A journey through your own heritage could be one of the most fascinating and fulfilling journeys that you’ll ever take. Whether your family is big, small, united or divided – finding out about it’s past can help you to develop a greater sense of self, strengthen existing family relationships and even give you more insight into your health and genetics.
Your search might start with chats with family members, an afternoon spent sifting through old boxes in the loft, or trips to your local library. Then as your curiosity grows, or gaps in your family history start to emerge, you might wonder where you can find the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Below, we’ll discuss the benefits of learning about your family’s history and offer tips on how to get the most from your search.
What are the benefits of tracing my family tree?
It’s human nature for each of us to seek feelings of belonging and connection throughout life.
Some people say that as they get to know more about their ancestors, they are surprised at how connected they start to feel to people they’ve never met. The experience can also help you to understand more about living family members – or even friends – and bring you closer together.
Stronger sense of self
We all have values, customs and traditions, which contribute to the development of our principles and morals, and help to form our uniqueness. Finding out more about the root of some of these values, customs and traditions, can often help us to learn more about why we are the way we are, and develop a stronger sense of self.
Tracing your family tree can be an empowering experience. Learning more about how your ancestors overcame failures and recovered from tragedies, can help you to increase your own resilience.
A reminder that we are creating history right now
Searching for information about your ancestors can also act as a reminder that generations to come with often want to get to know us too. Recording our own lives – through photos and journals etc – can allow our family members the opportunity to connect with us in the future.
Insight into your health
Some diseases, disabilities and health conditions have genetic links, so finding out more about our ancestors, can sometimes allow us to identify patterns and learn more about our own health. With a more complete medical history, doctors can assess your risk of certain diseases, identify other family members who could be at risk of developing diseases, and suggest lifestyle changes and treatment options to help reduce the risk.
The chance to tap into our genealogical consciousness
Amy Harris, a family history professor at Brigham Young University, USA, talks about the concept of genealogical consciousness. This consciousness describes the responsibility that we all have – to our ancestors, ourselves and to future generations – to learn our history, and then to record and preserve it.
Having this close encounter with the past can challenge and deepen us. It can also encourage us to consider how our relationships and actions in the future will last long after we are no longer here, and echo into the lives of future generations.
10 tips for tracing your family tree
1. Start by drawing a family tree based on what you already know
Before you dive in and start looking for answers about your family history, it’s worth taking some time to sketch out what you already know. All you need for this is a large piece of paper, a pen and some quiet space. This map can be based on memory alone, or you might want to dig out old photo albums, or other bit of information that you know you already have, to help you piece it all together. Start with the full name, and date and place of birth of yourself, any siblings, a spouse if you have one, and your parents. Then add any additional family members that you know about, and see how far you can get.
Drawing out your family tree before you delve any deeper into your research will help you to highlight what you already know, and what you want to find out about your family history. It can also help you decide exactly how far back in time you want to go, and will give you something to always be able to refer back to – no matter how complicated your search gets. If you’d prefer to draw your family tree online, then you can do so for free on the Family Echo website.
2. Talk to your relatives
Memories and knowledge from elderly relatives can provide you with a mine of invaluable information about your ancestors. Ask them for any full names, dates of birth, occupations, and any other interesting information that they can tell you about your family tree. If you can, then it’s worth treating these conversations like interviews, and using a dictaphone to record them, so that you can go back over any smaller details later. Plus, these recordings themselves could become useful pieces of family history for future generations.
It’s also worth asking elderly relatives for birth, death and marriage certificates, or any other documents that you can photograph and that can give you clues about your ancestors. Coming from a generation who often held onto items of sentimental value and rarely threw things away, you might also find that your elderly relatives have things like letters, newspaper cuttings and photographs that can inspire your search and bring it to life.
While your natural instinct might be only to talk to elderly relatives about the family’s history, it can also be helpful to speak to younger relatives too, or to others around your own age, such as siblings or cousins. They may have already unearthed knowledge about your family tree that could help, and you might be surprised what you find out. It can also be a wonderful excuse and opportunity to speak to family members that you’re long overdue a catch up with!
3. Get organised
Once you’ve drawn out what you know about your family tree, and started gathering information, it can be useful to have somewhere to store it that will make sense to you, and that will allow you to keep things in order and update it as you go.
The first thing that you can do, to protect and preserve photos and documents for as as long as possible, is to scan them electronically. These scan copies should ideally be high quality – ideally scanned at 600 DPI (dots per inch) using the TIFF file format as this doesn’t compress images – so that minor details won’t be lost. It’s then a good idea to save your scanned images online in a cloud storage system, rather than on a single computer, so that they won’t be gone forever if your computer or laptop breaks down one day.
Online photo storage sites like Google Photos (free) or Dropbox (free basic storage) can be good places to do this. For additional backup you could also consider buying an external hard drive, which can allow you to save tens of thousands of high-resolution images. The best place to buy one of these is from an electronics retailer like Curry’s, or on Amazon.
When storing original copies of any family photos or documents, it’s a good idea to store them flat, in a room where they won’t be exposed to damp or extreme heat. A cupboard, in a cool dry area of your home is usually a good bet. When it comes to choosing what type of storage system to place your family documents in, it’s best to opt for acid-free binders or archival boxes (you can buy these on Amazon or Staples). Many storage options that we might normally use – like plastic files, wooden boxes and self-adhesive photo albums – can release chemicals as they age, which can damage your photos and papers. You can find a full list of the do’s and don’ts of storing precious photos and documents here.
