Top 10 Tips For Beginners

Help for Beginners: Top 10 Tips

During the last decade, the number of people tracing their family history has rocketed, and I'm only one of them. Most of the things I know about genealogy these days, I've largely learned myself.

Here, I've made a list of my Top 10 Tips for those of you who are wanting to start or are wondering if you can. It's almost a list of pieces of advice I wish I'd had at the start. So before you get going, here are some things to know first...

1. Tackle the living first!

The very first step anyone should take is to ask family members what they know and remember. Elderly relatives in particular are great and in most cases they keep stuff. This means that gran probably still has her parents' marriage certificate or her father's war medals which you can use to start your own journey back in time.

2. Family stories can be false, so deal with the hard stuff first.

Family stories are great and they help to uncover more about the life of a person, as opposed to just sticking '1930-2010' after their name and not knowing much else. But sometimes stories are told, believed, and repeated or changed over time. So make notes of what relatives tell you, but be mindful of Chinese Whispers. For example, some people like to associate their surname with someone famous. So if Granddad Cowell says you're related to Simon Cowell, it's worth investigating, of course it is, but there may not be any truth in it at all.

3. Draw a basic family tree.

You know the drill. Start with yourself, siblings, mum and dad. Work upwards on paper and backwards in time. Drawing a tree more often than not helps to visualise exactly where people fit in and allows you to see where you might want to start. Here’s one I’ve made as an example of this very early stage.

A very basic, first family tree. Note: it's probably best to record exact dates, i.e '30/12/1957' instead of just '1957'.

As you do this, it’s also a good idea to find a home for your tree, because it will certainly grow over time. Although most of the major family history websites such as Ancestry, FindMyPast and GenesReunited will charge you to look at records or to contact potential relatives, they all let you store and build your tree online for free. I've got mine on Ancestry.
4. Buy a notepad and a pen, specifically for Family Tree stuff.
It’s easy to get bogged down in dates, names and places, especially when you get on to individual branches and different surnames. I wish someone had warned me just how addictive tracing your family tree actually is. And with that comes a need to take notes. So to stop you losing information on great granny Johnson, make sure you have a 'Johnson family' notepad to retrieve information easily.
5. Familiarise yourself with key dates and events.

Birth, marriage and death certificates were only introduced in Victorian times but baptism records can go all the way back to Henry VIII's day. Did you know that?

This top tip is to make sure you know what records are available and at what point in time, and of course where to get them. I've made a useful guide on this which can be found her. 

6. Join a social network group or a genealogy forum.

Millions of people all over the world are researching their family tree right now. And most are doing it online. The internet is brimming with help groups and like-minded people who over years of research have become experts in the field. If you find out your family came from a certain place, try and see if there’s a Facebook group for people to share old memories or photos.

Or even better, join a family history forum such as RootsChat, which offers a wide range of help including help for beginners, lookups if you’re a bit skint this month, or even free photograph dating or restorations. I’ve been on this site since I started in 2006 and there really isn’t anywhere else around online that does it better.

7. Find out what's free!

Before throwing your money at genealogical problems to make them go away, make sure you have a browse around first to find out what's free. Companies wanting to cash in on your curiosity/hobby/addiction/obsession are everywhere, so use websites like this one and RootsChat to find out what's free before you throw money at a problem.

8. Sooner or later you will have to pay.

As alluded to above, stuff can be free, and a lot of stuff at that. But cost eventually is inevitable. Certificates, original census images, wills, etc - they all cost if you need them. I recently had to shell out £30 to obtain my own (deceased) grandfather’s army records. Also, a lot of original records that aren't online yet are kept in archives. If your interest takes you to the level where you're looking to visit a county archive or library, that will cost too, especially if you need copies of things or want someone to undertake research on your behalf.

Most of my discoveries or archive trips these days come quite soon after payday and it's not a coincidence!

9. There are always surprises - so expect to find some.

Most people who have been in the family tree game for a while will be quick to tell you of some surprises or skeletons they’ve discovered hiding in the family closet. Almost every family has one and I’ve certainly got a few nuts in my tree. This can be the reason why some relatives refuse to give out information or spin yarns to try and distract you. So it’s always a good idea to sit back, remember you’re taking a step into the unknown and that this could lead to uncovering something which earlier generations tried to bury. People get up to all sorts and that's never really changed throughout time.

10. (Almost) never trust someone else's tree without proof.

So, you're on Ancestry and come across someone's tree which has great granddad in it with his family going back to the 1600's. That's great, you should just copy that info down and save a few quid, right?

NO! Never copy someone else's tree unless they can provide you with proof. I did this once and it led me to believe my own research was wrong so I deleted a family in favour for another. Then when I looked at the other person's research I found it full of holes and guesswork.

There are some odd bods around, and a few will simply collect relatives without proving anything. There are even a few people around who claim to have traced all the way back to God. They get a bit tetchy when you message them asking for documental evidence, mind. Oh, and then there's the guy who had his ancestor being born in 1869 and dying in 1784. Talented bloke. I wouldn't have minded so much if it hadn't have been my great, great granddad William.

I hope that this post has been useful. Family history truly is a fascinating project and one I've been doing now since I was 16. It's a great thing to know a bit about where you come from, and even better to know a lot.