Who are you really?

2011-04-08 00:00

THE SABC television version of the programme Who Do You Think You Are? aired on our screens recently, while DStv viewers continue to enjoy the BBC version of the show. These shows have generated a vast amount of interest in genealogies and as a result, websites specialising in family research are proliferating.

But where the subject of the television programme makes astounding discoveries on a daily basis, we poor plebs, sitting at home in front of the computer, work long and hard before we finally pick up a crumb of information. As we are not blessed with a team of historians and archivists, we need to develop a few tricks of the trade. I started researching my husband’s family in 2007 and have not yet completed the task — partly because I keep branching off into doing my own family tree, partly because I keep diving off into interesting side-shoots of the family and partly because it is just so very hard to get all the information I am looking for.

My family is very complicated in that we are part Swiss, part Scottish, part English and part French Huguenot, so although the life stories are fascinating, the records can be hard to find. My mother’s uncle was the so-called “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson — a fact of which I had been aware since I was young. While on sabbatical in the United Kingdom last year, I initially spent many hours in the Manchester Library in its family history department doing research. Then we took a trip to Canterbury and discovered where my distant relative was buried (in the cathedral cloister garth) and also saw the icon in memory­ of him in one of the crypt chapels. As a result of the research, I also discovered several long-lost relatives on my mother’s side and we met up and exchanged family information and have become correspondents.

From various sources I’ve found out about the Swiss family connections as well as my maternal great-grandparents who were missionaries in the Transkei at Nkanga­ from 1895 until the sixties, but there’s still work to be done and it’s an on-going project.

Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.


Where do you start?

The first step must be to chat to all your relatives and find out who knows what about your family. Make sure that the older generation have imparted their life stories and cache of family history before it is too late. See what photos are kept by whom and find out what family stories there are — these are often fantastic stepping stones to finding valuable information about your family.

Some of my relatives told me they knew nothing about their families, however, when I sent them photos, or asked specific questions, they were founts of knowledge — so don’t give up on relatives who claim not to know the family history.


Genealogical websites

The second step would be to join a genealogical­ website — the costs vary, but the best South Africa online websites seem to be Ancestry24 and the website 1820settlers.com while family in the UK are best traced through Genesreunited.co.uk and Scotland’s People. Scottish records are quite difficult to find and the Scotland’s People­ site is really good, although one pays for every record one looks at. Many of these websites offer family tree-making facilities, as well as helpful bulletin boards on which one can request help in finding records. One of the very best all-round resources to my mind is Family Search.org This is the website administered by the Church of the Latter Day Saints and it holds the International Genealogical­ Index. This is a mine of information as one is often able to trace whole families using this site alone and the bonus is that this is a free site.

In the UK, one has online access to census records, birth registers, marriage registers and death notices; however, in South Africa, the process can be long and involved.

If you don’t fancy having your family tree on the Internet, you can download free family tree programmes from My Heritage and Roots Magic. The programmes are easy to use and both offer a number of print formats. Once your family research gains momentum­ and the bug has really bitten, these can be upgraded to their premium editions and the premium versions of the programmes cost in the region of R500.


What Information are you going to note?

The second important thing one should do when one starts out on the genealogical jigsaw, is to decide how much information one plans to collect. Is it really necessary to note all the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of your great-great- great-grandparents’ siblings? For many of us amateur genealogists, that kind of information is of little relevance and it seems a good idea to note the spouses and children of each generation of your ancestors’ siblings, but not to go into too much more detail. Rather include meaningful information that your generation and future generations might find interesting. Many family trees make provision for photos, so get out the old photo albums and scan them before they disintegrate or fade.

Whenever I am working on a family tree, I use a template which I designed, onto which I note any extra information, so that I can see at a glance where I am with the family research.


Family trees on the Internet

Thirdly, many families have published their family histories and family trees on the Internet and these can be of huge assistance. Try entering a name of a family member along with the words “family history”, “genealogy” or” family research” into Google­ and see what you get.


Take the first step

The best thing one can do is to find birth and marriage certificates — these can often be ordered online (except in South Africa) and do not cost a vast amount of money. Birth and marriage certificates contain information about parents’ names and their occupations, and often lead to more discoveries on the family tree.

Doing family research requires determination and a strong constitution — skeletons rattle in every cupboard and it is no use getting sentimental or moralistic about the activities of our ancestors. This is not a hobby which bears fruit quickly — you may well find that you get so far and then get stuck for a year or two until new information becomes available.

And, finally, think about paying back the kindness of the strangers who transcribed your family’s details onto the various genealogical websites. I have transcribed in excess of 1 000 records for the International Genealogical Index and enjoy the know-ledge that I am making someone’s family research that much easier.

• Antoinette Beck is a teacher and amateur genealogist who has been researching her family since 2007. She offers genealogical services for a small fee and can be contacted at antbec@openweb.co.za

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