How To

Begin Family History Research

My Emmett and related families history research started over twenty years ago, and in this post I will share some tips on how to begin your research, and provide examples along the way.


What are your motivations for starting a family history project? You might want to see how far back you can research and grow a mega family tree. You might be interested in facts and stories, and want to explore the related historical periods. Work out ‘your’ motivation and don’t allow others to hijack your project.

Example: I’m a history junkie and recently found myself reading about French convents, cholera in the 19th century, and old court records to improve my understanding of family events.

Communicate with others!

If possible, communicate with others who can help you begin your research, and later revisit with follow-up questions.

It is important that you have a prepared list of questions, and whilst people will often share all sorts of interesting facts and stories, make sure you ask questions that can help your research related to: locations, roads, time periods, relations, jobs, military careers, burial details etc. It is important that you ask people questions whilst you are able to.

You might be surprised and discover other people that you don’t know who are researching the same branches of the family! An email might never receive a response, but an extra minute or two of your time, might help you later.

Example: Many years ago I sat down and talked to a grandmother about her family and life. My grandmother has now passed away, but I’ve since followed up by asking my mother related questions, and I still have a great-Uncle who can provide additional details. Ask people questions whilst you can!

Gather evidence!

People often have useful documents and items that can be a huge help, without realising their importance, and sometimes it isn’t just paper based documentation that is helpful. Making copies, taking photos and writing notes about the items at the time of discovering, can prove helpful, even if not immediately.

Example: A grandmother had certificates, medals, a passport and postcards that have proved useful for gathering data, which has resulted in new research leads and finds. I spoke to my mother about the documents and this led to further information to note down.

Storing the information

Of course without properly storing information you are likely going to struggle. Many people use family history software to not only build the ‘tree’, but also to add facts and notes, which can be reviewed later. It is important to note where you obtained facts.

You should also make sure you organise your files and have backups, so that years of research is easily searched through and not lost.

Example: I’ve spent considerable time updating facts and notes in my family history software, and this centralised approach helps me analysis the data more effectively. I make backups of my files, and can easily export the data if needed to another format for use elsewhere.

Don’t rely on the transcriptions!

I love transcriptions and often I’m amazed and grateful for the effort and work of others. However that being said, I do find mistakes, which is understandable. Secondly, when possible, you should look at the original document, as additional useful data might be available.

Examples: A marriage record for a grandfather also included his regiment details, and another record included occupation details for another ancestor, both of which were not on the transcription.

Struggling to start

A common problem is when people struggle to start their projects, and only know a few details about recent ancestors, leaving people unsure of how to begin their research. You might be surprised where you can gain useful leads!

Marriage records can provide details of occupation, ages and father’s names, which could prove helpful if those people are searchable in an available census. Additionally, electoral roll and probate details can also be useful. Look at what records you can obtain, which can help you get over the initial hurdles. An online search through a newspaper archive might also be helpful. An online service such as Ancestry or Find My Past, might also help you.

Example: I was researching a direct line from a few generations ago, and knew vaguely of a connection to another family through conversations with a Nan in the past and my Mum. Sadly I should have taken better notes! However, by using keywords, partly based on my research and conversations, I was able to find further details online in the British newspaper archives.


I hope this blog post has been useful to those starting their research. If you have any advice for those struggling or want to provide other feedback, please leave a comment.

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