|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.|
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
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.
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!
Published on BBC History: 2004-09-13
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