Family history is both an interesting and rewarding hobby. You never know what new information you will find or where it will lead you to. As you build your family history you will have created something that you can pass on to future generations.
You can feel proud that you were the one who was responsible for this. But there are basics of family history that you will need to be aware of.
If you are beginning your family history journey then it is well worth reading the following tips.
But if you have been researching your family tree for several years though then these tips still are of use to you.
Keep to the genealogy path!
For me, it is important to just refresh myself with good practices and to generally make sure that I am on the right path.
Genealogy can sometimes throw us off as we can get too easily distracted by the people we discover in old documents and records.
So, every once in a while stick your head up and take a break from it for a while. You will feel more invigorated when you get back to it.
This is especially true if you have been up in the early hours trying to search for that elusive ancestor.
Trust me I have been there!
Back to Basics!
Before I continue with this guide I thought that I would share with you a video by Crista Cowan from Ancestry.
Here, she takes right to the basics of what you should be doing with your research and how you should proceed to get the most from this hobby.
After the video, you may also like to check out the Family History for Beginners guide from Family Search.
There is a ton of information there that will help you get on your journey.
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I would love to hear from you.
Start With What You Know
Start your family tree by adding your information such as your birth, marriage, etc. You can then add relatives such as your siblings, parents, and grandparents.
Knowing your ancestor’s details will help you later when coming to search for certificates and censuses.
Discover details in the sources!
You will be able to find these documents by providing full names, dates, and places where events took place.
After you have started on your family tree you can try to find useful information around your home.
There is a wealth of documents and records that you can find in cupboards, drawers, and even the attic.
You will be surprised at just how much you will find that will be of use to you.
Your relatives and friends who knew your family are also a great resource that you can tap into.
Not only can they give you details about your ancestors but they may also give you useful documents that will help with your research.
I will talk about this more later in this post.
Paying For Materials
Genealogy is not a cheap hobby as you will need to spend money on obtaining certificates. Do consider purchasing certificates of relatives as the information they will hold can further your research.
Paying for resources and services helps!
Subscribing to genealogist sites such as Ancestry is also a good investment as it can help you grow your family tree.
You may also wish to consider joining a local family history society or visiting local archives.
Both of these are valuable resources for the family historian.
For your family tree to grow, you must be willing to part with money. That is the same with any hobby or pastime.
If you only want to go back a few generations then sure you may do this for free.
But soon, like me, you catch the genealogy bug and you want to find out as much as you can about your ancestors.
And this undoubtedly involves money!
Ask relatives if they have any information that will be of use to you. Older relations may have details of ancestors further back so this will help you greatly in your research.
Before visiting your relative it is a good idea to prepare questions ready for the interview.
Why not revisit your relative?
Of course, not all the details you need may be gathered in one interview.
Before a second or third interview is arranged you will need to assimilate the information you have collected from your relative.
By doing this you may think of other questions you may not have initially asked.
You can assure them that the information that I provided will remain confidential.
Try to be as open as possible and warm as well. Your relative will then be more willing to share information about your ancestors.
Previous Family Research
It is also possible that work has already been started on your family tree. You may find this through another family member or a tree that has been uploaded to a genealogy website such as Ancestry.com.
Carrying on previous genealogy research!
My father conducted years of research before I was interested in doing my own.
This saved me an enormous amount of time.
This, therefore, meant that I did not have to research the same names and dates.
I have also been fortunate to find family trees on Ancestry where I was able to prove connections and use these to trace further back.
Be careful with trees found online!
You can then, therefore, use these trees to build on your tree.
Do note though if you are using someone else’s tree you need to check their references. Too many times have I seen a tree with inaccuracies.
Use them by all means but treat them with a pinch of salt.
Besides names, dates, and stories your relatives may also possess other interesting items such as photographs, letters, and other heirlooms.
There is always the chance that they may even have certificates which will save you time and money purchasing them yourself.
Working On Your Research
Set time aside to do your family history research. There is nothing worse than sitting down to start your fact-finding only to be interrupted by friends and family.
Either do your work when you know you will not be disturbed or tell people you just need an hour or two.
You need to concentrate!
Trying to work on your family history is not a five-minute job. You cannot just sit down and pick off ancestors one by one.
You need to settle down, get your work in front of you, and settle into the mindset.
It does help though if you have a dedicated work area where you can research your genealogy. You can have your work laid out all in front of you.
The benefit of this is that you do not have to bring out folders or notes each time that you want to work on it.
It also helps if you tell people that your work is important and you do not want it to be disturbed.
Which Way To Do It?
There is no right or wrong way when research your family tree. The way you do it is the way that is best for you.
You may want to first discover the names of your ancestors through relatives and censuses to build the branches of your family tree.
Work on one ancestor at a time!
Then you can obtain certificates and parish register documents and other sources of data to further learn more about them.
You may however want to focus on one person at a time.
Collect all there is on that person and then move on to the next relative. It is entirely up to you how you conduct your research.
