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4 things to do when researching your family

Ever wanted to find out more about your family, but not known where to start? In this post Tahitia McCabe, leader educator on Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree, shares some good tips to get you going.

Ever wanted to find out more about your family, but not known where to start? In this post Tahitia McCabe, leader educator on Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree, shares some good tips to get you going.

  1. Start with what you already know

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Begin by writing down everything you know about your family:

* Names

* Dates of birth, marriage, death

* Places of residence

* Stories of emigration and travel

* Occupations

* Family myths and mysteries

* Anything else that occurs to you

Even if all you have are rough dates and more questions than answers, it’s a place to begin.

  1. Use family tree tools 

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Family Group Sheets (FGS) and Pedigree Trees are handy ‘thinking tools’ to help you understand how family members relate to one another. Blank copies of these are freely available for download on the internet and CyndisList has a list of webpages where you can find these.Be sure to use a pencil to fill these in and also note if you are unsure of any fact on your trees and family group sheets. Knowing what you are unsure about will help guide your discussions with family members and help you choose which bit to begin searching for. Blank spaces on your tree will also tell you what still needs to be found.

  1. Start talking to your family

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Talk to your relatives – do this sooner rather than later! If no one in an older generation is left, try any older siblings or cousins you may have.

Use pedigree trees, family photos and other memorabilia to kick start your conversation.

Have questions ready but don’t feel like you need to stick to them if the conversation is flowing. Do ask open-ended questions …for example, ‘What do you remember about our grandfather?’ instead of only asking yes/no questions.

Be prepared for someone to tell you what you’ve found is wrong…take down the information they have but be sure to check on it using records. You may find out they have misremembered something.

Be sure to take notes or better yet, record the interviews if that’s comfortable for the interviewee. And finally go back for more…people often remember the good stuff after you are gone so be sure to visit them again.

  1. Find records

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Now that you have gleaned lots of information from yourself and your relatives…it’s time to back up that family lore with documentary evidence. Start as close to the present as possible and work your way back in time. That way you can verify facts (and that you are finding the ‘right’ people) with your memories and records or by checking with other family members.

At the very least you will want to find and record, for as many people as possible in your family tree, this data:

* Date and place of birth

* Names of parents

* Date and place of marriage and name of spouse

* Date and place of death

* Names and birthdates of children

Consider what types of records are likely to have the information you need on them; birth certificates will have the date and place of birth but also names of parents and depending on the location, more information such as occupation of parents or the marriage date of the parents (if any). Census records can give hints as to the place of birth but also by noting the age of a person on a census you can make an educated guess as to the range of years in which the person was born. The FamilySearch Wiki page for those new to research gives some good thoughts on selecting records to look for.

A note on where to search for records

Many records of interest to family historians have now been made available online but what is available varies by country and time period. In many cases it will be best to begin your search using online records instead of heading to a local archive as they may not have the basic birth, marriage death or census records you need. However, do check out any free or low cost classes on doing basic family history research your local library or archive may offer as these are great ways to learn and to become comfortable with your local resources.

There are a variety of online sources for family history, some of which are free and some which can be accessed via short term subscriptions.  Be aware that there is no single source which will have everything you need as coverage varies so you will end up using more than one during your search. The FamilySearch Wiki has a useful list of online sources by location which includes links to free and pay to view websites.

Discover your family tree, join the free online course Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree now.

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