3 Steps To Trace Your Family Tree

Starting To Trace Your Family Tree in 3 Steps

Do you want to start to trace your family tree? If so then you’ve come to the right place. I’ll take you through the first 3 steps you need to take, and give some advice on what to consider after those first steps too! You can start to trace your family tree, quickly, cheaply and relatively easily if you are prepared for a little learning curve. I hope you enjoy “the hunt” as much as I do!

3 Steps To Trace Your Family Tree

Table of Contents

Step One: The Step Everyone Skips

I know you’ve probably read this a 1000 times. It’s the boring step. The one everyone knows they should do, but skips ahead anyway because they just want to dive into the hunting.

But seriously don’t skip this step! Have you guessed what it is? Yep, that’s right…it’s talk to your family. Even that weird uncle that secretly gets on your nerves. Grill them. Find out every little nugget of info they have and as many stories as you can. This stuff is precious. Trust me.

Talk to your relatives
You may have to talk to that weird uncle

Tracing Your Family Tree Is Not Always Linear

Whilst, in an ideal world, tracing your family tree means working backwards from one grandparent to another – the reality is quite different. I mean, since when did we live in an ideal world?

Often you have to go sideways (looking at cousins) in order to go back. For example, ordering a siblings birth certificate because you’ve been unable to find the entry for your own direct ancestor. 

So, don’t just ask your relatives about your grandparents (great-grandparents and so on). Ask them about their cousins, siblings, uncles, aunts. Ask them more personal questions too, get them chatting. See, Family History Daily’s 100 Family History Questions for some inspiration.

Step Two: Literally Trace Your Family Tree

I have less artistic ability than a 5 year old child. I can’t even draw a straight line with a ruler – so when I say “trace” your family tree, it doesn’t have to be using pen and paper. 

Trace Your Family Tree

You could sign up for free accounts at Ancestry, Find My Past, FamilySearch, Wiki Trees and many many more sites. Or you could immediately start using family tree software. For example, RootsMagic 7 Essentials, which is a free lite version of a fuller family tree package.

The big advantage of starting with family tree software is that it encourages you to start sourcing your facts correctly. You aren’t lulled into relying on information from just one website. You aren’t going to get carried away with hint suggestions. You aren’t flying through documents, attaching files you find on a site (like Ancestry).

Believe me hints are hard to resist and the temptation to whizz through adding suggested documents is…well…like bees resisting honey. It’s also the biggest mistake newbies make. They understandably get carried away with adding documents and individuals based on hints and end up with a tree based on 100s of other trees, all of which are incorrect.

It's hard to resist those sweet little hints

By starting offline, you are forcing yourself to methodically enter your existing information and details on where you found that info (called sources). Free from any distractions. It might be less sexy but it’s certainly safer. At the moment your sources might be as simple as “oral interview with…” but recording these details is an important habit to form.

Another advantage of using a family tree package is that you can export your data as a GEDCOM.

GEDCOM’s can be loaded from one family tree package into another, including from RootsMagic to Ancestry. So building offline doesn’t mean you are excluded from the online party forever.

Step Three: Birth, Marriage and Death

Birth and Marriage records will help you to work your way backwards.

Birth certificates (usually) contain the name of both parents along with other information such as date, place of birth and parent’s occupations.

Marriage certificates contain the name of the bride and groom plus the names of their fathers. Again, there is additional information too such as date, place of marriage, occupations of bride, groom and their fathers.

Cross-referencing the details from a birth or marriage will help you determine whether you have found the “right” person. At the most basic level, is the father of the bride the same as the name provided on her birth certificate.

Life Events
Start using BMD's to build up the lives in your trees

Finding a death is valuable too. Although it won’t detail the parents of the deceased, it can help you to “kill off” possibilities. Your ancestor couldn’t have got married to a 2nd wife in 1930 if they died in 1925.

