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Construct your family tree: How to use birth, marriage and census records

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There is a lot of information online and elsewhere about how to find the basic documents that help you build a family tree. The fundamentals for genealogists are birth certificates, marriage certificates and census returns. Death certificates are also important, but are usually not as significant as birth and marriage certificates when it comes to building your basic family tree. Their role may well come later when you are filling in the gaps and building a fuller picture of your ancestors' lives.

In this article, I hope to present some basic facts about the three key research tools I have identified and provide an idea about how they can be used to build your family tree.

Getting started on the document trail

As any family historian will tell you, you need to work from the known into the unknown when researching your family tree. If you start from the launchpad of solid fact and work your way carefully and methodically back into unknown generations, you are much less likely to make mistakes or end up researching people who do not turn out to be your relatives.

You need

to build a document trail that will lead you back into your family's past. At every stage, be sure to check your logic: you must ensure you are always dealing with the right person, and not just with someone who has the same name as your ancestor. A bit of common sense and a lot of fact checking are the name of the game, but if you build your family tree from solid foundations, it's likely to flourish, in whichever direction it grows.

Ordering your first document - a birth certificate

Let us take a hypothetical example to demonstrate how you might get going on the document trail, and how the various resources fit together. You have to choose which certificate you want to find first, so here comes the golden rule again: start with what you know. You may have established a certain amount of information about your ancestors from members of your family, or even better from certificates and other documents that they have preserved. You need to decide which information you are sure about and which may have been misreported or misremembered. You can then start your search on firm footing.

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