Researching Family History – The First Steps

The first of a series of posts on starting your family tree.

A question I am often asked is “How do I start to research my family history?”

The first thing to do is to talk to the older family members, starting with your parents, ask them to relate anything at all that they can remember about the family. If possible record the conversations and make detailed notes, go prepared with a set of questions. For older relations you may need several visits as they often tend not to remember details until after you have left as they continue to think and remember the past.

The types of questions you will want to ask are:

  1. When they were born
  2. Where they were born
  3. Where did they grow up
  4. When did they get married
  5. Where did they get married
  6. What were the names of their parents
  7. When and where did their parents marry
  8. If applicable when did their parents pass away and where were they buried
  9. Who were there siblings, aunts and uncles
  10. Do they know where they were born, married, lived and buried
  11. Do they know where their oldest living relative is, if so make plans to visit as soon as possible
  12. Don’t just collect dates, ask about family stories, photos, documents

When talking to relatives try to ask open questions open, rather than direct, as the discussion will flow better. Questions such as, “What was your grandfather’s name?” could get a very short answer. If you ask, “Tell me about your grandfather, what do you remember about him?” will make your relative feel more comfortable and valued. When asking questions with dates, it’s a good idea to give a reference point, such as: “Was it before the First World War that he was born?” You can also use old photographs as useful memory aids “Is this your father at his house in Shrewsbury?” could produce interesting results..

Don’t forget to ask about the life of your relative too, how they lived and what they did, where they worked etc, this will add the meat to the bones of your research and help you imagine their lives and will tell the story for future generations.

Find out if there are any birth or baptismal certificates, or marriage or death certificates anywhere within the family. To make a reasonable start on your researching your family it helps to have your grandparent’s birth certificates and marriage certificates. If the marriage certificate is not in your family’s possession, as long as your parents know the names of their parents and the marriage date, the certificate is easily obtained from the General Register Office. A Marriage Certificate will give you the link to the next generation, as it usually gives the names of the father of both the bride and groom.

Often a family Bible was kept and frequently it was used to record the family births, deaths and marriages inside the cover of the family Bible.

Remember that although there may be only ONE of you and you may have only had 2 parents and 4 grandparents, you had 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents, 32 great great great grandparents, 64 great great great great grandparents etc.

It is best to work backwards, from known details about already identified ancestors. i.e. your parents or grandparents. But don’t try and go too far back too soon, take small steps and be very, very sure of the facts before taking the next step, never assume.

All this soon mounts up, so ensure that you keep any notes you take in order or use a one of the many software applications to record the information you have uncovered.

To help you record the information there are many free charts available online which you can use to document you research, just google “Genealogy Charts”.