How To Research & Write Your Family History

When you begin, always start with what you know!  You probably know yourself best, so that is the best place to embark on your genealogy journey.  Most likely, you know where you were born, who your siblings are, when and where your parents were married, and born, who their siblings were and when and where your grandparents married and were born.  Write it all down in chronological order.  Genealogical work usually moves back in time – so try to work from the known to the unknown.

If you can, try to book some time to talk to all of the older members of your family. Ask if anyone has done a family tree.  Ask when the family came to Canada, where from, where they settled in Ontario and where your ancestors might have worshipped.  Were they involved in any clubs, what was their occupation, where did they attend school?  Did the family keep any pictures or old documents such as diaries or bibles, that could provide you with any clues?  Keep a record of your meetings, interviews and discussions so that you can remember who told you what, and when.  If you are orderly in keeping the records from the start, it will help save you a lot of time later on!

When you have all this information from family members, you can begin to write your story! Draw your family tree and document your family records.  You can begin to fill in some of the gaps in your family history by searching out the documents that will prove the facts for your stories.  In Ontario, there are many documents that you can look for in the Archives and libraries.  Specifically, the Canadian census is available from 1852 through 1921, in most areas. In some areas, you might find a census, agricultural schedule or tax assessment for the years prior to 1852. Vital statistics (birth, marriages and deaths) provide a great deal of information and often include the parents names and birth locations, to help you go back an additional generation.  Due to privacy laws – births in Ontario are only available until 1917, marriages until 1934 and deaths until 1942.  If you know the specific area where your ancestors lived then the local history, newspaper announcements, church records and cemetery/tombstone transcriptions, can also help you fill in the details of your ancestors lives.  Contacting the local branch of the OGS can yield dividends as each branch has local knowledge of all that is available.

Although there have been tremendous strides made in the information that is now available online, not everything is found on the internet.  Often times, you will need to do some “field work” and get out to the area of your ancestors, the local library, OGS branch or the Archives in order to find some hidden gems.

You will undoubtedly hit a brick wall in your research at some point – don’t despair, we have all hit those walls!  When you do, look outside of the area where your ancestor lived, to adjacent Provinces or States – they may have moved for a variety of reasons.  Look at other geographic or socio-economic trends to see if there was anything happening locally at the time, that would suggest they may have moved.  Also, instead of just trying to go deeper into your tree, try to go wider – meaning, take a look at siblings of the ancestor and see what they were doing at the time.  Families often tended to stay close together for support.  You can always consider hiring a professional to help you overcome your brick walls – look for one that might specialize in that area.

Remember that when you write your family’s history, you will need to cite your sources (that is why you need to write notes, even when talking with your family members!).  A good rule of thumb is to try and prove your relationships three ways – that means looking at a variety of documents and questioning their reasonability to determine their validity in proving your ancestry.  While we all like to see the “shaking leaves” or “hints” online, they are not always accurate and should always be questioned before adding them to your tree.

Don’t be afraid to start writing, at any time in the process.  Sometimes, you will need to see things visually to put two apparently disparate clues together to make sense.  Draw it up, cut and paste, write the stories and the outstanding questions – this will help you with finishing your project!

The OGS has the following pair of books by Dr. Fraser Dunford: The Beginner’s Guide to Genealogy and The Beginner’s Guide to Ontario Genealogy. Also, Brenda Dougall Merriman’s Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records gives details about the sources a family historian seeks.