‘Citizen soldiers’ – Canadian participation in the Great War

Last year in London, 888,246 ceramic poppies were gradually installed in the moat of the Tower of London, one hundred years after the start of the First World War. Each poppy represents a British life lost in the war, a family shattered. The installation caught the global imagination, and became a place of pilgrimage for people from around the world – a place where individuals and their families were remembered, where people reflected on the nature of war and the nature of service.. Each evening, 200 names of those who died were read.

Remembering each person who served, each life lost – that is the kind of commemoration I had hoped for when I first began to read about the plans for four years of commemoration of the first world war. A series of other projects also are focusing on individuals and their families and communities – many of them effectively crowd-sourced.

Remembering Canadian soldiers in Wolrd War One means remembering people who came from around the world. It was not just Canadian-born men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which was 619,636 strong. The Canadian Great War Project, which is slowly entering data on all of them, shows us that Canadian soldiers hailed from all around the world.

They were born in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey; the United States; Newfoundland (then a separate country); Russia; Norway; Sweden, Finland, and Denmark; India (and East Indies, as it was once known); Australia and New Zealand; France; Ukraine and Galicia; Italy; Japan; Austria; Belgium; Netherlands; South Africa; Poland; Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Bahamas, and Bermuda; Serbia; Montenegro; Iceland; Switzerland; Romania; Germany; China; Greece; Malta; Bohemia; Argentina; Turkey; Hungary; Bulgaria; Ceylon; Luxembourg; Spain; Grenada; Syria; Gibraltar; Brazil; Egypt; Mexico; Burma; Latvia; Hong Kong; Armenia; Chile; Herzegovina; Macedonia; British Honduras; Hawaii, Netherlands East Indies; Channel Islands; Falkland Islands; Cuba; Madagascar; Portugal; Singapore; St Pierre and Miquelon; Cyprus; Dutch Guiana; Mauritius; Saint Helena; Algeria; Ascension Island; British Arabia; Danish West Indies; Estonia; Lebanon; Netherlands Antilles; Nevis; Palestine; Persia; Puerto Rico; Tobago; Turks and Caicos; Bechuanaland; Bolivia; British Virgin Islands; Cameroon; Central America; El Salvador; Fiji; Greenland; Guatemala; Korea; Montserrat; Morocco; Nepal; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Panama; Peru; Philippines; Reunion Island; Rwanda; Siam; St Martin; Straits Settlements; US Virgin Islands; Venezuela; and Zanzibar.

The website grew from Marc Leroux’s research into his grandfather’s  war service. I got the term ‘citizen soldier’ from Marc’s moving tribute to his grandfather, Thomas O’Connor, who served in the CEF. I like the term because it shows that most of the CEF were not professional soldiers. Rather, they were young men who left farms, lumber mills, factories, government service – even a career as an American concert pianist – to fight on Canada’s behalf. Many First Nations men also signed up, even though they were not allowed to vote unless they gave up their status. Lloyd Clifford Curley, from Six Nations reserve, was killed in Europe – but his granddaughter is ensuring his memory is kept alive.

At enlistment, their ages ranged from 10 (Reuben Rosenfield, born 1905, who enlisted as a bugler with the 101st Regiment) to 83 years old (Robert Sherrington, born 1833, a carpenter born in Ontario but who enlisted in Edmonton).

The youngest who died was 14-year-old William Paul Stuttle, steward’s boy, whose ship was torpedoed off Kinsale, Ireland; the oldest were aged 71 – private Edward Evelyn Robbins, a master mariner born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Major-General Samuel Benfield “Sam” Steele, a professional soldier born in Simcoe County, Ontario who died of influenza in England in 1919.

They ranged in height from 4 feet to 7’1″. They were Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Wesleyan, Jewish, and adherents of other faiths. They were single; married; single parents; sole supports of mothers; grandfathers; grandsons. The CEF also included chaplains and nurses. Not all of them volunteered; some were conscripted, despite initial political pledges not to introduce such a draft..Not all of them went to Europe or Africa or the Middle East – some went to Siberia.

