Posted by on January 14, 2014 in Tips and Hints

By Jeremy Palmer, Dip. Gen.

family tree

Family history research can be an exciting and rewarding experience. Knowing who your ancestors were, where they lived and what they did for their living can provide a very strong sense of connection with history. Ancestor hunting is a step-by-step process based on logical thought and conclusions. To help you along that path, we have put together a list of ten top tips for success.

Tip 1 – Talk to elderly relatives 

Your parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents may have a lot of information that can start you off in your research. Ask them what they know about their own parents and grandparents, but also question them about what life was like for them when they were small. Family history is more than just names and dates and places – you should find out as much as you can about the people in your family if at all possible. The more information your relatives can provide for you, the better your starting point will be. Remember, they may not always be around for ever and a common complaint in family history is ‘If only I had asked my grandparents about their relatives when I was younger…’

You can download our FREE guide to interviewing family members here.


Tip 2 – Work from the known to the unknown 

Genealogical research is likened to following crumbs along a trail. You can’t jump ahead at any point and still be sure you are on the right track. Instead you have to work on a step-by-step basis looking for clues which we lead you to the next generation before them. Until you have proven a link with the preceding generation you can’t move on and still be sure you are researching the correct people. It is all too easy to jump ahead and end up tracing the ancestry of people who are not related to you.


Tip 3 – Record your progress 

In your research you will amass a great deal of information, so at every stage you need to know exactly where you are and what you have discovered. It is a good idea to draw a pedigree chart showing how everyone is related, as this can then act as a handy reference work to your research. The ‘Family Tree’ feature found on the Ancestry site will allow you to create a chart of your family in easy and simple steps.


Tip 4 – Record your searches 

As well as recording what you find, you will also need to record what you have looked for, especially if you haven’t found anything. If a particular record makes no mention of your ancestor, it is easy to simply not record the fact that you have looked at it. However, in a few months or years time you may return to that record and not recall that it has already been searched. Therefore to avoid duplicating searches and wasting your time, you should always note down details of all of the searches you have undertaken and the records you have consulted, whether the results are positive or not.


Tip 5 – Get a map 

One of the problems researchers encounter is discovering that their ancestors have moved into a town or parish from another locality. In order to make your research more effective it is worth locating the places where your ancestors lived on a map. If you do this you will then see where they lived in relation to other nearby towns and villages. This may provide you with clues as to where they may have moved from by looking at roads, rivers and other lines of communication. Similarly, you may find that there are several places of the same name in the country in which you are researching, and a map will help make sure that you are concentrating on records from the correct locality and not the one with the same name three hundred kilometres away!


Tip 6 – Consider spelling variants 

There is no such thing as the correct way to spell your surname, and a little research back to the 1800s will show you that names can be spelt in a wide variety of ways – sometimes even within the same document. Many people were not able to read or write and were reliant on someone else recording their name on important documents such as marriage certificates. That person would write down how they thought the name should be spelt, and this may be different from how we would do it today. You will therefore need to be flexible in regard to the spelling of the name you are researching. For example, Whittaker, Whitaker and Wittaker would all be pronounced the same way and could all therefore be encountered if you were researching a family of that name. Just because the spelling is different does not mean it is a different person being recorded.


Tip 7 – Do not make assumptions 

You can’t rely on your ancestors to have necessarily acted in the way you would have expected them to do. The majority of people are married after the age of 20 and have children in the 15 years or so after that. However, that isn’t the case for everyone. People in England could marry over the age of 12 (for girls) or 14 (for boys) prior to 1929. Similarly, some people might not marry until their 60s perhaps. Many people might have a child prior to their marriage, and some women were able to have children over a 25-year period or more. It therefore pays not to assume anything about your ancestors and instead to make sure that you have covered all possible scenarios in your searches.


Tip 8 – Work as effectively as possible 

Many records are now being made available online and the internet has revolutionised family history research. It can now be carried out much more quickly and also from the comfort of your own home. It is therefore important to discover what information is available online and what information still has to be sought in person in the various archives and record offices. As with any transcribed and indexed material it is good practise to make sure that you also check with the original documents if at all possible to make sure that the online details are correct. Sites like Ancestry, where you have access to digitised images of the original documents, make this much easier. By discovering what information is available online you can plan your research in an effective way so that when you have to make trips to an archive, you can maximise your research time there.


