Family historyNew to family history

How to search for your ancestors

Whether you are planning to do the legwork yourself, or to employ a genealogist, starting your family history begins at the same point: with gathering together everything you already know about your family or can ask your relatives about.  What’s the next step?

You need to work out if you wish to simply follow your family name back, to make a family tree for them, or if you want to follow all the lines of your ancestry.  As I started with my mother’s father’s mother’s family (as she was my most interesting and intriguing close ancestor), it was pretty clear from the beginning that I would be making a family tree which followed all the lines of ancestry back as far as I could take them.

However, each to his or her own!  You may simply want to know where the family name you have grown up with originated.  Or to discover what first names were used in the family in the distant past.  Or have some other reason for wanting to find the male line only.  Or some people start first with taking the name they use back as far as they can, and then move on to their other parent.

Having taken that decision, you are ready to start!  How each person organizes their information is a very personal thing.  Some people assign numbers and letters to each family member.  For example, if you make yourself A1 as the first person of the first family, you might make your parents A2 and B1, giving the parent with the same surname A2 and the one with the surname you don’t use B1 as the first person with that surname in your tree.  There are endless variations in the numbering system, and lots of information about how to do it. Some people simply use a number, assigning the next number to each ancestor as they discover them.

Of course, if you plan to employ someone to do the work for you, you can leave this to them.  You then have the decision about whether to ask them for something specific, or simply to take your family tree as far as they can.  And how you want the information presented.  It helps to decide what area you most want to focus on.  Are you simply wanting to get your family history back as far as possible?  Or are you more interested in the narrative, the stories that are discovered along the path?  Are you interested in brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, or just your direct ancestors.  Often this will change over time.  Initially I think I was interested to know where my family came from (answer: all over Britain, but no-one outside Britain until you get to the 14th century), but gradually I became intrigued to find more information about the families and cousins, aunts and uncles too.

At this initial stage, record everything, no matter how obscure, because you never know when a small insignificant piece of information will let you confirm something else.  When I first started, I used to concentrate upon my direct ancestors, and I wasn’t much interested in the sisters and brothers of my ancestors.  I quickly learned that their baptisms and marriages might contain very important information which would help me to find out about my direct ancestors too – so even if your main interest is in discovering your direct ancestors, I’d advise you to gather information from all their brothers and sisters too.


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