Tracing your ancestors

Organise your information

Before you collect too much information, it is a good idea to get a large notebook or lever-arch folder to act as a simple 'filing system'. Then you can keep all of your research material and information (including physical items like certificates, documents and photographs) in one place. At this early stage, having everything on the PC in scanned or retyped form is not necessarily the best answer. You may want to look at items side by side, or to rearrange them as you uncover new details.

Whatever method you choose, be organised from the start — don't collect information on scrappy bits of paper!

Ask questions and get people talking

Talk to your relatives, particularly older ones. Find out what they remember about your family and its ancestors. They will have many memories of many people - past and present (and not all of them factually 100 per cent correct). They will have anecdotes too (again these can sometimes be exaggerated or embroidered) that will fill out your family history. Just as important, their stories may prompt ideas for other questions you might need to ask, and of different lines of research that you might need to follow.


Collecting as much information as you from family members means that you will save valuable time and effort later.


What documents do you have?

Gather together your surviving family documents and look at them all carefully. They will confirm or confound some of those stories and anecdotes - and will highlight areas that you might need to explore in more detail. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates - while 'official documents' - do not always tell the precise story. On occasions, people gave incomplete or misleading details and, taking Death certificates specifically, a friend or neighbour may have had only a vague notion of the age or occupation of the deceased.

Who are the people in those old photographs? Do you know all of their names. Have any family wills survived? (They can often give vital information on family relationships and circumstances.) Are there surviving letters, military papers, postcards, address and birthday books that might tell you more? You may have a family bible with hand-written details about your ancestors. When you have discovered all that you can from reminiscences and records, try drawing the key details into a rough pedigree chart (or family tree). This will confirm what you know and, just as important, will highlight gaps where you need to do more research.

Now you are ready to go back, generation by generation, and find your ancestors. Work from what you know, and what you have proved, back to what you don't know.


Additional information