Family History breakthrough – Find the missing siblings

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

Have you hit a brick wall in your family history research? Here is a very simple technique that we use at Family Detective, which can sometimes bring you a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

Hopefully you will be tracing your family history using a very methodical system (see ‘Getting Organised’) and you will have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’, because the key to a breakthrough can sometimes be in the details.

One simple way of going back over old ground is to turn your attention from your direct ancestor, the one person in the family who continued your family line, and look instead at all the other children in the family. This can be of benefit in several ways:

1. Was there a child missing from a particular census? Perhaps you assumed that they had died young? Always check for these children by searching for them by name and recording their death date if you find it. Sometimes they hadn’t died at all but were staying with grandparents or uncles and aunts. You then have a new lead and might be able to trace further back using these new family members.

2. Even when children in the family had moved away and started families of their own, it’s sometimes worth following them forward in time. Perhaps you might discover that they gave a maiden surname as a middle name to one of their own children? Or maybe their marriage or birth certificate might record their parents’ name differently to your direct ancestor? They may have entered a different occupation or another address you could check out. One of my ancestors recorded her father as ‘Bill, a Cattle Dealer’ on her marriage certificate. Her sister said he was ‘William, a Veterinary Surgeon.’

3. Sometimes parents used traditional naming patterns (see Naming the Baby) and christened their children after their own parents. It’s only when you have found and recorded all their children’s names that you can see the pattern emerging.

4. If a child appears with the family who should have been on the previous census but wasn’t, it’s always worth going back to see if you can find them ten years before. Sometimes this can lead to the discovery of previous marriage or relationship.

5. Go back and check that your ancestor never had lodgers, boarders, visitors or even siblings staying with them on the night of a census. Try tracing these strangers back for a little way, to see if they were actually related. Leave no stone unturned!

6. If your direct ancestor is called John or Mary and you want to order in their birth certificate, consider ordering one for a sibling with a more unusual name. Hopefully you’ll find a Marmaduke or a Constance – but even a Benjamin or Lilian will give you a better chance of finding the right certificate.

In all your research, stay methodical – document everything and keep it in order. Be rigorous, and you’ll be successful!

Discussion: Got any interesting tales of research successes? Feel free to share them below. We’d love to hear about them! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The Perfect Last-Minute Gift!

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Where in the world are my ancestors?


Apparently, the world is getting smaller, travel has never been easier and the internet has the answer to everything!

But, this isn’t always the case when you are time-travelling in search of your ancestors. Some parts of the world have easy access to family history documents, with lots of on-line censuses, certificates and parish records. Sadly, other countries have hardly anything available, unless you’re prepared to learn the language and travel there yourself.

So, before you pack your bags and set off on a trip into your family’s history, let’s have a look at what you can expect:

Starting close to home – you are very lucky if your ancestors came from England, Wales or Scotland. On-line family history records are plentiful here, with good transcriptions and search engines on sites like Ancestry or Find My Past. And what’s more, information is being added all the time, particularly original parish records for births, marriages and burials. The only place to see original Scottish records is the Scotlands People website. Other than that it’s all transcriptions, which vary in accuracy. See my blog 7 tips for exploring your Scottish roots.

Irish ancestry poses some problems for several reasons: The first is the majority of the population was Roman Catholic and their registers did not begin until late in the 18th century. The second is the relatively few number of surnames shared by most of the population (this is also true of Welsh records). And finally, the Irish Public Record Office in Dublin, was destroyed by protestors against British rule in 1922. About half the Church of Ireland Parish registers, census returns, wills and other government records, were lost forever.

More and more Irish records are now appearing on-line on websites like Roots Ireland, but they’re still patchy at best and unless you know which parish your family came from, finding them can be very tricky. See my blog Help, my ancestors were Irish!

If we move across to our nearest neighbours on the continent, things start to get more difficult. Ancestry has some births, marriages and deaths for countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands, but very few European countries have published census records like we do in the UK. A good place to check is the Mormon website, Family Search. I’ve found Dutch census records on there before, although I had to get help with the language because there’s no translation available.

Moving east, I’ve never come across any solid resources for Eastern Europe or Russia. We did once put an English lady in touch with Polish relatives, but that entailed a lot of translation and letter writing to the Town Hall of her family’s hometown. Very few countries have centralised archives like we do here, so you have to deal with individual provinces or a city’s governmental office.

The only other places in the world where I have consistently found reliable family history records are the United States, Canada and Australia. America has very detailed recent census records available, although finding birth, marriage and death records may be more challenging because, again, it seems to depend on which state has released their records and it’s not very centralised. Canada has good passenger records on Ancestry and here and also some free downloadable military records here.

Australia has published some electoral registers and censuses, although they’re not as detailed as the UK ones.

As for the rest of the world: China, India, South East Asia and South America, for example, I’d feel lucky to find any online information at all. Currently, most of these regions are pretty much inaccessible to travellers through time, like you and me. However, as new records are being added all the time, here are my three favourite places to look, when all else has failed:

  • Family Search
  • Cyndi’s List
  • Google search for family trees submitted by the public. Just enter the words “[Surname] Family Tree” and see what comes up. Not all are helpful, but sometimes you can find other people who are looking for your ancestors, such as this one for the Drake family.

7 tips for exploring your Scottish roots

Photo by Hans Splinter

Photo by Hans Splinter

Perhaps rather stereotypically, our Scottish cousins have kept their family history records under wraps and the original censuses and parish records are only available to those who will pay.

However, on the plus side, once you do find the record you’re looking for, it can be a mine of information, and really useful as you research your Scottish ancestry.

Here are our top 7 tips for exploring your Scottish roots:

1. The only place you can find original censuses and parish records is Scotlands People (and yes, it does annoy me that they’ve missed out the apostrophe in their website address!). It’s not a very user-friendly site, to be honest, and can prove to be expensive. You have to buy credits (23p each) in order to search the site and view the original documents, and you make no savings by buying in bulk. You are charged one credit to view a page of search results and then 5 credits to see the record you think might be correct – and of course, they’re not always the right ones. There are no transcriptions available for the records.

2. I try only to use Scotlands People for BMD records. This is because census records have been transcribed to Ancestry and Find My Past and it’s much cheaper and easier to search for them there.

3. Find My Past seems to provide much more accurate transcriptions, in the main part. I’ve found numerous errors on Ancestry including a ‘builder’s apricot’ which turned out to be an apprentice and numerous ‘Windowers’ which are inevitably widowers.

4. Scottish parish records generally contain more information than their English or Welsh equivalents. Death records list both the parents of the deceased, for example; and marriage certificates name both parents of the bride and groom. Birth records also include the date of the parents’ marriage, which can be very useful.

5. Don’t forget to look on Family Search. Their records are by no means complete, but you can sometimes strike gold. Again, it will only provide transcriptions though.

6. The National Records of Scotland website doesn’t have any individual records on it, but it does have quite a lot of useful information about Scottish records generally, so if you get stuck with phrase or difficult handwriting, they may be able to help.

7. Scotlands Family provides free access to thousands of shared records from public contributors. Again, there is no certainty that your ancestors will make an appearance but it’s worth a look! Scotland BMD Exchange is similar and offers a free resource for sharing information about ancestors found in Scotland.

Do you have any Scottish Family History resources to share? Please let us know in the comments below.