Tip 9 – Share your findings 

One of the benefits of researching your family tree is, of course, discovering members of your extended family. Second, third and fourth cousins whose relatives have long since lost contact can soon be reunited. By sharing the results of your research with your family, and the wider genealogical community, you will encounter other people who have also been working on the same ancestry. This is a great way to learn about extra information and family memorabilia which may not have passed down to your own side of the family. By sharing the results of your labours on Ancestry, you add to the knowledge of the family history community and can reap the benefits of the research by others.


Tip 10 – Join a family history society 

There are thousands of family history societies around the world, and it can be helpful to join the one which covers the area from where your ancestors originated. Similarly, you may also want to join the society in the area where you live so that you can attend their meetings. The societies do a lot of work making records from their locality available for researchers and they also provide a useful forum for swapping information and research. They also usually have an interesting education and lecture program from which you can learn about new research skills and sources.

What’s your top family history tip? Share it with us on our Facebook wall!


Jeremy Palmer has been a full-time professional genealogist since 1992. He was the Registrar at The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies in Canterbury, England for many years before emigrating to Australia where he now runs his own research business which specialises in tracing the British origins of families in Australia and New Zealand. He also lectures on a wide variety of family history topics for the Society of Australian Genealogists.



  1. Merrin

    Hi Peter
    Ancestory is a fantastic website,led by fantastic and very knowledge and helpful people .Nothing is ever a bother to them and they will step you along the way.I have been a member for only a couple of years now.The amount of information available on Ancestory is unbelievable .I managed to find my mothers cousin from the UK on it and we didn’t even know she existed. She is now coming to visit us in Australia in approximately two weeks. I also have managed to track down another cousin and we are in regular contact .I only wish I had joined Ancestory earlier.Don’t leave it too long. Working your way around is not hard even for a novice like me .You’ll be surprised at what you can find and once you get started is not difficult.

  2. Brian Burgess

    Not only do you need to be aware of spelling variants the locations of Cities, Towns and Villages can also be a trap. Many location names within the United Kingdom (as it is today) were used in the American Colonies at the time of migration. I have been caught out on more than one occasion where others have selected the American location rather than the UK one. Born, married and died in UK however children are unlikely to have been born in America.

  3. Trevor Davison

    Do not accept other peoples’ research is correct unless it is supported by appropriate records. A lot of just copy other peoples’ mistake thereby increasing the amount of misinformation published even on Ancestry. Share but beware!!!!

  4. Eric Telfer

    Being an Australian Pensioner, I’m restricted as to how I can improve my knowledge when only a part member.

  5. Janine

    Eric, a lot of public libraries provide free access to Ancestry on their computers, you just need to be a library member.

  6. John Dunford

    I have found that a tremendous amount of information is available through the library…. particularly on family records but also through DIA [departrment of internal affairs] and archway, the national archives and museum. This of course relates to NZ. probably the most valuable resource is ‘Papers past’ a free service in NZ…. there is a huge depth of information. Ancestry provides the glue to put everything else together but there are other most valuable resources out there.

  7. Ben Wright

    I had to send this to myself as I could not find a “print” tab on the article – us older people who do not follow many other avenues of information transfer, prefer to refer to held notes rather than reboot the article – despite that, being a subscriber has opened many avenues in my research of family history – thanks BenW

  8. Lyn

    While Ancestry is a wonderful sharing tool and often a great research tool, I would caution all users about blindly copying information contained in some of the trees. I am absolutely amazed at times when I see the same misinformation spread through 20 or 30 trees. Nothing beats good old fashioned validation of your research before entering on the uploaded tree. My fasincation with family history started back in the 1980’s when you actually had to view the microfiche.

  9. shirley Trevena

    Being South Australian I would like more of our State
    records to be included on, we pay the same as Eastern state members but records are
    definitely lacking for this state. But ortherwise very good.

  10. Rob

    I would like to add my comment to Shirleys from South Australia. Ancestry is definitely lacking for our state. Also records are lacking for New Zealand. Ancestry for England is very good.

  11. Anthony

    I have to back up Trevor and Lyn – the dangers of incorporating other people’s research without checking that it is correct. It scares me to think just how far and wide this misinformation will spread! It is very easy to make these sort of mistakes when expanding your tree into distant branches where you have little familiarity with the people and facts contained there.

  12. Sharon

    I have been trying to find my fathers birthdate. His name was Jack Slade Headlam & he died on 16.1.1996.

  13. Helen

    I have been a member for 4 years now I believe and enjoy tracing family history. Your records are extensive but I do get a bit lost with UK and Ireland. I have now joined Ancestry UK and looking forward to finding out more information. I am still learning how to use the website as there is so much to know.

