Do you have a lost family inheritance waiting to be claimed? No, not a stack of money or a historic castle, though we all dream of being the heirs to such a fortune. It’s the stories from your family’s past that I mean, a rich legacy of tales and adventures that you can uncover through investigating your family history. They are about your ancestors, your blood line, and, ultimately, about you. As Who Do You Think You Are? hits our TV screens again, don’t just sit back and sigh with envy as celebrities are transported back to a colourful past – seek out your own!
When I started my own family history research, I had nothing very much to go on, on my mother’s side. Now I have a wealth of stories: an ancestor who fought at the Battle of Corunna, a Welsh preacher who emigrated to America in search of wider horizons, a great-grandmother who began her life weaving silk ribbons for ladies’ costume, another who founded a butter-making business, and a great-aunt who kept a Post Office then sailed the world as a cabin stewardess. I could go on, but I’ll make just one more tribute, to my feisty 3 x great grandmother Maria, the soldier’s wife who wasn’t content to stay poor and lonely in the Welsh hills while her husband was away in the Napoleonic Wars, but went with him as a camp follower, giving birth to one of her children in Sicily.
Family history is detective work, and that’s what makes it so exciting. It may take you time to discover your ancestors and build up a picture of their exploits, but there’s always this powerful scent of a story which lures you on down the trail. For my new book Growing Your Family Tree, I asked other family researchers too what they had discovered, and over sixty of them responded with great enthusiasm. Their accounts include a wealth of stories, such as the entrepreneurial grandfather blasting out a coal mine in his own back yard and the sad tale of the two young aunts who fell into the river together on their way back from shopping. Stories can be touching, sad or funny. But perhaps nothing can rival the bizarre discovery made by one respondent, who found out that the pickled head of the man who had murdered his ancestor in New Zealand was on display in a Liverpool museum!
Finding the stories of your ancestors can change you, which is why I chose the subtitle ‘Tracing your roots and discovering who you are’. You may then be able to walk the streets or hills where they lived, and feel a strong emotional connection with the landscape, just as I do now in the Welsh borders and the Somerset countryside, where two of my great-grandparents came from. Your detective work can also tell you about your own drives and affinities, when you start to uncover family traits: why you love to travel, or teach, or trade, for instance, in my case. (Can you spot the links in the stories above?) And last but not least – you may indeed ‘grow’ your family tree, discovering living relatives you never knew you had. My family was once very small, but now, it seems, I have cousins everywhere!
It’s easy to start researching your family history. Not so easy to stop, perhaps, but there you go! You may find that you get addicted to the quest – and why not? In my book you’ll find plenty of guidance as to how to start your search, how to build your tree and fill out your stories. But if you can’t wait till you’ve got your copy, how about starting your search now? Write down some names from your family past, with dates if possible, or at least an idea of when an ancestor might have lived. Look for them online for free through www.familysearch.org, or the major website www.ancestry.co.uk, where you can start to explore without charge, then pay to view if you find what you’re looking for. And talk to your relatives! Who knows – they may have photographs, stories, letters, documents . . . It’s never too late to start asking, and never too soon to begin asking, ‘Who do I think I am?’
Ten tips for searching
- Check out what you may have already in the way of family papers, letters and photos
- Ask your relatives what they can tell or show you
- Start your online search with the census (UK 1841–1911) which can give you vital family chronology
- Use major family history websites, but also try ‘googling’ your ancestors’ names
- Visit your local library for free access to www.ancestry.co.uk and other websites
- Write down all your discoveries, and start building your tree as soon as possible
- Keep a note of your sources
- Select a family line to explore to start with – you can’t go in every direction at once
- Join an online forum or a local Family History Society to get useful advice on your research
- Look at world events and local social history to see your ancestors’ lives in context
Cherry Gilchrist is also the author of Your Life, Your Story and many other books on themes of personal stories, hidden traditions and self-development. She teaches writing for the universities of Oxford and Exeter, and often lectures on cruise ships. Find out more about her work at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.
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