Monthly Archives: October 2012

Breaking down those Family History Brick Walls

Strategies when your family history research hits that brick wall.

Review the Research that you have previously got together

Information that you may have found a few years ago that may include names, dates or other details that now provide clues, given new facts that you’ve since uncovered. Organising your files and reviewing your facts may uncover just the clue to move you onto the next stage.

Go back to the original source

You may have kept the names and dates from that old census record, but did you also keep track of other information that was to hand such as ‘years of marriage’ and possibly even the ‘country of parent’s origin’ if your family moved internationally? Or, perhaps, in error, you misread a name or a family relationship? Be sure to go back to those first records you kept, making complete copies and noting down all clues – they may all come in handy in later research.

Widen your search

When you’re stuck on a particular ancestor, good practise is to widen your search to other family members and neighbours. When you can’t find a birth record for your ancestor that lists his/her parents, maybe you can locate one for a brother or sister. Or, when you’ve lost a family between census years, try looking for their neighbours. You may be able to identify a migration pattern, or a wrongly mis-indexed census entry that way. Often referred to as “cluster genealogy,” this research technique can often get you past those brick walls that had proved so troublesome.

Family history photos

Question your data & verify accuracy

Many brick walls occur simply from data that is incorrect. In other words, the sources you’ve uncovered may be leading you in the wrong direction through their inaccuracy. Respondents not telling the truth on Census Forms/ Birth, Marriages and Death records was possible, as was information such as their correct age or whether married or not. Attitudes were different back then and many people felt very uncomfortable divulging true personal information. Also, published sources often contain transcription errors when being noted down. Try to find at least three records to verify any facts that you already know and then judge the quality of your data results.

Check possible name variations used

Your brick wall may just be something as simple as looking for the wrong name. Variations of last names and ancestors using middle names or even ‘nicknames’ can really complicate research, so be sure to check all manner of spelling options and possible variations. The ‘all in one’ search facility and phonetic search options on TheGenealogist helps enormously to find those people who may have used middle names or names easily misinterpreted on census documents- on TheGenealogist we can see an example of this with the records of a Benjamin Freke.

Variations in surname spelling can cause problems to the family history researcher

Search record results for Benjamin Freke on TheGenealogist

Know Your Geography

Even though you know that your ancestor lived on the same street, you may still be looking in the wrong county for your ancestor. Town and county boundaries have been subject to change over time as populations grew or council boundaries changed. Keeping up with geographical changes can help break down those brick walls!

The many boundary changes and other changes to administrative areas mean that some local advice can save you a lot of time and frustration. The South West of England, as an example, has gone through a number of administrative changes over the years- such as the abolishment of the county of Avon in 1996. This created the authorities of Bath and North East Somerset, City of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. To the person unfamiliar with the local area, research can become very confusing but it highlights how boundaries in the UK have changed from time to time. It is always worth getting some local guidance from a local Family History Society for example, in the first instance.

Seek out help- there’s a number of sources available!

Fresh eyes and a fresh perspective can often see beyond brick walls, so try running your theories by other researchers. Use a specialist forum like – www.roots-forum.co.uk  Post a query on a website ‘help’ forum such as www.thegenealogist.co.uk/forums  Also, check with members of the local historical or genealogical society, they can possibly offer advice and guidance. Be sure to include what you already know, as well as what you’d like to know and which tactics and methods you’ve already tried so those helping you do not waste time duplicating effort.

Where do you store your family history data?

During the process of researching your family history, it is easy to mix up records if they are not recorded or stored carefully. Some researchers like to draw their family trees by hand or download blank charts, but the most popular method  is creating a family tree digitally, either using a software package or via one of the main online subscription websites.

Although the main online family tree research sites offer increasingly more advanced functions, there is still a great demand for family tree software, especially when it comes to producing charts and storing large amounts of information about each ancestor.

The various software packages have much in common: each has slightly different capabilities and system requirements and prices are fairly similar.

Of the selection of family history software, RootsMagicUK ticks all the boxes for good value and great features. Now in its fifth updated version, the software can be run off a USB stick, allowing you to update your research from any PC. This software also creates superb wall charts and integrates with research sites. It is the top rated program in numerous reviews and articles which emphasise RootsMagic’s ease of use and powerful features.

This programme is ideal for novices. It boasts great book reports and allows you to upload pictures in narrative reports. The latest edition comes with seven free data CDs. RootsMagic has one of the most user-friendly interfaces and comes with a clear, concise instruction manual.

A taste of RootsMagic UK – User friendly screens and clear, concise reports

RootsMagic UK Version 5

There are other quality examples of family tree software such as Family Historian and Family Tree Maker – all popular amongst both amateur and professional family historians – but I find RootsMagic to be the one for me. I purchased my copy from S&N Genealogy supplies, you can order a copy here.

New UK Census Data Website

For those researchers looking for an affordable way to access both census and civil registration data, the UK Census Online site (www.ukcensusonline.com ) can offer a good start point in your online research efforts.

The new site offers access to all the censuses for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911 and available birth, marriage and death indexes for those countries since 1837 (currently up to 2005). Whilst there are cheaper monthly packages available, the UK Census Online site offers the cheapest annual subscription package available.

All of the census data at the site is available as searchable transcripts and high-quality original page images. A feature of the new site is a keyword search facility, available only to subscribers. Non-subscribers can use a basic search, which for censuses provides age, jobs and place of birth in the results for free.

