Tracing your Family History–Lesson 1

Welcome to the world of Family History! You are about to set off on a journey of discovery that I can almost guarantee will amaze, delight and surprise you. Like most good things the start of your family history begins at home.

Teach Yourself Family History – Step 1

Teach Yourself Family History - Step 1

I want you to start in the attic and work down to the basement and search every cupboard, drawer, suitcase and box that you can find. You are looking for old photographs, documents, certificates, letters, medals and anything else that you think would be remotely helpful in your research. Perhaps you should take a large box with you so that you can store everything safely as you progress from the top to the bottom of your house!

Once you are sure you have found everything you have at home then this is a good time to ring round parents and grandparents and ask if they have anything that would help you. Be aware that some members of an older generation might not like you “digging up the past” so be resistant to helping you. The usual reason is that there is something in the past that they feel brings the family or just themselves into disrupt. It may be that someone had a child out of wedlock or a couple didn’t get married. Handle the situation with tact and understanding.

Teach Yourself Family History – Step 2

Now it’s time for some pencil and paper time.

Go to the BBC website and print off enough “First Information” sheets (sometimes called Family group Sheets) so that you have one for yourself, your parents, your grandparents and if you have found information on your great grandparents one for each of those. Also print off a couple of “Pedigree Charts”.

BBC Pedigree Chart Genealogy Family History

You are now going to fill in the charts using your personal knowledge and the information you have found at home. Use a pen for the facts that you have proof of and pencil for that which you think may be right. For example on a death certificate there will be an age given, this information of course was not told to the registrar by the person who knew best, because they were deceased ! By subtracting the age from the year of death you will be able to write the estimated birth year on the first information sheet and onto the pedigree chart, but use pencil until you have obtained a birth certificate or baptism entry.

The main rule of family history is that you work backwards from what you know towards to what you don’t know. It isn’t wise to find someone in the past who has the same surname as yourself and then try to connect your family to them.

Tree GenealogySo starting with yourself write down your full name, your birth date & place, your marriage date & place if applicable. This can all be in pen as I’m sure you know this !

Move onto your parents and record their names, if possible get the names from your birth certificate or their marriage certificate as your mother may have always been called Mabel as far as you know, but she was registered at birth as Gertrude.

Working backwards as far as you know or have information about fill in the forms and charts. When you are filling in the pedigree chart note that you should fill in the details of the man first and then his wife in the next space. This means that you can trace back father to grandfather to great grandfather with all the surnames being the same. Women are always given their maiden names on all family history charts as this links them with their fathers.

Teach Yourself Family History – Step 3

The next step is sometimes referred to as “Grilling YourIn grandmother's time by Thomas Eakins Granny” ! Starting with your parents and then grandparents go and see them and show them the forms and charts you have filled out and ask them if you have got it right. Hopefully they will be able to add further information to what you know, they may be able to provide more certificates and other documents which will mean that those notes you made in pencil can now be confirmed in pen. They may have old photographs that you can get copies made of, and with luck they will be able to name those people in the photographs.

If you are shown any document or photo ask if you might scan or copy them. Always do this promptly and return them carefully. This will prove that you can be trusted with the care of family heirlooms.

You will find that it may take several visits to get all the information that will help you. Once people start to think about the past, things that they haven’t thought about in decades comes into their minds. You will probably get the whole family talking !

Visit all your elderly family members as all to often I have heard people say “I meant to get round to see Great Aunt Maud, but I left it too late and she died last week”. Get to see them whilst you can.

Teach Yourself Family History – Step 4

Family Tree MakerBy now you will have got quite a lot of information piling up on your dining room table or in a box in your study. This is now the time to start getting it preserved and organised. As you are reading this online I am assuming that you have your own computer and will be using it for your research.

You can buy a genealogy programme onto which you will input your data. I can recommend Family Tree Maker, I have used it for many years and find it very good. Most of the programmes will store your information, allow you to add photographs and scanned documents. They will also have the facility to print out family trees and sometimes family books.

If you want to store your family tree on the computing cloud then you have several options open to you. The first would be to design and create your own website which displays your research and your genealogy.

If that doesn’t appeal to you then and offer to host your family tree for you. On the subject of subscription family history web sites you may be wondering if it is worth while subscribing to any or all of them. Whilst there is a vast array of free online genealogical material on the internet you will soon find that you will want to subscribe to a subscription website. I subscribe to, and I buy credits for several other websites, but as I have been researching my own tree and working professionally for 40+ years I am hardly your average family historian ! Subscribing to just one of these sites will be quite enough to start with. These sites offer 14 day free access so I would suggest that you try each of them, see if they offer the data sets that would interest you and then make your decision.

Also of interest to you may be books and magazine on family history. Genealogy magazines are available via a subscription, from your local newsagents or downloaded to your ipad or other device. has the well known “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Your Family Tree” magazines and I am sure more will become available as time goes on.

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

You may well by now have accumulated quite a lot of unique family history material. You should think about how best to preserve these photographs, letters etc. for the generations to come. Acid free tissue, archival standard photograph albums, boxes and much more can be purchased online. I have purchased materials from and found them very good, there is also who have a warrant from the Queen so presumably they must be also of a high standard of service.

Although notes can be made online a hard backed note book can come in handy, a recording device can be useful if you are interviewing older family members provided that they agree and are comfortable about being recorded. If you haven’t used one of these devices before it is a good idea to practise at home first rather than think it is all working fine only to find that nothing has been committed to the CD/DVD.

A very important habit to get into is to note when an interview, visit to an archive or library or some other genealogy excursion took place and also to note what was found and what sources were looked at with what results. You will probably be able to remember next week what you found where and maybe even next month, but will you recall it next year or next decade? I rather think you won’t !

Photographs can be like treasure to genealogists, always preserve them well and using an acid free pencil mark on the back who they are of. My friend Sue has a large box of photos given to her by a relative, none of which are named and no-one alive seems to know who they are. They are wonderful photographs stretching back to the very early days of photography, but without names they can’t help her put faces to names.

Have found out as much as you can by raiding the attic, interrogating your relatives and getting super organised now is the time when you start to do some actual research and find out about ancestors that no one in your family even knew existed !