A reasonable starting point requires some foundation in fact. Be cautious about putting too much trust in undocumented family traditions, including those written down and even published or appearing online. Any written material or books that do not provide source notes and a bibliography of all the sources used should be treated as tradition, not fact. The internet has the advantage of providing digitized reproductions of original documents for the stay-at-home researcher. Unfortunately, the far more numerous online family trees are rarely documented. Use such only as a possible guide for further research, not as proof.
However, traditions passed on by persons from within the family's living memory over four generations are usually correct as far as names and relationships. The least reliable information based on family memory concerns DATES, AGES, and PLACES. The statements of the 19th-century immigrant about his/her county of birth or origin are probably factual, but the same cannot be said for the town or parish of birth. An immigrant will typically give the name of the largest place in the county rather than the nearby, relatively unknown place of origin. The smaller place name may become warped as it is passed down over several generations unfamiliar with local geography. Further guidance on identifying places is outlined under locations.
The goal of documentation is to start with the date closest in time to the researcher of any ancestor and work backwards from there. First document the selected person's death date and then the marriage and birth dates. Keep in mind that one of the important roles of documentation is to support linkages to other persons and places from generation to generation. Ages at the time of the event and any witnesses are vital to this process. What may appear to be an unnecessary document may be the one that provides clues to verify connections or determine what source to search next. Do not isolate an ancestor from the context of family, time, and place. Rather, complete each family group by finding proof of the deaths or burials, marriage, and births or christenings of any set of parents in your direct lines and at least find the births or christenings of all of their children. It is possible to work on more than one family group at a time.
How do you know when a family group is complete? Examine the family group closely by asking the following questions. More research is necessary if any question is unanswered.
- Has christening, marriage, and burial information been documented?
- Has every relationship been documented?
- Is the first child born within a year or two from the marriage date?
- Is the spacing between children more than the average of two years? Three years may be acceptable and even four between the last two children in a large family.
- Are there about 5-7 children in the family? The size of the family will rise in the second half of the 19th century.
- Was the mother under 40 at the birth of the supposed last child? If the mother's birth has not yet been documented, subtract 23 from the marriage date to arrive at a fairly valid approximation of her age.
Major Records for Original Research
The major records should be searched in a systematic manner according to the time period when the ancestor/research subject or family lived in England as follows:
Post-1837. There are two main sources for this time period: civil registration (the government recording of vital statistics that started in 1837) and census records (particularly those for 1841-1911). These two sources have the advantage over early records in that they are fairly easy to read, are centrally located or online, and are quite inclusive of the entire population. However, to establish relationships, they may still require supplementation from pre-1837 sources, especially church records, poor law records, and probate records. Any sources that have nation-wide indexes will aid in determining the origins of English immigrants to America. Poor law records and probates are helpful for studies of both internal and external migration.
Pre-1837. There are several records that should be searched in this time period including church records (1538- forward), marriage records, poor law records (1601-1834), other records pertinent to migration, and probate records (1300s- forward). Compared to the later records, all of these sources have the disadvantage of being difficult to read before 1750, contain less pertinent information, and some are located in at least 40 different archives scattered around the country. When searched together they do have the advantage of being fairly inclusive of the total population.