The ability to find an entry by just a few search terms like place or occupation makes it easy to refine a search. You can use the keyword search to find the record of an ancestor much the same way as you would find a website using Google. You enter search terms into one box and results are shown in an extract form.

As you transcribe the whole record, you can see each result’s full details before having to click to view the image, thus saving a huge amount of time trying to read the handwritten entries. The keyword refinement also allows you to have extremely relevant results.

In a comparison with other sites, the UK Census Online offers a number of favourable features.  For example, ‘Ancestry’ hasn’t transcribed occupation or the street address in the pre-1911 Census and can’t use as many refining terms. ‘Findmypast’ doesn’t provide the range of options or the keyword search facility. More details can be found here – www.ukcensusonline.com

UK Census Online offers sophisticated keyword search

The importance of Parish and Non-Conformist records

Tracing your ancestors can start to get more difficult before 1837. This can be when many  people hit that ‘brick wall’ and they start to struggle with their family history research. However, it is possible to get access to information before Civil registration  records began and census information was recorded.

Civil registration (or the recording of births, marriages and deaths) started in England and Wales in 1837, Scotland in 1855 and Ireland in 1864, but the parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials go back much further than this- the very earliest record dates from 1538.

Whilst not as detailed as civil registration records, the parish records can often allow us to go back so much further and keep tracing our ancestors. Also, for those families who did not attend mainstream church, the non conformists, such as the Methodists, Quakers and Presbyterians amongst others, records are available for these groups too.

Parish records have generally been accessed by family historians through the relevant local or county archive. However, now it’s easier than ever to access both parish records and non conformist records. UK family history websites now have many records that can be found online without having to leave your home! One in particular, TheGenealogist, now provides access to over 12 million official non conformist and parish records, a good selection of records to help with family searches!  Some examples of what can now be found online are listed below:

Firstly, a parish record from 1773-

parish records
Parish records found on TheGenealogist

However, if your relatives followed a non-conformist faith, TheGenealogist is increasingly adding more records that may contain the relatives you are looking for. Here is an example of the search results (please click on the screenshot to get a larger, clearer image) :

Non conformist search

Easy to view search results

DNA Testing – taking you further back in time!

An interesting development over the last couple of years for the family historian has been the availability of DNA testing to assist in tracing ancestral lineage. It’s become both more available and less expensive and can really help with research.

In the U.S. in January, Life Technologies Corp. introduced a new machine to to map an entire human genome for $1,000 in just one day, according to The Wall Street Journal. Following on from this, Family History Research Companies have started offering DNA tests on a smaller scale. Here in the U.K., a British website, TheGenealogist has started offering these DNA tests to the public to help trace family lines.

DNA family history research testing
DNA testing available in the UK

It’s a new feature that can help both amateur and professional family historians. Beginners can jump straight into family history and potentially see some significant results in a very quick time.

It is also useful when the family history researcher hits that ‘brick wall’ in their research. When you research a line, there’s only so far back you can go before the paper trail ends. With DNA testing, it is possible to bridge that gap and get past those brick walls. Many thousands of users have taken advantage of this service in the U.S. already and the demand is increasing in the U.K. as people decide to take their family history research that step further.

Many people are interested in genealogy but don’t have time to research their full family history themselves. Now you learn more about your family line than they ever thought possible. DNA testing in the UK starts from around £60 and more information can be found here.

DNA testing in the UK from TheGenealogist
DNA testing starts from around £60 in the UK

Has anyone taken advantage of DNA testing yet in their family history research?

Tracing those Irish Ancestors…

Family history research can often hit those brick walls which can stop you in your tracks. It is then that the benefits of technology and online research websites come to the fore to help out.

Griffith's Valuation Records in Ireland
Griffith’s Valuation records, helps family historians find their Irish ancestors

One such issue can occur when tracing those ancestors who lived in Ireland. In the 19th Century there was an extensive amount of record taking in Ireland to analyse the population of the country. Despite the best intentions, the first Census in 1813 was felt to be greatly flawed and was deemed useless and subsequently destroyed. However, the 1821 census was more successful and produced the first comprehensive record of all the names in every household, fully 20 years before this was done in England!

This excellent record taking would have been ideal for the family history researcher looking to trace their records. Unfortunately, the Irish census records for 1861-1891 were pulped by government order during the First World War to clear space, and then an explosion and fire in 1922 destroyed most of the census records from 1821 to 1851.

This has proved unfortunate but there are ways around this for the family historian. Griffith’s Valuation records provide a valued substitute for the lost census records for Ireland, as it lists every householder in Ireland at the time it was taken.

Griffith’s Valuation was carried out between 1848 and 1864 and provides records on where people lived and who owned property in Ireland. A typical example of how the records can be accessed online can be seen below courtesy of www.TheGenealogist.co.uk

Simple, easy searching online gives the researcher the following results:

Complete with the original image:

Using the records on TheGenealogist, the database is searchable by forename and surname with phonetic matching and wildcards in combination with County and Barony and lists over 2.6 million Individuals.

The information given includes county, Barony, Poor Law Union then divided into electoral divisions, parishes and townlands, and OS map sheet number with link to view available maps. This is the first time that Griffith’s Valuation has been made available with Phonetic matching, Nicknames, Wildcards and OS Maps.