One of the best excuses to travel is to find out more about your family lineage and how your ancestors lived. I have been working on my family tree for several years and have discovered connections to Canada, Australia, USA, France, and even Turkey. The stories you’ll uncover along the way can be incredibly compelling, especially as you dig up interesting things about your family’s past. Here are the top tips on how to trace your family lineage.
1. Talk to your family
One of the most important things to do first is to talk to any family members and ask about ancestors. What do they remember? Do they have any certificates or photos that you could look at? Write down and record what they say about their lives and other family members. My grandfather went to sea at 15 years old and I’m just so glad I took the time to ask him questions about his travels before he died. The generation who lived through World War II are getting fewer, so if you have senior family members from that era, do take the time to ask them about their experiences. This will give you unique information you won’t find in libraries.
2. Prepare your records and validate information
At one time, tracing your ancestors involved spending days in research depositories and libraries. But the internet has been a game changer. Today, a lot of church records, military documents, and census information is online. You can find out a lot of detail by using sites such as Ancestry or FindMyPast, which need a subscription but there are free trial offers. These hold a significant amount of records but you’ll need to be careful and check the details of what you find. Validate your information using dates, records, and other documents. Do a sense-check as to whether the dates fit chronologically. For example, does a birth and marriage date look feasible? Find out as much as you can before you dive in as it will help focus your visit on what you can’t get online.
3. Write everything down
When you find a family member in these documents, make a record of everything you learn and make note of where you got that information. Although there is a lot of information about family lineage online, some is not as accurate as it should be and some is flat out incorrect. Make sure you keep accurate records of your findings and how the family members connect. When you start finding more information, you’ll need those records to check dates and places to validate your findings.
National Archive sites are another valuable resource for finding out more about your lineage and hold a significant amount of information. The Australian National Archive, for example, holds military records from World War I, along with immigration and family data. There are National Archives in the UK, and a lot of there information has been digitized. The Liberty Ellis Foundation has details of everyone who passed through the site in New York.
The internet has opened up a vast network of people tracing their lineage who now have a place to connect. There are forums and specialist websites where it is possible to find out about ancestors online. Some internet forums have pages dedicated to the history of a town or organization. For example, my hometown has a Facebook page where people can upload old photos and we constantly get folks asking about their families — and often there are positive answers for them. Some regions have local history societies which are easy to find online. A few inquiries in places like this before you travel will give you ideas on what to see and what else you can research. You may also make a local contact in the city you are visiting who can advise you on what to see and do.
5. Make the most out of your field trips
If you’re planning on exiting the local library and making your way to the source of your ancestry, be sure to have a plan on what you want to see and do on your field trip. Without this, you can easily waste time looking in the wrong places and achieving very little. Take photocopies of documents so you don’t lose the originals. If you are visiting a library or research center abroad, make sure they have the information you want to review and can have it available for your visit. In some places, you might need to reserve ahead, especially in some of the specialist centers. Speak to the center beforehand as the curators often know of additional resources you may find helpful.
Make sure you take photos, notes, and record the detail of the reference documents you wouldn’t be able to access at home. Also take this opportunity to visit cemeteries, museums, and potentially even the old homes or properties where your ancestors live (be sure to ask permission to look around if there are people currently living on the property). Budget plenty of time as researching ancestry in person takes a lot longer than you’d think — as you’ll likely end up having long, hopefully illuminating conversations. You might even come across something really exciting that needs an extra day to hunt down. Be prepared to find out unusual things, and even people with a criminal past. I found an ancestor with a history of forgery and loved visiting the jail he spent time in.
There’s nothing quite like actually being in a place where your ancestors once lived and worked, and there is always something new to discover as your ancestor becomes more than a name. Last time I was in France visiting the town where my Huguenot ancestors came from, I took a guided tour and discovered a lot about the area and the silk and wool industry where they worked. That’s when I found out they used the silk route trading networks. Now that’s a field trip to plan for in the future.