The Ancestry advertisements on television make it look so easy. You might even imagine you’ll just have to type in a name and your entire family tree will magically appear, as Ancestry’s powerful computers work it all out before your very eyes. It isn’t as easy as that. It’s not even as easy as it looks on Who Do You Think You Are? We don’t get to see all the records they discount before the celebrity clicks on the correct one!
But that said, it isn’t so very difficult either, not when you know how. With a little practice you’ll get to know what information you’ll find on the various types of record, and how to use these records in conjunction with each other, confirming and adding to what you know as you work your way into your ancestors’ past.
In English family history research there’s a very definite change at 1837-1841. More recently than this point we use one group of records, while going further into the past we must learn to find and use lots of other record sources. Fortunately, since we work backwards from the present, it’s the easier system we must learn to use first.
To demonstrate how you can get your family back to the generations living as at 1837-41, I gave myself one hour to work on the ancestry of an old family friend about whose past I knew very little: just his name, approximate birth year, the area where he grew up, and the names of his mother and one of his brothers. All sources identified are public records, readily available, but being deeply aware of privacy/ security issues, I chose this person because he died more than thirty years ago, has no descendants… and actually I think he would be pleased to have helped. 🙂
In the next post I’ll show you exactly how I did it, but for now I’ll introduce you to four websites.
Ancestry is a subscription genealogy website. Operating from Utah, it’s the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. Ancestry does not ‘own’ the records you’ll find on its pages; the originals are kept in various archives throughout the country (or throughout the world if you have a ‘worldwide’ membership). However, through Ancestry, you’ll be able to see digital images or transcripts of those original records. You can also build your tree on the Ancestry website.
Find My Past
FindMyPast is a UK-based online genealogy service, and like Ancestry, provides subscribers with Internet access to digital images or transcripts of official genealogy records. Again, there’s a facility to build your tree on the FindMyPast website.
There’ll be more to say about both Ancestry and FindMyPast in future posts.
This website is created and provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Family history is important to followers of that faith so that they can have relatives from past generations retrospectively baptized into their church. The website is free for anyone to use, but you must create an account and you must be signed in each time you use it. FamilySearch holds transcripts of records rather than access to digital images of originals. However, there are certain types of search when I know FamilySearch will more accurately return the records I need than the subscription websites. There will be an example of this in the next post.
General Register Office for England and Wales
(GRO) Here you can search the historical birth and death registers for England and Wales. These start at 1837. At the time of writing, the death register is searchable up to the year 1957; and births are searchable to 1917. Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates may be ordered here, and for this there is of course a cost. However, the searchable register itself includes information that may help you to progress your research without purchasing the certificate. To use this site you have to create an account and you must be signed in, but there is no subscription charge.
In the worked example to follow in my next post, I limit my subscription searches to Ancestry, and to the following specific record categories: Census & Electoral Rolls; and Births, Marriages, Deaths. I also make use of the free searches at FamilySearch and the GRO website. The main types of record I will be looking for are:
- Civil Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) records – these commenced in 1837;
- Census returns – from 1841 these include individual people, recorded in household groups.
Why not take a few minutes now to familiarise yourself with the two free websites. And remember to keep this information to hand as you follow through the worked example in my next post.