The golden rule is always to work from the known to the unknown. Never pick someone of the same name living centuries ago and try to prove a link: it’s usually impossible!
The first step is to write down everything you know. It’s best to do this systematically in the form of a draft family tree. It might be quite detailed including brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins but most people start off with what is called a birth brief. This gives only your direct ancestors: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. Don’t worry if you can’t go back very far, just write down what you know. Bear in mind that, in a family tree, women are always referred to by their maiden names.
Talk to other members of the family as well and find out if they can help. Try to obtain copies of any birth, marriage and death certificates they have. Ask around to see if anyone has a family Bible with generations of births, marriages and deaths listed inside. Photographs can also be useful, particularly if they are dated and the people on them identified.
Family photographs can often help jog people’s memories. They are also a wonderful way to illustrate your family tree.
You may not have older relatives to ask, perhaps because you are the senior member of the family. You can still begin to research your family tree, beginning with yourself, by asking yourself the following questions:
When were you born?
How old were your parents when they died?
Do you know where they were born?
If possible, go and look at your parents’ gravestone in the cemetery and see what information it gives. Once everything known is written down, you should decide which branch of the family to follow first. Many people are often more interested in their father’s line as this is likely to be the source of their own surname, but there is no rule about which branch you should start with. You can always come back and tackle the other branches later.
You can begin to draw up a basic family tree beginning with yourself and your parents’ details.
Always keep a note of what you’ve seen. If you find any information, record the library or record office where you found it, details of the document and its full reference number to enable you to find it again if you need to. It is also worthwhile recording unsuccessful searches of documents to ensure that you don’t waste time by accidentally checking through them again later.
If your ancestors moved around the country, you may need to visit other libraries and record offices.