Your Search Begins-Where To Look And
What To Look For
Once all family sources have been exhausted, now comes the real
challenge of investigating from official-sources, and not just central
records offices and county registers. There are many, many other
repositories of information available to the researcher, all of which
must be considered in relation to the actual family and whether you
wish to restrict your investigations to a limited period of history, or
instead, uncover anything you are to able about your family as far
back as time, money, and ability allow.
The most logical and easiest next step is that of obtaining all official
documents relating to recent generations as it is possible to obtain, a
task usually accomplished from birth, marriage and death certificates
held at your county courthouse. All information is of course committed
to the basic tree format already waiting on paper or computer disk.
Any other information to come to light and which might be clarified or
expanded upon from other official sources should be noted for working
on when the time is right, and includes such as relatives known to
have a military record, those known to travel who will therefore have
had their passport applications from 1795 onwards registered and so
Once you have a dear indication of your most recent generations, you
will be able to track down copies of birth, marriage and death
certificates from civil records which go back to the mid 1830s. Since
mandatory registration it is relatively easy to trace a tree back to the
second half of the nineteenth century. Then the really hard work
Census returns are an excellent source of information relating to
household members, and provide information gained every ten years
since returns commenced in.
For much information prior to civil registration, we must turn to
county records, which can usually and quite easily take the
investigator back to the mid 1700s, perhaps earlier where families
have remained in one area. Records can be consulted at your county
records offices, or sometimes from the International Genealogical'
Index, or Percival Boyd Index, the latter of which covers the period
1538 to 1837.
Local newspapers might provide obituary details; gravestones also are
havens for previously evasive information.
Wills might uncover a skeleton or two for the unsuspecting detective.
The process of accumulation continues. until eventually the trail dries
up. It might take you to various little known sources of documentation,
perhaps relating to small religious orders or now outdated trades and
professions. It might even bring you to the genealogist's dream of
finding his or her family recorded in the Doomsday Book, which
commenced records in 1086.
If your search is local, your task might well be extremely easy in the
initial stages, given that our ancestors were not frequently renowned
for a travelled existence. Many in fact lived their entire lives in one
county, and it is quite conceivable to derive a great deal of information
from one day's sifting through county registers, nearly all of which,
when completed, are stored in local county record offices. Of course if
you are tracing the history of a well-travelled family, then your task
becomes more complicated and of necessity far more costly to you.
Returning to the subject of County Record Offices, here one will find
official census returns providing names, ages, marital status,
occupation and county of birth of everyone living in one particular
household. Such records are released to the public only after 100
years, but when opened are generally pounced upon by, genealogists
for the wealth of information they contain.
Another useful source of information is the International Genealogical
Index, produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,
more commonly known as 'Mormons'. Most information is-stored on
microfiche, and includes parish registers for much of Britain. Many
Mormon Churches in larger communities have information which they
will readily allow access to with prior approval being requested.
How Far Back can a Family be Traced?
Though it is not impossible to trace back to the 11th century, the task
obviously becomes far more difficult the further back in time one
travels, not the least of one's problems being the level of intelligence,
writing ability and accuracy of those responsible for whatever records
were made of births, marriages and deaths, if, that is, the record was
made in the first place.
Another problem frequently found to impede access to information is
that of the family's surname. A common surname will ultimately
present very many difficulties as one begins to sort through the
hundreds of Smiths, Joneses, and other such names which have
survived the passage of time virtually unchanged.
An unusual name however, or one known to originate from a particular
region, and your task becomes far, far easier. Some names also derive
from the family's primary occupation as we discussed earlier.
Official registration of births, deaths and marriages, has been
compulsory in most of Europe and the U.S. since the mid 1800's
In theory, and often also in practice, it is easy to trace families back to
these dates of compulsory registration. This must not however be
taken for granted since those. 'skeletons' known to exist in most
family cupboards can often lead the researcher off on a false trail, or
perhaps worse still, not come to light in the first place. Here is where a
little detective work comes to the rescue.
The astute researcher might uncover various information the less
seasoned historian might instead have dismissed or perhaps not
considered at all. Birth certificates for instance are dated on the day
registration takes place, which could obviously be days or weeks after
the birth. When registration was made compulsory a fine was
introduced for registrations made more than 42 days after the birth, as
a result of which parents late in registering adjusted the date of
delivery to suit their own requirements.
And given that not all people, even those responsible for completing
official records, enjoyed the greatest degree of communicative skills, it
was not unusual for parents to produce variations of their surname to
the official recorder, or for the latter to hastily enter a name he
'thought' the respondent had uttered.
Amongst many inconsistencies that can make life anything but easy
for the researcher, are the tendency for many names to be reversed
on entry to official records. John Henry, for instance might be entered
with his surname featuring first, therefore to all intents and purposes
making him today's 'Henry John'. Some Christian names and surnames
are still unlikely contenders for their alternatives, but it must not be
assumed that this is always the case, and even the most unlikely of
transpositions can find its improbable counterparts mellowed with
time. That 'Henry John' might for instance become today's 'Henry
Johnstone' - a far more likely proposition.
