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Where am I from? Researching a family tree

Updated on October 20, 2011

Introduction to genealogy: researching your family tree

If you want to research your family tree, it is undoubtedly the case that the exact methods you use will be different, depending on where your ancestors came from.

I am from the United Kingdom, as are all my known ancestors for some four centuries.

Therefore, although a lot of the general comments I make will apply to any country, the specifics are in relation to England and Wales in particular.

I'm lucky, as England is a particularly easy country in which to research ancestry - records have been kept for a long time (church records since the 1530s, civil registration since the 1830s) and there haven't been revolutions and invasions which destroyed documents, as is sadly the case in many European countries.

Discovering who your ancestors were, what they did, where they lived, and how many children they had is utterly fascinating, even addictive!

A great beginner's guide to assembling a family tree

Great video on reseaching and organising your family tree

Get information from your family

The first crucial step to assembling a family tree is to talk to your close relatives.

If your parents and grandparents are still alive, they are the obvious place to start.

Ask them for as much detail as they can remember, including the full names and (if they know them) dates of birth, or approximate time they were born.

Also ask them about location, where they were born, whether they migrated, and any other details of their lives.

There is far more detail to be obtained of relatives and ancestors of whom there is living memory than of those who are further back in time.

It is also useful to ask about any family legends of origins and so forth, such as great-granny’s story told to her own children that her grandfather had been a Bishop in England.

Such family legends are often untrue. But they provide a source of interest, and a place to start.

As well as getting information on your ancestors, it’s a good idea to ask your parents, siblings, or uncles or aunts for details of more distant cousins and relations.

Depending on how well you get on with these cousins, or whether you know them, it’s well worth giving them a ring or writing them a letter or email explaining that your interest is in tracing your family tree, and asking if they have any details of your ancestry.

It may very well be that some of these cousins have already done some research which they’re willing to share with you.

Or they may have family tales of their own which will help in your quest, or even they may have a family bible with names and dates and details.

Video showing how to obtain original records

Keep records in order

Once you’ve received all this information, it’s a good idea to write it all down, and draw a brief family tree with what you already know. Then comes the time where you need to check your facts and try to move back in time.

Once you have information, it's important to keep it in an orderly way. You don't want to order the same birth certificate twice, or forget searches you've made that were negative, and do them all again.

You can record it all on paper, or there are numerous software and internet options for recording and displaying all your family history data (make sure you back it up!)

Civil Records

In the UK, there has been civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths since the 1830s. Baptism, marriage and burial records date back in some parishes in the UK to the 1530s. The further you go back in time, the more patchy is the survival of older parish registers.

The logical first place to start is to get the birth certificates of your parents, and grandparents.

Your parents may, of course, already have copies of their own birth and marriage certificates, or those of their own parents.

Or your cousins may have such certificates. If so, that’s a great start, and you should ask if you should make copies of such certificates.

A full certificate from England and Wales contains in the case of births, the name and maiden name of the mother, the father’s name (unless the mother was unmarried and the father didn’t register, in which case it usually states “the father unknown”) and the address where the birth took place, and the family’s normal address if different. The father’s occupation also appears.

Armed with this information, you can look for the marriage of the parents.

A marriage certificate contains lots of useful information, such as the occupation of the bridegroom, the occupations of both couples’ fathers, the age of the couple (in earlier certificates it will often just say “over 21” if the couple had obtained their majorities) and the names of witnesses to the marriage.

Witnesses can often prove an interesting sideline, as if they include people with the same surname as your couple, they may well be further relatives.

A death certificate will contain the age of the person at death, often occupation, address and cause of death.

Do note, however, that many of the causes of death are not known to medical science today. Death certificates today will rarely just list old age as a cause of death.

In order to obtain such certificates you need a reference for where the certificate appears in the official volumes.

You can obtain such references online, but there is not full coverage yet. You can also obtain it by looking up the books yourself if you live in London, in Middleton Square, the Family Records office, or there are other places where such certificates are held.

The website is a fascinating repository of information about obtaining certificates and very very much more. In addition to certificates, you can look at many other sources of information, including local newspapers, trade directories, business and poor law records, and land records held in local record offices.

Many of these documents have been copied, particularly by the Mormon Church, who have a particular interest in baptising ancestors of theirs into the Mormon faith, and therefore are very interested in genealogy.


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    • profile image


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

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    • Your Cousins profile image

      Your Cousins 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I have been researching my family back to the 1800s, not sure if I can go further. But I plan to try.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Very interesting. You have some great suggestions and tips. Up and interesting.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very interesting info thanks for sharing!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very nicely done, LG...well written and alot of good info...two thumbs up!! I'd be interested to know what got you interested in researching your family. My reasons are contained in my hub "Tripping into the Family", if you'd care to pay me a visit :).

      Have a great day...

    • carolinemoon profile image


      7 years ago

      Great hub!Researching your family tree, I can say the world is so small.

    • profile image

      Liola Lee 

      7 years ago

      It's good to see a like minded soul expressing the importance of asking questions of older relatives and placing importance on family stories and myths.

