Caithness Field Club

Research Into Family History

More and more people are becoming concerned about their roots and are taking an interest in family history. Some people say they are not interested, perhaps because they do not belong to an "old" family. Now whether you believe in the Book of Genesis or The Descent of Man the conclusions are obvious - all families are equally old. The so-called "old" families are merely better documented than your own. Many people from "old" families claim that they can go back 20 generations or more. So what? This would be of the order of 4 centuries and Parish Registers have been kept in most cases back to about the middle of the 16th century. Perhaps you, too, could be among the fortunate who can trace an unbroken line to these first records. A word of caution, however; if you count the twenty generations from your own parents you would find that you have 10485 direct ancestors by the 20th generation! Those who claim the 20 generations will usually only find such records in one line. In other branches of the family some of the records will only be as good as yours or mine. There are many family historians who concentrate entirely on one name. My own belief is that it is more fun to advance on as broad a front as possible, at least until you have established the general family picture, then you can decide which line to follow up. It is useful to treat each family in turn whilst the going is easy and, once a snag crops up, leave that line alone and pursue the next one until all are exhausted.

Making a Start
You can make a start using a simple chart as shown, [Note: No chart was included in the Bulletin] filling in the dates of birth, christening, marriage, death and funeral and, if possible, the places where these occurred. In parallel you need to keep "field notes" and a complete record book in which you record any tit-bit of information including its source. Decide on a set of abbreviations such as H for husband, W for wife, M for Marriage, B for birth, C for christened, D for death, F for funeral, s for son, dau for daughter. etc. etc. Next you should contact all known members of the family for information, photographs, certificates, letters etc., not to mention the records in family bibles. Everything should be recorded even if it seems irrelevant, even if it seems improbable, even if it seems scandalous. If the truth is what you're after, it's facts you need and the family legends or scandals must be recorded and checked. They may be true.

Once your chart shows several generations it will also show gaps in the record. This is the time to try to obtain the missing information such as dates of birth, marriages, deaths. For this you need the date and place of the event and then you can employ an agent to obtain the certificates for you for St. Catherine's House. It is cheaper that way. It is also less reliable and professional searchers can miss the entry even when they have all the relevant details. It is always better to search the records yourself. You could come up with a lucky bonus. Up to 1837 it was the duty of the Parish Church to record all christenings, marriages and funerals but, after 1837, local Registrars were appointed to record births, marriages and deaths and sent these records to the Registrar General in London.

The Computer File Index
The Church of Jesus Christ of the latter Day Saints (the Mormons) have prepared, and are still, preparing data from the Parish Registers. This is known as the ComputerFile Index and is available on microfiche.

Once your family pattern her emerged you will probably find that they had their origin in some particular county. It is now time to consult this powerful new tool - the computer file index. The method of entry is by county then alphabetical by name. The first prejudice you must throw aside is the way you spell your name. Education was not general four generations ago and even, when people were literate, there was no fixed way of spelling. One of my ancestors spelt his surname three different ways on a single page document. It is only in later generations that any consistency of spelling can be found. It is rare before 1850. The computer file index gives the persons name in the left hand side of the left hand column. The parents' or spouse's name appears on the right hand side of the left hand column. The father's name is followed by an oblique followed by the mother's name (where recorded. The next pair of columns carry code letters: H for Husband, W for Wife, M for Male, F for Female, m for marriage and C for christening. The date of the event is in the next column, followed by the town and name of the church (where indicated). Deaths are not included - and not all parish registers are included. The final columns are in code and are of no relevance at the present time. The entry is thus of the briefest nature but it gives a lead as to where to pick up the actual record which should always be consulted.