Much useful information can be derived from birth certificates, which
amongst other things include the child's; name and date of birth, the
mother's name and maiden name, and usually the father's Christian
name, address and occupation. After 1875 the father of an illegitimate
child can only be named on the birth certificate with his consent. Other
anomalies which might lead to red herrings, or indeed to camouflaging
useful information, include such as the actual time of birth of a child, a
fact not usually entered for other than to indicate the debut of siblings
- multiple births - a fact which might go unnoticed due to the high
infant mortality rate of years gone by, when short lives faded quickly
Marriage certificates provide less detailed information but might
provide access to evasive information such as the parties' father's
names and occupations, addresses at the date of marriage,
professions, and so on. One of the so-called skeletons in most family
cupboards is that of parents either not married until after the birth of
one or more of their children, or else married in haste as an imminent
birth approaches. But though it might upset many clients and their
relatives to discover such information relating to their dear departed,
even people still living, it was not actually all that uncommon an
occurrence for couples several generations ago to wait until
pregnancy, even birth, to decide to tie the knot.
Death certificates amongst other details will usually include age,
occupation, location, date and cause of death.
Adoptions certificates. Even where recorded they often give just the
adoptive name of the child and new parents, with no information
provided regarding the child prior to adoption, other than the correct
date of birth. Incidentally, various legal and social requirements
surround access to adoption information, most of it hinging on the age
of the individual adopted. It is not always easy to gain access to
information even today regarding natural parents, something which
might make your job somewhat harder if you are tracing a 'natural'
Access to Information Prior to Registration
Amongst the most informative of sources available from which to
extract information relating to births, deaths and marriages, along
with other essential information, are County or Parish Registers which
go back to 1538, though their accuracy is often open to debate. The
accuracy of the entry might not however always be attributed to the
skill or otherwise of the recorder; if that person to whom the entry
pertained was illiterate and could not provide the accurate spelling of
his or her own name, then the recorder would use his own judgement
and make the entry as he believed it to be.
The fact that such anomalies creep many times into the history of just
one family, well explains the changes one often finds to the surname
of today's descendants from those whose records were entered
County (Parish) Registers
In the majority of instances, parish records are now maintained at
central libraries in larger cities, or at the various County Record
Photocopies of entries in parish registers can usually be obtained for a
small sum. Official records such as birth, marriage or death certificates
might also be obtained, but will cost you a few dollars for each copy
requested; still not a high price to pay for the amount of information
most official documents contain, and which can greatly reduce the
time you might otherwise spend researching one minor point which
might be provided on the certificate itself.
Parish registers in England go back as far as 1538, to the time when
Thomas Cromwell ordered all churches to maintain records of
baptisms, marriages and burials within the area of their jurisdiction.
From 1598, parish clerks were ordered to forward transcripts of the
registers every year to their local bishop. This continued until 1837
when civil registration came into being.
Most parish registers are now available for inspection at County Record
Offices (CROs), in the main town or city of the county. On a few
isolated occasions one comes by registers which have not been
deposited as ordered with appropriate bishops, such documents
usually being well cared for by the vicar or other representative in the
Of parish registers themselves a few brief notes might be made.
Marriage records can prove particularly useful since they provide the
names of both parties, the groom's occupation, their parishes, marital
status, and sometimes details of bride's father, parties' ages, and so
Marriages during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can
present tremendous problems for the researcher, since the need to
have banns read and licences obtained could be expensive, lengthy
and problematic. Many couples therefore hid under the cloak of
ceremonies carried out secretly by parsons who would ask little if
anything of the couple but enough to comply with basic legal
requirements. Sometimes no-one checked too carefully on the
personal credentials either, and it is almost certain that a great many
'marriages' carried out during the period are anything near as binding
as the parties to them might have thought.
Elopements, bigamy and fly-by-night marriages flourished under the
practice which can lead many genealogists to despair as the plot grows
ever thicker. In 1754 an Act of Parliament was passed aimed at
eliminating clandestine marriages. Many ceremonies were to be
performed in parish churches or other designated religious premises.
Baptism records provide a great deal of information regarding our
ancestors, usually giving the father's surname for legitimate children -
the mother's for illegitimate - and also usually indicating the place of
birth, father's occupation, clergyman at the ceremony and sometimes
a few other snippets of useful information.
Parish registers noted baptisms, not births. Therefore it is usual only
to find conformists registered in this way. Any ancestor not recorded in
parish registers might therefore belong to non-conforist persuasions
such as Quakers, Jews and Roman Catholics, all of which kept their
own usually well-maintained records.
Non-conformist records, that is of those not belonging to the Church
of England, can make excellent reading and yield much useful
information, particularly since various other denominations were a
great deal more astute in their approach to record keeping than were
the majority of parish clerks. Appropriate details of Roman Catholics,
Jews, Non-conformist Protestants and Huguenots, might be available
from religious registers, many of them held in followers' meeting
places in nearby large towns and cities. Alternatively societies operate
to provide access to appropriate information. The readers' attention is
drawn to the reources section at the end of this book, from which
sources he or she might often find invaluable records available for