Getting started with your Family Tree

Here are a few pointers if you are just starting to put together a Family Tree for your family. There are many books devoted to the topic but this page is probably enough just to get you started in the right direction...

Decide on an Approach

Choose an approach

Some people just want to see how far back in history they can trace their ancestors. Other people are more interested in understanding the social context of their ancestors. Still others are more interested in discovering long lost living relations. Depending on what you want to achieve will, no doubt, affect the way you research your tree so being clear about your aims at the start will help you to focus your studies.

Work Backwards

Work backwards

Start with your living relatives - parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The sooner you do it, the better - memories fade and eventually people die. Jot everything down as you talk to them - maybe even record the conversation if they are happy for you to do this. It might help to use this free Downloadable Family Tree Template to capture some of the relationships as you chat to your relatives - you can always enter them into your computer later. Afterwards you can decide which facts are important and whether to include them in your tree.

Use Historical Documents

Use historical documents

Use Census data to locate your ancestor. From census data you can find out lots of useful information such as -

  • Approximately when they were born
  • Where they were born
  • Occupation
  • Other family members - maybe their parents which can then take you back to the previous generation

Use Birth, Marriage and Death certificates to confirm census information and to provide exact dates and locations and to add further information such as the maiden name of the mother.

Other records can help to put some meat on the bones of your family tree and provide an insight into the lives of your ancestors. Military service records, trade directories and immigration records can all help to extend your Family Tree.

Many of these records are now available online. Check out the list of websites at the bottom of this page which, between them, have hundreds of millions of records available.

Record your Sources

Record your sources

At some point someone is going to question how you made a connection in your tree - make sure you document where you got your information from so you, or someone else, can make an informed decision as to the reliability of this information.

Use other People's Work

Use other people's work

You can save yourself a great deal of effort by hooking into work other researchers have done before you. However, treat every piece of information with a healthy dose of scepticism - check out their sources and verify every link - nearly every family tree published online will have an error in it somewhere!

Get yourself a book - for a small outlay you can help to stop yourself making all the usual mistakes and invalid assumptions that many who start to draw up a Family Tree will make. Many books will have a wide range of suggestions for sources of information which are particularly useful when it comes to discussing sources that are not available online.

Use a Computer

Trying to document more than a handful of individuals without using a computer can get a bit messy! There are many software packages out there which will allow you to document your tree on your own computer. If you are documenting your tree on your own computer make sure you back it up! A hard disk failure will probably happen to you at some point in your life - if you have no backup then you could face losing years of research. You can get online backups for free these days so why take the risk?

Another way of documenting your family tree on a computer is to do it online using one of the many websites that provide this facility. Make sure that you can export your tree from the website so that you are able to take regular backups to your own computer - you can't be sure the website is going to be around forever and you don't want your research disappearing with it if it does. Making your tree available online makes it easy for others to find connections to your tree.

Personally, I do both of the above. I maintain my tree on my own computer using the most popular Family Tree package - Family Tree Maker (which will automatically synchronise with a Family Tree on Ancestry). I make sure that this tree is always backed up by using the free online storage available via the Google Drive software. Yes, it is a bit more work but a) I'm protected in case any of the websites that I have my tree online with disappears; b) by uploading an export of my tree to multiple websites I'm getting the biggest audience possible and maximising the probability that a long lost relative might find a connection; c) I don't need an Internet connection to maintain and view my tree and d) by using an online backup I'm protected in case anything untoward happens to my own computer.

There are hundreds of websites which provide indexes, scans and transcripts of original documents which are invaluable for researching your family tree. These are some of the key ones -

Family Search Free to access, it provides access to a huge database of records across the world. Currently most of the records are available as transcriptions only so you are best verifying the data from an original source if you can. However, there is a lot of work going on to make scans of the original documents available in the not too distant future. This is probably the most popular Family History web site in the world. It provides access to hundreds of databases of useful information. Births, Marriages and Deaths as well as Census information make this an ideal way to grow your Family Tree quickly.
FreeBMDAs you might guess from the name, this site provides free access to Birth, Marriage and Death indexes for England and Wales. This information can be used to order certificates from the UK government. Birth certificates will show the names of both parents (including the mother's maiden name) and marriage certificates will show the names of the fathers of both parties amongst other information. Currently this site covers data from 1837 to around 1915. If you are looking for records after this period then is the place to look.
UK Government Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates The official place to order your Birth, Marriage and Death certificates from for England and Wales. There are other websites that you can order from but make sure you are not paying extra for the priviledge! Use this site once you have found your ancestor in the Birth, Marriage and Death indexes.