Getting (re)Started with Genealogy Research

About a decade ago, I became interested in researching our family tree. Resources online were fairly scarce, or too expensive for my meagre budget. How times have changed! There are now a plethora of websites offering access to seemingly limitless historic records, including a wealth of free sites and databases.

My interest in family history was rekindled when I was struggling to come up with a birthday gift idea for my father. I hit upon the idea of getting a genealogy DNA test done, which lead me to research and compare the various options for genetic genealogy. For me, it really came down to either Ancestry or FamilyTreeDNA. Due to my father’s health, I decided to go for the Family Tree DNA option because it uses a cheek swab, whereas Ancestry require a saliva sample.

As a birthday gift, this certainly didn’t disappoint. The only negative was that there is no way to simply download the myOrigins report as a PDF, or to print it as a neatly formatted report. I had to compile something for him myself, which wasn’t a big issue. The report provided few surprises, being heavily centred on the British Isles.

FamilyTreeDNA - myOrigins
FamilyTreeDNA’s myOrigins Ethnic Makeup

FamilyTreeDNA also provides a list of genetic matches. The strongest match (a second to fourth cousin) had the ancestral surname “Wilson” listed, and linked with Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. Jumping to conclusions, I quickly contacted her and assumed that it was a shared Wilson ancestor that matched with my father. However, names and histories of travel didn’t match in the slightest. I quickly did some research into our Wilson lineage and discovered that it is centred around Yorkshire, with no (recent) link to Scotland. We had previously believed that our Wilson family was from Scotland, but I think this was more an assumption, and not based on actual research. The matching cousin has therefore become a mystery to solve, as over the past couple of months we’ve been unable to identify a common ancestor. That was a big lesson in not jumping to conclusions about possible connections!

To research historic records I chose Ancestry. There was no particular reason for this, and mainly because I was aware of what they offered when I researched DNA testing services. Ancestry allowed me to quickly build a family tree, accessing birth, death, marriage, and census records to verify accuracy. This was perfect, as I don’t currently have my old family research available, and lost a lot of what I had when a hard drive failed. I was often able to simple guess approximate years of birth and start with paternal family names. By choosing a well known genealogy website, I also had access to many family trees that intersected with mine. This occasionally lead me to accepting some incorrect connections into my tree, but I quickly learnt to check the facts first.

Aside from paid services, I have discovered some very useful and free resources.

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) – Provides details on service personnel who fought in the two world wars. The is an associated project called In From The Cold that works to provide previously missed names to be added to the CWGC memorials.
  • Find A Grave – Millions of grave records, and allows you to request or add photographs of the graves. You can also add additional graves from personal research.
  • FamilySearch –  A free service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you have a limited budget, this website has free access to various records. You can construct your family tree on here, and match your ancestors with existing entries in the FamilySearch database.
  • GEDmatch – This site is particular useful if you have taken a DNA test as it lets you compare with other users who may have used another service. No matter which service you’ve tested with, this is place to upload your results to potentially find additional matches. You can also upload and compare your family tree in GEDCOM format.

One final source that has proved invaluable is Google. Yes, just searching in Google has let me discover a number of things that I hadn’t actually thought to search for online. Amongst the various interesting things I’ve found:

Google is also my first stop for finding out information on the places my ancestors lived. There are thousands of resources out there for genealogists.

If you’re like me, and haven’t looked at your family tree in a while, or if you’ve not yet started researching, there has never been a better time to start.

Edit (25 September 2016) – I recently added a list of Family Research Notes in case anyone else researching similar topics happens to discover my website.

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