuracy you are relying.
Many people like to have a photocopy of the records they find. But some libraries and archives do not allow photocopies because the bright light harms the paper or ink. If you've kept a good record of the book, page number, folio, etc., you do not need a photocopy. Others can find your sources from your notes.
Keep a careful record of what searches you have done so far, even if you found nothing. It may well save you from searching the same record or source again in the future. And sometimes you may need to use so-called "negative proof" (effectively a list of all the unsuccessful searches you have done) in order to convince yourself that, because of the absence of evidence to the contrary, some particular supposition should now be taken to be correct.
Sources sometimes come with errors or facts that don't agree with other documents. You should note these, but not be too concerned about them. You may want to read more in our document about accuracy.
Check, using the various directories (such as the annual Genealogical Research Directory) that are published for the purpose, and the various online regional surname lists, whether anyone else is already researching any of your family lines. Check published genealogies and books of pedigrees also, in case you can link your family up to one that has already been researched. However, do not take as gospel some lengthy pedigree which apparently enables you to claim an impressively long descent perhaps from royalty (or a notorious criminal). Rather, take this pedigree as potentially valuable information whose accuracy you have to confirm carefully before you adopt it.
The pre-eminent source of genealogical information is the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). There is an online catalogue of this immense library, and there are Family History Centres which are in effect branches of this library in many towns and cities throughout the British Isles and indeed the world where microfilm copies of most of the library's holdings can be viewed. (The method or organization of the catalogue of this library has, incidentally, been taken as a pattern for the organization of much of the information on this server.)
One particularly important information source that has been produced by the Family History Library is the International Genealogical Index (or IGI), now available on line at the LDS FamilySearch site. This contains millions of entries, mainly of baptisms and marriages, many of them taken from parish registers as part of an organized program of careful transcription, others provided by individual and not always overly careful researchers. Although you will need to check the original souces of the information contained in the Index, you will often find that the Index can be a great help to your research. However, its coverage is far from complete, so the fact that the ancestor you are seeking does not appear in the IGI should not cause you to give up. (Note however that the IGI includes essentially all Scottish births and marriages between the years 1855 and 1875, extracted from the civil registration records.)
The LDS also produce a set of Research Guides - introductory guides to the genealogy of various countries and states. These are very well done, and very good value for money. They have the added advantage over many commercially-published introductory texts that they provide indications of the holdings of the Family History Library. They can be ordered via your local LDS Family History Centre, and can be viewed online at the LDS FamilySearch site.
Local Archive Offices have a wealth of information. They may have census records, newspaper articles, land records, etc. To prepare for an Archive Office visit, see the suggestions made for Lincolnshire.
Consider joining your local genealogical or family history society and perhaps similar societies in locations where your research becomes concentrated. Genealogy used to be a very isolated pursuit, but now there are many people involved - and the societies they have set up undertake much valuable work (e.g. indexing and preserving records) and typically produce very useful journals and also directories listing their members' research interests.
For the foreseeable future, it is likely that much of the information you will need will be found only in books, or on paper (or vellum), microfilm or microfiche in various libraries, record offices and archives - both national and local. Do not expect to be able to restrict your research just to data that is available to you here in GENUKI or elsewhere online.
Just as now, many years after the introduction of microfilm and microfiche, you will find many of the records you might want to use can only be seen in the archive which holds the originals, so only a very small proportion of what has been microfilmed has in turn yet been made available online.
However the online sources are growing all the time. Recent major online developments include the LDS's FamilySearch website (includes the IGI and LDS library catalogue), Scots Origins (1855-1898 Scottish civil registration indexes, 1891 Scottish census index, and pre-1855 Church of Scotland baptism/marriage index), and FreeBMD (computerising English and Welsh civil registration indexes). However, among the best of the online "resources" are the people out there, who you can contact via newsgroups, mailing lists, etc. Through them you can tap a vast amount of information that you might not be aware of, that is not systematically indexed or filed anywhere, or that is at too great a distance to access directly. This server will, we hope, provide you with effective means of tracking down these sources, both human and documentary.
Make appropriate use of computer-based systems to help you with your problems of storing, analyzing and presenting information. A vast number and variety of shareware and commercial programs now exist for genealogy, some of which are extremely helpful - to the point where it is difficult to imagine how one might conduct a lengthy genealogical research project properly without their use. To investigate further check out this page of British Ancestors, and Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet: Software and Computers.