To go further back in time you’ll need to find the birth or marriage of your last known ancestor. For example, if you already have your great-grandmother’s birth certificate then you’ll want to look for her parents’ marriage. Alternatively if you have your great-grandparents marriage document but not their birth then you’ll want to locate each of their birth certificates.

The BMD Indexes

To obtain birth, marriage  and death certificates you first have to search their corresponding indexes to ensure you have “found” the right one. Whilst all the big subscription sites have Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) Indexes they can also be viewed (and in my opinion more easily searched) by using two sites in combination. Those are, FreeBMD and the General Register Office (GRO).

Birth index entries give a name (possibly a mother’s former name – see more info below), a registration year, quarter and district. You’ll also see a volume and page number. Death’s are identical except they don’t have a mother’s name, instead they possibly will have an age at death. Again see below.


Marriage index entries include one name. You can see if you can find an identical entry in the name of the bride / groom (depending on who you have searched for). The index entry has the year, quarter, registration district, volume and page number.

You can read more about the indexes, when, how and why they were created in this excellent guide from the Society of Genealogists. Or carry on reading the below for some advice on how to search them.

Note: To ensure you are not paying a commission to subscription sites or opportunists, never order BMD’s from anywhere except the GRO or a local registry office. 

Searching The BMD Indexes

FreeBMD gives you a lot of freedom, in terms of how you search for your ancestors index entry. You can search with just their surname or you can narrow your search by selecting counties or districts. 

The GRO also has birth and death indexes available to search. At one point there was a project to digitalise births and deaths but it got canned. However, the project did result in an update to the indexes. Birth registrations now include mother’s former names (previously only available after 1912) and death’s include age at death. Note, it’s not recorded whether this is in years or months. Something to bear in mind if you find infants – 1 could be 1 month or 1 year.

Examine Ancestors

Once you’ve found your possible birth or death entries on FreeBMD, repeat the search on GRO. It’s search functionality is much more limited. But finding the corresponding entry from FreeBMD will give you that extra info PLUS you can then order the PDF version on the certificate straight from the GRO.

Being able to see a mother’s former name on a birth entry is highly valuable. If you know the names of your ancestors siblings, you can check whether your possible finds share the same mother’s former name. If they do, then there is a better chance you’ve found the “right”entry.

Starting To Use Other Records

I’ve not included this a step because it’s too huge but here are some suggestions to help you plan out your next steps.

As lovely as BMD records are, they are a tiny fragment of the full picture. There are a whole host of records you could start delving into – but right at the beginning you’ll probably want to start searching the 1841 to 1911 census and the 1939 National Register.

Start tracing those ancestors back through the decades (census were taken every 10 years). Some of the census have been transcribed and are available to search for free on FamilySearch and FreeCEN.

Steps in a puzzle

There is nothing quite like viewing the original though – and it’s good practice too. Sometimes extra details are missed in transcriptions (or mis-transcribed). At this point you might want to try a subscription from a genealogy site like Ancestry or Find My Past. Read my comparison to make sure you pick the site that’s right for you.

I advise starting with one or two record types at a time until you feel you’ve got used to recording your sources and cross-referencing.  The more you get to know a source the easier you’ll find searching for the information you need. The more you’ll understand why your ancestor might be missing and alternative routes to discovering their whereabouts.

I also wouldn’t get too obsessed with going “as far back as possible”. Think about what you really want to achieve. If it’s stories – then perhaps stop after a couple of generations and start to hunt for them on more story rich sources like newspapers.

Other Options to Tracing Your Family Tree

Options to Trace Your Family Tree

If all the above seems a bit overwhelming or tedious then don’t panic. 

There are alternatives. Firstly, you could take a course or get some one-to-one tuition or you could ask an expert to trace your family tree for you – like me, I offer family history research services.

Whilst most people love to hear the outcome (the stories we discover) not everyone enjoys the hunt. And you know what? That’s OK. Don’t feel bad about it. Not everyone has the time, or the inclination to learn. Personally, I am never going to like doing my accounts and I have no inclination to learn about tax or book keeping. Each to their own.

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