5 basic steps to start your family tree for free

By Editor, 8 January 2015 - 2:04pm

Editor Sarah Williams shares her five tips for starting your family history research without spending any money

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 8 January 2015
Sarah Williams, editor
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January is one of the most popular times of the year to start your family history research. It’s a combination of spending time with family (or remembering family that are no longer around) and a desire to try something different that comes with every new year. Plus it’s too cold and wet to do any gardening!

At some point in your research, you will probably want to sign up to one of the main subscription sites such as Ancestry, Findmypast or TheGenealogist, but, if you want to dip your toe into the waters of family history without committing to spending any money yet, here are some basic tips:

1) Write down what you already know. There are plenty of commercial websites that will let you keep your family tree on their website for free, although this may influence your decision later about which site you sign up for. You can just hand draw a tree or print off blank templates from the internet. Just search for ‘free family tree template’. Don’t just think about dates, but try and remember if any places were ever mentioned by your family and make a note of any stories you remember.

2) Make a plan. Once you’ve done that, it will be much clearer to you where the gaps are in your knowledge. It will also help you formulate a plan. You might realize that your grandfather was of fighting age during WW1 but you don’t know what he did. Or you might realize that you have no idea what your grandmother’s maiden name was, or where she came from. You will change and add to your plans as time goes on, but it’s good to start with a set goal.

3) Talk to your family. Armed with a plan, you should get in touch with family members. Send an email out telling them that you are looking into your family history. You may find that some people have started it already and can share their information with you. Alternatively, you may find someone who wants to get involved and is willing to share costs and leg-work with you. Ask them if they have any old family photographs, certificates etc (you will probably want to ask them for digital copies later) and check some of the information you have already put in your tree.

It’s a good time to share your plan with your family. A focused question ("Do you know what grandad did during the First World War?") is more likely to get a response than a general "Can you tell me everything you know about our family history?". Don’t try and put everything into one email as you may put people off responding at all. You can always go back to those who have shown an interest with more questions later. It’s also worth trying to get hold of the email addresses of relatives you may not normally be in contact with, for example your parents’ cousins, as they may have family documents and photographs that have gone down their side of the family.

4) Visit FamilySearch.org. The biggest free online resource for family historians, it’s run by the Church of Latter Day Saints (commonly known as Mormons). The website hosts an astonishing amount of material. Most of the data is transcription only, but sometimes you can also see the original document. Information found in the registration indexes won’t give you the exact date of the event, but it will give you the information you will need to order a birth, marriage or death certificate from the GRO for £9.25.

5) Visit a library. It always amazes me how few people visit libraries nowadays. Your local library is likely to have Ancestry Library Edition on its computers and some now also have Findmypast. You may have to book a slot with a computer, but once you are logged on you will have access to millions more records (including newspaper archives) for free.

Once you’ve tried these five steps, you should see your family tree starting to grow. There are lots more free websites out there that can help you with your research as well as forums such as RootsChat or the WDYTYA Forum (you can download the free app from iTunes or Google Play, just search for WDYTYA Forum) where you can get free advice from fellow family historians.

If you are new to family history and you’re proud of the results you’ve managed to achieve in your first month, then enter your family tree in the Findmypast Tree Awards. You’ll have to be quick as the deadline is 31 January 2015.

Finally, if you get bitten by the family history bug and want to take your research to new levels, then you shouldn’t miss WDYTYA? Live at the NEC in Birmingham from 16-18 April. It’s the perfect opportunity to find out what’s on offer for family historians, learn from experts and get one-to-one advice. Word is it’s going to be even bigger this year (and it’s already the biggest family history event in the world!).

You can get more tips on starting your family tree in our January issue, on sale from newsagents and supermarkets now or downloadable from iTunes, Zinio or Google Play!

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