Complete Guide To Researching Your Family Tree

genealogyNot so long ago genealogy was the reserve of wealthy well-connected people with plenty of time on their hands and heir hunters. Today, thanks to the boom in genealogy websites anyone and everyone can research their family tree from the comfort of their own home.

Genealogy Made Accessible By The Internet
In the past, researching a family tree was an expensive and time consuming process. The researcher travelled to records offices, parish churches and libraries around the country, obtaining birth certificates and copies of relevant documents. The process was so complicated that many hired private researchers instead of undertaking the work themselves.

Now, with so many of these records accessible online, researchers can obtain information much more quickly at a fraction of the expense. But besides time and cost, there are other benefits to this new era of desk-based genealogy research.

Many of the physical records are stored in older buildings with limited accessibility, often lacking an indoor stair lift or disabled access. Additionally, the records relating to one family may be spread over a large geographical area, necessitating a great deal of travelling to view them. For many older people this made researching their family tree virtually impossible. Online research has made the art of genealogy accessible to a whole new demographic, many of whom are keen to learn more about their family history, and are retired so have the time to invest in research.

The information available online is more comprehensive and more timely than physical records. Updating records online is quicker and easier than laboriously filing physical records, so you will find the information that you access online is more up to date. And as more and more organisations make their historical data available online, such as newspapers and employers, researchers are able to access far more detail than would be available through formal records offices.

Three Steps To Your Family Tree
There are three key stages to researching your family tree that will help you use your time most effectively, and ensure the tree you are recording is accurate and based on reliable information.

Step One: Start With What You Know
Sketch out everything you know, then talk to family members about their knowledge of the family tree and record their memories alongside your own. Keep a note of key dates, names, marriages and employers.

Rummage through your photo albums, old diaries and any legal records kept at home for inspiration. You might find an old birthday card from a relative you had overlooked or a book with a revealing inscription on the inside cover.

Step Two: Sketch Out The Structure
Create a skeleton family tree. Now would be a good time to register with the free sites listed below, or consider a subscription to the general paid sites that offer a wide range of information. Concentrate on getting names, dates and lineage recorded for your family. Try to complete the branches of your family tree before your focus in on the details of the individual family members. Having said that, this should be an enjoyable process, so if a particular character has caught your eye, feel free to spend time finding out more about them.

Step Three: Digging Deeper
Once you have the majority of your family tree mapped out, its time to dig a little deeper into the details of the individuals. Military records, census details and newspaper stories can all tell your more information about the day-to-day life of your family members. For many people this is when genealogy becomes especially interesting, bringing to life the names written down on the tree.

Free Sites To Explore
Free sites are a great way to get started with your genealogy journey. If you are completely new to researching family history these sites allow you to test drive the process and see if it is something you would like to invest in. They will also help you sketch out your family tree, and provide additional sources for your to cross-check information against.

Top Free Genealogy Sites:
Free UK Genealogy is an umbrella organisation that manages three different websites. The project is a work in progress as volunteers are making transcriptions of family history records.

They manage:

  • FreeBMD.org.uk – a record of births, marriages and deaths in the UK;
  • FreeREG.org.uk – a collection of UK parish records;
  • FreeCEN.org.uk – records taken from the 19th century censuses.

Familysearch.org is a huge international genealogy website managed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is especially useful if you believe you have roots overseas.

Roots Web.com: this well established free genealogy website not only provides access to information, but also helps you to manage your findings and create a digital tree. There is also a thriving online community of fellow researchers for you to engage with and learn from.

Why Pay?
With so much information available online for free, you may be wondering why bother paying for access at all. You might want to start with the free sites and glean as much information as you can but eventually you will run into information gaps that can only be filled by using a paid website. As paid websites tend to carry more information in one place, you may find you save a great deal of time by skipping the free sites, and jumping straight to one of these paid websites. Many of the paid websites offer free trial periods, enabling you test-drive the service at no cost.

Choosing The Right Resource For You
There is no one-best-genealogy website. If it was that straight-forward, there wouldnít be so many successful genealogy businesses out there. Most of the websites offer access to the same information, organized in different ways with different user interfaces.

The best way to choose whether website is a good fit for you is to sign up for a free trial and give it a go. Set yourself a number of searches to complete and see which service you enjoy using the most and feel most confident about the results.

Besides the customer experience, you should also consider how the website obtained their records and as a minimum does it include information from, digital copies of, or indexes to birth, death and marriage certificates?

Digitised versions of the original documents are preferable as you can decipher for yourself what they say. Some sites provide transcripts of documents, which forces you to rely on the interpretations of the transcriber. Alternatively some sites provide indexes from which you order a copy of the original document, usually at an additional cost.

Are you happy with the pricing structure? Do you have the option of suspending the account for a number of months then reinstating access later? Do you prefer to pay for a monthly subscription or an annual lump sum?

Top Paid Sites To Explore
Genesreunited.co.uk offers a complete package of genealogy resources. You can search for information including census returns and birth, marriage and death indexes for England and Wales; build your family tree online; save individual records; participate in their online community; and even create profiles for each family member to bring their history to life.

Ancestry.co.uk is one of the most expensive websites, but is probably the best known and most respected genealogy site available. They offer different levels of subscription (at differing price rates) according to the information you need. You can start at a lower level and upgrade later if you need to. If you are considering signing-up, thereís a free 14-day trial available.

Scotlandspeople.gov.uk is the go to place for births, deaths, marriages and census information about your Scottish family. Itís free to sign-up for an account, but there is a charge to view most documents.

Findmypast.co.uk offers a flexible payment system, whereby you can either become a member, or purchase credits.

Top Specialist Search Sites
Once you have the basic framework in place for your family tree, itís time to research the details behind each family member.

Discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk holds records from the National Archives including wills, the World War I Campaign Medal index, and several collections of naval records. There are plenty of information resources you can explore for free, but records about individuals incur a charge.

Origins.net includes records from Britain and Ireland. This site is especially useful for researching back beyond the 19th century as it contains many records not available elsewhere.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a free website where you can find information about servicemen and women who died in conflict.

Top Tips For Aspiring Genealogists
Finally, here are some top tips to keep in mind when conducting your searches.

Spelling Variations
For hundreds of years the spelling of names was not standardised. If you come across slight variations in spelling, this does not indicate you have the wrong person. Cross-check the individual against other facts to verify their identity.

Let Go Of Perfection
Accept that some information will never be found, or may be conflicting. This is not a good hobby for a perfectionist. You can record your best guess or multiple versions of events in your relative profiles, or leave them blank and enjoy the mystery. This is your family tree, created for your enjoyment, you donít need to follow any rules.

Have Fun
This is a hobby, not a job. Research as much or as little as you wish. If a particular character interests you, feel free to spend more time researching them than anyone else. Go where your heart takes you and enjoy uncovering the mysteries of your family tree.

This guest post was written by Harold H Rigby, expert blogger in retiree lifestyles and enthusiastic amateur genealogist.