Researching a family tree is one of the most popular pastimes around the world and is the most searched topic on the internet. In the past, genealogy was used to argue or demonstrate the legitimacy of claims to wealth and power – some of the time these were made up! In the last two decades, genealogy has become more widespread with people researching and maintaining their own family trees.
- Always ask your family for details first – whether its your grandparents; parents; uncles; aunts; siblings – someone in your family is likely to know more. Information from family members will help you find cousins and other relatives, and will save a lot of time.
A complete introduction to starting your own family tree. Don’t forget to check back for new tips, and if you get stuck check out our Family Tree Services.
What is a family tree?
A family tree is a chart representing family relationships in a conventional tree structure. The more detailed family trees used in medicine, genealogy, and social work are known as genograms.
The image of the tree probably originated with one in medieval art of the Tree of Jesse, used to illustrate the Genealogy of Christ in terms of a prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah, 11, 1). Possibly the first non-Biblical use, and the first to show full family relationships rather than a purely patrilineal scheme, was that involving family trees of the classical gods in Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles), whose first version dates to 1360.
The longest family tree in the world today is that of the Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius (551-479 BC). The tree spans more than 80 generations, and includes more than 2 million members.
Why not have a look at the Queen Elizabeth II’s family tree for a great example, here.
Where do you start?
The first step before you do anything else is to write down your own details (a family tree always starts from you). Write down or find out the following things:
- Date and place of birth
- Education and where you have lived
- Important dates and places including your marriage and baptism (if applicable)
- Important dates and places for your children (births, marriages, baptisms, etc) – again if applicable
- Interesting facts about you for any future genealogists
The second thing to do is to speak to your Grandparents and/or Parents. They will be able to provide you with details on two or three more generations which will be a good start. If it is not possible to ask them, why not try asking cousins or aunts, uncles, cousins (or older siblings) – every little fact will help you in your research! Once you have the basic details on your family, you can start the next step.
Births, Marriages and Deaths – UK
Since 1837, the United Kingdom has been registering all births, marriages and deaths. Certificates can be ordered from the Home Office: Identity and Passport Service. So, if your family are British for a few generations this is a good place to start.
Our advice would be to find your grandparents first, and work backwards. Also, make sure you start with one line (paternal is best, i.e. your father’s father and onwards), because you could end up with quite a nightmare job if you research lots of different ancestral lines. You will have at the most eight great grandparents and sixteen great, great grandparents – that’s sixteen possible ancestral lines to research! So, do take it one at a time, and slowly. It can be a long process, but well worth it when you discover your many ancestors in amongst the records.
Pre-1837 records were handled by local parishes and most councils have access to these. Here’s some useful information on Parishes, but Family Grows on Trees can help you with research too.
Census Records – UK
The UK census as we know it today started in 1801 (championed by John Rickman who managed the first four up to 1831), partly to ascertain the number of men able to fight in the Napoleonic wars, partly over concerns stemming from An Essay on the Principle of Population by Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1798). Rickman’s 12 reasons – set out in 1798 and repeated in Parliamentary debates – for conducting a UK census included the following justifications:
- ‘the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy’ ‘an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known’
- ‘the number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area’s population’
- ‘there were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen’
‘the need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed’
- ‘a census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public good’ and
- ‘the life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results.’
Since then, the census has been conducted every ten years since 1801, though the first detailed one was in 1841. The most recent census was in 2001 and the UK is due another in 2011. However, due to the hundred years rule, genealogists can only access the censuses from 1841 until the 1911. Censuses are useful, because they detail names of the families, ages and much more. Have a look at our blog for more information on the UK census, and the 1911 census.
Other records you can look at include war records, army records, grave records and so much more. It’s also fascinating to “flesh out” your ancestors in other ways too. One area is to look at their jobs in more detail, so if your ancestor was a silversmith you could find out his records from the British Goldsmiths’ Company. Please do ask us for more information and how we can help you.
