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Tips for new Genealogists

Tips for new Genealogists a genealogist putting photos in an album

It is now three months into the CoVid 19 lockdown and I have beavering away at my family tree. I am sorry if I have been somewhat quiet on social media, when I get my head stuck into a project it is very easy to lose myself. Although I have found some new information for my tree, this current large task is very much an editorial one. I am going through tidying everything up and organising my sources properly. While doing this I have corrected a few beginner errors along the way; so this seems like a great time to share some tips for new Genealogists.

Family History Software

If you are just setting out on your family history journey the number one piece of advice I can give you is to decide on what software will work best for you. I began with Family Historian and there are many things that I like about it, but later I switched to RootsMagic. My main reason is that I prefer how it handles sources, but there were a few other factors that went into my decision.

My only real complaint was when it comes to updating to new versions the company has the frustrating policy of keeping you in the complete dark as to when it will arrive. This is completely different to the working methods of most software I have been involved with as a beta tester. If you are happy to wait a year or two for a new version to arrive I really do recommend the program.

I however jumped ship again and began using MacFamily Tree which, unlike RootsMagic looked like it was made in the current era. It has a beautifully clean, customisable aesthetic and my mantra has always been things should be useful or beautiful but preferably both, the same is true of my software choices, you spend a long time in your apps of choice, I will write about MacFamilyTree soon.

Testing and Trials

Many genealogy programs offer free trials. If I was starting over now, I would use a base tree of thirty to fifty people and try as many as possible. You should be able to get a feel for what works best for you. Don’t forget to bare in mind how you wish to share your findings. Do you want to share it on the web, print several charts or produce a book for example. Knowing the answer to this will help you make your decision about which genealogy software may be right for you.

Sources are everything

Genealogy is at its most simplest the process of gathering data about your forbearers. In any project that involves gathering information, the vital thing to remember is where that data came from. In other words the source. Although many of these facts will be gathered via the internet there are so many more possibilities. Physical monuments like Graves and War Memorials, Parish registers and books, not to mention verbal histories provided by your oldest living relatives.

RootsMagic Sources

RootsMagic have a great range of templates to organise your sources. This is the winning feature I mentioned before. When I used Family Historian each and every family census entry created a new source and I ended up with thousands. The big project I have embarked on is to slim this down. The RootsMagic provides a way to have a central record and many uses of it. For example:

An image of the citation tab of the RootsMagic source detail.
The 1941 census for the Liskeard Registration District

Here is the citation tab of a source record for an online database. The yellow section refers to everyone and the green section to each specific entry. I could have used just one source for everyone mentioned in the 1841 census but I have decided to use one source for each registration district to break things down more.

An image of the details tab of the RootsMagic source reference.
The details tab

The details tab lets you enter any information specific to each entry. In the case of the census this is the transcription of the information provided. As you can see there is also the web tags button at the top of this screen where you can enter a direct link to the webpage the information is found on if you desire.

So many sources

As well as the online database source template (which I use an awful lot) there are templates for email messages, small, medium and large gravesites. Certificates, Online family trees, wills, tax records, maps etc. etc. the lists is huge.

Dates, Spellings and genealogical puzzles

Once you have organised the system you are going to use and how you will record all the information you find it is then time to get stuck into the research. I thought I would share some of the mistakes I made as a new family historian.

  • Names were very often spelt in a variety of ways. For example my primary line Penter, has been recorded as Pentire, Painter, Pentur and Pointer on various documents. The more unusual the name the wider range of spellings seem to exist, especially if someone who was illiterate moved to a new area.
  • Dates, once again especially with the illiterate they often seem to have guessed at their age. Although the census was taken every ten years I have individuals who have aged anywhere between 7 and 13 years during this gap. There were many people I discounted initially assuming they couldn’t be the right person because their age was wrong.
  • Missing people. Sometimes individuals seem to be truly missing from a census. In my experience when a whole family are missing I have tended to find them with the surname spelt completely wrong, the name variation does not always work for instance when Penter was transcribed as Lenter. Try searching for the given name, birth year and birth place this can be useful.

Genealogical Providers

As you will no doubt be aware there are many providers of online information for Family Historians, as I am based in the UK I am going to focus my information on this country.

Free Information

A great way to get going is using free data, here are a few websites that can help.

There are county schemes for many other counties, there are two I have had personal involvement with. An online Parish Clerk is someone who takes responsibility for the historical records for a specific parish.

The big players

We now get to the subscription records. These websites have got many databases, several of which include scans of the original records as well as the transcription. As well as the standard census and birth, marriage and death records you can find a whole range of useful information including, wills, school records and military service. I have found that county parish records are usually on one or the other website in greater detail.

Find My Past My go to place for Devon records. Old Newspaper and Probate registers.

Ancestry My go to place for Yorkshire records.

Why become a Genealogist?

If you are intrigued and would like to know more you may wish to check out my post, Genealogy for Spoonies. I have to warn you though, it can be addictive. This is not always a bad thing though because the research process is quite mindful and can help distract you from pain. Oh, and I have found relatives on the other side of the world thanks to the tree I publish online! If you would like me to cover RootsMagic in more detail drop me a comment below or via social media.

My Tips For New Genealogists

If you are completely new to the world of Genealogy the very best advice I can recommend it to join WikiTree, I wrote about it in the post WikiTree Review Linking up Genealogists. If you have any English ancestry (wherever you live in the world you could join the England project and will be mentored through the process. It is literally like a course for free. So those were my tips for new genealogists. I hope you have found some of them helpful.

Until next time,

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