If you’ve ever watched an episode of WDYTYA? and wondered whether your family’s past contains similarly interesting stories (spoiler alert, it probably does), then there has never been a better time to start your family tree.
The great thing about genealogy in these difficult times is that, unlike scuba diving, kite flying or any other hobby you had planned to take up but now can’t, it is 90% an online activity. And with archives and most libraries currently closed, we’re going to put together a weekly guide to researching your family history that is 100% online.
A fun way to start is to just type information you already have straight into a family tree. There are a few online family tree builders out there but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to use the one on Ancestry. You’re not committed to sticking to the family tree software you choose at first. Most family tree builders let you export your data into a file format (.ged) that is recognised by other sites or software, so you can move your tree around if you want.
So for now, head to Ancestry. The homepage will encourage you to sign up for a free trial, but there is no need to do that yet. One of the great things about Ancestry is that you can start building your tree on the website with a free account. Click on ‘Sign in’ and then select ‘Sign up today for free’. This will give you a basic account to start building your tree for free.
Once you have an account, check that the privacy settings suit you. By default, any work you do on your tree can be used to match your tree to others. This can be extremely useful and may help you grow your tree more quickly but it doesn’t suit everyone. If you are uncertain, start with more stringent privacy settings and you can always relax them later. Ancestry automatically keeps any details about living people on your family tree private regardless of which privacy setting you choose.
The tree builder is fairly intuitive and for this first week what you will be doing is gathering together all the information you know already or can get from family members before you start looking at official records.
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Start by filling in all the details you know about yourself and your parents (add kids and spouse if applicable). The site will guide you through the process.
How to start an Ancestry family tree
Filling in a family tree can really bring home to you how little (or much) you might know about your family. Once you realise you are uncertain about when your parents married and you thought your grandmother was just called Nana, it’s time to reach out to your family.
If you are lucky enough to have parents (or even better, grandparents) who are still around to share their family knowledge then this is the best place to start. Add family history as a topic for your video calls (honestly, they will be relieved to have you asking questions about their grandparents rather than asking them for the umpteenth time if they have enough eggs).
It’s not just parents who may have the information you need. Try aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. Announce on Facebook that you are researching your family history. Spread the word. You may find a relative has already done some of the legwork or you may find one of your siblings wants to help you. Having a ‘research buddy’ can be a great way to share costs and keep motivation up.
See how much of your tree you can fill in just using the information that your family shares with you. If anyone gives you uncertain information along the lines of “I think he was born in Portsmouth”, “I think she died in 1979”, it’s still worth recording on your family tree, just make sure you put a 'c' in front of any dates (short for 'circa' or about) or question mark next to any other uncertain facts. This is all stuff we can sort out next week when we start to dig into the actual historical documents.
Until then, talk to your family, stay safe and happy hunting!
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Sarah Williams is the editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine