If you’re only just starting out on your family tree journey, you might find this guide useful. The emphasis is on UK research but it is equally applicable to the US and other countries dependent on when civil registration began in your country and what information was recorded on birth, marriage and death certificates.
Civil registration began in 1837 and this meant that all births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded and certificates issued. This is invaluable for family tree research and along with census returns, will provide you with the information you need to trace your ancestry back to possibly the late eighteenth century.
For the sake of clarity, the emphasis of this tutorial is on tracing the male line but the methodology for tracing the female line is almost identical. The only real difference is that when tracing female ancestry, you will be searching for other surnames (maiden names) and not necessarily your ‘family’ (father’s) name.
Let’s start with you. Do you know who your parents are? If you don’t, you will need to apply for your birth certificate where at least one parent will be named. If your father’s name isn’t on the certificate (this is the more common omission), you will have to investigate further and this isn’t really within the scope of this guide. It may be possible to trace an unknown parent so don’t give up yet.
Ask your parents if you can see their marriage certificate – this will tell you who the bride and groom’s fathers were (your grandfathers) and what their occupations were at the time of your parent’s marriage. Of course if your grandparents are still around then you will know this anyway!
If your parents don’t have their marriage certificate, you may search for it online on any of the well known ancestry databases. You can search the indexes according to year date for free at FreeBMD’s and then, having found the entry, order the certificate.
Does your father have his birth certificate? If not, you should now search for your father’s birth date. If you have an uncommon name and you know his place of birth, this should be relatively straightforward. Search the 1837-1915 indexes transcribed by FreeBMD by clicking this link and then order the birth certificate.
We can now repeat the above process for your grandfather. If your father was the first born, your grandparents are likely to have married within the 3 years prior to his birth. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a good place to start.
If he wasn’t the first born, then try adding 2 years for every birth of his siblings if you know how many siblings there were. Eg if there were 4 children, your starting point for the marriage date would be 8 years back from the birth of the youngest (last) child. If the marriage isn’t found, then try searching the 5 years prior to the birth of the first born. (Often when searching in an ancestry database, you will be presented with a list of names that match your search criteria and it is then a case of best match with full names and likely event dates. This can then be confirmed by additional information as you progress your researches).
The grandparent’s marriage certificate will then give you the names and occupations of the groom’s father and of the bride’s father – your great grandfathers. You should also now have enough information to search for the birth dates of your grandparents. Look for your grandfather’s birth date in the FreeBMD indexes and order the certificate. This will show his father’s details – your great grandfather.
Your Great Grandparents
Search for the marriage certificate of your great grandparents and then their birth certificate(s) using the strategy above and continue through the generations as far back as civil registration allows – it started in 1837.
A little tip. It is very tempting to go back as far and as quickly as you can as the sense of history spurs you on. This isn’t a good idea. Sooner or later you will get lost, hit a brick wall and be unable to get any further. If you are more thorough in your research from the start, this is less likely to set you back. Eg location at any given time is important, occupation, military service records, wills, divorces and subsequent remarriages – anything that builds a more complete picture of your ancestor(s) and how he/she/they lived will help to fill any gaps and give you clues to the whereabouts of ‘lost’ ancestors. A bit more effort now will be of great benefit in the future.
Once your research takes you back before 1911, search the Census Returns for additional information. The Census was taken every 10 years and the information not made available to the public for 100 years. The last census published (as I write this in 2015) was the census of 1911 and the next one (1921 census) will be published in 2021.
The first census of any real value to the family historian was taken in 1841.
The information in the later census’s includes current address, where born, who was in the dwelling, relationship to the head of the household and occupations.
One of the more frustrating obstacles to progress is being unable to ‘prove’ a birth or baptism. I found an entry in a marriage register (these were in use before civil registration) but was unable to find the birth or baptism.
I knew the locality of this ancestor but his baptism wasn’t there and even searching a wider area failed to find him. He had died after civil registration was introduced, so I was able to order his death certificate. This gave his age and therefore a clue to the year of his birth (it wasn’t unusual for them to lose track of their ages in those days). His wife was a witness on the death certificate. Although I still haven’t been able to confirm his birth or baptism dates, or place of birth, the death certificate has confirmed the information that I had found in the marriage register which helps. Either his birth or baptism weren’t recorded or I just haven’t yet found the Parish of his birth.
Please visit our Births, Marriages and Deaths page for links to database records where you can search for your ancestors and find their certificates. This page also details what birth, marriage and death certificates will tell you.