Family History: First Steps in Tracing your Genealogy

by JoHarrington

You don't have to be a professional to begin adding leaves to your family tree. You begin very close to home.

Your quest to track your family history starts with living memory. You know your own relatives and they will be the first to be added to your family tree.

The second move is to talk to them all. Your grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles, siblings and cousins may have yet more information to take you further back into history.

Moreover, they will undoubtedly have photographs, certificates and other documents, put aside for safe-keeping, which might provide further clues.

What Does Your Family Know of its Own History?

Your journey begins not in the archives but around the kitchen table.

Photo: ConversationCan you name your own parents and grandparents? That's a great start for compiling any family tree. It has already taken you through three generations.

Unless you are adopted or never knew your father, then just about everyone can name their birth parents. Most people can tell you who their grandparents were too.

This, of course, includes your own Nan and Grandad. If you are lucky enough for them to still be alive, then your family history quest can easily begin with five generations duly noted. That's a lot. That is longer than 100 years, which is the golden date in genealogy. After 100 years, all kinds of records enter the public domain and they are a treasure trove of information.

The main questions to ask relate to cold, hard facts: names, dates, locations. These are the clues that you will take with you into the archives. They will serve as your springboard to dive much further into the past. You want to know who married whom; where they lived; and how many children they had. You want to know their birthday; their spouse's birthday; their children's birthdays; and who their children married. You can follow up by asking what everyone did for a living.

These aren't merely the topics to cover for your parents, grandparents and so forth, but all of your uncles, aunties, cousins and everyone else cropping up in the family tree. They need to take their place in history.

But this is just the framework. The real gems come when your relatives share their memories of often long dead people. That's when your family history truly comes to life.

What Questions Should You be Asking?

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Oral History: Passing the Baton of Memories

Eye-witnesses can inform you about current events. They can also take you by the hand right into history itself.

Image: Battle of TrafalgarI once attended a lecture given by the University of Birmingham's Prof Carl Chinn. He talked about the living stretch of history and passing on the baton of memories. He was talking about oral history and how we can almost touch people and things that were long ago.

A young boy playing in the fields stopped and listened as the church bells rang. It wasn't Sunday. This wasn't a call to worship. He joined the rest of the village in rushing to the building to see what was going on. It was news. The Battle of Trafalgar had been won. It excited his youthful imagination so much, that he remembered all of his life where he was when he heard the church bells ringing.

As an old man, he told his grandson. The recollection was so vivid, it felt to the grandson like he'd really been there. For a while, he was confused. He thought his grandfather had actually fought in the war against Napoleon. His mother put him right. He, in turn, grew up and passed on this tiny anecdote to his own grandson. That child was Carl Chinn. 

Suddenly 150-200 years had been stripped away. So many generations had lived and died between 1805 and today, but through that memory, passed down through his grandfather, Carl was in a field listening to the church bells ringing. He was touching a reality at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar.

These are just little things, but those details add up. They add color to the bare facts within the census records. They might tell a little boy's name, but stories like this paint a tapestry. They place that little boy as someone who played in a field; and as someone curious enough to chase after news.

Incidentally, it's just happened again. I was at that lecture, but you were not. Yet you know the details of the anecdote as if you were there. My memory was a bridge which sent you back twenty years and placed you where you could hear the story.

So ask your family, especially the older members, what stories they were told when they were young. You may be surprised at how far the baton of oral history and memory can be passed.

Guides for Collecting Oral History Stories

Purchase books on spoken histories. They will help you ask the right questions.

Which Family Members are the Best to Interview About Your History?

The short answer is 'all of them'!

Photo: BlaenafonI was extremely fortunate to become interested in genealogy when I was just a teenager. This meant that not only was my grandmother still alive, but so were a lot of great-aunts and uncles.

They all had one hand on the baton of memories, stretching back a century before I was born. They could pass to me stories told to them as children by their own grandparents.

Yet I nearly let it slip from my grasp. Most of my information came from two people whom I'd been warned would know nothing.

I sat down with my Nan and opened my notebook. She was the eldest of her siblings, so she recalled all of their births in great detail. She spilled out her memories onto the page and suddenly I had a rich picture of her entire generation. She was able to give me names and locations for some of those who had gone before. But then it stopped. We had reached the end of her knowledge.

"It's ok." I assured her, pleased with my hoard of information, "Auntie Gwen will be up later and I'll ask her too." 

Auntie Gwen was my Nan's youngest sister, so technically my great-auntie. My Nan was dismissive. "Gwen won't know anything. Half of these were dead before she was born!"  Young and inexperienced, I accepted the truth of this. My great-auntie came and went without me once mentioning what I was doing.

