Starting your family tree – the first steps

Make the most efficient use of your time by following our tips to get started on researching your family history. A word of warning – genealogy can be addictive, so it may end up occupying more time than you think!

Regardless of where your ancestors are from, the process of family history research is the same.

  1. Start with yourself and work backwards
  2. Write down the names, dates and places of birth etc. of ancestors you know of
  3. Ask family members what they know
  4. Confirm nos. 2 and 3 by double-checking against other records
  5. Fill in gaps and find other ancestors by following the paper trail of records

I’ve been researching my own family tree for more than 25 years – people are often amazed to find that we were able to research family history before the internet! It was certainly more time-consuming, but probably less easy to go wrong than it is now.

There are some computer programs that will help you to organise your research, and several subscription websites allow you to create free trees on their websites, but it’s often easier to start off with a simple pedigree chart that you can fill in by hand.

Start by filling in a pedigree chart

We have created an editable pedigree chart to get you started. You can either print off a copy and write in the information or edit and save the PDF document. Just start with yourself at number 1, then type in the name of your father at no. 2 and your mother at no. 3.

Women are always referred to by their maiden names in family history so, if you don’t know a women’s maiden surname, just leave the surname out for the moment.

Then fill in the names of your father’s father (no. 4) and father’s mother (no. 5), and your mother’s father (no. 6) and mother’s mother (no. 7). Keep going until you don’t know any more ancestors.

When you’ve filled in as much as you can, then it’s worth having a conversation with family members to see if they can confirm the information or add any further details.

Free subscriptions at your local library

All Solihull Libraries have subscriptions to the Ancestry and Find My Past websites. They are free to use from within the library either by using library computers (three hours’ free PC use for library members per day) or if you bring in your own device and connect to the free library WiFi (available during library opening times without any time restriction).

Be focused about what you are trying to find out

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by results from the family history websites, and very easy to go wrong. To make the best use of your time it’s a good idea to make a list of what you want to find out, for example:

Ancestor’s nameInformation to findKnown informationSource(s) to checkNotes / Search results
William Thomas WILLIAMSPlace of birthDied in Wolverhampton in 1971 aged 82, so born c.1889.

Father was called Isaac. Mother Harriet.

Older sister Alice. Other younger sisters including Elsie and Harriet. Brother Leonard killed in First World War.
census records 1891-1911 on Ancestry

1921 census on Find My Past
1891 – living in Wombourn, born Wombourn
1901 – living in Wolverhampton, born Dudley
1911 – living in Swindon, nr Dudley, Born Swindon
1921 – living in Swindon, born Swindon
Example of a research log

The basic records for family history are birth, marriage and death indexes/certificates from 1837 to date, and census returns 1841-1921. You should aim to find details of your ancestor’s birth and, if applicable, marriage and death, as well as trying to trace them on all available censuses during their lifetime.

If any of the information is inconsistent, you should try to explain it. You need to be as sure as possible that you have the correct person. This is especially important if you are researching a common name.

Ask us if you get stuck

If you have any queries, please email us and we’ll do our best to help with any family history queries – regardless of whether or not they relate to Solihull.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian


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