Nick Barratt (Genealogist) gives expert video advice on: What is a Family Tree?; How do I make one?; Why do I need one? and more...
What is a Family Tree?
A family tree is a basic diagram showing you how your family is related one to another. Usually you start with yourself and then you work up each generation. If you have children or grandchildren you can work down as well, but you are the centre of your family tree, because it's your piece of research. It's a diagram that shows you the relationships between family members.
Why do I need one?
You need a family tree to keep yourself organized and focused because if you don't have one, all you are going to get is a collection of names and no idea how they relate to one another. So every time you do a piece of research, you need to update your family tree. Look at how well that person fits. Update any information about their life and then see where that leads you - if it takes you back another generation. Without a family tree, you are going to get lost in the rubble very, very quickly.
What does it include?
A family tree can include all sorts of information. It depends on how complicated or simple you want to make it. Usually, if you are going into an archive, a very simple diagram showing you names, dates and places will suffice. But if you have got a more complicated family tree, your master family tree which you update, then you want to include as much information about that person as possible, so date of birth, baptism, marriage, death, burial, when they got married and who they got married to, children, place each of those events took place, and, in many cases, a photograph or information about occupation or key months in that lifetime.
My family aren't from the UK, what do I do?
The same principle applies; you still need to record your data into your family tree. But you will have more question marks, blanks, and areas to investigate. Apart from showing you how people are related to one another, the family tree also shows you what lines of research you need then to undertake. So when you get gaps or blanks or question marks that's how you focus your research. And if your family are from overseas, you could get a lot more than if you start from scratch.
I do not have correct dates?
A lot of people will find that you don't have correct dates, particularly the further back in time that you do. Most people can't name their eighth great-grandparents, and so that's your first task. In many ways, you then have to verify information by ordering out the correct birth, marriage, or death certificates. That's the way you verify these dates. A rough date of birth can be confirmed quite quickly by going to the indexes for births in England and Wales, either online at one of the websites, FindMyPast or Ancestry, or at the Family Records Center, ordering out that birth certificate, and then once you've found a match, putting that information into your family tree.
Why should I start from the paternal side of my family tree?
A lot of people start with the paternal side because the surname stays the same generation after generation, and so it's easier to track through time. There's no real reason why you should do that, because you could still trace the maternal line in exactly the same way. Many people choose to do that if they've got a fairly common surname like Smith or Jones, because there are going to be far more possibilities, and therefore it's going to take you longer to find the right one. It's only if you've got an unusual surname that's passed down generation after generation, that it does make a lot of sense, because you can track them down far more quickly.
Will I have to combine both paternal and maternal sides of my family tree to get accurate information?
You should think about doing both sides of your family tree because at the end of the day, you are the distillation of both sides of your family tree. One side is not going to be more valid than any other. Of course, that's quite a momentous task. Each time you go back a generation, you double the number of direct ancestors you are going to find. You are going to have 8 great grandparents, 16 great grandparents, 32 great grandparents and you can't feasibly do all of those lines at one go. It is worth just pausing and thinking okay, which of these ancestors interest me the most, and focusing on that line, taking it back as far as you can and then coming back and doing the same with another. Otherwise you are going to have hundreds of names and you are not going to be too sure where they relate to your family tree.
What problems will I encounter?
The main problems people encounter are too many possibilities, where you've got lots of people in the same region with the same surname, or people disappear altogether. And this commonly happens before 1875 in England and Wales. That was the date when the rules were tightened up. It's been estimated that up to a third of all births and deaths were not actually recorded in civil registration before that date. And so people sometimes just didn't really have a birth, marriage, or death certificate for you to find. So the disappearance of people, common surnames, or people just generally moving around and cropping up in unexpected places: These are all common problems that you can encounter at some point along your research.
Where can I go for help?
If you want to get help, there are various avenues. The most obvious is to join a family history society. The Federation of Family History Societies coordinates most of the local groups and they will give you advice about how to get started, how to solve problems, they may even have their own local indexes which are not available anywhere else. And in any case, you are going to meet a nice group of people who can help you with getting started if that is what you want to do. You can always employ a genealogist to get you around some of these brick walls or main problems. Or, indeed, talk to archivists who will be there to help you on the day of your research if you suddenly got stuck for some reason.
Do I include my step family?
A lot of people do include step children and step parents because it is still a part of your family. It's an extended family, particularly in the modern day when family relationships are a lot different to the past. But if you go back to the 19th century when either child or mortality during childbirth was quite great, you will find lots of families coming together and this is just as much a valid part of your research as it would be today. It is worth investigating even though there may not be a direct bloodlink. It's still part of your extended family and will be reflected in some of the findings you get further back in time as well.
Do I include my cousins?
Your cousins are still part of your family, they're just going to be the children of your uncles and aunts and so, in many cases, it depends on what level of research you've reached. If they're on the family tree and you know all about them, put them on there to start with. That's not a problem. You may then want to go further back then your own ancestry because that's relevant to you. Then investigate sidelines at a later date.
What is my first cousin, twice removed?
When you start getting into first cousins removed or twice removed you have got to think about how the family tree extends out and back down again. Your first cousin is going to be the brother or sister of your uncle and aunt. If you then having them have children it is removed of one generation, it is one generation down. Second cousins, you need to go across another level and down again. It does become very complicated, and the best thing to do is to look at charts and organizational diagrams that show you because otherwise it is going to get quite tricky. In many cases, the further back you go, the more removed you are going to be from that actual generation.