How to Start a Family Tree

How easy it is to start a family tree will depend on what information you have to begin with. Some families preserve lots of old photos and documents that can give you several generations of your family tree before you start researching. Others might have lost these resources (perhaps because they passed down through a different branch of the family) or never had them to begin with. If you were adopted or don’t have much information about your family history for other reasons, it can be hard to know where to begin. However, as long as you can find some kind of starting point, it should be possible to get back to a point when records are readily available.

1. Gather Information for Your Family Tree

Before you begin using genealogy websites or other resources for family history, you should gather together all the information you (or your relatives) already have. At this stage, you should focus on finding names, dates (of births, marriages, deaths etc.)or locations where people lived. You can fill in more details later on.

Write Down Everything You Know

Note everything that you know (or think you know) about your family, from facts like your parents’ birthdates to stories you remember hearing as a child. Even if the story has been embellished or misremembered, there could still be some truth in it.

Talk to Relatives

Ask your family for any information they have. Older relatives can be particularly useful, as they will often be a generation or two closer to the ancestors you’re researching. You might confirm some of the information you already knew or discover new details.

If there aren’t any relatives you can ask, you might be able to talk to old family friends, neighbours, or ask for help online. Community groups or family history societies often have forums where you can ask questions. Many people are happy to talk about their memories, so asking whether anyone in the area remembers your family might reveal some interesting stories.

Look at Family Albums

If you have any old photographs of your family, they could provide useful clues as well as the chance to see what your ancestors looked like. Check the backs of the photos for names, dates, or other information that might be written there. If the pictures were taken at a studio, note the name and location, as your family may have lived in that area. You might also be able to identify a location or see a uniform in the photos that could tell you where your ancestor lived or worked.

Read Through Old Documents

Any old papers relating to your family could provide useful information. You (or your family) might have birth, marriage, or death certificates, old wills, adoption records, or other documents with details of your relatives. Even if this information is only for recent generations, it can still help to confirm exact dates and locations.

Search the Attic

If there are any old belongings stored in the attic or put away at the back of a cupboard, they could help you to start a family tree. Anything with names, dates, or locations on them, or any object that ties your ancestor to a particular school, occupation, or military service, could be useful. You might find a school book, a trophy from a sporting event, a military medal, an engraved wedding ring, or some other item passed down through your family.

2. Choose Your Starting Point

How much information you can gather to start a family tree will depend on what access you have to relatives and other sources, but as long as you can get some basic facts, it can be enough to begin your research. If you can find a name, estimate a birthdate, and have an idea of whereabouts that person was from, then you have a good chance of finding a record that will take you on to the next generation.

You might have multiple starting points or just a single name to begin with. If you have a choice, it will be easier to start with someone who has a distinctive name or who lived in a smaller town or village. You should also start as far back in your tree as you can, to avoid wasting your efforts to find information you already know.


3. Start Your Research

Once you have someone who you want to research, the next step will be to search for them on a genealogy website. You can use a free site like FamilySearch or a paid one such as Ancestry or FindMyPastAffiliate.

Enter the details you’ve gathered and search for matches. If there aren’t many results, you might need to broaden the criteria, for example by allowing a greater range of birthdates or looking over a bigger region. If there are too many matches, then you might need to narrow the search criteria or restrict the results to a particular type.

In order to grow your family tree, you need to find a record for your ancestor that will connect you to the next generation. The most useful records for this in the UK are the 1939 Register and the census. The most recent census on most genealogy sites is the 1911 census, but the 1921 census is available on a pay per view basis from FindMyPast.Affiliate

The 1939 register and 1921/1911 census are useful because they often show families living together. If you can find your ancestor in one of these records then you may see their parents, siblings, or other relatives such as grandparents in the same household. Even if you can’t see any new relatives on the first record you find, it should give you some clues to step further back to the previous census. You might get an accurate birthdate (from the 1939 register) or find out where your relative was born (from the census). Add this information to your search and try to find older census entries where other family members are listed.

If your starting point is too recent for the 1939 register or 1921/1911 census, then there are other records that might help. Civil birth registrations after 1912 include the mother’s maiden name, so if you find your ancestor’s record, you will know both their parent’s surnames. You can them look for a marriage record between people with these surnames in this area at around this time. The marriage record will give you the parents’ full names, which you can use to find their birth records, or to look them up on the 1939 register or census. If you’re having trouble finding them, you can order copies of the full birth or marriage certificates from the General Register Office as these contain additional information like their father’s names and occupations, but you will need to pay for these.

Other records such as parish registers of baptisms and marriages, military records, and newspaper obituaries could also help you to make a connection back to the 1939 register or census.

Getting back to the census is the best way to start a family tree as it is often possible to trace the same family back several generations through the 1841-1921 censuses. Once you have found one relative in the census, you can follow the same process to find them and their parents in earlier censuses, adding more generations to your family tree.