Over the past few years I have received numerous genealogy-related emails via the Carey Genealogy Hub. While some are specific to my own line, others are from beginners who are trying to start their research, but don't know where to begin.
I am not a professional genealogist. But I am a veteran with about 20 years experience. Through my own experience, and just as importantly with the help of other veterans, I've picked up a some general hints, best practices, and general approaches that have proved very beneficial.
I usually pass these on to those emailing me for help on an individual basis. However, it has occurred to me that recreating and honing my replies into an article for the website might be easier and more beneficial for others.
This article is a work in progress. It has been in the works for a long time, as other obligations have continuously intruded on its progress. But it's finally now at a stage where it is formatted and somewhat cohesive. Hopefully it will prove of value to those who are just getting started on the path of detective work and analysis that is genealogy research. Comments, suggestions and requests are always welcome.
(Last revised July 2019)
Researching one's family history can often be a daunting and somewhat confusing task for new genealogists. With the advent of the Internet there is a phenominal number of resources out there. However, finding sites that are easy to use and inexpensive, not to mention knowing when to use them, is tricker than it may first appear.
In addition, for the rookie genealogist there is the dilema of where they should start. It is very tempting to grab a few nuggets of family folklore and dive straight into the World Wide Web. However, such a tactic often yields nothing but frustration and disappointment.
The best strategy is to start close to home and gather as much information as you can from your living ancestors. Parents, grandparents, and great uncles and aunts are often a fount of useful information on one's family origins and earlier ancestors. Even if their memories are a little rusty or their knowledge of dates, places and names is not complete, their information is often priceless.
Also, check for existing family history documents. There is a strong chance that you weren't the first person in your family to do some genealogical detective work. More often than one might suspect someone else has noted down some ancestral details in letters, essays, a family bible, or some other long-forgotten document. Not to mention birth, marriage and death certificates.
The next step is to go through your newly acquired data and join the dots. Start with yourself and any siblings you may have, and then add your parents and their siblings. At this point you will probably have to make a decision: which side of the family should I research first? Mum or dad?
That decision is totally up to you, although it may be more useful to choose the side with the larger amount of data. If you have more information on your mother's ancestors the chances are you will find research easier, which is obviously more rewarding for the beginner. And bearing in mind that you are just starting out.
Once you've decided which parent to initially focus on you should move further back by charting that parent's parents (your grandparents). Those decisions on which side of the family to research will of course continue, and just as with that first step the decision is up to you. However, bear in mind that as a beginner you may want to take the easiest route for now, so it may be best to go for the branch with the most data available.
Also, be wary of personal accounts that have no hard evidence to back them up. Grandad might be the nicest guy in the world, and he might be a veritable fountain of knowledge, but anyone can get things wrong. Furthermore, family stories have a habit of spreading and sometimes evolving to incorporate new and exotic details. And even if several extended family members recite the same stories verbatim, remember that the truth depends on facts, and not on popularity.
This last aspect is critical, but often over-looked in genealogy research. As a general rule, only sign off on a story, date, name or relationship if it's supported by factual data. No matter how exciting, exotic, or convincing it seems. True genealogy is about ascertaining the truth, not a fabrication of one's ancestors.
As with any type of research, there are multiple approaches that one can take. In genealogy there are really three fundamental ways of researching one's family: the gradual expansion, framework construction, and the descendent cataloging approach.
The gradual expansion approach involves methodically collecting and documenting progressively earlier generations. Only when you've researched a generation in detail does one move back to the generation that immediately preceded it.
The framework construction strategy is more common. It involves noting the basics of each ancestor and adding them to a minimal tree diagram. Once one has gone as far back as superficial research will allow, one then fills in the details of those documented ancestors.
The descendent cataloging approach is probably the least used by new genealogists, mainly because it seems like one is heading in the wrong direction. However, it can provide a huge impact to personal research with very little effort. This strategy involves going back 2 or 3 generations and then stepping forward to document all known descendents from those ancestors. The value of documenting your 1st, 2nd or 3rd cousins is that they might well be genealogists themselves, and happy to share their findings with you. From there you can use either of the other two approaches to work with them in finding your common ancestors.