It took about three weeks of enthusiastically hunting through my family history before my mother happened to mention it to my Auntie Gwen. "Oh! Let's have a look," she said, taking my folder off me. Then she filled in half a dozen names, where I had question marks and took me yet another generation back.

My great-auntie might have been the youngest, but she and her husband had been the first in the family to buy a car. In their youth, they used to spend weekends visiting all of those relatives living in the Welsh valleys. Over cups of tea and bara brith, she and her cousins had talked long and hard about their mutual ancestors.

The next time I saw her, Auntie Gwen took out of her handbag a list of addresses and telephone numbers. They were ready for me in Wales. She'd already called them. There had been relatives traipsing all over the graveyards of Blaenafon, taking photographs and noting down dates on the stones. The information kept on coming.

This is just one example of why you should ask questions of everyone in your family. Their age means nothing, if they were the one to have the conversations with those long gone. Plus it's worth noting that, in my own family, it's definitely not the eldest who has the most details. It's me, as I've been the one researching it all for twenty years!

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Hunting Through your Family Archives

A rich seam of information lies in old photographs, certificates and keepsakes.

Photo: CertificateIt may be that your family members have exhausted their own memories, but that doesn't mean that they have nothing left to share. They could well be sitting on a huge source of data, which is just waiting to be copied into your family tree.

Every time someone is born, gets married or dies, an official certificate marks the occasion. This records all of those names and dates for which you have been looking. So has your relative got any of those lying around?

There are other instances which produce documentation. Baptisms and other religious rites of passage; academic qualifications; admissions into workplaces or the army; medals; deeds to a home; insurance forms; transfer deeds; the list goes on. If it was important enough for someone in your family to keep a copy, then it may well have personal information that may add to your family tree now.

Photograph albums are invaluable. These put faces to those distant names and, moreover, may prompt further memories from those showing you. Frequently people write on the back of images, telling you who is pictured, where it was taken and the date. You will want copies of them all.

Family Bibles or other religious books might yield a surprising amount of information. It used to be common for all births, marriages and deaths to be recorded in the front of a Bible. Did your great-grandmother do that? If so, then you have yet more data to add to your history. Even if that isn't the case, then these books were often awarded during a rite of passage. Is there a note on the fly-page telling you who received this Bible?

Similarly, keepsakes might include an inscription or other clue to when or how they came to be in the family. For example, a ruby wedding anniversary ornament, which once belonged to your great-grandparents, tells you that they were married for at least forty years.

It's all simply a matter of hunting through the accumulated documents and heirlooms, then connecting the dots to see how they can inform your research.

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Learn how to safely preserve your genealogy data. Create treasures to pass onto the next generation.

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

Not everything that you're told is as truthful as it might seem. But make a note of even the most unlikely information.

In my experience, most people are flattered to be asked about their life stories. The elderly in particular are well aware of their own mortality. This is their big chance to have their say and tell their lives, as they would wish them to be remembered.

An alarm bell should ring up right there. You are receiving highly subjective, possibly censored versions of events. They wish to be the heroes of their own stories and that's fine. But bear in mind the inherent, probably unwitting bias, when you're recording the details on your database.

Over time, memories also fade. This is especially true of hearsay; that is those incidents and events passed on second hand. You might be listening to an elderly person recount details, which he or she was only half listening to as a child. Just as in the game of Chinese whispers, those snippets might well be skewed beyond anything that can be called reality.

However, you should still record it all. In amongst the padding, there could well be a kernel of truth, which helps validate something later. As you progress with your research, the truth will eventually out and you will see more clearly what was being told.

For example, I was once told by an uncle that my family had historically been extremely wealthy. We were Scottish nobility with a fortune behind us. One of my ancestors had been an inventor from the Isle of Eeley, but his son had drunk and gambled the money away.

It took years for me to work out the truth behind this partially remembered tale. It turned out that there was an ancestor from Dailly, in Scotland, but she was neither nobility nor rich. (Had a Scottish accent caused Dailly to be misheard as Eeley?) Her grandson had been an inventor and he'd gained a comfortable amount of wealth. But he'd also run up a lot of personal debt and eventually ended up in prison for fraud.

There had been glimpses of truth in the family lore passed down via my uncle, but there was also a lot of chaff. Someone somewhere had tried to make us seem more heroic than we had been, including covering up a crime with a dash of Byronic decadence.

Chinese Whispers and Gossip Merchandise

Family History: A Sensitive Subject?

You should be aware that amongst the historical gems, you might also be disturbing skeletons in the cupboard.

Photo: Skeleton in the CupboardAs the years go by, society changes and so does its moral code. Things which once would have caused great shame to the family (baby out of wedlock; mixed race marriage) might now seem quite passe.

