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Updated : 6/2/2017

Family Tree - Getting Started

Introduction

An interest in ones ancestry may be instinctive but does not become a significant issue in our lives until we are either older, in search of a possible inheritance or looking for an interest in retirement. My own experience as a child was that distant relatives should be just that, distant, and I generally took little interest in them except of course cousins, of which I had many to play with. Once married I was quite happy for my wife to take on the responsibilty for remembering the numerous family birthdays and anniversaries and laterley I have come to the conclusion that most X-generation males like myself have also readily abrogated this responsiilty to their wifes. The net result is that the information essential to even starting any investigation of ones family and ancestors is generally anecdotal or resides old address books or family bibles. Some matriarchs have an enormous wealth of family knowledge spanning several generation, my mother, a very empathic lady with an excellent memory, is widely acknowledged within the family as the font of family knowledge and lore.

In countries such as England with a penchant for record keeping, that started with the Doomsday Book of 1085, it can be a real-life treasure hunt to start with family knowledge and follow the clues through parish registers, census returns and the occasional graveyard etc to reveal ones ancestors generation by generation.

Since I now reside in South Africa such a treasure hunt is not possible for both practical and financial reasons but this very remoteness from the main information sources gave me the impetus to collate as much family information as possible into a single source that could be accessed, edited and updated by any family members wherever they be. I therefore decided that I would source as much information as possible using currently available web based systems and store it in a relational database with a web interface.

I should be clear at this point that my objective is the creation of a web-based family tree information system solely for use by the family. Whilst the information will be as accurate as possible, with supporting documentation where available, it is not intended to be a scientifically rigorous geneological research project

Sources

There are many free sources of information in the UK such as:-

Whilst very useful and free I found them quite difficult to use. Even having spent my first thirty years in the UK I was still confused by the different conventions used for locations. For example I know full well that I was married at a church in Shelley near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire yet my marriage is recorded as having taken place at Huddersfield, Upper Agbrigg, West Yorkshire ie Registration District, Parish and County. Add the fact that all these records were hand written and then transcribed to a database and all sorts of problems start to creep in for example:-

  • It is not uncommom for the first borns to have the same name as their father. In my case my father and grandfather have identical names
  • Spelling and transription error do ocur
  • Do not be suprised to get hundreds of returns when searching for a record of an individual. Choosing the right one may depend on a seemingly trivial piece of information such as a proclivity for a particular middle name in a family
  • Prior to 1911 UK census data was collected by enumerators and people would often give their common name as opposed to the full name given on their birth certificate
  • Search for the married name of a woman when looking for a death certificate but their maiden name for everything else.
  • Prior to the 20th century a lot of families were very large and widows oftem remarried - so what name do you search for? the womans original maiden name or her married name?

The end result is that searching these free databases is not easy and you are on your own! This is where the commercial search programmes come to the fore. They provide a much simpler access to the free databases and many other databases especially the UK census records, they also provide access to the results of other people searching the same ancestors. The latter in itself can save you a lot of time but remember the results of other peoples search are not verified and you should check very carefully before incorporating parts of their family tree into your own.

A basic Google search will find lots of family history programmes from the very simple through to professional versions. Many of these programmes provide free trial periods and I suggest that you do as I did and put together as much information as you can from your family and give each programme a try to find out which best suits your needs.

In my case I found Ancestry.co.uk best suited my needs and registered for a 14 day free trial. Regarding the subscription fees for these programmes many are exorbitantly expensive and certainly stay away from the pay per view options that many have, you will need to look at a lot originals before you find the one you need. A particular feature that I required in view of my objective of creating my own databse of family iformation, was the ability to download data. Fortunately Ancestry.co.uk has this feature and provides a GED file for down load (more on the GED format later)

One of the advantages of Ancestry.co.uk is the ability to incorporate the family trees or parts thereof from other researchers into your own family tree, and the 'hints' which identify records that might be applicable to persons within your family tree. Whilst these features can significantly reduce the time and effort required to generate your family tree it is prone to errors with the result that whole family branches are added based on erroneous information. Before starting to search for family information I strongly recommend reading Rookie Mistakes from familysearch.org wiki.

Warning: Whilst Ancestry.co.uk provides access to a wealth of genological data, that access is only available whilst you are a subscriber! For example you may source some data from the 1911 census and add it to your family tree and them some time later want to add some more information from the census such as 'occupation'? If you are still a subscriber then - no problem, but, if your subscription has expired then you will have to pay to re-access the same 1911 census document i.e you have to pay for a later second look at a document which you have already paid to access!

My advice is to make sure that you download copies of any source documents you use immediately so that you can review them at any time. It is very difficult and time consuming to retropectively identify all the sources you have used and download copies.

What was needed was a facility that could verify the family tree data and identify the most common inconsistencies such as unrecognised dates, inconsistent dates such as a marriage before a birth, and improbable dates such as a 10 year old getting married or having a child. I discovered a shareware programm Genealogica Grafica that is well respected for its unprecedented ability to signal inconsistencies in links and dates of a gedcom. My approach would generally be to develop my family tree using Ancestry.co.uk export the data as a GED file and then use Genealogica Grafica to identify inconsistancies and then return to Ancestry.co.uk to correct them. In this way I could generate a GED without any inconsistencies.

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