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Starting your family history

Family history is like a journey to discover your own roots in the past that your ancestors knew. This journey, like any other can be fun and fascinating, but it can also prove to be frustrating. As with any journey to an unfamiliar place, a little planning beforehand can make all the difference between success and failure.

The only realistic approach to family history is to start with what you know and work backwards. It is very difficult to start at some point in the past and work forward to the present day. Even if you’re certain that you’re descended from Owain Glyn Dŵr, proving it can only be done by working methodically backwards. Don’t rely on guesses – try to prove your way along from one generation to the next. The good news is that being methodical and careful will save you a lot of trouble and anything that saves you trouble has to be more fun!

Talk to your older relations

Talking to your family members will lay a firm foundation for your future research. This is one of the most fundamental stages in successful family history. Try to locate as many pieces of family memorabilia as possible in order to jog your relations’ memories. Write any information down, even if it seems trivial at the time. Guard against accepting your family legends as being 100% accurate, so tread carefully – get documentary evidence!

Items which can help your relations recall information are:

  • Family Bibles – once popular registers of family birth, marriages and other notable events
     
  • Newspaper cuttings
     
  • Photographs (especially of family gatherings like weddings)
     

Start at home

Have a look to see what records (private and official) you may have at home already. You might be surprised by the amount of information about your immediate ancestors you may already have. Boxes in attics can often yield tremendous information about your family members. Remember to keep a record of whatever you find (and where you found it)! Look for:

  • Diaries
     
  • Birth/marriage/death certificates
     
  • Religious records (eg christening certificates, confirmation certificates)
     
  • Passports
     
  • Old wills
     
  • Letters
     
  • Military medals or service records

     

Remember that even if you can’t find much information, don’t despair – you can still research your roots!

Organise your work (and thank yourself later)

It is worthwhile to consider at an early stage how you’re going to organise your research. You will be amazed at how much information you amass, so be organised from the beginning and stay focused. You will need to decide on what sort of chart you use to display your ancestry. The chart is a tremendous visual aid showing your family’s connections from generation to generation. Display each person’s name, date and place of birth, date and place of death and occupation or trade on your chart. Remember to keep members of the same generation on the same level of the chart. It won’t be long before you start filling up your chart with names, so it can be useful to produce smaller charts for each side of the family too.

You will also have to organise your paper documents (photographs, certificates, letters, etc) even if you choose to use a computer system for managing your research.

Some tips for organising your research

  • Decide which line (and stick to it) Decide which line of your family you’re going to research. Don’t expect to research all your family lines at once with any degree of success
     
  • Be clear! Choose a system and stick with it. Make accurate notes of the source of each reference you find. This stops you having to duplicate your work
     
  • Get into the habit of writing life-details for every ancestor. Include dates and place of birth, dates and place of marriage, work or trade details, date and place of death/burial
     
  • Make a record your searches - even if they’re unsuccessful! This can save you hours of fruitless searching of sources you’ve already examined
     
  • Keep a clear, concise family tree chart. Don’t put too much information on the chart and keep your chart updated. Be concise, systematic and clear
     
  • Consider using a computer software family history package to assist your record keeping and processing. Many excellent commercial packages are available and they can be of tremendous benefit to your research


 

A family group comprising two parents and four children
 
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