On Being a Family History Detective

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On Being a Family History Detective

How to become a Family History Detective?

Searching the dusty genealogy archives for clues about ancestors is like being a detective. First you establish the ‘scene of the crime’, well in our case the ‘scene of a life’. Next you dust for fingerprints, or in our case look for proof of presence. Interrogate suspects, or interview witnesses, informants or family members. Record everything and leave nothing out. Collect physical evidence and research databases.

Our aim of course is to write the story of the ancestor, not accuse and arrest them for a crime committed. Although sometimes our ancestors are involved in criminal activities, and may have appeared in the law courts. These stories of intrigue, can spice up our ancestral research.

In our search for evidence we rely on several things: the memories of descendants, the collection of primary sources (Births, Deaths, Marriages, Census) and our research skills in using the family history archives. The research skills is the focus for this article: How to become a Family History Detective?

What is the primary aim of a Family History Detective?

One objective is to find the ancestors of the family you are researching and build a picture (a pedigree chart) to display the relationships between the ancestors related to that family. 

Sample, fillable Pedigree Charts are available from 

Set aside a few hours to research the family tree – pace this over a few days to get a fresh perspective each time your research one line of the tree. Ask questions along the way to verify facts.

In my recent researching I have learned how important it is to ‘step into the heritage of another’ one person at a time. Focus on what is known about each person and bring out the storylines that will make their stories interesting and engaging. 

Formulate a series of questions that will help guide your research and identify the databases where you will find the answers.

What are the clues you are looking for as a detective?

Genealogists must be able to find and interpret clues to make meaning of the past. It is the interpretation of the clues that will bring out the real stories.

Begin with what you know and work backwards into the unknown.

Clues lie within the databases, the letters, the memorabilia, the memories and the history handed down in the family.

Build a picture of the family relationships, family occupations and places of residence using the Census tools.

Unlock the secrets using detective tools such as: Obituaries, Newspaper Articles, Wills, Military Records and family stories.
For instance you could begin an obituary search within FamilySearch collections such as Find A Grave and BillionGraves.


Here is my set of Detective Questions:

1. Where was the ancestor born and baptised? (Look for birth notices and baptismal records for these events. Go beyond the civil records and look for the Parish Registers.)

2. When, where and to whom were they married? (Look for other details on marriage certificates such as Parents names & occupations; Witnesses names; residence of couple; if they signed in own writing.)

3. Where did they live and what were their occupations? (Look for evidence of residence, family members, number of children born, died and living, places of birth on the census records from 1911 back to 1841. Check old tithe maps for physical locations.)

4. Did they serve in the World Wars? (Look for their service record number and papers in the National Archives)

5. Did they leave a Will? (Look for Probate notices and legacies left for family members)

6. Where were they buried? (Look for clues carved in stone in graveyards – who else is buried there?)

7. What was the cause of death? (Look for details of cause of death on death certificates.)

If you are searching in the databases of Ancestry or Find My Past etc., open the transcription and wherever possible, view the digitised copy of the original document.

8. How can you prove their identities, histories and relationships? (Obtain digitised copies of primary sources to verify your facts.)

9. Did the family move from one county to another, or emmigrate from one country to another? (Look for details in the Passenger Lists for ships sailing to those countries. Look for evidence of new workplaces in the trade directories, and seek evidence of marriages that took place in other counties through Parish marriage Banns.)

10. Did the ancestor appear in the courts for misdemeanours, crimes or hardship appeals? (Look for Parish and County Court records and of course News items in the local newspapers.)

How does the detective report the results of the research?

Here are My tips for Displaying your Results

Set the research time period and determine ‘how far back into the unknown’ you wish to dig. For some it will be enough to know their paternal and maternal lineage stretching back to three or four generations in the past. Others may require a ‘wider’ research to capture the lives of the siblings of one or two generations and to connect them with the important events and issues of that time period. 

In some cases the research may take you into unknown territory and you need to be disciplined and focussed to remain on topic and avoid ‘going down rabbit holes’.

Once you have the basic research done and you have the details for a Family Grouping, then you could either:

1. Create a Family Tree in Ancestry, FindMyPast etc or in your own FamilyTree Maker or Legacy.

2. Compile a Pedigree Chart and Family Group Sheet (example above) and then digitised.

3. Create an outline for a Story that weaves together the evidence collected, the history of the place and era, the ordinary and the colourful aspects of their lives, to paint a picture of the family.

4. Share the results with a descendant in Word document print form, PDF chart and sheet, and where relevant, give access to the online tree.

See below for a short tutorial on the importance of primary sources for verifying the facts in your research.

The Importance of Primary Sources

How to verify the data for your ancestor using primary sources?

How to order BDM certificates from the General Registry Office?

When you are ready to begin the story writing part of your detective work, there are multitudinous resources available to you on the Internet.

My suggestion is to begin with a free course – such as ‘Blogging in the Past Lane’.


Where to get help for Writing your Ancestral Stories


Get your copy of my latest ebook, Storifying Your Ancestors.

You can take a peek inside before your buy.

When purchased you can read this on any device in the Kindle ebook format.

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