This was my approach!
That is the way that I first conducted my genealogy research.
I was fascinated with collecting names, dates, and places. I wanted to create my tree and build the branches higher and higher.
There came a time though when I wanted to learn more about the person I was researching. Then I looked into parish registers and will, etc.
After I had found my way as it were I decided to follow a ten-step guide.
This helped me focus my efforts and help me conduct a more efficient strategy of research.
Hitting Brick Walls
Sometimes though you may hit a brick wall while doing your fact-finding. If you cannot break through this brick wall then it is always a good idea to leave this troublesome ancestor and come back to them later with a fresh mind.
You can either stop doing your research for a little while or explore another branch of your family tree.
Please note though that you will always encounter a brick wall during your research. It is inevitable. I have encountered many of these during my research.
Get some help!
Usually, these were because I was working late at night on an ancestor and I couldn’t backtrack any further.
After much-needed rest, I returned to my work and could see things more clearly.
Sometimes though a helping hand is something that you need and you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for help.
There are plenty of people out there who can help you.
Remember they were once in your shoes and a beginner themselves.
My motto is always to give back, and hence that is why I have created this site.
If you cannot find a way to break down a brick wall then consider joining a local library or family history society.
Need Some Help?
Joining a family history society can also be beneficial as they may help you with brick walls that you may have faced during your research. Not only are the staff of these societies quite helpful but also the members as well.
So much help for you!
These societies also publish useful guides with tips and strategies that you can use. An annual subscription is usually paid to become a member.
There are monthly meetings held by family history societies.
There will usually be a guest speaker who will give a talk about their current research. A question and answer session will normally conclude the talk.
This will be another opportunity for you to gain some much-needed advice from experts in the field of genealogy.
You can also attend open days and fairs that are held annually.
Here you can pick up guide books and also chat with staff and fellow members and researchers. You could also show your support and volunteer your services for these events.
Local Library and Archives
A library is also a good source of information. By joining a library you will have access to books about the area as well as records.
You can also use the computers at the library which will have access to genealogy sites such as Ancestry, FindMyPast, or MyHeritage.
These resources have helped me!
I have benefited greatly from using these sites at the library where I have also made many family connections that have helped build my tree.
Libraries may also run workshops on various courses which will help you further with your research.
The classes can also help you with any brick walls that you may have encountered during your research.
You can also exchange tips and strategies with other library members.
They may have years of research behind them so they will have useful advice that they can pass on.
What’s at your local archives?
The local archives will also help you immensely with your family history research.
They will have certificates, as well as wills, probates, electoral rolls, street directories, and so on.
Checking out the archives nearest to your ancestors is well worth it as they may have records concerning your ancestors.
Whenever you research your family history there will always be a ton of information that you will find. The further back you go then obviously the more that you will encounter.
Although do note that the older the information is then the harder it may be to decipher the handwriting on these records.
Errors may also have crept into the records by the registrar at the time.
It can be overwhelming at times just how much information there is out there.
My advice is to collect your data first.
Once you have done this then you can take your time to enter it into your genealogy software.
Thank You and Please Leave A Comment
I hope you enjoyed this article regarding the basics of family history. If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.
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24 thoughts on “Basics of Family History”
What an interesting and informative site. I am impressed with how much information you have given the reader without over load! I have recently inherited a lot of certificates, pieces of history, etc and have wondered what to do with it. Your idea of a book intrigues me. Now I plan on hanging on to them and organizing for future reference. I am bookmarking your site so I can visit more!
Thank you for enjoying the site. I try to write clear and understandable content. A book is a great way to showcase what you have got. Also, by writing up about them you start to think about what you have in front of you and the lives of your ancestors. If you don’t understand me now then you will when you start to write the book.
My How To Create A Family History Book – Part 1 will help you on your way.
All the best,
What a great article and opportune as well!
I have a extensively gigantic family, that is almost impossible to make a “picture” of the family tree!
But like you said, has to start with the basics, dig in and show on to future generations where it all started!
Thanks for sharing Owain!
It does seem hard when you have such a large family. But yes when you do start you will be on your way. My How Do I Start My Family History In 10 Steps article will help you with the process of tracing your family tree. All the best
Wow, really great content, and a lot of relevant information, without going down rabbit holes. Having recently studied my family’s genealogy, I can honestly say that I wish I had found your site first!!! I love that you take your reader step-by-step through the process, offering advise, and guiding your reader to research sites that will help with their search.
There are many things to consider when researching your family history. The important thing though is to have fun with it. I have created a ten step guide to genealogy which you can find here – How Do I Start My Family History In 10 Steps.