In short, they were us – a reflection of a country that was diverse then as we are now. It would be nice if we, too, could have a poppy installation on Parliament Hill to remember all those who did not return home, or some similar activity that focused on the individuals who served rather than the war itself. You can get a sense of what life was like for them at the front by visiting the Imperial War Museum site.

What you can’t often get from the records that exist is a context for each individual, and that is where I believe the family history community can help. In one English school and church, the students choose the name of a Canadian soldier, research his life, and pay tribute to him on November 11th. Family history researchers could do something similar for schools near us – find a soldier from the area, research his life and family, and then share that life with the next generation.

If you are researching an ancestor who was part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, you will probably be able to view his or her attestation paper online, as. Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the CEF records and expects to be finished all 620,000 of them by 2018. Their attestation paper,which is two-sided, will give you a birthdate, a birthplace, an occupation, and a next of kin. The papers completed by officers, and those drafted after 1917, are only one page.

If your ancestor died during the war, you will want to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. The search engine allows you to look for a specific person, or for all Canadians if you wish to. The CWGC’s mandate is to ensure that the 1.7 million people who died during the two World Wars are never forgotten; it cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries. Often the record of a soldier’s death will list next of kin, although not all records have a date or place of birth. The CWGC record information also shows up in Find A Grave, where people can leave messages and virtual remembrances, as well as adding information about date and place of birth, relationships, and even pictures.

On Wednesday, when you attend a Remembrance Day service or view the service in Ottawa on your computer or television, do take time to think of those who fought for Canada during the Great War – and those who never returned. And know that in other countries, such as England and the Netherlands, people will be paying tribute to individual Canadian soldiers as well as to Canada’s participation in both world wars.


A few ideas about organizing your research

One of the challenges, as you do your research, is how to organize the information you have found. A whole series of forms exist that you can use, but my advice is to keep it simple.

A small notebook with five dividers, and a folder with plastic sleeves, won’t cost you much but will help you stay organized. Use one section for each of your four main lines, and enter information into each as you find it. Use the fifth section to make notes of things you want to follow up or double-check, or interesting facts and sites you come across in your searches. Keep certificates, documents, pictures, and so on in the plastic sleeves of the folder.

Doing this, as you research, will help you stay organized. There is nothing more frustrating to realize that somewhere, you did find something relevant, but it was written on a small piece of paper you seem to have misplaced – or that it is somewhere on your computer but you can’t find it.

Then the question is – what kind of family tree program should I use? There are a lot on the market, and various opinions on which one is best. Most involve payment, but some free programs also are available. The Church of Latter Day Saints no longer offers free downloads of its PAF software, and recommends three possible alternatives; each one seems to have both a free and a paid version..One free program recommended highly by Gizmo’s Freeware is called Gramps. I haven’t used any of them – but these four are recommended by people who know whereof they speak.

An alternative to having a stand-alone family tree on your computer is to maintain your tree online. This is useful if you want to share your tree with invited guests, or if you travel a lot and are away from your home computer. You can, if you like, submit your tree to the FamilySearch site but you must first register or sign in, in order to do so – however, you will need to have a family tree program that lets you generate a GEDCOM file, in order to make the submission. If you create an online tree on Ancestry or Find My Past, you can upload a GEDCOM – unless you want to start from scratch in entering data.

I have several online trees on Ancestry, where I have a paid membership; they are private trees, unindexed, so no one else can see the entries at all unless I invite them to the tree. However, I also have another tree which is public, in order to help me find cousins and to share more widely the information I have collected on a specific family line. A public tree is accessible to all, although details of living people are not shown.

One advantage of having an online tree at Ancestry or Find My Past is that the site generates hints – records that may be relevant to your ancestor. I do, however, know people who refuse to have online trees, preferring instead to keep their tree on their own home computer and share only relevant, limited information when they find a cousin.