4. Take your search online
After speaking with your family, you might have already started to build up a more complete picture of what your family tree looks like. Hearing stories or finding out about what sort of people your ancestors were, might have left you feeling like you know them. However, professional genealogist Anthony Adolph (who you might have seen on the BAFTA-winning BBC show, Who Do You Think You Are?) advises, “Once you’ve got the information from all your relatives, one tip would be taking it with a pinch of salt. Some of it could be true, and some of it could be complete rubbish.”
With this in mind, Anthony advises looking at census records online, as you will almost certainly discover names of family members that you never knew existed. The National Archives offer a detailed guide on how to access and search census records, which includes the use of free websites like FreeCen.org.uk. The National Archives have also partnered with Ancestry UK and Findmypast, where you can find and access scanned copies of census returns and additional information. Searching indexes is free, but there will be a charge for viewing and downloading scans of original documents. You can however, view census documents and other records for free at The National Archives in Kew, at many libraries and record offices, and at FamilySearch Centres worldwide.
As well conducting manual census searches, paid for services such as Ancestry UK and Findmypast can also help you to digitally map, build on and adjust your family tree as you unravel more about your family’s past. You can start building for free during a two-week free trial to see whether this is something that works for you.
5. Make the most of social networking sites
While tracing your family tree, it can be worth using social media sites like Facebook to connect with people who share your ancestral surnames, and to help you look for public libraries, archives, local organisations and genealogy-related services in your ancestor’s hometown or city. There are also specific Facebook groups set up where people who are searching for information about a particular surname can share their findings, or appeal for new knowledge.
More specialised social networking sites like GenesReunited, FamilyRelatives, and LostCousins can also help to connect you with people who may have already conducted research into your family’s roots. It’s generally a good idea to assume that someone else’s research might not be entirely accurate, so that you won’t end up disappointed. But even if it’s not entirely accurate, it could still help to point you in the right direction.
The internet now makes it incredibly easy to connect with individuals and organisations that you would otherwise not know existed, who might hold information about your family’s past.
6. Consider taking a DNA test
Taking a DNA test can be an incredibly interesting and personal way to find out more about where you come from, by gaining insight into which regions of the world your ancestors may have originated from. This has also never been quicker or easier than it is today.
With AncestryDNA, 23andMe or MyHeritage, you can simply order a testing kit, send off your saliva sample in the post and have your results within a few weeks. You’ll also be able to get in touch with people around the world who share your DNA. If you have any concerns about doing a DNA test during the current climate, then it’s worth getting in touch with the company of your choice directly, so that they can tell you more about what they are doing to make the testing process as safe as possible.
7. Take your time
When you start researching your family tree, it can feel natural to want to go as far back as possible, as quickly as possible. But it can be helpful to try and flesh out the lower branches of your tree first, before trying to climb higher.
If a person in your family tree still remains somewhat of a mystery because you can’t find out enough about them, then rather than rushing past them, take some time to really try and find out about this person. If you can’t find them on the census, then this article from FamilyTree might give you some hints about why this is. Family Trees take time and research, and you might hit a few bumps in the road along the way – but you will make a breakthrough eventually. It’s a bit like a great detective novel, so take your time and don’t give up.
8. Find out if you’re related to royalty
It’s estimated that half of the UK population are related to the British King or Queen, so it could be fun to find out whether you are one of them. Hugh Grant, Uma Thurman and Madonna are just a few examples of celebrities who have been found to share royal DNA.
The best way to do this is to pay close attention to the branches of your family tree which include ancestors who were particularly wealthy, or who had surnames that sounded particularly aristocratic. This article from the Guardian, will also give you a few things to consider if you’re thinking about searching for royal family roots.
When you’re ready to go deeper with your search, it’s worth reading this blog post from Findmypast which will show you where to look for noble ancestors and how to find out if you’re related to royalty.
9. Search for ancestors who might have been poor or had a criminal record
If you suspect or have been told that an ancestor was very poor, or had a criminal record, then this should make finding information about them much easier.
The Poor Law was established in 1815 to help those that were unable to work. It made sure that the poor were clothed, fed and housed in workhouses. Those looked after under Poor Law, would have had records kept about this. You can find a full list of archives holding Poor Law records in the UK and Ireland here.
Even if you aren’t aware of any of your ancestors having a criminal past, it can still be helpful to check court, government and criminal records – which you can do on Ancestry UK or Findmypast – because even if they didn’t commit a crime themself, they might have acted as a witness in a court case, or been a member of the jury. The possibilities of what you could find out are endless.
10. Manage your expectations
In the past, you might have seen the popular BBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? which is packed full of inspiring and sometimes, tragic tales about family history. Some highlights include Robert Rinder following the story of his grandfather who is a Holocaust survivor, Danny Dyer finding out he is a royal descendant, and JK Rowling finding out that she came from a long line of single mothers.
While shows like this make for some great TV, if you start your search thinking that something groundbreaking will be revealed at the end of it, then you could end up feeling disheartened if that doesn’t happen. The majority of us are descended from ordinary people, who lived ordinary lives, so it’s important to manage your expectations early on, and try to look for satisfaction in bringing even the small, and perhaps seemingly insignificant moments from our family’s history to life. Because even if things seem small or ordinary; they still will have helped to shape the person we have become today.
A final thought…
Going back to your roots and learning more about your authentic self, can be a significantly grounding experience – especially when living in today’s fast-paced modern world, where nothing stays the same for too long. Tracing your family tree can help you to develop a greater understanding of the connection between your past, present and future, while strengthening family relationships and allowing you to develop a greater sense of self. It’s amazing the impact that people we’ve never met or knew existed, can have on our lives today.
Recording and preserving what you find is also a wonderful way to honour your family line, and to make sure that future family generations can develop the same pride, compassion and understanding about their heritage for years to come.