Researching your family tree will take over your life, if you let it. It can also drive you slightly crazy if you don't keep organised and focused. Although I'm still something of a novice, here are my six vital survival tips that should help you at the start of your ancestry journey.
1. Start with what you know. It can be tempting to launch straight into the very distant past in your quest to trace your ancestors as far back as possible. It makes things easier if you start from the present and trace back slowly, so gather details about yourself and your immediate family first. If you have older relatives you could try interviewing them about what they know of your family's past. Work with what you've got before diving in to records and documents.
2. Set up a tree. I use ancestry.co.uk, although there are many other genealogy sites out there on which you can build your tree. You can set up a tree easily by typing in details of your immediate family members before gradually adding people as your research progresses. Having a tree makes things so much easier to record, and if you choose an online tree rather than making a paper one, you can often attach records to individual people, which has definitely helped save my sanity; no more waving around print-outs of random documents in despair, having forgotten what links to whom!
3. Pick a surname and stick to it. I decided I wanted to research my paternal ancestry but went about it completely the wrong way at first, gathering information and documents on three different surnames, which ultimately led to much hair pulling and confusion. I'm now focusing on one surname, the Titfords. I've started gathering as much information as possible on each family member, one at a time. It's funny how you begin to feel extremely connected to individual ancestors when you start getting to grips with documents and records enabling you to piece together a detailed picture of what their life may have been like. It feels right to pay attention to the individual rather than racing back in time just to reach the proverbial 'finish line'. Oh, and don't be fooled- there is no finish line in ancestry!
4. The census is your new best friend. I started my census research by searching for my Great Grandmother in the 1911 UK census. I found her living with her parents and brother, meaning I immediately had the names of her family members to add to my tree, as well as her year of birth and childhood address. The amount of information varies from census to census; the first 'proper' census taken in 1841 details place, names, age and gender, occupation and place of birth. By 1911 you can also see the relationship of each person to the head of the household, as well as relationship status, number of years married (handy for hunting marriage certificates), number of children born alive, number of children still living, occupation, whether employed or self-employed, place of birth, nationality, how many rooms within the household, the signature of the head of the household and a postal address.
5. You will hit brick walls. But you will also overcome them, with a little clever thinking. Where has your relative disappeared to? Why can't you find their baptism/marriage/census record? When searching for my Great Great Grandmother Haidee Howard Titford, I couldn't find any records prior to her marriage in 1901 and the 1911 census. After watching an episode of BBC's 'Who Do You Think You Are', which always has great tips, I tried searching for her using her place and year of birth (taken from the 1911 census), her maiden name and her father's full name (taken from her marriage record), leaving her first name out entirely. Records appeared relating to 'Addie' and 'Adie' Howard Spink, and I was able to match the later Haidee with these childhood census records. Sometimes it's something as simple as leaving out a first name when searching records in order to locate a seemingly missing ancestor.
6. Don't just look backwards. At the start of my journey it didn't occur to me to trace forwards and search for living relatives, until I received a tweet from someone who turned out to be my second cousin once removed. We share a link to Haidee, and I was then lucky enough to see a photograph of Haidee which I've added to my family tree. I've now connected with family members I never knew I had, and it seems as if when researching your tree it doesn't matter that you don't know these long lost living relatives that well; you can't help but embrace family, no matter how distantly related, and the excitement at having found 'new' family is the best result of my research so far.
Some final words of rookie wisdom: remember to take time to eat, sleep, and breathe! The more documents you find, the more you want to keep on researching. I didn't realise just how addictive tracing my family tree would be, and although it can be frustrating at times when certain bits of information refuse to materialise or have to be discarded due to being about a different family entirely, there's no doubt that this is an incredibly exciting and rewarding journey. So take the plunge, start the journey and have fun; I'm sure you won't regret it.
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