Very few individuals can walk into a library and trace their family line without some knowledge of their ancestors. Even extensive knowledge of your ancestry does not guarantee that you will find your pedigree completed. Usually meticulous research is needed, and it may take years to establish your family tree. Have your tried our Frequently asked Questions section?
Starting your family tree is a step backwards in time, but although you are retracing your family’s footsteps, you need to start with the present.
Before wasting any time, it would be a good idea to check with grandparents, aunts, uncles as well as your local family history society to make sure that your family tree has not been done already. This will save you time and money.
When first starting out on this exciting journey of collecting information about your ancestors, it may seem like a mammoth task. This project can, however, become as large or small as you want it to be. It all depends on how many generations back you want to go and how much time you want to spend on it.
The good news is that you need to start with relatives that are close to you or in your own home. Gathering family history information is usually quite easy to start off with. You probably already know much of the information about your close relatives, or think you do – but if not, all you need to do is ask. It is always a good idea to check the information that you have already with members of the family to make sure it is correct. Wrong names and dates could make you end up following the wrong family tree.
Recording the basic information
The first thing you will need to do is to record the basic genealogical information you have about your closest relatives. This may be you, your children, or perhaps your grandchildren.
Record all facts such as full names, birth dates and places, marriage dates and places, and death dates and places, if applicable. Capture these facts and enter them into a database or Family Tree program or record them on record sheets. As soon as you have collected information about yourself and any younger generations, you can start working backwards to your parents, grandparents, and so on, as far back as you can remember.
Additional resources in the home
Once you think you have gained all the information you can from relatives and neighbours, you can start looking for clues in other places. When finding many of the items below, you will realise that some are have incomplete dates (i.e. 20 July, but no year). This is especially true with diaries and letters.
You can work out what year the event took place by using a perpetual calendar.
- Autograph books
- Birthday books
- Books (check for inscriptions in them)
- Certificates (from schools or jobs)
- Clothing and hats (check inside for names)
- Recipe books
- Furniture (sometimes you’ll find names and dates on the bottoms or backs of furniture)
- Photo albums
- Diaries and daybooks
- Guest books
- Jewellery (such as pins, ID bracelets, charm bracelets, lockets, or anything else that may have an inscription or indicate membership of an organisation)
- Newspaper clippings
- Personal telephone books
- Pictures (don’t forget to look at the backs)
- Old school ties
- School reports
- Sewing samplers
- Silver mugs, goblets and trophies
- Street directories
- Tombstone inscriptions
- Trunks and chests
- Wedding rings
Once you have completed this stage, you will need to ask your family members for any information they can remember. If you cannot communicate with them directly, then either e-mail, phone or write them a letter.
When writing by post to relatives it is a good idea to include a self-addressed and stamped envelope. This usually ensures that you will get a response.
Try and obtain or create your own family data sheets to record your information.
In most software programs for keeping track of Family Trees you can print out blank Family Group Sheets. Include these when corresponding with relatives or take them along when you visit – this will give you a controlled way to collect information.
Contacting relatives outside the house
When you speak to your family members, you will want them to provide or authenticate information about themselves, but you should also ask for information about other relatives. When making verbal contact with relatives, try and make use of a tape recorder or MP3 player or cell phone. In this way you will not forget what you have been told. You will also have a recording of a relative’s voice can last as long a photograph.
If your grandparents are no longer alive, ask your parents about them. You can probably even ask them about your great-grandparents. Talk to aunts, uncles, cousins, and as many other people in your family as you can. Another source of family information can be close family friends. You may be surprised by who knows what about other family members. Go and visit old neighbourhoods if you know where you family lived, but don’t go alone. Visiting neighbours of relatives can provide “flesh” to put on the “bones” of the family tree.
Also ask family members about information about other family members whose details you do not have. Find out if they know of any old family Bibles, pictures, or other family records that may exist and where they are located. Any additional information that you can get from family recollections and memento’s means less research that you have to do from scratch.
Compiling and Expounding
Once you have gathered all the data you can from the above sources, you can now start entering it into a database, family tree program or your own handwritten tree.
By doing this, you will find out which information is missing as well as what information looks wrong. Study your dates carefully to make sure that granny was not ten years old when your father was born or she was not 72 when her last child was born. Dates are vital and need to be perfect – anything less than this will lead to error. By plotting your family tree, you will also become familiar with those in your family and recognise any mistakes in relationships and show omissions. Simplify the records so your material is understandable and can quickly be found.
Once you have as much oral and domestic information as you can obtain this way, you will need to start obtaining certified documents and certificates such as birth, marriage and death certificates, baptism, bar mitzvah and doegmal documents. Another good source is to contact the local cemetery records or Regional Services Council and find out exactly who was all buried in grandpa’s grave. Even though only one name might appear on the tombstone, there could be several other people included in the plot.
When you have exhausted information in the home and other resources such as official records, you need to start using historical sources. Try and find out more about the geographical and historical background of your family. Familiarise yourself with town and rural maps, making notes of the local environment adjacent to your area of concern. Try to find out as much as you can about the history of the area as well as area boundaries and name changes. Another idea is to trace the migration routes followed by different groups of settlers and tribes.
Contact local Family History Societies as well as National Libraries, Archives and University Libraries. Many of these institutions contain a wealth of family documents that have been donated by various individuals.
The National Archives is the largest repository in South Africa for acquiring death notices, wills, estates, mortgages, divorces, adoptions, etc.
Circle of Life
You are not the only person tracing your family history. Research is not easy when you are retracing the lives and actions of real people. You will find that your family probably moved more times than you thought and you will encounter attitudes, opinions and stories of warmth and sadness. The good news is that you will become enriched and learn more than you ever imagined.
Last, but not least, enjoy what you are doing and don’t give up when you get stuck on your Family Tree. Put it away and leave it for another day. It is not going to disappear and cannot be completed overnight. A family tree can take years – what you have contributed and discovered will make life so much easier for generations to come.
A family tree is like the circle of life – it has no beginning and it has no end…
If you still need help with your family tree – contact me and I can give you a quotation and get your tree going.