Genealogy for Beginners
Created | Updated Feb 23, 2007
Most of us, at a certain stage in our lives, will be seized by an urge to start tracing our family's genealogy. This can prove quite a stressful journey, beset with pitfalls for the unwary. Hopefully, this Entry will help you in your quest and allow you to avoid some of the frustrations that can befall a beginner.
Mistake Number One
The first mistake people make is trying to do too much at once. With four grandparents, all from different families and possibly different places, the temptation is to try to trace all four strands at once. Don't do this. Many have tried and those that persisted now reside in white rooms with soft, padded walls and wear long-sleeved garments that tie up at the back. That way lies both madness and misery.
Start off with pigeon steps. Make a small tree, showing your place in the world, and that of your brothers and sisters and cousins (skip their kids for now - don't make life complicated for yourself!) Then go back and put in all the parents and, if possible, their parents. Going back any further at this stage could be tricky, so stop at your grandparents for now. So, you now have your mgm (maternal grandmother) and mgf (maternal grandfather) and pgm (paternal grandmother) and pgf (paternal grandfather). These abbreviations will save you a lot of finger-ache in the future!
Fill in the Gaps
Now flesh out this information. Dates of birth? Dates of death? Places of birth? Full names (remembering middle names, nicknames, other names - such as an anglicised version of a foreign name - or names used for religious purposes)? Spouses' full names? For example:
Natalie (rel: Naomi) = Harry (Harold) Smith (rel: Chaim) b 19.11.1938 Birmingham
Children: Emily Jane (rel: Esther) b 21.07.1975 and David Malcolm (known as Max) b 05.05.19771
Of course, you will probably want to set it all out properly in your lovely new family tree software so that it looks like a proper tree. Siblings are generally listed in order of age, oldest first, from left to right.
Once you have done this for all your siblings, your parents, their parents and siblings and their parents and siblings, you will have already collated a phenomenal amount of information. And you have probably made contact with three or four cousins across the world via e-mail (which is when the abbreviations really come in handy).
But you also need to gather the following:
Photos - These should be clearly labelled on the back (and also somewhere visible alongside if you're mounting them or putting them in an album) as to who is who. Don't put up with 'Uncle Hymie and Me'. That's all very well if you know who wrote on the photo, but is pretty useless if you don't! Also, add dates and locations wherever possible.
Documents - Letters, birth certificates, marriage certificates, naturalisation certificates (if the people concerned emigrated from somewhere else), passports, visas, deeds of change of name: there is a wealth of information you can accrue. What did your ancestors do for a living? Did they play sports? Did they win any athletic or military honours? Degree certificates? Honour roll mentions? Where are they buried? What is written on their headstones? Did they write any books, bequeath any scholarships, discover a cure for something?
But - and this is an important bit, so pay attention - you really need to find two people in particular in your family.
The first - known as 'The Squirrel' - has ended up with a suitcase full of documents that have been handed down over the years (and then they did so-and-so's probate and ended up with all their old papers and photos in a suitcase in the attic... and so on).
The other - 'The Fount of Knowledge' - remembers everyone and everything. This person is the one you need to approach first. Get them to talk, give them a drink and let them reminisce - about Lottie's wedding, about Freddy going off to the war, about rationing. Write it all down.
Mistake Number Two
The second mistake people make concerns 'The Fount of Knowledge'. This relative is an invaluable source of information; they know who was related to whom and how and when. If you let this person slip away, your job will become infinitely harder. One researcher made that very mistake. She lost her aunt before she had a chance to write down everything she knew. Although she is missed terribly, her knowledge is missed too. It is, like her, gone forever, and there will never be the chance to access either of them again. Don't make this mistake. Pump this person repeatedly. They can tell you things that no one else in your family knows and they are the greatest single resource you will encounter as you scramble up your tree. No one else knows as much or remembers as much. This can't be overstressed: befriend this person; tape record their reminiscences if possible; write down their every word.
Going Forwards by Going Backwards
Once you have noted and collected all of the above, then you can start getting ambitious and looking further back. The first details for your ggps (great-grandparents) will be on your grandparents' wedding certificate. Look at the censuses (many are now available online). Go to local and national archives and find the relevant birth certificates and so on. Every time you learn something, make three copies: one to work on, one to put somewhere safe, and one to put somewhere else that's also safe (just in case - you don't want to lose everything you've achieved in a puff of smoke).
However, do remember to research only one grandparent at a time. Spreading yourself too thin is a recipe for disaster, confusion and headaches that require serious painkiller intake.
One Name Searching
If you have an unusual family name, starting with that is a good idea. Someone who is blessed in this way is very lucky indeed. Wherever they go in the world, they can just get out a phone book and start dialling. Of course, not everyone is so lucky - so pick one grandparent for whatever reason, such as the only one left alive to talk to. Or go with the Fount of Knowledge's branch of the tree - you might as well start with as much information as possible!
One final little tip. Let all your relatives know you are doing your tree. Chances are at least two of them started to do it many years ago and gave up or, better still, are still at it. You can combine your knowledge (and avoid duplication of effort) by getting together with these people and pooling your resources.
These, then, are just a few tips offered to you, so that your climb up your family tree may be an easier one. Good luck with your search and enjoy your genealogy. The Internet is a wonderful tool for genealogy and allows emails and photos to cross the globe at the touch of a button. Use it to assist you in your quest, and, you never know, you could end up as obsessed as the rest of us. Happy hunting!
A couple of websites you may wish to start with are:
- BBC Family History pages - a BBC website that is an excellent starting point for family history beginners.
- The BBC Next Steps page - this gives a list of excellent links and ideas on what resources are available and where.