Before You Start Your Family Tree

By Dr Nick Barratt
Discover how to read your family tree, the simple symbols and terms used by genealogists, and the importance of knowing who's who in your family's past. Then you can get going.
A section from the Hall family tree 


Genealogy is the study of information about your ancestors and who you are related to. One of the most widely recognised methods of organising genealogical data is the family tree. Most people know something about this way of presenting the past, but it's also useful to know a few of the special symbols and terms that genealogists employ, which may be less familiar.

The following abbreviations are often used:

b born
bapt baptised
[=] married
m married
[1] [2] first / second marriage
d died
bur buried

The Hall family tree
The Hall family tree
Genealogists describe family relationships in the same way as we all do - take a look at the Hall family tree shown above, to see how the family's relationships would be described by experts, just as by anyone else:

Blood relatives

Frederick and Margaret Hall, and their four children
The Halls and their four children, c.1905
As you've now seen, the family tree defines people in terms of their relationships with one another and particularly with you, the researcher. Most of the words used in family trees are familiar ones, used every day, such as father, mother or brother, sister, son or daughter. The following glossary lists these to help you to describe the relationships between family members who are related through blood (as opposed to marriage).

uncle the brother of your father or mother
aunt the sister of your father or mother
sibling your brother or sister
cousin the son or daughter of your uncle or aunt
second cousin the son or daughter of either parent's first cousin
nephew the son of your brother or sister
niece the daughter of your brother or sister
grandfather the father of your father or mother
grandmother the mother of your father or mother
grandson your child's son
granddaughter your child's daughter
great grandfather the father of one of your grandparents
great grandmother the mother of one of your grandparents
great uncle the uncle of one of your parents
great aunt the aunt of one of your parents

Related by marriage

Marriage of Reginald and Ida Hall
Reginald and Ida Hall tie the knot, 1935
There are also terms that describe the people to whom you become related when you marry (through your spouse). Although they share no blood ties, they become part of your family tree. Then there are a few specialist terms, used to denote the relationships created by subsequent marriages.

father-in-law the father of your spouse
mother-in-law the mother of your spouse
stepson the son of your spouse's former marriage
stepdaughter the daughter of your spouse's former marriage
stepmother your father's second (or subsequent) wife
stepfather your mother's second (or subsequent) husband
half-brother the male offspring from the remarriage of one of your parents
half-sister the female offspring from the remarriage of one of your parents

Counting generations

Hall family party
Four successive generations of the Hall family
All of your siblings and cousins form one generation. Your parents and their siblings form the next generation. Your grandparents and their siblings make up a third. The top level of the family tree is the first generation, followed by their children (second generation) and so on, assigning each successive generation a higher number - third, fourth, fifth.

To describe someone from a generation that came before that of your grandparents, simply add the word 'great' to their title. Thus the mother and father of your grandparents are your 'great' grandmother and 'great' grandfather - and their parents are your 'great great' grandmother and 'great great' grandfather. Each time you move back another generation, simply add another 'great'.

'The term uncle or aunt has often been used, and sometimes still is, to describe someone who is not related by blood or marriage.'

The siblings of your grandparents are known as 'great' aunts or 'great' uncles. It would be simpler if they were called 'grand' aunts and uncles, to make it clear they are not the same generation as your 'great' grandparents - but you probably know these names anyway, without having to think too hard about it.

The term uncle or aunt has often been used, and sometimes still is, to describe someone who is not related by blood or marriage, but is perhaps a close family friend - and it is important to remember that these terms are not always used accurately.

Even official documents, such as wills, may describe people as cousins or brothers when they are no such thing - in fact they may be half-brothers or related solely through marriage, rather than blood. So care is needed when thinking about what the genuine relationships are when drawing up your family tree.

Getting going

Child, early 19th century
Start your family tree with the youngest members
You just need pen and paper. Sketch out a rough plan of what you know about your family, following the pattern of the Hall family tree at the beginning of this article.

Place your immediate family at the start of your family tree, and work from there, with what you already know before doing any research at all. Start with yourself, your children or your grandchildren - it is usual to start with the youngest members. Then work through your siblings and their children, and then your parents. Thereafter, you will be working backwards through time.

'If you have a particularly complex family tree, you may want to make copies of various sections for ease of reference when you are researching.'

You will soon want to move on to more in-depth researches. When you are ready, go to the companion article to this one - 'Getting Started on Your Family Tree' (see right, for link).

It is best to work with two copies of your family tree as you go along. One should be a working copy that you can amend as you pursue lines of enquiry, and the other the master copy, on which you can record known or verified facts.

On your working copy, make a note in pencil of evidence gathered from talking to other family members, such as presumed birth, death and marriage dates of possible relations. These can then be researched and added to the master copy on confirmation.

Where possible, try to keep separate research notes for each family member. If you can develop some form of reference system that links your notes to people on the family tree - perhaps using a card index system if you are not working on a computer - it will help you keep a clear idea of where you are going.

Make sure that you keep abbreviations in notes and on the family tree as consistent as possible. Try to compile your own glossary of abbreviations as you go, adding new ones to the list as your family tree becomes more complex.

If you amend the master copy, remember to make a note of the date on the working copy - so that you know when you last transferred data from one to the other.

You may find your working copy gets quite confusing. When this happens, start again with a fresh version and date it. Keep the old one for reference, because accidents can happen, and notes do get lost.

If you have a particularly complex family tree, you may want to make copies of various sections for ease of reference when you are researching.

Remember, 'Getting Started on Your Family Tree' will help you with your next steps. Good luck!

About the author

Nick Barratt
Dr Nick Barratt worked at the Public Record Office (now The National Archives, or TNA) from 1996 to 2000, with the family history team. He has given many talks on family history, and has written frequently for the TNA's genealogy journal, Ancestors. He has worked for the BBC as a specialist researcher on programmes such as 'One Foot in the Past' and 'The People Detective'. His first book is Tracing the History of Your House (TNA Publications, 2003).

Published on BBC History: 2004-09-13
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