Tracing Ancestors Online – Is It Too Easy?

RSS Author RSS     Views:N/A
Bookmark and Share          Republish
I started tracing ancestors way back in the early 80s when the internet had not yet been born, and the computer was yet to become a household item. When I first began to get interested in my heritage, the first place to visit was St. Catherine's House near the Aldwych in London where you could search the civil registration indexes and order certificates. This was easier for me than most people because I was living in London and working near the Aldwych at the time.

Almost every lunch time I used to walk round the corner and spend an hour going through the indexes. These were in large, heavy books arranged in date order along lines of shelves. I can still remember the sound of continual thuds and rustling paper as my fellow researchers took down those books and painstakingly looked through page after page. It was hard work, and the act of lifting those heavy tomes made my arms ache after an hour of searching for my grandmother's birth details, which seemed to continually elude me.

Before the age of computers, you had to travel if you wanted to trace English ancestors. This would either be to London, to the relevant county record office to look at census records, and often to the local parish church where many parish registers were still held. This often meant that you had to contact the local church warden and ask for permission to look through the registers.

Today, we have it easy. With internet access you can sit in the comfort of their own armchair with a laptop and search the civil registration indexes with a few clicks. You can even order them online without getting off your chair.

You can also view all the census records, and the indexes are so arranged that you can look for a specific ancestor without having to trawl through a whole parish to find the household you want. There are also transcripts provided if you have difficulty deciphering some of the writing.

Parish registers may still need a journey. However, the vast majority of registers now reside at the local county record offices, rather than the parish church, and if it's too far for you to travel to search for an ancestor who only might be there, you can still use the internet to search the online International Genealogical Index provided by the Church of the Latter Day Saints to help with your parish searches.

It is no wonder that genealogy has increased in popularity over the last couple of decades. It is quite possible to find ancestors going back to 1837 without having to go out of your front door!

But easier does not necessarily mean better. You have to take far more care when searching online. Some internet records have been transcribed carelessly, and the indexes on some sites are notoriously inaccurate. This means that you may not always find your ancestor at your first search attempt. If the name has been spelled incorrectly because the transcriber has mistaken a ‘t' for an ‘l' or an ‘a' for an ‘o', it may not come up on the index at all, even with the phonetic name search switched on.

Be wary, too, of family histories that have been uploaded onto websites that claim to go back centuries. If you find one of your ancestors on these trees, make sure that the original researcher has done a professional job and that the information is backed up with solid evidence.

The internet has certainly made tracing ancestors easier, but the very fact that it is easier tends to encourage people to make assumptions - and as a professional genealogist I know the pitfalls of this. Never make assumptions. Always try, as far as you can, to back up any possibilities with hard fact. Have fun tracing ancestors online, but be careful out there!

Report this article

Bookmark and Share

Ask a Question about this Article