5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – I probably should have written this post when I first started MadAboutGenealogy! But here it is better late than never as they say. So you want to trace your family history? You have watched avidly the Who Do You Think You Are tv programmes, you’ve seen the genealogy magazines in the newsagents, you’ve seen the adverts for Ancestry and FindMyPast and now you are all fired up and want to get going. But how and where do you start?
I am often asked if you need any special skills before you can start to trace your family history – the answer is no you just need to want to know about your ancestors. When I am teaching a beginners class I ask for a show of hands of those who like jigsaws, crosswords and murder mystery books and tv programmes. Without exception students raise their hands to one or more of those categories. Genealogists love a puzzle, enjoy the hunt for the next generation and have inquiring minds.
Come with me and I’ll show you how to build strong roots for your family tree so that you are doing everything properly right from the start.
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Before you start on your 5 steps you will need the following:-
- 2 x A4 Storage boxes which are strong enough to withstanding plenty of handling and are inexpensive. I use Bankers Boxes that I found on Amazon Click Here to see the boxes.
- 1 x good quality notebook – Since being given a Moleskine notebook I use nothing else. They are a little more expensive than a school type notebook, but you will want to keep these notebooks for decades so you need something robust that will stand being thrown into a bag, shoved into a pocket and opened up a million times. Here is a link to what I buy.
- Pen and Pencil
- 4 x Ancestral Charts & 10 x Family Group Record forms. You can find charts and group sheets as well as other genealogy goodies in the FREE MadAboutGenealogy Resource Library. Click Here To Access Them.
Step 1 – 5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – Gather together family papers.
Genealogy starts at home so starting in the attic and working down to the basement gather every single piece of paper, document, old photo, letter, family bible, newspaper clipping etc that you can find that has anything about your family. Using your storage boxes store everything you find safely. If you find any old photographs or old documents you will want to store them in conservation standard boxes, folders etc, but for now these boxes will do. Take your time with this search as it is so easy to overlook some clue that might just be vital later on.
Contact family members, especially the older generation, and ask if they have any documents etc that might help you in your research. It is surprising what people keep particularly if they have been involved in winding up the affairs of their parents or grandparents. If they are reluctant to let you take papers away ask if you can photograph them or make a transcript of the information.
Step 2 – 5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – Assessing What You Have found.
Firstly I want to say don’t worry if you haven’t found very much or maybe nothing at all. The main thing is that you have looked and you now know that there isn’t anything hidden away that might be useful. Clear a large space, dining room table is ideal and lay out everything you have found. Arrange it into groups to do with individuals or couples. For instance a pile of items for you, a pile for your parents, a pile for each set of grandparents and so on.
Now we are onto the more exciting part. Using the Ancestry charts you have printed off start to fill in the charts. Use ink for information that comes from a primary source, such as certificates or diaries and pencil for things that come from a secondary source such as a history of the family. In genealogy a Primary Source is one that was recorded at the time of the event and a Secondary Source is one that was recorded sometime afterwards.
Start with yourself, filling in your details on the Ancestral chart, then moving back a generation fill in your father’s details and then your mothers details. Fill in a Family Group Record for yourself and then one for each couple i.e. parents, grandparents, great grandparents. Don’t worry if you don’t have much information at this stage, you just want to set out clearly what you do know.
Step 4 – 5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – Visit family and ask what they know.
Once you have filled out your charts, make several copies of each chart and then arrange to visit your parents, grandparents aunts, uncles and cousins. Taking the copies, not the originals, of your charts with you ask if anyone can help you fill in the gaps. Don’t just concentrate on dates and places, but record any memories and stories. Note them down as they will bring your family history to life and may well contain just the clue you are looking for. Be aware that you may not get told everything in just one visit especially with very elderly relatives, give them time to think through their memories and arrange another visit.
Make a few notes of what you want to ask before you visit, but be prepared to listen and take notes of everything you are told. If a date can’t be remembered then ask how old they were when they attended the baptism, marriage or burial, ask if it was summer or winter, did they need a coat or not. All these types of things help to prompt memories and give clues. try to ask open ended questions, not ones that can be answered with a yes or a no. Remember also to ask questions for things that won’t be recorded, but will bring life to your family history. Where did your grandparents meet? Did grandpa get down on one knee to propose? Who was their best friend at school? What is their earliest memory?
Step 5 – 5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – Start your research.
Having gone through steps 1 – 4 you are now ready to start your research. There are many websites that are free that you can start entering your family names into their search engines. Click here to access my blog post Top 5 Free genealogy Websites. You will also want to start to learn about the records you are searching. I have listened below links to a number of posts I have written about the basic genealogy records, I call them Building Blocks as they are firm foundations for your family history to be built on.
Once you have worked your way through the various free websites you may well find that you are ready to subscribe to one of the big paid for sites. Ancestry and FindMyPast offer the widest range of family history databases and can if you haven’t look at these sites before you will be amazed at what is now available online and more gets added all the time. Both sites offer a 14 day free trial so you have nothing to lose by registering for two weeks free access. I have put links below to get you to the right part of their website to access the free trial.
You might want to take a look at my post called “English Parish Registers Online – Who Has Which Counties?” Having worked through steps 1 – 5 you will have an idea where your families are based, my post will guide you as to which site is best for you and your research. My ancestors spread themselves far and wide so I subscribe to both!
5 Steps To Starting Your Family History – Summary
I hope this is helpful to you if you are just starting out, genealogy is great fun, very rewarding and is quite addictive. Remember that MadAboutGenealogy has quite a backlist of posts so do browse through them as I am sure some of them will be of interest to you.
Happy Ancestor Hunting!
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