    • scauthor1969 profile image


      7 years ago from Upstate South Carolina

      Interesting hub. I have one family link to the Staffordshire area that I have been working on. It has been interesting trying to find records online.

    • Scarface1300 profile image


      7 years ago

      Fantastic Hub. I have been trying to find my Fathers Father but no one ever talked about him. My parents are deceased and the only living relative is my Aunt. I have asked her about her father but get very long silences and even varying selections of his name. At first Gabriel then Michael. Upon seeing my Fathers marriage certificate I found out another name, It was Frank. :)

      He was an Irish man and presumably his records were held in Dublin. In 1922/4 the IRA had a battle and the place where they were. Yes you got it the records department was destroyed along with many of the records. So I am having a slight problem at the moment.

      But still looking at other avenues.

      But will follow you're advice and so will carry on the slog.

      Thanks again.

    • Sun-Girl profile image


      7 years ago from Nigeria

      Awesome and funny article you actually shared in here, londongirl.I love this,thanks for sharing but Researching and trying to know all about your family tree can be a tedious and hectic job.

    • montecristo profile image

      Angel Caleb Santos 

      7 years ago from Hampton Roads, Virginia

      Great hub. Thanks for sharing!

    • jxb7076 profile image

      James Brown 

      7 years ago from United States of America

      Hello LondonGirl - thanks for posting this informative hub. I was able to trace my fathers' history back to 1840. Unfortunately, African American geneology in the US is a bit complicated and not well documented. But with a little effort one can find some remarkable information about their family tree.

    • profile image

      Assassin Fred 

      8 years ago

      Good hub. My sister and I recently started getting into looking up our ancestral roots. A very important thing to be able to pass on to your own children...

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I've reccently traced one side of my family back to Wymondham & Hempnall, Norfolk County, England. Birthdates register as far back as 1524 (I only have the names predating that). Are you able to tell me if that means the family was likely to be realtively wealthy or had some sort of standing in the community? I'm trying to hunt down occupations or marriage dates but not having much success.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I would love to know the past I can't remember nothing only from the age of 7, I don't even know much a bout my father or mother and I would love to know there background but don't know where to start someone please help me

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      we r all from aafrica

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Greetings to all! :D

      Does any of you knows a few reliable & extensive sources to research my Spanish family background? :S

      Here in the Philippines, it's hard as this country has undergone a lot of troubles, from revolutions, WWII, civil unrest...

      I hope someone could help me find my ancestors... :)

      If ever anyone's willing to help here are the details:

      This one's so important:

      1) Geronimo Villegas (married to Escolastica Teves)

      born in Spain ?, died in the Spanish East Indies (Philippines; ?)

      * Child: Santiago Villegas y Teves (born 1890, died circa 1960)

      ========== these are kinda difficult though =========

      2) Pelagio Lopez y ???

      child: Maria Salome Lopez y Rodriguez

      3) Gabriela Rodriguez y ???

    • profile image

      annette jacques 

      8 years ago

      wow, it turns out one of my ancestors was a criminal.

      and they married a musician. my great grandparents left france when they were just kids to come to america. however, they weren't even french?! he came from germany? who knew? thanks(:

    • adorababy profile image


      8 years ago from Syracuse, NY

      A lot of people have been developing this inclination to search for their origins. Personally, I do think that it is self fulfilling to accomplish such feat. It does give you that sense of completeness and peaceful joy knowing where you come from.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      BreannaLuvsBand, you have to start with the information at your fingertips, i.e. your birth and birthplace, your parents and their parents' vitals (birth and marriage dates and places, death dates if any are deceased). Pick their brains for family stories you may not know or they may've forgotten. Only when you've gathered this *basic* knowledge should you begin looking for additional information on the internet.

      As for a website, I recommend, but **avoid** the previously-compiled family trees of others as the data may not be factual. Working back from yourself and your parents, take it one generation at a time. Don't make the mistake a lot of newbies do and jump back a couple of centuries to a family with the same surname as yours because chances are, that family *won't* be yours.

      Good luck on what should be a fun and rewarding trip up the family tree!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      I think that most of us want to know where we come from ~ that is why genealogy is so popular and so rewarding a hobby. I love it!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi LondonGirl. I was wondering what website you could go to too find my family history. Thanks

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I agree with you that getting the genealogy data in England is pretty easy in comparison to USA. I am also working on genealogy research and besides the public records, marriage records and death records one need to go through the records from shipping houses to know about the people who landed in USA from Europe and Africa.

    • thewildjoker profile image


      9 years ago from Clarksville, Tennessee

      So many people, including myself, wouldn't know where to begin to find out our family tree. Beyond the people that are still living and those who preceded them it is hard to find a starting point. This gives good direction on the where and how to begin. Excellent hub...

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Go for it - it's a fascinating thing to do!

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      9 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      I've always been interested in finding out more of my family history and the tree branches of distant family, just to see what the Tully's got up to many years ago!

      Great hub with some great points to start researching your family tree!

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      That would be a very interesting hub, do write it!

