Where to start

What is the difference is between genealogy and family history?

Genealogy is when a person follows the generations back as far as they can go following some/all lines in history.

Family History is when a person tries to find out as much about a person, about their lives producing a story about each person bringing them to life, rather than just recording them and their life events on a family tree.

Don’t start with an alleged famous relative and find the link, don’t believe all the old tales you have been told – it’s like Chinese Whispers – there will be some semblance of truth in the story but over the years it will have changed!!

In my tree there was a tale that x4 gt grandfather Thomas had hung himself – he hadn’t, but, what the poor man had done was tied a rope round his own neck with a 40lb weight attached and drowned himself in a vat of water in the back of his shop – oh dear what a mess his mind must’ve been in!

There are no claims to fame in my tree – yet!

The best place to start is with yourself, note down all that you know, then when you have done that go and speak to all the generations of the family that you can and ask them to give you more information.

Don’t think you will remember it because you won’t so take a pen and paper at least!

By the time you’ve got your parents details down, and their parents and their parents too you have 14 people and that does not include siblings!!

Speaking to grandparents is a must so if you are lucky enough for yours to still be around a visit is long overdue!!  Grandparents often are in possession of a family Bible – it was tradition to write in the family bible information such as birthdays, marriages and deaths – so an invaluable source, they often have old birth/marriage/death certificates.  Make a note too of where you have found the information in case you need to go back to it!

Don’t be alarmed to discover that your great grandparent was illegitimate and that your surname shouldn’t be what it is now!  I discovered my x2 great grandfather was illegitimate and my surname should never have been what it was and that is should have been Heap, needless to say we preferred the one we ended up with!  My x2 gt grandfather was born illegitimately and in the 1851 census aged 1 yr he was living with who was his grandparents – they had shown him as their son – so don’t be alarmed to discover that they told fibs too!

Illegitimacy was frowned upon and brought disgrace to the family in those days things were very different.  Another thing they told fibs about was their age, the ages given in the censuses can vary by 10 years, don’t confuse this with the rounding up/down of ages that occurred in the 1841 census though.

These days people have 2/3/4 children but a couple of generations back it wouldn’t be unusual for families to have 8-15 children, this was due to various reasons, contraception, no television, mortality rates – it was not unusual for a couple to have 6 children and for 4 of them to have died.  It also wasn’t unusual for say a child named George to die and when the couple have another son to call that son George too.

Often when one parent died the remaining parent would marry again and often quite quickly! They would then carry on having children with their new spouse, when this happens childrens surnames were often changed too – unofficially. So you may find amongst the censuses that the childrens surnames differ going from one to another and then back to what it was! Confusing to say the least.  Another thing to bear in mind when it is the wife that has died and father has remarried – the childs relationship to the head of the house (father) will say son or daughter leading you to believe if you don’t know any different that the wife is the birth mother of those children – which often isn’t the case.  If the father has died and the mother has remarried  the new husband is shown as the head of the house, fortunately sometimes if will actually say stepson or stepdaughter which is helpful especially when other children are shown as son or daughter – it identifies which spouse fathered which child.

Another common practice was for someone to use their middle forename as their usual name – so on the 1861 census one of my relatives is shown as Mary Ellen Smith – then on the 1871 census she is down as Ellen Smith, then just to make it even harder by 1881 her husband had died and she had reverted to her maiden name for whatever reason – very confusing and thoughtless if you as me – they didn’t consider us rooting about into their family a century on!

So you have now gathered all this information what do you do with it?  You need to put it in some sort of order, pen and paper is fine however you cannot amend/add/delete as is inevitable so the best way to make sense of all your information is to have it stored on a computer.

Ancestry.co.uk have a facility to allow you to create a tree on their website this is free and stored on the web so no problem if your computer throws a wobbler.  Ancestry also have an app you can download onto your phone/tablet – its not the full site but it allows you to access your trees and you can update them too via the app.

There is lots of software available -I personally like Family Tree Maker software – available on Amazon.co.uk – there are different editions, Silver, Platinum etc – have a good look as this software often has up to 6 months free membership to Ancestry.co.uk which can be worth around £60. (Family Tree Maker is being discontinued soon so look out for some good deals! if you do buy it/use it it will continue to work)

The good thing with the Family Tree Maker software is that once you synchronise it with Ancestry.co.uk you can update either Ancestry or the software and they synchronise with each other and they end up mirroring each other.

You will hit brick walls – they can be overcome.  I had found one of my relatives in 1871 and 1891 but not 1881, so I searched in the 1881 census but played with what I knew which was Thomas Keenan born in Dukinfield in 1851 had a wife called Mary born in Stalybridge and their children were James, Margaret and John – so I searched for Thomas born in 1851 in Dukinfield with a wife called Mary and children called James, Margaret and John and left out the surname Keenan – low and behold there he was because the transcriber had transcribed the surname as Reenan due to the fancy old fashioned handwriting it was written in!  So think out of the box.

Transcription can be a problem – Ancestry, Familysearch and other websites will allow you to assist in the transcription of records, which is fine when it is a country/area/names you are familiar with.  The problems begin when someone often in an different country transcribes records, they are not familiar with localities, towns, names etc.  There are some hilarious mistranscriptions out there!!  On Ancestry you can put a note on to say the entry is mistranscribed and what it should actually be which means in future when someone searches for that person they will find it thanks to your note!

Some common pitfalls are particularly when transcribing old writing are not being able to read what a word says, you need to look back at other entries in the same hand to see if you can understand the letters to form the word, you need to take time when reading old documents and ensure that you read the information properly so you don’t miss anything.

When researching your tree stay focussed on what you are doing, don’t go off on a tangent and leave the line you were looking at by researching a line that isn’t as relevant.  Record all the information you already have in some sort of index so it is easily retrievable.  When copying information don’t put it into your own format always copy the format of the document so you can understand what you have written at a later date and include spelling mistakes.

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