Stella Colwell (Author and Family Historian) gives expert video advice on: How do I begin to trace my family history?; Do I only include my immediate family?; Should I start with my surname? and more...
Do I only include my immediate family?
No, it is quiet important to include brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and even the maternal side, because they are related to you as well. If you get stuck doing your researches, it may be that you have to look into the background of these individuals as well. Also, to never ignore them.
Should I start with my surname?
Your surname is the one that you've inherited, if you're not married, from your father and that's the way that most people in this country trace their family tree, because it's the surname, normally, that will pass from one generation to the next. In some countries, people trace the mother's side of the family and it's mother to mother to mother going back. The surname changes with every generation. There's no hard and fast rule, but it's simplest to do the patro-lineal line, that's the father's line.
I have a step family should I include them?
As you go back in time, or even today, you will find that, with divorce in the present day, or in the past, when people quite often died young leaving a spouse behind with a family of young children, the incidence of multiple marriages is quite frequent. And, today, because divorce is relatively straightforward and people often marry again, they will bring with them the children of a previous marriage. And, they belong to your family unit just as much as children of the half-blood or children of the full-blood.
Should I include occupations?
Occupations can provide important clues as to where, perhaps, people lived, their social and economic status over time, and you can learn more as to why they followed particular occupations and, perhaps, why they changed occupations.
If family are spread across the UK would this more difficult?
No, not at all because so many of the sources that we've used to form the history are now available online, and although the records in Scotland are kept in Scotland, those for England and Wales are kept in London and in Queue, or in Abarice Suisse, and in Ireland, either in Dublin or in Belfast. But many of these records have now been placed online, so they're easy to access.
Should I draw up a family tree?
Well, it's a good idea to draw up a family tree, because you've got a pictorial record rather than just having it in your head. It gives you a focus and you can add new facts as you go along with your research. It's your work, and your important working tool.
Can I get a professional to do draw up a family tree?
It's much more fun to do it yourself, because you've got that special interest and that specialist knowledge about your family, which a professional wouldn't have. But it may be that you haven't got the time ,you don't live in the area where the records are kept, or you don't have that particular facility - for instance ,you can't read old handwriting - so you can call in a professional to do it for you.
Should a family tree extend both vertically and horizontally?
You will find when you draw up your initial sketch family tree that it may not go back very far in time. People's memories will probably go back to the generation of their grandparents, but you will find there are lots of brothers and sisters in each generation; and each of them probably is liable to have had children, so the pedigree will stretch out horizontally rather than vertically.
Should I start tracing my family history from my Paternal or my Maternal line?
It's up to you. You may find when you've done your sketched family tree that you know more about your mother's family than you do about your father's. Or it may be that your father's family came from a different country so you might have the problem of using records that are in a different language with which you aren't familiar. So it might be that you would prefer to start with the easier one, which is the one that you know more about or you've got more living relatives, and choose your mother's line, but it would still be the paternal line on your mother's side - the surname that she was born with.
I'm stuck, what should I do?
You could try another branch of the family. So if you're starting on the paternal line, you could turn to your mother's family, and do a little bit of research on that, and then come back to your paternal line later on, because it's not going to come to any harm. Or you could review what you've found so far, and see whether you've missed a vital clue somewhere, and make a checklist of sources to try to fill in those gaps.
I'm not sure what questions I should ask?
For doing your research, I would always use personally file paper and line file paper, which I can then bind in a ring binder. I would always use paper of the same size. Pencils are vital, because most places that you've got to search documents which require only the use of pencils. Many places now allow you to use a Dictaphone, so you could dictate the results of the research you're doing. You could also take a laptop computer with you because many places who go to pilgrim facility to use. You could also take a tape recorder. Also take a camera if you can turn to your relatives to take photographs. And to take photographs from the places where the family lived, and take plenty of money because you might want to make photocopies or you might want to buy some guides or books to help you with your research.
What should I be wary of?
Don't believe everything that people tell you, don't believe everything that you read because their motives for writing what they did or telling you what they did might lie hidden. There might be family skeletons that have lain hidden for many years so it would be embarrassing to rattle them out. With documents, sometimes it may be something that's been recorded some time after the event that's being described, it may be written for a particular purpose so therefore it's skewed. Sometimes you may misunderstand the handwriting in the document, it might be difficult to decipher. Sometimes the language can be very difficult to understand, as well. The more documents you can read about a certain event, or the more people you can interview about certain activities or people in the family, you've got a much rounder picture.
Should I compile a checklist?
It's vital to compile a checklist, because it gives you a focus on what you're doing. Working from the know to the unknown. That's why it's so important to have your sketch family tree to start you off. You can see where the gaps are. Make a list of the gaps and then list the sort of sources that you think might provide the answers to those queries. Then work through it. You may find as you go along that some will be crossed off, some might be lifted higher up on the list or you might have new ones. So it's a living being but a checklist is absolutely essential.
What can souvenirs and heirlooms tell me?
They are family treasures because they have been kept for a very good reason, so they belong to the family's heritage. They have probably been taken great care of. It's always a good idea if you are going to visit family members to list the very souvenirs and heirlooms that they've got in their possession so that you know where they are and when you saw them. The sort of family souvenirs that are vitally important are things like the family bible, for example, which is one that I inherited. That will record details of family marriages, births of children, their marriages and their children, as well as deaths, some of which might go back to the 18th century. It's all there for you to read. Other things might be correspondence from relatives who went abroad, such as family photographs that you can tell what people looked like, or other little gems like jewellery which have been passed down. It might be things like uniform buttons and medals that have been inherited. All of these can tell you something and help you piece together the story of individuals within the family.
What do I do if I have no living relatives?
If you know where your family came from, sometimes you do know where the family originally lived, it's a good idea to go back to that place and see if there are any tangible remains, like headstone inscriptions. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to advertise in the local press, if you know the area well that they came from, and see if anybody knows anything about the family. A local family history society of that county might be able to tell you if there is anybody researching that family tree with whom you can get in touch. Or, look in the phone books to see if there are people of the same name living in that area. You could write to them explaining what you know about your own particular family, and see if they might be able to help you fill in the gaps, because they might turn out to be relatives.
What do I do if I don't know where I come from?
You could try looking in phone books for the entire country to find out the distribution of your surname. There are also websites which contain the results of surname distribution surveys that you can tap into. You could also register an interest at a website such as GenesReunited about the names of specific people in your family to see if anybody knows anything about them. And also you could do search engine searches and put messages up on message boards to see if anybody's researching that family.