I spent some time about 10 years ago looking into my family history, but then life got in the way and got quite a bit too busy. You’ve sparked my interest again by this article. Organising the information is one of my areas of struggle. We span across large sibling families through a few generations so compiling it can be tricky. I’m lucky I am in touch with an aunt on my Dad’s side of the family who has been dabbling with it and gave me a lot of information. Unfortunately there is not much information for me from my mother’s side. I am in touch with an adopted cousin who does not have any contact with the other part of my mother’s side and my mother’s brothers have both passed away so I am stuck on filling in that side of the family. What do you suggest might help me organise the wide spreading of my family in terms of how to draw a tree?
I am glad that I have sparked your interest in this wonderful hobby. These two posts may help you – How Do I Start My Family History In 10 Steps and Top 20 Family History Interview Questions.
As for drawing your family tree then there is nothing better than a genealogy software program. Whenever you add new people and branches, or edit something you can do so quite quickly and easily. This post – Best Genealogy Software Programs – Your Top 5 will help you decide.
Let me know how you get on
Hi Owain, thanks for this article. These are great tips to help me expand what I have already found from within my family. This is truly an exciting hobby and is sometime very overwhelming however I have found sometimes I have had to take a break, just so I can slowly take it all in. I have also enjoy your clear and easy to navigate site. 🙂
You speak from experience. You are right that it can be both exciting yet overwhelming at times. It is always good to take break and come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.
I am glad that you have enjoyed the website. As I had more and more content I will want to keep the easy navigation for visitors
Great information. Thanks for taking the time to produce it. My aunt researched our history and found some distant ancestry who were Irish convicts (they weren’t really convicts – just gathered for government tasks in unusual ways) that were shipped to Australia.
That’s some interesting ancestry you have there, well worth putting into a book if up you ever decide. You may like to check out my How To Create A Family History Book article.
Another good source of information sometimes (if your ancestors owned land) are often the old-style hand-written real estate tax records and deed transfers and such. In Hawaii, at least, the old property records at the Bureau of Conveyances contain a wealth of information.
In Hawaii, if you happen to be Mormon, there are geneological records that go back to when the missionaries first showed up. The Brigham Young University at Laie on Oahu is a really good source. Other old church records (if your family lived in one place for a long time and if the church records didn’t meet with some catastrophe or other) is also likely to be good sources as well.
My sister-in-law, who is into this sort of thing treats it like a treasure hunt, following the trails backwards from one ancestor to another one before that and so on… She has a lot of fun with it.
Thank you very much for that information. It is all quite interesting and useful.
I’m glad that your sister-in-law feels like it’s a treasure hunt. For me I feel like a detective and that I use logic to make sense of all the information in front of me while I join the dots.
This is really awesome. I have always been interested in genealogy. This has some really helpful information. I know that my family has a lot of Cherokee Indian in our family line.
From my understanding my great grand daddy was a full blooded Cherokee. My grandfather and my oldest uncle both look as though they stepped right out of the trib. I would love to learn even more of how I could find out more.
I have been told that with having a Indian blood line can come with it’s fair share of perks. This has defiantly giving me the drive to find out more.
That is interesting that you have some Cherokee blood in you. It’s is fascinating what we may find when researching our family history, or what we are told by our relatives. It’s makes us want to learn more.
I hope that this website proves useful for you. I am adding more content all the time so please come by again and check.
All the best with your family history research.
Hi, and thanks for sharing this information with me,
I have thought about starting with something like this some years ago now. But I didn’t know that it will be such hard work. You’re telling about tons of information so I can imagine that it will take a long time gather all the information I need for each relative.
Do you find this stressful sometimes when it’s so much information out there?
To be honest I have found it overwhelming at times. On these few occasions though I have dug down and got on with entering all the information into my genealogy program to make sense of it all. I then got on with writing up what I have found out in a book. This article – How To Create A Family History Book will be of interest. The important thing is that when you’ve assimilated all the information you will feel proud of what you have accomplished.
I have a uncle who is obsessed by genealogy. He builds our family tree and it is really amazing. How far could you get? He is now 1 generation before first world war.
With the help of my father and cousins of mine who I have found during my research I have gone back to mid 1700s. That is as far back as I can go on a few different branches. I am waiting on some certificates though which will help me go back with other branches.
You have some good resources and references. I’m still trying to find the roots of my grandparents (father’s side). It really is challenging when there is little documentation or personal items to guide you. I may have to do a bit of travelling for more research….!
That’s a shame about finding little documentation. May I suggest that before you travel you are prepared when you get to archives or wherever you need to go. Have an itenary and know what you are going to accomplish from your visit.
I have always been interested in researching my family history but have never really had the tools or the know how to go and do it. I definitely think that something like Ancestry will help a lot, I can’t wait to check it out.
I know that my roots are mainly based in the North East of Scotland, but there are definitely relatives of mine that can be tracked back to Australia and it would be awesome to find out how that came about.
That is certainly interesting that they came from Australia. Usually hear of people to Australia so it would be interesting to know why. If you knock ancestors they were then you could find out what was happening in North East of Scotland at that time. Maybe there’s a connection.
Please check out the rest of the site as there is plenty of information and guides to help you on your way.All the best with your family history research.