    • jim.sheng profile image

      Dalriada Books Ltd 

      9 years ago from UK

      Many Chinese families, esp. in rural areas, keep a family genealogy book which records all important info like birth, marriage, and death. Some families use generation name poems to name the children, i.e. all the children in a same generation have the same middle name which is a word from the generation name poem. You can tell their generation simply by looking at their middle name. My mother side has a generation name poem. My mother, uncles (her brothers), and aunts (her sisters) all have the middle name 'pine'.

      These make tracing family tree much easier in Chinese culture.

      I'm considering to write a hub about this.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      He probably had a lot of money to be good with!

      Before 1500 it's very difficult indeed, unless your ancestors were seriously high up the social scale, and even then, it's tricky. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, for example - the years in which they were born aren't known, and they were Queens!

    • mandybeau profile image


      9 years ago

      Interesting, I am a direct descendent of John Buckeridge, he was Archbishop of Ely, he died leaving funds, to help the members of the Clergy improve their way of life, and a Trust for the poor of his Parish which still runs today. He was clearly better with money than moi'

      Because everything has been recorded in History books, I have had no trouble, finding him, however, I have had trouble finding exactly when my family moved from France, as It did. I would like to know more past the 1500's, but at that point, name spelling gets sketchy and records are sparser.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      HI CC and jjrubio - I agree, it's great fun.

      My other half's family tree would be an absolute nightmare to trace - he, his parents and grandparents, the 7 of them, were born in 7 different countries! And 3 of those countries don't even exist any more.

      My ancestors were a much more obliging bunch, they were all in the UK, for several centuries, mostly England and Wales.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      great hub! I love researching my geneology... I have traced my ancestry in so many directions....way back to the Aztec-Tanoan heritage, Also I found a Castle in Iran ( Persia) that was my mother's fathers familys ( SHOUSH CASTLE)it is now a university. Also I see my father's grandmothers family came from Spain and my fathers father from Norway as well as my mothers mother from Armenia.......Geneology is so much fun!

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 

      9 years ago

      I think you have a great hub here. I love the hunt one has to do for searching family connections and have done several others, my wife's and other friends and family members too, when I have time. I also the historical facts one can dig up, that's the greatest thing. I love it. Thanks a bunch for this. I keep coming back to see more.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Hi CC  - what a great connection! If you can make a link to a solid aristocratic family, then a lot of research already done opens up for you.

      This was one of my first hubs, and I've just realised what a mess it was! One text capsule, and that was about it. So I've done some quick editing (-:

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Hi Amanda - unusual names and / or sticking in one place really help! Tracing the Mr. Smith who moved to London or the Mrs Jones who lived in Wales is a right barrel of laughs.

      Some of my ancestors were also considerate enough to stay in the same place, or have unusual names, such as Luxton and Springett and Morecroft, all of which are more traceable.

      As you go back in time, the higher up the social scale your ancestors were, the easier it is to trace them.

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 

      9 years ago

      LondonGirl, I grew up hearing stories of how these brothers all came to America way back when from Ireland and they pretty much spread out over appalachia. They said they had been sent to ireland by the queen to subdue the Irsh and after so many years, they left and became colonists in America.

      Well, my name being Campbell helped a lot and when I finally tracked down my Great-grandfather it all came together and I was able to find out so much more of our family history thanks to the peerage they were connected to. I just had thought we came from some low class sept of the Campbell Clan and I find that I am in the Argyle bunch and related to so many historic figures of the UK and Scotland.

      It's just a lot of fun knowing these things as I also found out Lady Di was a cousin also. Ain't that a hoot?

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      9 years ago from UK

      Hi LondonGirl,

      My middle brother is a keen geneaologist, and has traced our family back in many directions, sometimes easily, and sometimes only after painstaking research. The name I use to write here on HubPages is a family name, although not my original maiden name, and I know from my brother's research that Severn is a fairly unusual name, and that should I ever come across other Severns (I haven't so far) they're quite likely to be related somewhere along the line.

      Recently my brother offered to do some research on my husband's family and was amazed at the ease with which he was able to trace them back hundreds of years in just a few hours. The main reason for this is that my husband's family are so home-grown that they must have virtually sprung out of the Sussex soil. Lewes, Brighton, and the small villages in between, have been their home for at least four centuries that we know of so far, and many of the houses that they've lived in still stand. Families that do not move around too much, certainly seem easier to trace.

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from London

      Glad you enjoyed it! What was your breakthrough? Details, man, details!

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 

      9 years ago

      Good hub. I have used all these methods and more, lucky for me I got a break throguh after ten years of hard research. It was worth it too.

      Am I one of your fans? I thought I was. I'm gonna fix that now. BTW, I mentioned you in my hub Little Tolden Goad jokes and you haven't been there. :-(

    • LondonGirl profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from London

      Best of luck - it's a fun thing to do, wherever your ancestors are from.

    • Night Owl Mama profile image

      Night Owl Mama 

      10 years ago

      great hub. I was actually talkin about researching our family history because of the Indian connection and possibly receiving grant money for college. thanks for the info.

    • Lgali profile image


      10 years ago

      good hub lot of good info


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