I’m a medieval historian by trade, holding a PhD and specialising in gender and the crusades. I am accustomed to following family trees to find answers to questions. A while ago, I turned my hand to research of a different kind, my own history.
How To Create Your Own Family Tree
Researching my own family tree has been the ultimate labour of love. I first began to create my family tree about 10 years ago. I needed a project to sink my teeth into and I’ve always wanted to know more about my own family history. I’m so glad I started this when I did because my Grandmother passed away 6 years ago and thankfully before she died, I had the opportunity to ask her lots of questions about her Grandparents. If you’re interested in your own family history, waste no time, begin now. You never know what is just around the corner!
Starting this epic journey can be an overwhelming task. You might have already begun the process without even realising it in collecting information from family members. But wherever you are in this process, I have offered some guidance below on how to create your own family tree.
Talk to Family Members
This seems like an obvious point, but this is where my quest began. I took a notepad to my Grandparents house and over a coffee, I began to ask questions.
I found it really useful to have a list of questions I wanted to learn the answers to. Here is a suggested list to ask each person you interview:
What was your name at birth
When and where were you born
Where did you grow up – do you remember any addresses
When and where were you married
What are the names of your parents
Where and when were your parents married
What did your parents do for a living?
When and where did your parents die
Where are they buried
How many brothers and sisters do you have and what are their names and details of their birth
Do you remember anything about your grandaprents – when and where were they born? What were their occupations? Where did they live? Where and when did they die and where are they buried?
I asked all members of my family the same above questions. Sometimes I would receive duplicate information. However, it is remarkable how many times I received a different answer to the same question. Eg I asked my Grandfather where his grandparents were buried and he gave a totally different location than his sister did! My aunts and Uncles also had different memories of their grandparents which enabled me to build a really good picture of their lives.
Ultimately, your questions need to be focused on when and where for everything! Some people ask only for dates and forget to ask where. Locations are essential. If you get stuck at any point in your family tree, it’s always beneficial to have somewhere to start. Eg if your grandparents were born in a certain town, it’s likely their parents were married in that same place. It’s a good place to check first!
Dates were sometimes a few years off or even totally forgotten, for instance, my grandfather recalled his grandfather but had no idea when he died. This gave me something to work on as I knew he at least lived after the birth of my Grandfather so I could narrow down my search.
I took the information away and started to build the family tree.
Building Your Tree
The imagery of a tree is rather apt. Imagine yourself as the tree trunk. The bigger branches would be your parents, the further up the tree you go, the more branches there are. All of these branches are your ancestors.
Building your visual tree is really easy. You don’t need any fancy computer software programmes to physically create your own family tree. Get some sheets of paper or a notebook and write down the information. It is really useful to create the same headings for each individual. These are my original headings:
Date of Birth
Place of Birth
Children (their names and dates of birth)
Name of Parents
Records (Note down any records from where you have found your information, eg censuses or birth/marriage/death certificates).
Additional Information (eg any interesting stories or what that person did in the war etc.)
Make sure you keep all your papers together and in chronological order if possible.
If you prefer to keep all your information electronically, you could always use a computer programme. My Heritage was a resource I used to store my information. As I am a subscriber to Ancestry I saved the information to the site as I collected it. Ancestry has a fabulous family tree builder which enables you to add all sorts of details pertaining to your ancestors.
Look out for my upcoming post on how to use Ancestry.
Or alternatively, add all the information onto a spreadsheet.
In order to create your own family tree, you’re going to have to do some additional research. The amount depends upon the amount of information you want to discover. I wanted to find out as much information as possible. Such as where and when each person was born, where they lived, their occupation, marriage and death details and also where they are buried. I wanted to go back as far in time as was possible, this took a huge amount of research.
If like me, you want to really delve into the past, you need to decide which part of your family tree you wish to explore first. When you begin to create your own family tree, I would advise choosing one ancestor, to begin with. Eg your Great-Grandfather. It is much easier to follow the male line (simply because women tend to marry and take their husband’s surname which leads to all sorts of complications). For instance, I followed my grandmother’s paternal line (so her father and his father and his father etc) until I reached difficulties. I then chose to look at my grandfather’s paternal line. As my skills in this field improved, I then had the confidence to follow the maternal lines of my grandparents (as noted above, this is much more difficult).
Where to Begin Your Additional Research
There are a few options here. I began my research in my local history library. The staff were extremely helpful. The library holds a wealth of documents that are not available online. Such as local detailed census records.
The library also had access to ancestry.com (which quickly became the most invaluable tool).
You can conduct some or perhaps even all of your research from home. This is especially important if your family came from a different part of the county or indeed the world from yourself.
There are some excellent resources now available online. The field of genealogy has massively developed its online presence over the course of the decade I have been working on my tree.
One of the undeniably best resources is Ancestry. This online tool allows you to search through millions of records, such as birth, marriage and death records. A subscription is of course required, however, the charges are reasonable and if you’re spending a huge amount of time creating your tree, it’s well worth the money. Subscriptions start at £10.99 per month. As noted above, your local history library ought to have its own subscription to this service and so you can use it there for free!
I used family search alongside Ancestry to create the bulk of my family tree. This free online resource contains a wealth of information. It doesn’t always provide you with a copy of the records (as Ancestry quite often does) but it contained information I was unable to find elsewhere.
Patience, Endurance and Time
It is no easy task to create your own family tree! Indeed the project is never quite finished. In delving back just a few generations, you can add hundreds to your tree! My tree is the work of a decade. I’ve obviously not spent every day on my tree. Life takes over but I pick up my research whenever I can.
The process is extremely time-consuming. It’s not something that should be started lightly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, you won’t get very far. The rewards of the investment of my time have paid off. I’ve reached as far back as 1560 in one of my lines.
Have you managed to create your own family tree and have some tips for those who are new to this? Leave your comments below.
Look out for future posts on creating your own family tree, such as a guide to Ancestry and how to use Parish Records