An Illustrated Family History Archive

Genealogy Hints & Tips

I've been researching my family history since the year 2000, not as long as many, but longer than some. When I started, the internet was a fairly minor resource for genealogy, and I took regular trips up to the Family Records Centre in Islington and the National Archives at Kew in order to make my earliest discoveries. Over the years I've made my fair share of mistakes and errors (and no doubt I'll keep doing so), but the one good thing about mistakes is that you - hopefully - learn from them!

Here are a few hints and tips based on things I've learned along the way.

Always record your sources

It might seem like extra work, but it's so important to record your sources. One day you might look at a record and wonder how on earth you came up with that birth date. If you know where something came from, you know how reliable it might be, and the source could be useful to return to when new information comes your way.

Remember - one piece of information will lead to another. Make sure the foundations are good - strengthened with good data - then you can build a solid case rather than a precarious house of cards.

Disprove your favourite theories

Sometimes you have a hunch that something is right and you follow that line of thought, looking for information that confirms the idea. This is where you should be careful - and while it might hurt to do it, you should do as much as you can to falsify the theory. This is what a good scientist does - they don't try and prove a theory right, they try everything they can to disprove it - if the concept survives, the likelihood is that it's right.

Remember - it's easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias, gathering only data that supports a theory. Research other possibilities, eliminate other contenders. Truth is always best.

Click backwards

Sometimes a record you access online will have multiple pages - for instance a military record - and it's the convention that the link takes you to the first page, then you click forward to read the entire document. But it's also worth clicking backwards from that first page - and, although it's rare, you may find more pages related to the person you're researching.

This has been successful for me on three or four occasions. With one, I clicked backwards from a simple Banns announcement and discovered a three-page letter written by my 5x-great grandmother in 1833 - it mentioned her husband's military service and death, her son's death abroad, and some details about a brother and sister.

This goes for census returns too - when you've found the family you're looking for, take a peek at the neighbours, extended family can often be found living close by.

Remember - when searching online, you're not searching through original records, you're searching indexes made by people who don't necessarily understand the document they're transcribing.

Don't trust online trees

Ancestry Trees (public or private) and other online trees can be a great resource, but take any information found there with a large grain of salt. While multiple trees might seem to validate a particular family connection, many of them have entire branches merely imported from other Ancestry trees, so a single mistake ends up being replicated again and again, giving it a false credibility. By all means use them, but do your own research to confirm the information (your own discoveries are always far more satisfying).

Although not common, some people aren't genealogists, they're collectors of data - it doesn't really matter if the data is true, as long as it fits, in it goes! Having said that, there are also some excellent trees out there - try and emulate them.

Remember - confirm with primary sources, confirm with multiple data points, confirm by eliminating other possibilities. 

Buid an online tree

Despite the previous tip, it is a good idea to keep your own online tree and, I would say, to make it public. I was hesitant to do this at first - I shared the common concerns that my tree wasn't 'ready' and that people would 'steal' my hard-won research. But I never felt good about these views - a family tree will always be a work in progress, and my ancestors are not just my ancestors - they belong to hundreds and even thousands of other people too.

I'd also seen some errors in others' trees (sometimes errors I'd worked through myself already) and had seen them duplicated - I wanted to counter those errors with what I knew was better information. Yes, I run the risk of perhaps publishing further errors I may have made, but I also open myself to the opportunity of having them corrected.

Thanks to my WikiTree, a researcher was recently able to discover what happened to a commonly-named ancestor of theirs that had seemingly disappeared - they'd started life anew with the estranged husband of one of my gg-aunts, and we were able to bring our two lone pieces of jigsaw together to complete the picture.

Remember - be generous and share, it tends to do you good as well. We're all in this together!

Look again at early research

Often our earliest research is the most basic and quickly becomes consolidated as 'ground floor facts'. Sometimes they might be letters from relatives answering your first basic enquiries, or an old family story that seemed to get disproved somewhere along the line. It's always worth looking at these again - a fuller family tree and new avenues of research that are now available can change the context of old information, or make sense of a new mystery.

Remember - old facts might take on new meaning when the light is shone on them again. Keep everything!

The story doesn't end

Sometimes it pays to follow a story further than it seems to go. Here's two examples where I might have stopped researching once my relative was no longer involved, but by continuing I was able get an even more interesting tale ...

With one, a relative was accidentally killed when she picked up the lodger's shotgun and it went off into her chest. I decided to research the lodger a bit more and discovered that only a few weeks later he was accidentally killed by the same gun going off. With another, an ancestor was killed when the rope snapped at the pit head and he fell to his death - it was discovered the rope had been partially cut through with the supervisor pointing the finger of suspicion at an itinernat worker. I carried on researching the individuals involved, and found the supervisor responsible for the death of a pit worker a few years later and imprisoned for manslaughter.

Remember - the stories of your ancestors lie not only in their lives, but in the lives and places of those around them.

Change the name

Don't get stuck on names. Even if you've done just a little amount of family history research then you know you have to search different spellings of names - for instance my Ewings are sometimes recorded as Ewen, and my Hodgkins can be Hodgkinson, Hoskin or Hodgkiss, etc. Some search forms allow you to use wildcards where you can replace a letter with an asterisk (*). When searching for the name Levell I often use L*v*l, which catches all the Levils, Levills, Lovells and Leavels, etc. The earlier back in time you are, the more likely you are to have inconsistency in spellings.

This goes for the names of things like army regiments too. If you discover an ancestor was in the 72nd Foot, find out what else the regiment was called - most changed their name after 1881 (the 72nd became the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders). Newspapers may use different terms, 'Foot' or 'Regiment', and if you search "72nd" you may not find a lot, but try "72d" and you'll be on the right path. Some regiments went by several different names - so when I was researching the Dumfries Light Dragoons I also searched for The Dumfriesshire Dragoons, the Dumfriesshire Fencibles and the Dumfries Fencilble Cavalry, among others variations.

Remember - a hard-to-find ancestor can sometimes be found by looking around them rather than for them - search for their children, their friends, their address, their occupation ... footprints come in all shapes and sizes.

Write the story

You may not be ready to write your grand family history, but it can still be helpful to write out what you know in narrative form - it gets you thinking about the story of your ancestors and helps to highlight gaps. Often we focus so much on isolated facts that's it's only when we bring them together to fulfil a narrative that we uncover the real story. To help in the telling you'll want to add context, either historical, geographical, or family, all of which helps to complete the picture and humanise the tale of your family history.

Remember - your narrative can focus on an individual, a family group, or even a geographical location ... write purely for yourself and see where it takes you.

"Don't know" might be better

If you can't quite get a definite answer to a genealogical conumdrum, it might be best to mark it down as a 'don't know' rather than put in the nearest fit. Certainly, record the possibilities - but seperately, not in the official fields (name, date of birth or death, etc.). Once you fill in that data field it can become accepted fact, and if you then base further research on that 'fact', and it's wrong, you've sent yourself down the wrong alleyway. Look at it again a year or two down the line when more new records have been made available - the answer might come. Or maybe the answer was never recorded, or is permanently lost - you might have to make do with a question mark.

Remember - sometimes not knowing the answer can be just as interesting, record all the possible theories - that's a story too.