Family History Research for Beginners

23 December 2022

If you are wanting to discover your roots and learn more about your family history, then this is the blog for you! Starting out can seem daunting and you can be lost with where to start. This blog will explain the ABC’s, outline some different resources you could use, and provide you with some top tips on where to begin!

So, let’s start with the basics. Family history is the record of relationships among family members, also known as genealogy. Genealogy is defined as the study of our ancestors, our parents, their parents, and so on and so on. Recording genealogical work is usually done in a family tree or as a family history.

Genealogists are not just interested in where and when people lived, but also their lives. This considers laws, religion, migration trends and other social and economic factors, the things that affect us all and shape who we are! A combination of both genetic and social factors provides us with a deeper understanding of our ancestors and a richer view of their lives.

You may be thinking why is family history important? Knowing, recording, and preserving your family history directly impacts you, your family, and even future generations of people you may never know.

“A person without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” – Marcus Garvey.

Knowing where we came from can benefit us in numerous ways and truly enrich our lives and the lives of those around us. It embraces culture and traditions and develops a strong sense of self and identity. Family history helps us form deeper connections and a sense of belonging. It provides resilience and inspires us through seeing the hardships our ancestors faced as, let’s be honest, life is tough now, but it was even tougher back then. It can even help us make better health choices as you can unearth health concerns which may arise in the family and expose what you may be more at risk to.

Family history goes beyond the names and dates we find. It makes us who we are.

Now, how do you find your ancestors? You can use all sorts of different resources to conduct your family history research. There are numerous records available to you, whether they be in person archives and libraries or websites and online indexes. You can also look at genetics by doing a DNA test which you can order online from various providers.

This is a very brief overview of what is available and there is much more out there. Spend some time browsing and using different resources to see what works best for you.

Birth, marriage, and death certificates are a common route to starting your research. The certificates are kept by the General Register Office (in England and Wales) but they are indexed online. They are a great way of discovering the basic life events of your ancestors and provide a fantastic starting point for your research.

Another valuable resource is the census.  A census of residents and their ages was first taken nationally in England and Wales in 1841. Some censuses have more information than others, but they are another excellent source of information about your ancestors and their location. The most recently published census in England and Wales is the 1921 census which was published in January 2022 on Findmypast. This has proved to be invaluable in cracking some of our heir tracing cases this year at Family Wise!

Some other records which can be utilised are:

  • Military records
  • Electoral records
  • Church records
  • Land records
  • Naturalisation records
  • Newspapers
  • Criminal records
  • Adoption records

Now we know what records to look for, where do we find them?

There are lots of websites and places where you can search for records, build family trees, and find DNA matches. Some of the most popular are:

  • Ancestry
  • FamilySearch
  • FindMyPast
  • MyHeritage
  • 23andMe
  • The National Archives
  • Local Archives
  • Social media

This is an extremely brief overview of what is available.

All of this can seem daunting, so here are a few tips to get you started!

  • Start with yourself – Document your own life milestones such as dates, records for yourself and then move onto your siblings (if you have any) and parents. This is anchoring your research and allows you to connect each generation to the previous.
  • Keep a record of your research – Keep track of all your findings, create a family tree which you can easily add to and edit as you discover more. The key is to stay organised!
  • Start with the resources closest to you – Dig out old photographs, letters, documents. Take time to interview your elderly relatives as they are a wealth of information!
  • Don’t forget the historical bigger picture – What was going on in the world at the time? Was there war, famine, civil unrest? Ask why? What was going on in that place at that time?

Take your time – Don’t overwhelm yourself!

To conclude, family history research can be difficult, but it is so rewarding! It is essential we keep digging and discovering more so we don’t lose the opportunity to discover who we are. The more interest we invoke, the more we can learn. If your family shares these stories they will never be lost.

I hope this has been useful. Good luck in your own research and if you get stuck, you know where we are!

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