  14. robert

    i’m stuck finding past my grandfather, have his date of birth country and town but that as far as i get nothing more, even have his service number and still cant searth him

  15. I have been a member for 3 yrs Have found new branches of my family in Sunderland,I have not found out what happened 2 my father.Last contact was war service at war service home Narrabeen Aust ralia in 1950,Cant find any record of his death.His name was Joseph.

  16. Jennifer

    Like Shirley, Rob and Marlene, I am disappointed at the poor coverage of South Australian records and would be delighted to see more available on this otherwise very helpful site.

  17. wiesia

    I am disappointed with ancestry . com as I have been trying to trace my grandmother and putting her name and what little info I have, I get her immigrating to America after she died , in europe, so if there is anyone that can help me try to get some sort of info , from Poland or Germany before or during the 2nd world war, I would be greatfull .

  18. Denise Waters

    I love access to the vast supply of old photos on I have found many of my relatives photos and newspaper articles too on other peoples trees. Sadly though, a few fail to add names to the photos or else only say Grandma (you have two) or Great Grandma ( you have four). Which one please.

  19. Judy Quigley

    My father had a number of 1/2 brothers/sisters.
    He was also married prior to marrying my mother, found on their marriage certificate. How do I check only seem to make family tree on simple basis?

  20. Sandi Hepenstall

    I agree with others’ comments regarding some members’ tendencies to blindly copy info from other trees. I have added a lot of family photos to my public tree. While I’m happy to share these with people who are related, I have found on a few occasions that unrelated people have incorrectly added them to people of the same name in their trees. If they checked the accompanying info they would know they have the wrong person. I am keen to share my photos with extended family but I’m reluctantly considering making my tree private to stop the spread of misinformation.

  21. Frances

    My husband Bill Ridley Born in Bowral 13.3.35 had a sister Phyliss born before him, unable to find her records.

  22. Sue

    Can you give me the information on Jeremy Palmer please. I am stuck and would gladly pay him to help me, Get over the hump. Thanks Sue

  23. Lynette

    I wonder if people understand that can only publish information that is released by the appropriate authorities. The South Australian Government have released the least of the Australian States. Well done for publishing what you have.

  24. Betty Ellis

    For Sue: Jeremy Palmer’s address is 7/160 Maxwell St., South Penrith NSW 2750. His Website is/was He was a lecturer at IHGS Canterbury, England in May 2006, when I attended a five day live-in course in 2006.

  25. while I think Ancestry is great I have some problems, its easy to click on the wrong country when trying to click on a town, and often when I try to click on a person I find my cursor has jumped about 10 people higher or my list. The number of incorrect dates people have on their trees from copying from others, and with the map, by the time each Australian place prints out eg Gosford, New South Wales Australia for each birth death and marriage I have over a million characters extra if I went to print. I just want something that says, eg Gosford, NSW easier to read, saves paper and printer ink.

  26. marnie

    Ancestry has a colossal amount of data and it’s shame the plagiarists don’t bother to use it instead of poaching others’ families, more often than not, incorrectly. What’s the point in having someone’s unrelated family members in your own unless it merely a numbers game?
    Also, I’d like to see shipping records from America to Australia and until I do I’m sure my grandparents either swam or walked here.

  27. I think the website is just marvellous. I commenced researching my family history with in November 2010, some 5 years after my elderly father passed away. It’s always been very easy to use & understand. I have met cousins that I didn’t know before & we’ve made great friendships helping each other try to solve so many mysteries that we share in common. It helps if you simply use your intelligence & intuition & collaborate your research with other resource tools (like satellite and Street View images on ‘Google Maps’ to view your ancestors’ villages in far-off lands). is just one of a number of very helpful research tools to help you explore your family history. The website has helped to revolutionise family research which can be done so easily & quickly in the comfort of your own home. I can’t thank enough for making this all so possible in today’s modern world. Mark Martin. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

  28. Shirley Powley

    My g. grandfather was married in Ireland (maybe Roscommon as that is where he was tried before being transported in 1844 to Van Diemens Land. His wife Catherine and two brothers and a sister were named as being :”at home place”…I have no idea how to find out what happened to Catherine.
    My g. grandfather my g. grandmother, in Van Diemens Land 1851,
    Is there any way of finding his parents; names or info on the first marriage?

  29. I was born in England and researching on Ancestry using the web search feature and using Edit Search i find that it keeps defaulting to Records from Australia when i am only looking at English Collections. Most annoying.