There is a vast variety of types and sources of information that you may eventually find yourself wanting to use - parish registers, tax records, census enumerators' forms, wills, militia muster rolls, military service records, tithe maps, electoral rolls, etc., etc. None of these were generated specifically for the use of future genealogists and family historians, and their interpretation is often not at all straightforward. Take on the task of familiarizing yourself with these various sources one at a time, as the need arises. This way they become a series of fascinating opportunities, rather than a forbidding challenge. (Many of the more important types of information source are described in the appropriate pages of this server.)
When trying to trace the origins of someone who emigrated from the British Isles, you should try to use all the information sources that are available in the country to which they went, in order to try to locate just where in the British Isles your emigrant hailed from. There are very few passenger lists listing such emigrants dating from before the early 19th century - arrival in the foreign country is more likely to have been recorded than departure from here.
The task of tracing present-day missing persons does not really come under the topic of genealogy. However if this is your need you might find the book: C. D. Rogers, Tracing Missing Persons, Manchester University Press (1986) of use.
Be aware that many professional genealogists and a good number of amateur family historians have ethical issues with tracking down living persons and may have even taken a pledge not to do so. They consider such efforts an invasion of privacy. And in some places, such searching is an act in violation of legal statute.
Leaving aside questions of how patient, resourceful and lucky you are, this really depends on what sources of information are available. The British Isles has very extensive records, which are held in a variety of national and local collections.
In England and Wales you should be able (especially if you are blessed with a set of unusual surnames in your family) to trace your family roots with comparative ease back to 1837 (when national birth, marriage and death registration began). Getting back beyond 1837 normally relies mainly on the use of parish registers - with luck, and allied to other types of records, these might enable you to trace your family back to the late 16th century. Beyond this can be extremely difficult, unless you can tie in to a well-documented pedigree, for example of royalty or a great landowning family.
In Scotland national registration started later than in England and Wales, in fact in 1855. On the other hand, the Scottish certificates are more informative, and themselves can be viewed on microfiche. The earliest parish registers in Scotland date from 1553 but many parishes started after this date, with a very small number starting as late as the 19th century.
Researching Irish ancestry is bedevilled by the fact that many census records, and Church of Ireland parish registers, were destroyed when the national archives were burnt in 1922. However Roman Catholic parish registers mainly survive, though few date back beyond the end of the 18th century. There are various other sorts of records, but it is very rare for anyone to be able to trace a line further back than the early 17th century.
Just collecting names and dates is a very sterile pastime (often likened to "train spotting"). Aim also to gain information and understanding about your ancestors and the lives they led, and the locations and periods in which they lived. Thus proceed past genealogy to study family history.
Reading old-style cursive can be a challenge. In England and America, students are taught to write cursive today using rounded letters. But, 200 years ago, the style of cursive was more straight up-and-down. Students could write faster that way, but it is harder to decipher. In many parts of Europe this vertical style is still taught. This is the way the Romans wrote their cursive form of Latin, so I guess some of us still use it. For help in reading this style:
- Try the National Archives Paleography page.
Aim to produce a well-written account of your findings, written in such a way that it will be of interest at least to other members of your family, even those who do not share your enthusiasm for genealogy as such. Donate copies of such an account to relevant local and national genealogical libraries and societies, and to the LDS Family History Library, so that others may subsequently benefit from your work.
Do not put off producing such an account until you have "finished" - work on a Family Tree or an Ancestry Chart will never be complete, so every now and again produce an account summarizing your findings to date. This task will often alert you to possible leads that you have neglected to follow - and the circulation of such a document to family members may well result in their providing you with further information and reminiscences.
The book "How to Write a Family History", by T.V.H. Fitzhugh, is particularly recommended for the advice it gives on writing a real family history - as opposed to just a simple linearized listing of genealogical facts and notes that can be automatically extracted from your database, and neatly formatted and printed, by some of the more sophisticated genealogy computer programs.
Don't sell your project short. You might start this with the idea of finding a handful of people just for your own interest, only to find it blossom into a lifelong study. If you begin with some planning, some learning, and good documentation, then nothing is lost if it stays a small project, but you will reap great dividends if your little project turns into a big one. Remember that it is not uncommon to drop the project for 5 or 10 years and then go back to it again.
