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Family History: How Far Back Can You Go?

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 5 Nov 2017 | comments*Discuss
 
Family Tree Parish Records Public

There is absolutely no hard or fast rule about how far back you can go when tracing your family tree; it all depends on the available records. However, in general terms there are limits that people run into as they look back in their family history.

The Easy Part

For most people, tracing the family back to the beginning of public records in 1837 should pose no problem. Between the Censuses and the birth, marriage and death records you can usually go back to this point with no problem as long as your ancestors were born in the UK.

In most instances, you won’t even need to leave home to trace back to this point, as the records are available online. You’ll need to spend a small amount to obtain copies for your records, but the cost is minimal. The problems begin when you go back beyond this.

Parish Records

To head back into the 18th century or even further, you’ll need to look at parish records, and this is where you can encounter obstacles. For much of the 18th century there should be no problem with the records, as they will be intact. They might well be in local records offices, although in some cases they might well still be in the parish churches; you have to track them down, which involves some detective work.

Going back to the 16th and 15th centuries it can become a great deal more problematic. Many more of the registers will be missing (often due to the Civil War or just the depredations of age). Where there are no records, obviously you’re stuck, as the parish registers will cover extensive periods of time and the gaps might well be too great for you to continue.

Marriage

The only things noted in parish records and baptisms, Marriages and Deaths. All children would have been baptised, and all those who died would have been buried. But not everyone married. In many cases their unions would haven’t been sanctioned by the church, so there would be no record of it, forcing you to look for baptisms of children (or their own baptisms) and deaths. Even then, if they moved elsewhere and died, you could well be lost unless you had a general idea of where they’d gone. Even then you’d need to find the parish and hope the records still existed.

The simple fact is that by medieval times it can prove to be almost impossible to go any further for the average person. Even where they exist, parish records aren’t always complete, and the further back you go, the fewer there are of them.

Aristocracy

Things are different for the aristocracy, and even today there are those descended from nobility who can trace their ancestry back to the Norman conquest, and beyond in a few, rare instances.

This is because their marriages were largely commercial transactions, and they needed to be written down, with those records kept for reference in the event of legal disputes. Additionally, heraldry can be an important way to trace back these families, particularly in their unions.

Of course, most of us aren’t from these families, so we don’t enjoy that luxury. All we can do is keep on with the detective work and hope there are enough records for us to keep making connections.

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[Add a Comment]
@Liz - Oh wow. I was pleased that I've got back to the 1600s. That's amazing. You must feel very proud. How nice it is you can trace your lineage so far.
NiamhK - 7-Nov-17 @ 2:48 PM
I have been researching my family tree on my dad's side of the family(Braybrook)and I have just found my 50th great grandma she was born in 295 , don't know how much farther I can go but I will keep trying,
Liz - 5-Nov-17 @ 5:36 PM
How far back can our family be traced
Chris - 27-Apr-17 @ 6:07 PM
I'm looking to unseal my mother's parents identity as she was adopted at birth 1926, I am having a hard time finding someone to help unseal documents that show my Mother's birth parents origin ethnicity and medical information, any help would be appreciated Trace
Trace - 1-Feb-17 @ 3:45 AM
How do you start to look and go back
Lisa - 1-Oct-16 @ 11:13 PM
Yeah I'm hoping to trace back my lineage at some point, *fingers crossed*.
Alex - 30-Sep-16 @ 11:38 PM
spud - Your Question:
Excited to find out how far I can go back

Our Response:
We wish you luck in your research.
ExploreGenealogy - 29-Feb-16 @ 12:27 PM
excited to find out how far I can go back
spud - 28-Feb-16 @ 4:29 PM
@Hugs - This is the wonderful aspect of geneology and the interesting stories you will come across. It's not straightforward and will offer many challenges but the rewards are great when you something new out about a member from your family tree.
Helen - 23-Nov-15 @ 10:32 AM
I want to know how far my family goes and if im related to any significant people
hugs - 22-Nov-15 @ 3:10 AM
I want to know how back my last name goes
Snuggle bunny - 29-Sep-15 @ 6:23 PM
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