Start from a solid foundation

The question that everyone has when researching family history, regardless of whether they are just starting or have been doing it for years, is – where do I start?

For new researchers, the question arises because they are unfamiliar with the process of family history research. For more experienced researchers it is because they have come to realise that there is so much research to do that it becomes overwhelming.

The standard advice given to people who are new to family history research is that you should always start with yourself. Sound advice, because if you start anywhere else you cannot be sure you are researching people who are actually related to you. However, that advice is not helpful past that point, so each time we sit down to do some research we are faced by the same question – where do I start?

The answer is research planning.

Research planning provides you with focus, in the form of research goals, questions or hypotheses; and direction, in the form of a list of tasks, sources and repositories. If you spend time on planning your research, then each time you sit down to do some research you have options for where you can start this time, and a process to keep track of what you have done and what you intend to do next. However, I am not just talking about producing a research plan based on a template, although such a plan is a very useful tool. The research planning process can be anything that helps to make your research more systematic.

A fundamental principle in research planning is that you must always start from the known and move into the unknown, or, as I like to describe it – start from a solid foundation. This means you can start your research from any person in your family history, provided you are sure that the information you have and the conclusions you have reached about that person are sound. This is the principle that underlies the instruction to start with yourself when you are just beginning.

The challenge then becomes identifying and documenting the solid foundation points in your family history so that you can use them as stepping stones for further research.

One method is to choose the person you want to start with (for any reason at all!) and verify that they are a solid foundation. To do this, you need to review all the information you already have and the sources you have already examined, and analyse whether the conclusions you have reached are sufficiently supported by the evidence. Be honest and critical – is the evidence strong, or are there doubts or inconsistencies? If the evidence is weak, then that becomes your first research task – to investigate further. Once you verify that this person is a solid foundation, then you can start moving outwards to research other people. Your first priority should be to move in the direction towards yourself, verifying that each person between your starting person and yourself is also a solid foundation. This confirms how your starting person is related to you.

Another method is to have a document or system that records where the solid foundations occur within your family tree. Each time you feel like researching, you just choose a point from that document or system. You could achieve this using family history software or research plans (and I will discuss these in later posts), but I like to use this simple tool which I call a Tree Health Assessment.

A Tree Health Assessment can be documented quite simply using a family tree chart. To use this method you must start with yourself, regardless of how long you have been researching your family history. As you assess the evidence for each person and their relationship to the previous generation you colour the line or box for that person based on your assessment. Green means the evidence is strong that you have identified the correct person and their relationship to the previous generation (e.g. father and daughter). Yellow means you have some evidence but it needs further research – for example, the evidence may be indirect or circumstantial. Red means that there are issues of concern, such as no sources, information from unreliable sources, inconsistencies or doubts about the conclusions. The solid foundations in your tree are any parts which are coloured green. Your research should always start at a point where the green person links to a yellow or red line or box (shown as a blue X in the example below). However, take care not to leap into researching a red coloured person if there are yellow ones between them and yourself, as the answers may lie in turning the yellow into a solid foundation first.


Baptised before birth and other silly claims

There are some basic rules in life that cannot be broken. Following these rules will instantly make you a better genealogist.

1. You cannot be baptised or christened before you were born. There may be some cultures out there that do not follow this rule, but for most of us this rule applies.

2. You cannot be buried before you die. Well, you could but it would be illegal and downright scary. This rule of course does not apply to vampires or zombies.

3. You cannot be in two places at once. Unless you are an undeclared identical twin trying to fool people.

4. If the ‘father’ was in gaol when the baby was conceived, he is not the father. Unless it was a very accommodating gaol.

5. Similarly, if the ‘father’ died more than 9 months before the birth, he is not the father. Except of course, if science was involved.

6. Sharing a surname does not mean two people are biologically related. If it did, the Smith family would be one very enormous family tree!

7. Women rarely give birth before they are 12 or after they turn fifty. If there are children beyond those ages send them back to their rightful homes! There are variations based on nutrition and time period, and trends are changing but its still a useful guide.

8. Events close in time tend to occur in the same country. A man is unlikely to be buried in Pennsylvania USA if he died in Paddington NSW Australia.

Now go out and slay those online family tree myths!


Broaden your research with FANs

One of the traps to fall into with family history research is narrowing the target too much. Many researchers focus on just their direct ancestral line – parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is a desire to forge back into the past as quickly as possible, or to make the research task manageable. Or it may be an attempt to focus on the people who are thought to be the most important.

The danger of this approach is that it can result in information gaps, errors or a ‘brick wall’.

Research is the process of collecting information, which is used as evidence to support conclusions. A narrow research approach reduces the amount of information collected. This will mean that the stories you compile about your ancestors are pretty sketchy, but more importantly it means that you will have less evidence. With less evidence, inconsistencies are not apparent and the wrong conclusions can be made. Having more information increases the likelihood of reaching correct conclusions and the likelihood of having a comprehensive and accurate family history.

Information is collected from sources. Increasing the number of sources has the potential to increase the amount of information. It is not as straightforward as that, as the type and quality of the sources is also a factor, but that is a topic for another time.


To increase the information you need to gather as many research leads as possible. One way to do this is to expand beyond your direct ancestral line and research your ancestor’s FAN club. FAN stands for friends, associates and neighbours. The technique is also referred to as ‘collateral research’, but I like the term FAN because it presents an image of something opening up which is what this technique is all about.