Be prepared to step back and catch your breath. When you look at the ambitions for your project and think about the effort involved, or when you are faced with dozens of trails that you want to follow, it may seem like trying to move a mountain with a teaspoon. When that happens, take some time to remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun, then do some more planning to get back on track.
Like almost any pursuit, genealogy and family history, if they are worth doing, are worth doing well. Set yourself high standards of research, documentation and presentation of your results, and keep to them. Again, the books in the recommended booklist given below will help you do this - especially that by Stevenson on Genealogical Evidence.
S. Colwell. Tracing Your Family History. London, Hodder Headline plc, (2003) 308 p. ISBN 0-340-85973-5
"An excellent introductory text-book by the Family and Local History Specialist Reader Adviser at the Public Record Office, Kew, in the long-established and well-respected "Teach Yourself" series. It is in fact the second edition of a book that was first published in 1997, and has been extensively revised in order to include good up to date coverage of Internet resources. It is, for an introductory text, very comprehensive - its set of chapters comprises:- Getting Started; Getting Help; Sorting out the Facts; Starting Out Your Research: Births, Marriages and Deaths; Births, Marriages and Deaths in the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland; Births, Marriages and Deaths at Sea and Abroad; Searching the Census; Other Name Lists; Finding Your Way to the Records; Searching Parish Registers; The Nonconformists; Parish Registers in the Rest of the British Isles, Ireland and the United States of America; Wills and Other Probate Records; Probate Records elsewhere in the British Isles, Ireland and the United States of America; Fred Karno and his Army: Case Studies; Writing it all up."
T.V. FitzHugh. How To Write A Family History: The lives and times of our ancestors, Sherbourne, Dorset, Alphabooks Ltd., 1988, 200 p. ISBN 0-7136-3078-7
"Basically a family history consists of overlapping biographies of members of a family in its progress through the centuries. The overlapping is horizontal between siblings and vertical between parents and issue. Family history tells of their activities and outside events and influences that impinged on their lives; it places them in their various contexts, domestic, occupational, local, social and national-historical; it seeks to explain the reasons for any changes in family circumstances and to describe their consequences. . . .". An excellent and very readable book, by a professional genealogist. Although out of print now, it is still available in many libraries.
T.V.H. Fitzhugh. The Dictionary of Genealogy, London, A & C Black (1994) 304 p.
(Fourth edition, revised by Susan Lumas on behalf of the Society of Genealogists.) An excellent, well-illustrated, reference work which though it concentrates largely on England (with informative sections on each separate county), also has some coverage of the rest of the British Isles.
D. Hey. The Oxford Guide to Family History, Oxford, O.U.P. (1993) 256 p.
"The Oxford Guide to Family History is not just another guide to the mechanics of constructing a family tree. David Hey shows how to go beyond this and discover the reality of the lives of your ancestors. Who were they? Where did they live? How did they earn their living? Practical guidance is given on the basics of research - how to get started, where to find records - and there are many illustrations."
M.D. Herber. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Sutton Publishing Ltd. in assoc. with The Society of Genealogists (1997) 674p. ISBN 0-7509-148-1
"No other publication gives such comprehensive and up-to-date guidance on tracing British ancestry and researching family history. Illustrated throughout with more than ninety examples of the major types of records, and with detailed lists of further reading."
C.D. Rogers. The Family Tree Detective, Manchester Univ. Press (1989) 164 p. ISBN 0 7190 1846 3
An excellent detailed guide to basic UK genealogy. From the publisher's blurb: "A problem-solving manual rather than a simple "how-to" guide. The Family Tree Detective explains what to do when the usual methods fail and provides invaluable assistance for those without access to London's vast resources of genealogical information."
N.C. Stevenson. Genealogical Evidence; a guide to the standard of proof relating to pedigrees, ancestry, heirship and family history, Laguna Hills, CA, Aegean Park Press (1979) 233 pagfes, ISBN: 0894121596 (pbk.)
An excellent and very readable account by a lawyer and genealogist of the standards of proof that should be sought in establishing an individual's ancestry, whether for producing a documented genealogy, or for legal purposes. Though aimed at an American readership, and dealing mainly with American records and laws, it is well worthy of study by genealogists in other countries, particularly the UK and Ireland given the links (both of emigration, and of legal heritage) between the British Isles and the USA.
A. Todd. Basic Sources for Family History. 1: back to the early 1800s (2nd ed.), Bury, Lancs., Allen & Todd (1989) ISBN 0 948781 05 X.
