Begin searching your family history by speaking with older relatives

When you begin your search into your family history, you may find great benefits if you speak with older relatives. Start simple and organise the information you already have.

Begin by writing down everything you know about your family history. Start with the names of your parents, their dates and places of birth.

This might sound basic, but it will give you the beginnings of your family tree. It is a starting point from which to search further.

If you also have the same information about your grandparents then add that to your family tree too. Already you will see it beginning to take shape.

The names and birth details of any children should also be added to your family tree.

Any other information you know about these relatives should be added to their individual profile. This can include records such as the date and place of marriage, and if applicable date and place of death.

These details are unlikely to throw up any surprises to you in your family history. However, they could be key in your future searches. They could help support or eliminate the possibilities of other individuals being part of your ancestry.

One great way to build up your knowledge of your family history is by speaking with older relatives. Ask them what details they can remember about members of your family.

If possible, write down or record your discussions for future reference. Encourage your relatives to talk freely about the people and places they remember. You never know when a gem of information could be unsurfaced.

It is important to maintain a level of respect towards your older relatives during this process.

We have to remember that they may not want to take part in these discussions with the same enthusiasm that you do.

They may reveal skeletons in your family history

There may be events or incidents in your family history that are difficult for them to talk about openly.

Many families will have stories of babies being given up after their mother’s fell pregnant out of marriage.

In some areas this was considered a shameful act, and the senior figures of the family and community would take control and see the baby given up for adoption against the young mother’s wishes.

These stories can be tough to hear, so consider that they can also be tough to tell for you elderly relatives.

An overreaction from you could persuade your relative that this dragging up the past is not a worthwhile exercise and see them clam up.

There could also be other scandals or moments of shame within your family history that are not easy to talk about.

The details may reflect badly on one prominent member of your family. They may not wish to sullen their name with the whole story.

It is important to remain calm and open for this reason and encourage your relatives to share all the information they can remember, whether it be good or bad for the family name.

Avoid getting into a debate of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. You must be aware that values and decision making would have been very different in the past to what we are used to today.

You must not be too judgmental if you are told something that you find shocking.

Return to continue discussions after a break

Another good tip is to return to speak to your older relatives more than once if possible. It is common for people to remember further details about a topic long after the discussion has ended. We have all had the feeling of ‘oh I wish I had said that’ once the opportunity has passed.

Encourage your relatives to write down any more information they remember in the following hours and days. Then you can return to talk again about any new nuggets of family history.

Discussion stimulates the mind and memory and it is likely that simply talking out loud and telling stories will unearth far more than you, or your relative, might have expected.

Be open and encourage your relatives to speak freely. All information could prove valuable in your future search. Any stories of emigration and travel, occupations, family myths and mysteries and anything else that occurs to them should be recorded and delved into.

Additionally, this is a great way to spend some quality time with some of the older members of your family. You will learn about how different things were just a few generations ago.

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Key points to take away

  • Start with the family you know and work backwards
  • Be respectful of your relative’s boundaries – they may not want to talk about everything
  • Go back for more discussions after you have initially stirred the memories.