How to Start Researching your Family Tree


Before you start trawling your way through the billions of records on the many websites online, it’s a good idea to organise how you’re going to store and reference your research, as it will help a great deal in future.  I cannot emphasise this enough. When I first started, I was so excited to get to the 1700s in about 2 hours, that I had to go back another time and tidy up the frenzy!  I hope this doesn’t tame your enthusiasm – just think of it as laying good solid foundations so you will enjoy your investigating so much more as you jump into the genealogy journey.


Chodziez, Poznan, where my husband’s ancestors were from. They emigrated to New Zealand at the latter part of the 19th century.

So before you get too carried away with those England census records and unsolved family mysteries, here’s where I’d recommend starting.

The marriage of Henry Paxton and Jane Hunter 1838

The marriage of Henry Paxton and Jane Hunter 1838

1) Organisation

Download the ‘Personal Ancestral File’ (PAF) for free, or sometimes a  software program is free with a family tree magazine.  A popular paid software program is ‘Family Tree Maker’ available for purchase from ‘Ancestry’.  But you could start with the free basic PAF, and if you’d like the increased functionality of other programs, then you can purchase one in future.  Your family tree will be saved as a PAF file, but you can export this as a GED-com file into other programs.

You will also want to have a system for storing the originals of vital records, documents and photos.



2) Guidelines for Sharing Online

Dean Castle 2009

Dean Castle, taken in 2009

There are many sites to upload your family tree onto, which will help with sharing research with others who are tracing the same family line.  I could tell you so many stories on my own journey of families reunited, first cousins meeting for the first time in their 80s, and friendships formed after many years of families being out of touch.  It is what I have found the most rewarding.

When uploading your tree, remember to always hide living relatives, especially children, and be sensitive as to what information you share about close relatives, even those who have died.    I made some mistakes early on, and also been on the receiving end of other peoples.

3) Sources, verifying others research, and referencing.

  • Make sure you record the source of your findings, be it a vital document (such as a christening or burial record), or census, word of mouth, or military record.  Your family tree program will have a place to do this for every detail, or else record under your notes.
  • Keep really good notes in your program, even if your research leads you to a dead end. It’s surprising what you forget when you return a year later to trace a difficult line.
  • There is the temptation to copy and paste the research from others, as it’s always an exciting find when you discover someone researching the same line.  Sometimes you only need to go back as far as a grandparent, and frequently, as far as a great grandparent.  But there is so much inaccurate research on the internet, much of it people have just taken a guess and connected family trees together.  If you can’t verify with some certainty, then record in your notes and do further research until you can connect a person in.
Smithy where an ancestor, William Loydall, worked in the 19th Century.

Smithy where an ancestor, William Loydall, worked in the 19th Century (the individual’s pictured are on cousin lines),

4) Getting Started

Always work backwards from yourself.  Record all your own details and make notes about the places you’ve lived in.  I like to build a timeline under my notes for each individual.

a) Accumulating information and data:

  • Start with yourself and record all your details, your parents, your grandparents, and as much as you know.  Record even the most far-fetched stories in your notes, as sometimes there is an element of truth in them that may help.
  • Talk to family members (even siblings) about what they know and what their memories are. Where you can, ask to see certificates, photos (often have information on the back), memorabilia, family bibles, wills.
  • Has anyone else in your family done any research?  Copy it into your notes and take the time to verify family stories and dates where possible.  Many times someone will have written things down years ago before the internet was available.  This sort of information is often a goldmine to your research.

b) Visit your local library

See what resources they have, especially if your family has been local for more than a generation or two. A good-sized library will also be a treasure trove for reference books and may have a genealogical society that meets regularly.

You might like to purchase your own family history guide, particular those written by reputable authors.  (I have one by ‘Collins’). There are some great reference books around.  Check them out the library first to see if you will refer to them often, and only get the most recent ones as information is constantly being added to the internet.  You may also want to wait until you know more about where your family is from to ensure what reference materials will be relevant – if they’re from the British Isles for instance you’ll have many to choose from.

c) Join your local family history society and/or join mailing lists online for relevant surnames and places. 

Community is a central part of family history research.  Connect with others and share research and tips.  And if you benefit from this, freely give yourself as well.

Next time I post on family research, I’ll write on what sort of records are available where you ancestors may have left footprints.

~ Victoria


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