Your ancestor interacted with a lot of people during their lifetime. By researching some of those people, you can gather more information about your ancestor. Some of this information will be direct – such as a record of an event that specifically mentions your ancestor and their FAN. Other information will be indirect – such as a story about disastrous floods that affected a FAN who lived near your ancestor.

Researching your ancestor’s FANS also increases the likelihood that you will obtain information from sources that are independent of the sources about your ancestor. Think of it like getting a second opinion. If two sources were created by different people for different purposes contain the same information, it increases the chance that the information is accurate.

How do you find your ancestor’s FANS?

Start by looking at people who were the closest to your ancestor. Within a family there may be siblings, aunts and uncles, half- and step-siblings, multiple wives and husbands, and more. Next, look at the people mentioned in the sources about your ancestor – the witnesses to a marriage, the minister who married them, the informant on a death certificate, the people who appear in the census with them and so on.

Researching your ancestors’ FAN club takes a lot of time, so it’s best to have a research question in mind. You should select the FANS who are most likely to provide information relevant to your research question. However, if you are just interested in collecting as much information as you can about a family, you could broaden your search to the locality in which they lived – who taught at the local school, who attended the same church, who owned the land next to them and so on. Then finally, you could examine groups who were potentially affected by the same broad forces or events that affected your ancestor –  for example, the convict period, the First World War, an occupational group.

What do you do with all the information?

There is not a lot of point in gathering all this extra information if you cannot make good use of it. You will need tools and techniques to analyse the information, see patterns and inconsistencies, and draw conclusions. I’ll be writing more about such tools and techniques in other posts.


Family history software helps your research

Some people do not use family history software and manage well without it, but there are a lot of benefits in using such software. Family history software provides a structure for storing your data and for recording the links between people, places, events and sources. In doing so, it helps you analyse the data and see patterns, gaps or inconsistencies.

The examples provided here are from the software which I use – Legacy Family Tree.

There are general patterns in families and Legacy notifies you if those patterns are broken. Here, for example, the red exclamation mark alerts me to the fact that there were five years separating the birth of two children, where the usual pattern is less than two years. I need to confirm whether there was another child or look for an alternative explanation.


Legacy has a standard list of potential problems and this can be handy for identifying where wrong conclusions may have been reached. My great great grandmother, for example, is reported on her 1931 death certificate as having been 101 years old. However, her last child was born in 1880 when the death certificate suggests she would have been aged 50. Although it is not unheard of to have a child at that age, it is enough evidence to make me suspect her supposed birth date.


The Chronology view generates timelines which are another useful analytical tool.


Changes in the location of events may highlight an error in your research or, in this case, indicate that a family moved around looking for coal mining and gold mining work. In another family, a discrepancy in the location of the births of children led me to conclude that one child had been included in that family by mistake.

These are just two of the many features of family history software that can help your research. I’ve only ever used one family history software program, so I cannot provide an opinion on which is best. From discussions with other genealogists I have come to the conclusion that they all do a great job. However, one thing that is great about Legacy Family Tree is that you can download a free version to try before you decide whether to buy it. It is for that reason that I usually recommend it to people who are just starting family history. The free version is completely functional, it just doesn’t have the fancier features activated.

If you haven’t tried using family history software yet, I would recommend that you do. If you already use it, learn more about the analytical tools it provides and you will not regret it.


Cite your sources

I have a photograph of my great great grandparents that I found on Facebook. At least, I have been told that it is a photograph of them but it was posted without a citation so I do not know where it came from, when it was taken, who took it – all those details that would convince me that it really is them. I keep the photograph because it is the only one I have, but it bothers me that they may not actually be my family at all.

generationsgenealogy_willCiting your sources is important if you want to share your family history with others, so that they can trust what you have found and so that they can take a look at the records themselves. It is important for your own research for the same reasons. A source citation also makes it easier for you to take a second (or third) look at a source because, let’s face it, we rarely understand a source fully the first time we look at it. How many times have you copied a page from a source, then realised you needed the page before or after it? How many times have you transcribed a handwritten document or taken notes from a source, then gone back to your notes later and found that they no longer make sense?

If you do not cite your sources because you do not know how or it takes too much effort, then here are my tips:

  • If you use family history software, learn to use the source citation features.
  • Unless you are writing for a publication, do not worry too much about whether it complies with APA, Chicago, Harvard or other formatting styles – you just need a citation that you and others can understand!
  • The general rule is that a citation has four main elements – Who, What, Where and When. Analyse each source with these questions and note down your answers. The order doesn’t matter very much, but the author usually goes first and the date usually goes last.

Who wrote it or created it? Who published it? What is the title? What format is it (a book, a certificate, a microfiche etc)? Where was it published? Where is it stored? When was it written? When was it published?

  • Include as much information in the citation as you would need if you wanted to find it again. More is better….
  • Many online repositories and websites, such as Ancestry and NSW State Archives, provide suggested citations or guidelines on how to cite their sources.
  • If it is a source that is often found in libraries, consult a library catalogue and copy their citation.
  • If you want a handy guide with examples of the main types of sources, try Noeline Kyle’s Citing Historical Sources: A Manual for Family Historians (available for purchase at