Tracing your Family Tree

Written a few years ago, some links may be broken and other sources of information become available on a regular basis.

How to get Started in Genealogy

The first thing is to get a good computer program to store the results of your research. This is so much easier than having scraps of paper all over the place. I use PAF, which comes free from the Mormons. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in full.) If you do choose to use that, the first thing you need to do is go to the menu for Tools > Preferences > Formats and change the date format to European if you object to using the M/D/Y format.

Once you’ve got that running you can enter your immediate family and any members of your extended family you have details for. Ask around aunts, uncles, cousins for any missing details. Important things to record are dates and places of birth, death and marriage.

Next thing is to obtain your grand-parents’ birth and marriage certificates if they are not already in your family’s possession. They will give information about the names of their parents. To do this you will need to find the index reference of the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths. There is a free lookup website at the FreeBMD project. It is nearly complete but occasionally very slow. If you have no luck there you can try FindMyPast but you have to pay for information and it isn’t very clearly indexed.

From these references you will get the date (year and quarter), the district, the volume number and page number for the person’s record. The GRO give you some background to this information. These are required to place an order with GRO. Note that is quite easy to get the wrong person’s certificate! Check carefully all available information before placing the order. Sometimes you have to take an educated guess and get a couple of certificates knowing that at least one will be wrong.

You can get corroborating evidence (although this sometimes just confuses things!) from the census data. If the person you’re looking for was alive in 1901 the you can look them up in that Census. (Similarly for 1911.) Again this will cost money to see the results, but you can find out a bit from the basic searches. Also it is important to check the age of the individual before you pay to see the results. The censuses were usually conducted around March/April time so you need to be careful about the age at the date of the census, taking into account that their birthday might be before or after the census date.

For someone who was alive 1841-1911 you can search census data at FindMyPast website and again that will cost money to see the full results. There are also various other censuses available.

When you get further back in time the resources become harder to find. The first registrations of Births Deaths and Marriages were in 1837, but for people born before then you might find some information in the IGI. Other research sites are beginning to put parish records online.

By working backwards in time, one generation at a time, you can soon build up an impressive database. As well as a computer program to store relationships it is useful to have a folder in which to keep the various certificates and extracts from censuses. A notebook to record avenues explored for each individual can help to prevent duplicated effort over the years. It is very easy to forget in which resources you have searched for which individuals!

If you or your maternal line has a common surname, like Smith, Brown or Evans, you will probably run into problems with the volume of potential results. If you reach a brick wall on one surname you can concentrate your efforts on other names. Each generation introduces nearly the same number of new names as there were people in the previous generation. There are also resources focused on either a geographical area or on particular surnames. Places to look for these are GENUKI and GOONS. GENUKI also have a more comprehensive Getting Started guide than my brief description.

Good luck and happy hunting!


Created 16/09/05 Copyright © 2006 Mark Wigmore