Again, which approach you take comes down to personal choice, and the breadth of material available to you. And you can often switch between approaches depending on the availability of information and resources, and your own judgement. The important point is to choose the method that stimulates you the most.
Once you've interviewed your senior family members, and documented their knowledge, it's time to delve into the widely available genealogy archives and start the detective work.
Because the way in which information was stored changed around the beginning of the twentieth century there is quite a distinct boundary in where next to look and what you should look for. Population tracking, especially in the United Kingdom was based heavily on census information from 1841 to the late 1800s.
If your new-found family knowledge takes you back to the end of the 19th century (the 1890s) or beyond you have a few more avenues open to you. You can either head off to the nearest national public records office to look up some birth, marriage and census records, or you can hop on to the Internet. For UK genealogists it may be more worthwhile to research census or parish information if you are looking within the 1840 to 1900 period. Where possible it's preferable to base your new family tree off census and parish records from your public records office as this data will be the most reliable.
If your research is stuck in the twentieth century you will probably need to head off to the nearest national public records office and look up your earliest known ancestors. The North American, British, Canadian and Australian public records offices should be pretty comprehensive. The Irish offices will be less so, but still detailed and valuable. The level of information in offices in other countries may vary. If you can find details on your ancestors from the twentieth century and trace their family back into the nineteenth century then you are ready to widen your search. You could try continuing your research in the records office, although you may find the success rate dwindles away the further back you go. Still, where possible look in the public records office first.
Asian, African and South American genealogists usually struggle to find reliable information repositories, due either to a preference towards oral information transfer instead of written transfer, or due to past political instability. If you're a genealogist who is tracing family from one of these areas its even more critical that you mine your living family members for documents and genealogy information! Additionally, there are some old-school web sites scattered around that can provide valuable clues to those investigating ancestors in these parts of the world. But to find them you will need to hone your search engine skills, and get familiar with search engines such as Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo. Additionally be aware that phonetic spelling will probably be even more exagerated for non-European names that have been translated into European text. So be open to alternative (and sometimes downright strange) mistranslations of names.
If you can't get to the public records office of your ancestor's country, or if the information contained therein has trailed off, your next move is to look on the Internet. In addition to being a great source of genealogy data, the Internet is also a fantastic place to meet fellow researchers and distant relations, who you can work with to map out common ancestry.
A good place to begin your search used to be the LDS Family Search website. This site contains a vast library of genealogy records from all over the world and is free for everyone to use thanks to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormons). Obviously, the individuals found in this archive are slanted towards pioneering American settlers and the American midwest, but they also contain a surprisingly deep store of international and non-Mormon information. But included in their database is the large IGI (International Genealogy Index) collection. There are some repeatitions and inaccuracies in the IGI library, but it still contains some reliable records on literally millions of individuals from all over the world, and is thus well worth a look. But it's worth noting that reliability and subjectivity can be an ongoing issue with the Family Search website.
However, in recent years several commercial sites like Ancestry (mainly via Ancestry.com and Ancestry.co.uk), and Genes Reunited UK have really stepped up their offerings. These commercial sites require a subscription fee, but have a plethora of valuable information available to paid members, including birth, marriage and death records, census records, immigration and military service records, and will and probate records. They also provide sophisticated utilities to build your family trees via your web browser. However, it's still advisable that you at least back up these trees regularly, in case you lose access or have to give up your subscription. And be warned that even with such paid services, you will still run into transcription errors and information that has been poorly curated by some other users.
For UK researchers another excellent place to look for free information is the Free UK BMD website. This site offers limited but free birth marriage and death records dating back a few hundred years.
Lastly, do not underestimate the value of surname or geographically specific websites. While their information offerings might not be as sophisticated as the large commercial sites, they can provide invaluable clues and insights into ancestors and locations that might not be available elsewhere.
The task of tracing one's ancestry can seem daunting to a beginner, but don't be deterred! In most cases the information is out there just waiting for you to find it. Approach the challenge with open eyes, an open mind, and a strategy, and you will succeed. Most importantly, don't give up! Every genealogist encounters apparently insurmountable hurdles: some when they arejust starting out, and some after a good base of information has been established. But more often than not careful analysis and dogged perserverance will bring you the answers you seek.
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