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Family History: What Do You Want To Learn?

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 27 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
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The hit BBC television show 'Who Do You Think You Are?' made a lot of people think about family history and tracing their ancestry. But even before that reached the screens, genealogy was already incredibly popular - according to statistics, genealogy is the third most searched term on the Web. It's something anyone can do with time, patience and perseverance. But the detective work delving into your family tree can become seriously addictive, and a hobby that can literally last a lifetime.

Genealogy can show us where we came from, where and often how our ancestors lived - in a world where our roots don't seem as clear as they once did. You might be able to go and see the house where your great-great-great grandfather was born, for instance. That's a feeling to put you in touch with who you really are, and a sense of belonging, and some very concrete genealogy research.

What Areas of Family History do You Want to Research?

Most of us begin genealogy with no real thought of what we want to do besides creating a family tree, and simply doing that is an ideal goal in itself. For that you compile a pedigree chart - or ahnentafel chart as it's also known. Additionally, assemble a family group sheet, which more fully lists whatever personal details you can find about each individual within the family.

For some, genealogy is simply one part of putting together a full family history, a book that goes back as far as you can trace your ancestry. It's a brave idea, since it takes years of genealogy research and the ability to find stories. But, on the plus side, when you've finished, you've created not only a work of art, but also another solid resource for future genealogists.

Some people need to find out about the branches of their family tree for medical reasons - to establish genetic makeup for organ donation, for instance. That involves not only going back in time, but spreading your wings and tracing sideways, to locate all those cousins several times removed and contact them. These days DNA testing has developed to the point where commercial services can analyse your sample and tell you not only your genetic background, but often pinpoint the region and country your ancestors came from! It won't take you back to the Ice Age, but you might well get a few surprises, including links to people and places you'd have never imagined. It's not genealogy as most people think of it, but if you want a wider picture of your family's past and a snapshot of your genes, this is a good avenue to explore. Be warned, though, DNA analysis isn't cheap, but if you want to establish a DNA family history it's worth the cost.

Sometimes an inheritance can be a powerful motivation for discovering your ancestry. If you do need to establish a family tree for legal reasons, you can do it yourself, but to establish unbiased integrity, the services of a professional genealogist should be used - they're easy to find.

What Resutls to Expect from Your Family History Research

Don't imagine tracking down your ancestors will be easy. It takes work and patience; you're not going to find everything you want and need to know in a single day. Once you start you'll hit a lot of walls in your research. You need to be persistent and imaginative to fill in all the gaps in your family history.

The chances are you're not going to be able to trace your family back to the Norman Conquest. For most people, if you can go back as far as 1538 (when baptismal records were first kept), you've done a remarkable job.

You might well find a few long-lost or hidden family secrets, but don't expect to discover that you're a distant relative of royalty. It's not entirely impossible, but certainly highly unlikely.

There's more to a family history than just names and dates. It's a series of stories. If an ancestor moved from, say, Malton to Leeds, try and find out why. It could have been to look for work in an industrial town; it could have been to escape illness in the area, or any number of factors. Discovering local history can often offer clues as to the reasons behind migration or early death, and it certainly helps you understand your forbears and the life they lived.

No matter how poor, everyone has left footprints in history (perhaps surprisingly, some of the poorest have left the strongest footprints through Poor Law records). Criminals who were caught leave their names behind in court records. You don't have to be rich to have a very long and storied past - as your genealogy research will establish that said, the rich tend to leave more records and are easier to trace.

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