How To Start Your Family Tree: Part 1

This is the first of my “how-to” guides and is aimed at absolute beginners, who are English and are researching English ancestors (at least to start with), but are generally competent with a computer.   This first guide is relevant irrespect of country, but there are different websites and different sources depending on which country your ancestors come from. I will write about overseas research at some point, but I’m afraid computer skills training is out of my remit!  In part 1, you will do the groundwork to get your tree off the ground and decide whether you want to commit yourself to this rather all consuming pastime.

I will start by saying that genealogy is not a cheap hobby.  If you become addicted, you will end up subscribing or pay-per-viewing on a number of websites, ordering certificates and copies of documents, and even travelling around the country (world) trawling graveyards and archives.  However, you can most certainly get started for free and I will only talk about free sites, or free trials of paid sites, until we get on to the more advanced stuff!

The first step is to speak to your living relatives.  (If your relatives are all dead, or you just don’t like them, you’ll just have to write down what you know yourself – you’ll have more work to do in the next part, but it’s perfectly possible).  Ask them the following about themselves, then get them to repeat the process with their children, partner, siblings, parents, grandparents and anyone else they can remember.  Focus mainly on things that happened in the last hundred years – some information less than a hundred years old is hard to find online because it’s protected under the Data Protection Act.   Keep the information in a notebook or type it up.

Full name:
Date and place of birth:
Date and place of marriage:
Date, place and cause of death:
Buried or cremated?  If buried, where, and is there a headstone?
Name/s of partner/s (anyone they married, or had a child with):
Names of parents:
Names of siblings and half siblings:
Names of children:

 Should your relative volunteer other information, write it down somewhere – you won’t be using it at this stage, as you’re keeping it simple, but in ten years’ time it could be the key to solving a mystery, and your relative might not still be hear to retell the story.

The next step is to build a family tree out of the information you have received from your relatives.  You can do this in a number of ways – I know some genealogists who write out their trees by hand on massive scrolls of paper, and the genealogy course I’m doing asks for trees to be drawn up using Excel, but the quickest and most practical way is to use genealogy software or a website.  There are countless websites and downloads for this, and they’re all perfectly good, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll show you how to do it on the website I use, Ancestry, but all the websites/software are pretty easy to grasp.  Sign up for a free account on Ancestry and it will immediately start prompting you to start a tree.  Follow the instructions, and start with yourself, then your parents, then move into the main tree view.

My family tree on Ancestry, in Pedigree View.  Living people obscured with red blobs in MS Paint, the one on the left is me and the one on the right is my mother.

There are two main formats for a family tree, which have various names – Ancestry calls them “pedigree” and “family view”.  Pedigree has you on the left hand side, then your ancestors splaying out into a triangle to the right.  It is the simpler of the two views, so start with this one.  There are no siblings or cousins visible, just ancestors.  Use the information from your notes to enter all the ancestors you know, then add your descendents.  Next, flip the view into “family view” (use the icons top left) and add in your ancestors’ siblings.   Your family tree has been born!

Family View
My family tree on Ancestry in Family View.

Don’t worry if there are only a couple of people in your tree at this stage.  The next stage will be to start using online records to fill out your tree, but before you do that, have a think about the questions you want to answer.  Is there a family mystery you want to solve – perhaps an ancestor who disappeared, an illegitimate child, a family rumour to confirm?  Or perhaps you just want to have a dig around and find out where you came from.   Family history is at its most fascinating when your ancestors are not simply just a list of names and dates, but real people, brought back to life after being forgotten for so long.  Your ancestors will feel like friends you never met.  You will picture them in your head, you will walk the streets they walked, and you will carry their secrets with you.

Part 2: (coming soon) will show you how to use General Register Office registrations (births, deaths and marriages) and censuses to grow your tree back to 1837.