Finally, always try and visit your local library or family history centre for some more tips and resources.
In all our blogs and throughout this website, we have tried to emphasise the importance of collecting more information on your ancestors than just dates. Dates are really useful and the join the dot game of genealogy starts with dates, but what about the person?
All genealogists will agree that it’s a wonderful thing to have a photo attached to an ancestor, because you might be able to learn more about them; or you might see family similarities in them; or quite simply, you have another connection to the past.
Why not start to collect some photos today? First, go to your grandparents, parents, or cousins and ask them if they have any photos of your family. You’ll not only discover photos of your ancestors, but hopefully their siblings and others too.
Next, go to any genealogy message board and ask possible relations if they have any photographs. Remember that most families expand and expand and it is highly likely that some cousins would have some of the family photos, and other cousins will have other family photos – do search out these relations! We can always help you.
After you’ve found some photos, always make sure you take a scanned copy of them and save them on a disc or on a website – always have back ups.
Photos are a wonderful thing to then pass onto your children and children’s children – and they don’t need the original!
Here is a list of some words and acronymns you might come across in your research. Feel free to print this and keep it handy!
- Archive: An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organisation’s lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organisation. In general, archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. Archival records are normally unpublished and almost always unique, unlike books or magazines for which many identical copies exist. This means that archives (the places) are quite distinct from libraries with regard to their functions and organisation, although archival collections can often be found within library buildings.
- Family Tree: a family tree is a chart representing family relationships in a conventional tree structure. The more detailed family trees used in medicine, genealogy, and social work are known as genograms.
- Genealogy (from Greek: γενεά, genea, “generation”; and λόγος, logos, “knowledge”): is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members. The results are often displayed in charts or written as narratives.
- One-name study: A one-name study is a project researching a specific surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors of one person) or descendancy (descendants of one person or couple). Some people who research a specific surname may restrict their research geographically and chronologically, perhaps to one country and time period, while others may collect all occurrences world-wide for all time.
- Parish Records: A parish register is a handwritten volume, normally kept in a parish church or deposited within a county record office or alternative archive repository, in which details of baptisms, marriages and burials are recorded.
- Will: A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his estate and provides for the transfer of his property at death. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy.In the strictest sense, a “will” has historically been limited to real property while “testament” applies only to dispositions of personal property (thus giving rise to the popular title of the document as “Last Will and Testament”), though this distinction is seldom observed today. A will may also create a testamentary trust that is effective only after the death of the testator.
English Abbreviations & Acronyms
- AMDG – (Latin for..) To The Greater Glory of God
- BT – bishop’s transcript
- CRO – county record office
- GC – George Cross
- IGI – international genealogical index
- NA – National Archives
- OS – Ordinance Survey
- PCC/PCY – Prerogative Court of Canterbury/York
- PR – parish register
- VC – Victoria Cross
- annus – year
- dies – day
- filia – daughter
- filius – son
- martimonium – marriage
- mater – mother
- mensis – month
- pater – father
- uxor – wife
- vidua – widow
Once you have looked into your family tree for a while, why not consider joining a local family history society or the Society of Genealogists? Most of these societies will be able to provide advice and resources. For example, our staff are members of the Society of Genealogists and various local societies to help them in researching their own personal family trees.
Beauty of History
One of the added benefits of learning about your family history is that it will also give you a basic appreciation of the times they lived in. Once you have the facts about your ancestors, why not look deeper into the history of the time that they lived in? If they were a soldier in World War I, why not find out about the war; how it started; why it was being fought; where your ancestor was, etc? Or, if they worked in a factory during the Industrial Revolution, why not find out what that meant to their lives?
Your ancestors might not have been famous, but the last few generations have seen some fascinating times..
Remember too that family trees can be excellent Christmas/Birthday/Wedding gifts for friends or family.
Other tips and thoughts
In conclusion, doing your own Family Tree is always very fascinating – especially when you discover forgotten relatives or unknown facts.