A very good, and exceptionally cheap, introductory guide covering the use of civil registration records, and census records in very useful detail.
Tracking Down Your Ancestors, Publ. by How To Books, Oxford. No further information was provided by the publisher.
- The Historical Manuscripts Commission's Family History pages describe some of the sources that can be used to research your family history and how the HMC can help in your search.
- A yet more detailed on-line introduction is the A-Z of British Genealogical Research by Ashton Emery.
- Roy Stockdill's Newbies' Guide to Genealogy and Family History, although originally written for Yorkshire researchers, provides a lot of useful advice which is relevant to most areas of the UK.
Some terms you should know (often used on the Internet or in E-mail):
- BTW -- By The Way.
- FAQ -- Frequently Asked Questions. These are normally kept in a file, organized by topic, and available online.
- FHC -- Family History Centre
- FHL -- Family History Library (normally, the one in Salt Lake City)
- FHS -- Family History Society
- Flame -- An angry or hostile e-mail, typically sent during a lapse in emotional maturity.
- FYI -- For Your Information
- GRO -- General Registrar's Office
- H.O. -- Home Office. Often found on British documents, along with a reference number.
- Home Page -- The starting point when you visit a web site.
- IGI -- International Genealogical Index at the FHL (see above)
- IMHO -- In My Humble Opinion
- IMO -- In My Opinion
- ISP -- Internet Service Provider, like AOL, MSN, etc.
- LDS -- Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
- List Owner -- Someone who has offered to maintain and monitor a mailing list (see next entry).
- List service -- An e-mail handling service (or mailing list). There are many kinds. In Genealogy, there are surname lists, location lists, etc. You subscribe to a list, generally free, and get e-mail from others with a common interest.
- LOL -- Laughing Out Loud
- Lurker -- Someone who subscribes to a mailing list but doesn't participate or contribute. Not a negative term.
- ONS -- One Name Study (this person has registered to track ALL people with a particular surname)
- OTOH -- On The Other Hand
- Post -- To Post means either you left a message on a public bulletin board or you submitted an e-mail message to a list service.
- PRO -- Public Record Office in the United Kingdom
- RG -- Registrar General
- SKS -- Some Kind Soul (the timid may use SKP for Some Kind Person)
- SOG -- Society of Genealogists
- TIA -- Thanks In Advance
- TTFN -- As Tigger in Winny the Pooh would say, "Ta Ta For Now"
- URL -- Uniform Reference Locator (an internet web site address)
- YMMV -- Your Mileage May Vary (You may not have the same luck I did)
- YWIA -- You're welcome in advance
Another term to know: Closure Law: There is no historic principle in English Common Law for privacy. But the UK has accepted in 1998 the European Convention on Human Rights. In England there is now a law to protect the privacy of certain personal information. It is a Privacy Act, intended to protect the privacy of individuals and families. The act also ensures that government agencies can't sell the data to anyone. There is also a Data Protection Act that provides "closure" of some data for up to 100 years. The closure period varies depending on the type of record. Most government records are available after only 30 years. Currently, census records are closed for 100 years. Workhouse (poorlaw unions) are generally closed for 84 years. So, if you are looking for family around 1940, the records may not be available until 2041. These laws are in a state of flux right now and closure periods may change with little notice. The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) allows you to access certain information under closure, but you must identify yourself, your relation to the parties on the document and a reason for the request.
You may have different Privacy Laws where you live which can impact how much information you publicize on web pages or bulletin boards. If you put any of your family history "out in public", be aware of your own requirements under those laws. Remember, too, that Civil Law in many countries recognizes the right of confidentiality. If your cousin tells you when she was born, but adds, "Don't tell anybody", then you are expected to respect her wishes.
In order to protect the privacy of your relatives, I recommend that you don't publish birth dates or marriage dates for anyone still living. Replace the date with "Living" or something similar. It's unlikely that you would be sued for publishing the dates, but a professional researcher would protect the privacy of living people and so should you. Every country has a different attitude toward Privacy. I suggest a very conservative approach to ensure that you meet each country's expectations.
This text has been put together from various sources - enough different ones for the activity to count as research rather than plagiarism, I trust. However it has made particularly extensive use of text from a FAQ edited by John Woodgate. Page created by Brian Randell.
Additions by Louis R. Mills.
Edited for new format Paul Evans