I mentioned on 3rd February that I’d signed up on the FutureLearn online course “Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree”, and that I’d give weekly updates and comments on the course.
So – here we are at the end of week one.
To be quite honest, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. There are lots of links to useful websites (which I’ll add later to my page “Useful Websites”), and some useful explanations about documentary evidence: the nature of primary, derived primary and secondary sources, issues that may arise, and an explanation of the difference between transcripts, abstracts and indices. And this is all very good, and very important – and in fact I’ll deal with these issues in detail in later posts.
BUT – and this is a very big but indeed – I don’t think that the course has delivered what it promises. The modules for this week are entitled “Basics For The Absolute Beginner”, yet there has been no explanation of how to start tracing your family tree. It’s very important to know early on what the pitfalls are, but it’s equally important to address that simple question ‘How do I start?’ (and I’ve seen that question raised an awful lot of times in the last week.) True, there are course participants from all over the world, so it’s well nigh impossible to explain what records exist for every single country, but the basic principles for starting out on your journey is always the same – start with what you know.
How to start out is explained on my page “Where Do I Start? A Beginners Guide”, but in brief, start with yourself. Your birth certificate will give your parents’ names – the next step is to find their marriage certificate. This will, with luck, give you their ages and their respective fathers’ names. That’s probably the time to decide which line you want to follow (most people start with their father’s family, but you don’t have to) – and search for the birth certificate – then look for the parents’ marriage certificate – and keep on repeating this process. Fill in with death certificates (note that it can be tricky to identify the correct death cert). Use census returns for additional information. With a modicum of luck, this will take you back into the early 19th century.
Speak to relatives and find out what information they know or have – you may find they have old certificates, or photographs, or a family bible. Ask them for stories about the family (but be prepared to take these with a pinch of salt).
And when you’ve got a goodly collection of names from certificates, then that’s the time to ask yourself “How reliable is this evidence? Do I need any other documents to substantiate it – and if so, what documents do I need, and where do I find them?”