This does not mean that your elderly relatives have equally shifted their own moral compass to match the times. As you hunt through the official records, you might uncover some deep, dark secret, which they have been keeping hidden for decades.

Shouting it from the rafters will not endear you to them. In fact, you might find all manner of obstacles and misdirection (or downright prohibition) placed in your way. This is a time for extreme sensitivity and diplomacy. No-one will love you for raising the blood pressure or otherwise stressing a beloved elder. You have their health to consider.

On the other hand, the opposite could also be the case. This is when a relative fears that a distasteful truth will be taken to their grave with no-one ever finding out. It's burned within them for fifty years and this is their opportunity to make a full confession.

This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I've heard things ranging from outright gossip through to painfully harsh true stories, which have not made it into my public family research. That's mostly out of respect for the dead, who no longer have the right to answer the charges against them, or else me being mindful of an individual's living descendants. They would not welcome some unpalatable truths about people whom they remember with fondness and love.

As you go raking up the past, you might be the one left holding the key to the cupboard containing all of the skeletons. You might also be the one hugging a frail, old relative, as they unburden their soul upon you. Are you ready for that?

Genealogy: A Rewarding Historical Journey

I have already spoken of the joys of researching your family tree (Why Trace Your Family History?), but some of the benefits might be indirectly felt.

Your quest may well see you visiting people who don't get many visitors. I've been told repeatedly that my interviewee really enjoyed the opportunity to reminisce about their lives. They got to tell me proudly about their elder brother, who fought in the war and no-one else remembers any more. They got to relive being in the kitchen, while their mother made the stew. They got to chuckle over things that they did as teenagers.

It can be very cathartic, but more than that. It can be a chance to reaffirm to the elderly that they are still important in the modern world; and they have vital stories to tell.

Tracing your family history can be extremely rewarding. Knowing that you've brightened up the day of a relative is just part of it. Happy hunting!

Other Wizzley Articles in my Genealogy Series

These pages are designed to guide you every step of the way through researching your own family history.
The International Genealogical Index is a great, free resource for exploring your family history. LDS records go back to the 16th century.
Thousands of websites exist to help you trace your family history on-line. Soon your family tree will be bursting with new leaves.
A century ago the majority of people could not read or write. Your surname changed often, as clerks wrote phonetically what they thought they heard.
When exploring your family tree, censuses can act like a fast-track through the 19th century. Understanding them is vital for your genealogy.
Updated: 05/04/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/24/2012

This is why I recommend to younger people to grab that information as soon as possible. I'm so very lucky that I started my genealogy when I was 17.

Even so, with discovering things later on, I still wish I had a time machine to go and ask more questions!

Ragtimelil on 06/24/2012

My dad and I have been researching our family and we both regret so much that we didn't talk to relatives while they were still alive. My great-grandmother was alive when I was a young child, but I barely remember her. All three of her children were alive until the 1970s and 80s but I never thought to ask them questions. How I wish I could get a do-over!

JoHarrington on 01/08/2012

Hi Anna,

I too remember that great sigh of relief, when so many genealogical databases appeared on-line. I was one of the people who volunteered to transcribe the FreeBMD, which is now available on

It must have been so frustrating to meet with that attitude, when you were trying to pin down your roots. The only vaguely similar thing that I had was in researching Bargee ancestors (bit of a gypsy line there), which no-one wanted to admit existed.

At least with Americans, you have that vast amount of data from Ellis Island, which must really be wonderful.

Anna on 01/08/2012

I wrote an article like this a year ago and remember trying to research my family tree when I was in High School. Unfortunately, in America, many people came here and considered themselves American. Not German Americans or Irish Americans and a lot of that history was lost. Getting information from grandparents or great aunts and uncles was like pulling teeth. The standard response to where our we came from was, "We are American's now, why do you want to know?" With the resurgence of genealogy sites it is a little easier now.

JoHarrington on 01/08/2012

Hi Shonna, You're very welcome!

It sounds to me like we owe a great debt to your grandmother. History tends to be judged on the movements of monarchs and presidents, which isn't telling nearly all of the story. It's the smaller settings that tell us much more about the past. Your grandmother's archive is already invaluable and it will become more so as time progresses, and the interviewees are long gone.

Good luck with your research and your family reunion. <3

Shonna on 01/08/2012

My grandmother was an oral historian, she helped start the oral history department at the archives in the local University. Interviews were done with a variety of people, and what she believed and wrote about was that people will talk. If you show interest in what they may say, they will usually be more than happy to talk and tell their stories.
Preparing for the first family reunion here in about 22 years, and a family tree will be involved, so this is a help as I'm helping an uncle get that together! Thanks for this!

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