  30. To Julie Burnard – you just need to tick or ‘untick’ the box that says ‘records from Aus’ to refine your search!
    Many thanks to all those private researchers who make lists available of parish records in some UK counties. Mistakes are made by some ancestry users who have not mastered the process!! My biggest curse is the ancestors who used the same name with no middle name differentiation, who lived in the same area, born around the same time – and had a single living child. Greater success with all those very large families. Ditto comments about absent Sth Australian records.

  31. Sean

    To Shirley Powley – don’t forget that being separated for several years overseas was actually legal grounds for remarriage in the days of transportation. Your g.grandfather in Australia and his first wife in Ireland probably both remarried other people. very few convicts actually returned to the UK and Ireland after their period of transportation ended.

  32. ethel burridge

    i had my familys research done two years ago, i was a bit disapointed in the result as they only researched my immediate grandparents. i had hoped for more for the amount of money. i have learned more myself by going to the public library

  33. Diana

    I have been with Ancestry for a very long time, and for most of that time had my tree made public, but I ended up having to move it to Private because so much information was ‘stolen’ from it and then corrupted so badly, it made me feel like giving up the hobby completely! I was even abused by one ‘lady’ (for want of a more appropriate word) because I very politely pointed out that she had taken hundreds of people from my family, all erroneously, and I gave her the proof by supplying copies of certificates etc. which proved my point, for which I was accused of causing her to have a heart attack!

    If you find someone with mutual ancestors, at least have the courtesy to please contact that person and acknowledge that you are taking information from their tree, because in many instances it cost a lot of money for others to find out the information that is there (ie purchase of bmd certificates; subscriptions to many websites other than Ancestry, and so on). Much of my information goes back to the pre-Internet days when I used to attend a local Mormon Family History Library and order in films (at a cost) which then had to be scrolled through page by page to find the information which was then entered in my tree. Not only a lot of money over the years, but too many hours to count!

    Having said this, just recently I was contacted by a man with mutual ancestors and I was able to supply him with the information needed to break down his brick wall, and I opened my tree for him to see the evidence. He took all the information and entered it all in his own tree, and not a single word of thanks have I received! It does not make one feel inclined to share their trees when people are so rude.

  34. Arnie

    @ Diana – I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been a member of since 2004 and also had my tree set to public and, like you, have had quite a bit of information, documents, photos, & stories “stolen” from my tree without as much as a “may I have a copy of please …”. Needless to say my tree is now private and will remain so.

    Like you, to see the information corrupted and distorted to see such a degree by a bad copy and paste job and then perpetuated by the lazy sods who refuse to do any meaningful research of their own is distressing to say the least.

    I no longer offer any real help these days simply because the of the “it’s all about me” attitudes displayed by those whom you have tried to help … and your right – there is never a thankyou for the time, money, and effort you have put in!

    The really funny thing about all of this is if you decline their request for help YOU become the offender by not allowing people access to your tree … they see you as being selfish!

    Well guess what … never ever again!!!!

  35. Peter Crawford

    I’ve been a member for a few year now, and some 2500 hours later, I have a wonderful tree, using these 10 tips.
    However there is one tip that I sometimes break…and that’s making some assumptions. BUT…the condition to making those assumptions is done with hours and hours and hours of research to start to build a picture. Many times I’ve been stuck (like I am now for the last 4 months) on a point so I have to step back. Sometime I’ve gone with a haunch and invariably not got the actual result, but as a result of that, and revisiting my actual findings I’ll get a break-through.
    And it’s exactly like the point made in the above article…we can’t allow our post-modern paradigms to make assumption. Build your data, do your research and sometimes, that little haunch can return a result, and sometimes you’ll get a fantastic result and break through.

  36. Kate

    I’ve been with Ancestry for 3 years & have found it to be an excellent source of ongoing information.
    The wrong information copied to trees has also been annoying, so I have also made my tree private.
    Serial tree thieves will also copy your whole tree, even the half they are not related to.
    This is not Ancestry’s fault though. Perhaps trees should be private unless invited.

    Message for
    Sharon posted on 18th Jan.
    If you don’t have his death certificate, why not order your parents wedding certificate, which you can do online on the BDM site. It should give his birth year.
    Transcription agents can also give you a transcribed copy of a section of the certificate for a fee.
    Just from a quick look on Ancestry….
    He was born between 1926 & 1931, but someone has a private tree with a 1928 birth year.
    good luck

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