8 Simple Ways to Start Discovering Your Family History | History Hit

8 Simple Ways to Start Discovering Your Family History

Niall Cullen

17 Dec 2020
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Ever wondered if your ancestors have shaped who you are today? Our friends at Findmypast have some top tips that can help you find out.

Family history is about so much more than just names and dates. It’s about exploring your roots and understanding the lives of your ancestors. Just like the celebrities on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ you’ll find shocks and revelations, twists and turns. You may uncover mysteries and scandals. Most of all, it’s about going on a fascinating, sometimes emotional, always rewarding, journey of discovery that’s unique to you.

In family history, you’re the detective. This guide shines a light on some of the things you can expect to encounter as you delve into your past. With real stories from real people, simple advice for getting started and information on the kinds of things you can achieve, the only question you’ll be left with is why you didn’t get into genealogy sooner.

Why family history?

There are so many reasons we should all be exploring our pasts. For starters, it’s now easier than ever before. Genealogy used to require trips across the country to archive offices you hoped had what you were looking for. Now, it’s all just a mouseclick or app tap away.

Family history is one of those hobbies that can become (just a bit) addictive. When ‘just 15 more minutes’ turns into the wee hours of the morning, just remember there are far worse habits you could have.

Like solving a crossword, finishing a Sudoku or guessing the culprit in a whodunnit, piecing together the puzzle of your past is full of satisfying ‘Eureka’ moments. After all, who doesn’t like playing detective?!

Above all else, researching your family tree is the only way to truly understand the people you come from. Having that knowledge can truly change your present and future. Along the way, you can read your ancestor’s school reports, find them in old newspapers, discover what they did for a living and so much more. Whatever you do, just don’t let their stories be forgotten.

James Rebanks joined me on the podcast to tell the history of his family farm in the Lake District hills. This was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. We talk about how it has transformed over time.
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Starting your family tree:

Now you understand why family history is so important, next you need to know where to start. These simple tips make for great jumping-off points.

1. Jot down what you already know

Draw a basic family tree with yourself at the root. Add your immediate family and grow from there. Include all the dates and places of births, marriages and deaths that you can. This will highlight the gaps in your knowledge. Do you know the women’s maiden names? What about the men’s occupations? All of this will help you identify the right people when you start searching for family records.

2. Ask your relatives

Your family story starts at home. Show your first attempt at your family tree to your nearest and dearest to see if they can fill in any gaps. Ask what they remember about family members who’ve passed. Are there any family rumours to investigate? Any criminality or aristocratic connections? Who did military service? Make notes. These lines of enquiry will point towards where to look next.

3. Get your rummage on

Take that dusty box down from the attic and look for old documents or photos. National identity cards, driving licences, passports and letters can reveal vital information.

Pay attention to ages, addresses and occupations, and add any new details you find to your family tree.

4. Take your research online

Now you have the foundations in place, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Millions of birth, marriage, death and census records are available on websites like findmypast.co.uk.

Census records, like this one from 1911, list names, addresses and occupations. (Image Credit: reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England).

They’ll reveal the most important details of your family’s story and leave you equipped with the information you need to get back even further.

5. Preserve your discoveries

Online family tree builders allow you to add every milestone of your ancestors’ lives and attach supporting documents and pictures. Creating your family tree online means that it will be safely stored forever. The best part? It’s completely free to start and grow your family tree online at Findmypast.

6. Old news is good news

Local newspapers used to report on everything from drunken brawls to newborns and the opening of new businesses. You’ll almost definitely find your ancestors mentioned in Findmypast’s huge newspaper archive. The real question is: why were they newsworthy?

7. Honour family heroes

Most of us know whether our ancestors served, but few of us know much more.

Army service records are some of the most detailed resources you’ll find. (Image credit: reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England).

Military records can unlock everything about your relative’s service so you can truly understand their experiences and the sacrifices they made.

80 years ago Wing Commander Joseph Watts was killed when his RAF Hampden Bomber crashed. He left behind an unborn son. John Watts, born 8 months later, would never meet his father. But recently he discovered that at the RAF Museum at Cosford, they have one of the very few surviving Hampdens. And this one is from the very squadron his father flew in. In this poignant documentary, John sees the plane for the very first time.
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8. Walk in your ancestors’ footsteps

You’ll find full addresses in censuses and other historical records. Use these to take a trip to your relatives’ old addresses. Seeing their old houses is bound to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Just look what you could discover…

Millions of people are tracing their family trees every day. These fascinating stories will leave you feeling inspired to start yours.

“I uncovered a mystery identity”

“Grandad was just a baby when his father left him and my great-grandmother living in High Street, Aston, in one of those buildings where each family just had one room. And while my grandfather never showed any interest in the father who left him, I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery.

I eventually found him in census records and city directories listed as a bookkeeper. I cried when I finally found him and actually spoke to the sky, telling grandad I had found his father.”

Nita, Findmypast member

“Now I know the root of my passion”

“I’ve loved cats all my life and foster them for Cats Protection. I grew up on a dairy farm and had a (bad!) habit of taming the feral cats to bring indoors. Weirdly, both of my parents much prefer dogs.

It was only recently, nosing through some old family pictures when the penny dropped. My great-grandmother was nursing a cat in every photo. She’s holding them with affection and the cats look so content. I never knew her, so it’s fascinating to realise I’ve likely inherited my cat passion from her.”

Carole, Findmypast member

Start your FREE family tree today

Findmypast has everything you need to start discovering your ancestors’ amazing stories. The only question is, where will your past take you? Find out now at findmypast.co.uk.

Niall Cullen