The purpose of this web site is to provide an outline of some efficient ways to trace English persons in the past. It does not attempt to cover the rest of the British Isles. The researcher can scan through it quickly and click on the underlined terms for greater details in less familiar areas. The overall approach is to list web sites where the sources can be searched on-line, and then to list the key books and filmed materials in the Family History Library (hereafter FHL) in Salt Lake City and at Brigham Young University (BYU) in nearby Provo, Utah, needed to do original research.
This web site is meant to assist professional scholars doing biography, demography, prosopography, the study of a place or the family as an institution as well as the genealogist. If you are interested in personal family history or are a beginning genealogist continue with the next section. If you are a professional scholar or seasoned genealogist in English research you may wish to skip to the last two sections on Web Sites and Major Records for Original Research.
The first concern for personal research is to select a reasonable starting point. Ideally, it should be an ancestor who came to the United States in the mid-19th century (or closer in time to you) where there is at least certainty of the English county of origin. If the ancestor migrated before 1800 and the county of origin is undocumented, further research is required on this side of the ocean. Frequently, the researcher is faced with more than one starting point. In that case either concentrate on the least common surname or focus on several names (up to 6-8) that share a common geographic location (say a radius of 10-20 miles).
The first step in research is a gathering phase where you survey claims about your starting point and results of the previous research of others. Start with records in your own home and contact other relatives that you suspect have an interest in old family records. There are a number of web sites that could aid in this process. A sampling of those you might try when just starting out might include:
At this stage you will be dealing with some documents and a lot of second-hand information. Be careful to note any sources used by other researchers. Now go to the computer and call up the FHL web site at Family Search. Here you have access to "Community Indexed" English church records. Search for all of the names in England from your starting point on back. Be sure to search under both "Birth" and "Marriage." Always double check the original records that were indexed. Not all English church records that have been indexed are in this file, but it makes a good beginning place. Church records indexed here will be identified by type of record and batch number. See church records to learn more about batch number searches.
At this point, you should also consider the possibility that your family might appear in printed records such as family histories and county histories. The most useful histories for specific English families were published in the 19th century or earlier. However, they tend to be elitist in nature and may not be all that helpful until you have been able to document your lines back to around 1700. They should then be revisited more thoroughly than in the initial search phase. The county histories may assist in determining the origins of 17th century emigrants.
After analyzing the results of your first search efforts, you are faced with the decision of what to do next. You may have found that others are currently engaged in researching the same lines and feel impressed to coordinate further research with them, or you will have a better idea of where to begin your own original research, or you may wish to survey another line. If the decision is to begin research in original records, you will have to take into consideration the following: the need for maps that fit the time period and places of interest and how to keep up to date.
Web sites appear and disappear with great frequency. The problem is twofold: finding those sites that feature original sources and keeping up to date with new resources coming on-line. To do the latter, you should periodically check these web sites:
There is a British periodical that features news of sources now on line or available in compact discs. It is Family Tree Magazine (FHL 942 D25f and BYU CS 410 .F35x) and features the latest in electronic research. For an overview of the current issue, start with Family Tree Magazine. You may also wish to examine "Getting Started" and "Next Steps" for a glossary of unfamiliar terms encountered in your 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-1800. There are two main sources for this time period: civil registration or 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 those in the next time period in that they cover less time, are fairly easy to read, are centrally located or may already be on line, and are quite inclusive of the entire population. However to establish relationships, they may still require supplementation from sources listed in the next time period, especially church records, poor law records, and probates. 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-1800. 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 probates, 1300s- forward. Compared to the first time period, all of these sources have the disadvantage of covering a greater time period, are very difficult to read before 1750 (see handwriting), and the originals 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.