Key Topics

A Letter to a Beginner in Family History

In a number of cases I get asked questions which do not contain enough precise information for me to answer them or which ask for "all information" about a family rather than posing a specific question about an individual. Others could have been answered by the questioner themselves if they had read the help files. The following generalised letter is a "demonstration" reply to a novice query which failed to adequately identify the subject of their query.  Words in blue are links to appropriate help pages.

Dear Friend

The information you have provided is unfortunately too vague for me to help as it does not adequately identify the individual you are interested in and/or the specific question about them you are asking. Any specific help I could give at this stage would be rather like trying to build a house on sand. It would take a lot of time, and could well prove to be a wasted effort because you had not laid the foundations.

I suspect that you are a beginner in researching your family history, and perhaps you haven't yet read a book from the library on how to do it, or joined a local family history society. The book "Tracing your family history in Hertfordshire" is cheap and should be considered an essential buy if you are certain that your ancestor comes from this county.

The important thing is that you start from what you definitely know and work back step by step, starting from information collected from your relatives  It is often impossible to tell from your message whether you are 9 or 90 years old, but if you are young the first stage of family history is to collect all the information your older relatives know while they are still alive. Many people who take up family history late in life regret they had never asked their parents or grandparents about their origins. For instance, while I know the name of my wife's grandfather I have been unable to pin him down - except that he was probably not born in England. All his children are now dead - so I cannot ask them. In many cases help from living relatives may provide names and approximate dates going back to at least the end of the 19th century. 

Some of the information you collect will be precise, such as actual birth dates, etc.  Much information will be approximate. For instance an elderly relative may tell you that their grandfather died when they were about 15 years old (as you know their age you can calculated the approximate year of death of their grandfather) and that he was probably about 80 (you can now make a guess as to the decade in which he was born.). 

Obviously I cannot help by interviewing your relatives for you, and I do not provide a "Living Relative Tracing Service" or investigate 20th century adoptions, etc. See The Policy on Questions on Living People.

Once you have collected information from relatives you can follow it up (at least back until 1837) by getting birth, marriage and death certificates to confirm details and provide additional information. One thing older “How to …” books on family history will not tell you are that all the censuses between 1851 and 1901 are now online, and these are very valuable tools for the beginner, although they have to be used with care – and have many errors. In addition the births, marriages and death indexes are online. If you have not already done so you should look at the tutorial provided. For earlier research, and to fill in the details, there are many other types of records - and details of some of these are given on the web pages "How To ...." and "Key Web Sites". More general advice is given on "Genealogy Topics".

Much of the help I give is to people who have some precise information about a named ancestor, but who are having difficulty in finding the appropriate records, or knowing where to look. The more information you can provide relevant to your question the firmer the foundations on which I can build my reply. In particular it helps to know about the sources of the information you have. For instance a year of birth from an old family bible is more reliable than a guess based on an approximate age at death. For this reason it would help me to help you if you have first read Sources and Reliability. Brief information from an unverified family tree prepared by someone else may be correct, or it may contain serious errors and needs to be treated with caution until verified.

Other information will be vague family tradition - which usually has a grain of truth in it. Shortly before he died my grandfather said that he believed that he was called Richard after his great-grandfather, who had been a coach-builder in Leighton Buzzard, Beds.  This proved to be incorrect in one respect - there had been an illegitimate birth in the family which had not been talked about. Intensive research over several years showed that there had been a Richard Locke, coachbuilder, in Leighton Buzzard, but he was my great-great-grandfather’s half-brother and not his father.  

Another family tradition tells of the actions of one of my ancestors during the Civil War. Unfortunately he was too young for the story to be true – but it could have been true for his elder brother. If someone’s ancestor was in the army at the time of the battle of Waterloo the tradition is often distorted through retelling over the centuries to say that he actually fought at Waterloo. I have come across a case where someone was said to be army officer in charge of a British garrison under siege, when it was far more likely that he was the civilian captain of one of the merchant ships in the port at the time.

In general the help I can give with family traditions is limited unless you can clearly identify the persons/places/dates concerned. There can be particular problems with early emigrants (particularly to America) who are "believed to come" from Hertfordshire. In all cases which involve emigration from Hertfordshire you should look My Ancestors emigrated from Hertfordshire ... at before typing in your question and identify the original source of the information that they came from Hertfordshire.

I should say something about access to records. I have quite a good private library of material on Hertfordshire and use this as a basis of the research help I give. Quite often I can identify the individuals you are asking about from my library or online. However I live about 35 miles from HALS, which holds many original Hertfordshire records (many only provided on microfilm) and has a comprehensive local studies library. This means that I do not do look-ups of original documents, while many of the questioners from places like Australia or the USA actually live nearer to a LDS Family History Centre (where the same microfilms can be viewed) than I do!

If you can tighten up your question, possibly after checking some of the details from sources available to you, I will be happy to consider a more specific question using Ask Chris


Page updated December 2005