So many family history sites but where to start?

Using internet based research via sites such as Geni, Find My Past, Family Tree Now  and Ancestry is fun and informative, but if you are not savvy and review your catch carefully you will find you have snagged false leads and wasted your time. In the excitement of finding what may appear to be your relative, or household of ancestors it is natural to hope that that someone else’s information is correct about the relationships between some or all of the people on their tree. They may have records (but which are not for the individual they’re attached to) sources which may be only other incorrect family trees, and call themselves advanced users only because they use the facility often.

There are an extraordinary amount of records available to view online – not just transcriptions, but a digital copy of the actual record. You can browse legal papers, wills, immigration and shipping records, birth, death and marriage records. You must remember though the further back in time you go, fewer could afford to pay for the religious rites, and if they were non-conformists they may have only had a marriage conducted in the official church to make it legal because dissenters were persecuted.

First of course, ask everyone you can in the family for information and anecdotes, write it all down, make digital copies of photos and certificates etc, and don’t assume the family myth about something was not true – it may provide you with your best lead. There are many sites and blogs to give you tips about where and how to start, but some are so complicated to navigate around they are overwhelming. One of the first I used was Cyndi’s List.

Be like a sleuth and follow the evidence…

There is a treasure trove of information available and the trick is to work out which  pieces are actually relevant. You may have to examine a number of records for men of the same name, era and location before working out – if at all- which one was your ancestor. You’ll need to think quite laterally in the process, considering things for example such as the church denomination, that there may be several towns or villages of the same name and that someone may have remarried and had children with several spouses.

Here’s just some of the things to watch out for!

  • Find out before you join up what the focus is of the site and if it will meet your needs. Geni for example  is geared to link everyone up as part of one big family. It provides no records, so while you can create an enormous family tree many of the family relationships and data on individuals are wrong. It is not so simple to then disconnect from these erroneous trees you may have linked to, and although you can leave Geni, you can never fully check out as your profile is maintained so as to not ‘disturb’ the global tree.
  • Other sites allow you to create incredible trees with powerful analysis tools. Others are all about records, but you have to create your tree elsewhere.
  • Ancestry gives great tools including multiple tree creation and access to diverse records globally.  Many records it does not have in its database but available elsewhere can be added to your tree.
  • Use these site’s tutorials, but remember that they are just get you started and don’t cover everything you need to know to avoid mistakes.
  • People tend to assume others have researched properly, when they have simply duplicated others’ mistakes. Sometimes the errors are quickly obvious, but other times they are not. If they have no records attached to examine to support their tree, see what records can be found to support their family relationships.
  • Don’t cross-reference selectively, check everything! Part of someone else’s tree or household may be correct but two of the children for example may be the offspring of another couple nearby with the same name.
  • Keep a map handy, preferably one that shows place names as they were written rather than spelled now. These can be found on the internet, and are invaluable especially when they show and name areas, manors, mills etc. Some places of the past may have had their name changed entirely, so you may find that a mystery place was in fact exactly where that last known relative had lived.
  • It was only in 1841 the census began in England, but prior records were kept in many ways whereby you can trace family. If your ancestors were not English, records available will vary and of course not be in English, so be ready for the need for translation! When parish and legal records go back further in time, you will have to consider the use of Latin and abbreviations, and a general lack of consistency with spelling from one page to the next! You can check – visitations, trade directories, parish records, ancient texts, court rolls. Grow your own working file of abbreviations, and place name references so you don’t need to keep finding out what words mean or where places where in relation to each other. For example, determining that a woman was a vidua (widow) or uxor (wife) when buried, lets you know the status of her husband to help you find his date of death.
  • Sometimes the transcription page does not link directly to the record page but to the one before or after it, so you may need to toggle between pages. Referring to other entries in the document frequently reveals other useful information, so while it can ads time the task may save you time later.
  • Only by looking at actual records can you see if the person referred to in it could the right one. It is no good having Johannes of a location well to the north when your Johannes lived to the south. Sometimes the records are not that specific, but sometimes you see extra information that is helpful such as where they lived or their occupation.
  • Only by looking at actual records can you see if the transcription is actually correct! It is surprising how many errors I’ve found, citing a baptism that is actually a burial, or a marriage that is simply noting the child’s sponsors (God-parents) If available, read any notations on transcription page where others who have picked up errors can advise on the correction. Many transcriptions are done by wonderful volunteers who like the rest of us, can make mistakes.
  • Back in the day, parish records reflected the Roman ten month calendar which started in March. Often it doesn’t matter if you tree is only out a year here and there, but sometimes it does, so again check the record rather than the transcription.
  • Looking at newspapers online and in libraries can provide diverse information, especially in the family notices. Remember that articles, may not always be fully accurate and may have a bias on the part of the journalist or their interviewee. Sometimes you have to ‘read between the lines’,  or determine what was meant colloquially by phrases at the time that may be very different now.
  • Ancestors didn’t always refer to themselves the same way through life. Betty may have later gone by her full more formal name of Elizabeth, or August Heinrich Steggmann and George Edward McDonald may have later gone by Henry and Ned.
  • Although families typically did not venture far from their relatives pre-Industrial revolution, sometimes they had to within or outside their parish.  Famine, civil unrest, disease, call to arms and arranged marriages are just some of the reasons.
  • Generally marriages were at the bride’s church, not always the same as the groom’s. Sometimes records give such details, and if you’re lucky will include the names of witnesses, fathers’ names and occupations and whether the father was still alive.
  • Reading wills can be difficult sometimes due to abbreviations, lack of spelling consistency and the language used, but can offer wonderful insight from how people were related, their residences, assets (or a lack of) and an approximate date of death, especially if the will was ‘proved’ after the individual died. A will can help you clarify if someone is your target person or their namesake.
  • Some names are fairly uncommon and very localised back in time so much easier to traced, but others are so common it is difficult to go back more than a century with certainty. Occupational surnames tend to be more common so it may be easier to trace a family line where the name is more unusual.
  • It is always helpful to view ‘official’ pedigrees and the family trees uploaded online, but do not rely on them being correct or complete. Do your own checking – it is much quicker than deleting things that are wrong!
  • Don’t just add people or dates because it seems convenient. If there is a chance it could be correct, then make a very clear notation that the entry is still under review and may be wrong.
  • Referring to groups and forums can throw up reliable information about recent ancestors who were known to the writer or their participants.

Get Your Relatives involved.

If you create an online tree you can have other relatives view it and then collaborate with you. Mistakes can be corrected, photos and new information sent to you to be uploaded and the tree can be kept private so it’s for family only.

Be careful how you assign responsibilities though, as allowing editing rights (as compared with just viewing) can lead to accidental deletions and errors that could cause squabbles!

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