The Parish Registers
The Parish Registers normally date either from the middle of the 16th century or from the foundation of the church if this was later. The parish register consist of the church register and a transcription sent to the Bishop (the Bishop's transcript). The chances of one out of two surviving are thus quite high. Some of the parish registers have been published. These are easier to use than the original registers. The parish registers were frequently deposited in the Public Records Office for the county in question, though there are certain exceptions. Many Public Records Offices cater for in. family historian and you can obtain help from the person(s) in charge. You should now check the entry from the computer file index in the parish register or bishop's transcript (or both). This will normally give more information than the computer file index. The entry should be recorded in your "field notebook" in full not forgetting the date which would normally be at the head of a column or start of a page. Many of these parish registers consist of a single sheepskin with entries down the legs as well as on the body, often written with a bad pen and in a crabbed hand. They can be difficult to decipher. They are frequently folded and the writing at the fold may be illegible. Record the source of your entry.

Next check to see whether there was a local paper at that date and check the entry there. These newspaper entries often give a bonus in the form of extra information. These papers are sometimes kept in the newspaper office and sometimes in the local library.

Census Returns
Censuses were taken every ten years from 1841 onward and are available to the public for 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871. They have all been microfilmed and some are held by public libraries in the area surveyed. To use the Census Returns you must have a name and address at, or near, the census year. The Census Returns are not indexed unless the librarian has indexed them by name or street and so it is necessary to scan them house by house until you come to the street you need. The street must be then checked house by house until the required name is found. Finding this type of entry is very satisfying because you now find an entire family group at one stroke.

Further Use of the Computer File Index
Having recorded, say, a christening and confirmed the entry in the Parish Register it is then possible to return to the computer file index and use it again. You can search for the wedding of the two parents of your ancestor and discover the maiden name of the mother. You can then look up the christening of the mother in the computer file index under her name. You can also look up the christening of the father under his. You can also use the parents' names at all dates after the wedding to see if there are other entries. In this way you can also build up the family group though this is laborious. The wedding record may not appear in the index but the family group will establish an approximate date for this. The wedding may have been solemnised in another parish, the records of which have not been picked up by the indexers. Again reference to the parish registers may give you a clue since marriages often took place in the bride's parish church. It was also not uncommon to find a first child born, or christened, in the bride's parish church.

Further Use of the Parish Registers
Since the computer file index lists only christenings and marriages it is essential to go back to the parish registers to record the deaths. The computer file index records only deaths in infancy by the word "INFANT". All deaths which look relevant to the family history should be recorded; you never know when one of these records will slot neatly into place.

Sometimes the apparent ancestor appears to be too young to fit the facts. Two things should be borne in mind. Although it was quite common in Victorian times for a couple to wait until the husband could provide a proper home, in earlier epochs, marriages took place very young indeed. Further, the date of the christening. Which is what the Parish Register gives, is not the date of the birth. Delays of several months were not uncommon, and sometimes even of several years. Some Parish Clerks record the date of birth as well as the date of the christening, though this is not common.

Another problem, when working with the computer file index, is to find apparently the same wedding recorded from two different parishes, sometimes with different spellings. This problem usually arises when the recorder has taken the banns as proof of marriage. If bride and groom came from different parishes the banns will have been published in both parishes. Searching the original records may resolve the problem as to where the marriage actually took place. Publication of the banns was not always followed by a wedding so this is another pitfall one should be wary of.

Family history research is like detective work where the trail has gone cold and most of the witnesses dead. There are clues aplenty, however, but they need to be ferreted out. It should not be too difficult, however for anyone to establish one or more lines back to the 18th century and, provided they work with the real facts with thorough cross-checking of independent source material, to do it beyond any reasonable doubt. Who knows, you may be lucky and get right back to the 16th century to join those who claim 20 generations.

The trail may often seem to peter out. By casting around you may pick it up again, perhaps in another county. But, a final word of caution. Always start with known information. Hypothetical family trees are all too easy to draw up and may take you on the wrong scent. If in doubt go back to previous generations and build up family groups. The ancestry of a Benjamin or Joshua, even if co-linear, may be easier to trace than that of a John or a William.

Published in 1981 April Bulletin