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First Steps Exploring the Family Tree

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 23 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
First Steps Exploring The Family Tree

For the uninitiated, embarking on a study of ones ancestors can be daunting task. This guide is therefore intended to lead through the basic first steps to help you obtain not only the information, but also the skills and confidence to then delve deeper.

Write Down What You know

For reasons of thoroughness and coherence, family tree exploration should always begin in the present and work backwards in time. There is no logic in finding out about a distant ancestor if you can’t connect yourself to them and place them within a family history context.

As such the very first step is to compile important data about yourself and your immediate family, focusing in particular on full names, dates of birth, marriages and deaths, and working your way back a generation at a time. Locations of events are also of vital importance in establishing geographical patterns to your research.

To help keep research easy to follow and cross-reference it is advisable to start a basic filing system. A computer can help you to compile a centrally located database of notes, facts and accounts. You can also start creating a family tree by using a spreadsheet or dedicated family tree creator software.

Oral Testimony

Once you have drained your own font of family knowledge, it's then time to tap that of your relations. Following the rule of always working backwards you should start by interviewing parents, uncles and aunts about what they can remember - and then, if possible, work back another generation. Rather than simply make notes it is a good idea to record these talks with a Dictaphone or video camera as this will create a historical document.

To gather all the important information most effectively, and avoid being diverted too much by trivial family remembrances, it’s vital to first compile a standardised list of questions that hone in on establishing the key facts of names, dates and places - such as where and when the individual was born, what their father and mother’s full names were, where they married, what jobs they did.

Nevertheless, don’t be restricted too much by your questioning as useful and unanticipated asides may be revealed in the course of your interviews. Also always remember to proceed with care and diplomacy as your investigative probing could inadvertently touch on some sensitive family subjects.


Verification is an important part of any viable research process and with oral-based study in particular, you can't always take what you have been told at face value – the memory of dates and events can easily get jumbled up over time – and so you need to get into the habit of verifying your information with the aid of data obtained from alternative sources. Other oral accounts themselves can be helpful in confirming certain facts – or questioning their credibility - but the most reliable verification is provided by documentary evidence.

Physical Clues

Once oral accounts have help sketch out further reaches of the family tree it is then time to flesh out and substantiate findings with more tangible evidence.

Official documents such as certificates of birth, marriage and death, wills, military service papers, pension payments found in amongst relatives’ personal miscellanea will provide cold, hard historical evidence that will greatly enhance the value of your family research.

Memorabilia such as photographs and personal letters can also provide valuable clues. However, although an obvious eye-catcher, photographs are limited in their usefulness unless the featured people can be identified by relatives and noted down, along with any other relevant details.

Letters can be very useful both in terms of conveying accurate primary information and in adding depth, but as a very personal source of information, they can’t just been thoughtlessly plundered but should be handled with a degree of diplomacy. Other memorabilia can provide clues and have stories to tell, such as personal scrapbooks or heirlooms such as bibles. Such items can also be useful in jogging the memories of relatives.

What’s Next?

All the information amassed in your research up this point can then be compiled into a family tree, which is essentially a root map that shows how your family is related to one another. This will enable you highlight the gaps in your research that need greater attention. It will also provide a new starting point for more in-depth archive studies.

Then next step could be to check the information contained in your research so far against official records – particularly the indexes to birth, marriage and death certificates. A number of these can be found online at various UK-based subscription sites or in person at your local county archive or local studies centre. Certificates and census returns will also enable you to move further back in time and uncover previously unknown branches to your ever-growing tree.

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