Some collaborative trees, in which you contribute data to a unified research effort, also exist.

Using a computer-based or online family tree program is helpful in a number of ways. It helps you organize your research visually, and fairly compactly. It lets you generate charts or reports you can share with others. It allows you to attach electronic records (and, increasingly, web links) to a specific person. But if you’re not comfortable with computers, or your computer has a limited data capacity, you could use some of the printed out forms I mentioned earlier and keep your data organized that way.

A cautionary tale about sharing online trees – It’s always tempting to be helpful to others, especially when the genealogical community is so generous with time, advice and problem-solving. But sadly, some people are more interested in collecting names than in doing research and given the chance, will hoover up your data and add it to their tree – whether or not you are actually related.

This happened to me, on an otherwise extremely helpful site called Genes Reunited, which lets you create a tree online, and then offers possible matches for you to investigate. Many people (including me) have found it very helpful in finding British relatives. The problem I ran into was with two people who, saying they thought we had ancestors in common, asked if they could view my online GR tree. Naively, I allowed them access.

One promptly downloaded my entire GR tree data into her public tree on Ancestry, including data I had worked hard to keep private. She never got in touch again, to talk about the relative she had mentioned – so I don’t know if we are related at all. She ignored my polite messages, made her Ancestry tree private, and did not remove my data. Complaining to Ancestry brought no response, even when I followed their specified procedures. So I stopped sharing access to my Genes Reunited tree, and made sure my Ancestry trees were both private and unindexed. The whole episode remains painful for me.

It is much better, and safer, to pursue discussions back and forth with people who think you may be related, and limit the information you share with them until you are certain you are related. Then, if you wish, you can choose to invite them to your private tree online.

Tracking your family on the high seas

When I was young, my family moved a lot – from Ireland to Canada, Canada to Ireland, Ireland to Canada, Canada to New Zealand, New Zealand to Canada – all before I was 11 or 12. Consequently, I had trouble putting together a coherent time line for myself – what year did we live in Port Hope, which year was Streetsville, which year was Orangeville, exactly when did we go back and forth to Ireland.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know where to look for information that would help. And then I found the ship manifests records on Find My Past, and a lot of my problem was solved. I found us on many ship manifests – six or seven, if I recall correctly. The first set of journeys was the one that caused my jaw to drop, and helped me understand exactly why my childhood memories seemed to be such a jumble. We (mother, sister, brother, and I) had gone to Canada by ship, back to Ireland by ship, and back to Canada, all in the same year!

Even if you are not trying to sort out your personal timeline, shipping manifests are a great resource when you are researching your ancestry. Many of them give you a lot of extremely helpful information. Some will list passengers’ birthdates and birthplaces. Some American manifests stretch across two pages and tell you where the passenger came from, name a relative there, and where and who they are going to meet in the US.

While many ship manifests are found on sites that require you to pay for a membership or to buy credits to see records, there are alternative sources that you can check before you decide to buy any credits or memberships.

Ellis Island, which opened in 1892 and took over US immigration control from Castle Garden, lets you search for passengers and view ship manifests for free. You also may find some ship manifests on FamilySearch, and on Olive Tree Genealogy, which focuses on ship manifests and other immigration records relating to Canada.

If your ancestors came to Canada, visit the Library and Archives Canada site. It lets you search through the names of Irish immigrants who landed first at the Grosse Ile Quarantine Station in the St Lawrence River. Grosse Ile had been established in 1837 and operated until 1937. “The database contains 33,036 references to immigrants who stayed, were born, married or buried at the Grosse Île Quarantine Station between 1832 and 1937. The database also includes references to immigrants who were born or died at sea during those years. It also includes references to immigration workers and their families who were living on the island.”

Like Ellis Island, Grosse Ile is now a national historic site. “The Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial was erected in 1997 to commemorate the massive arrival of Irish immigrants who were victims of the Great Famine. It provides the names of 8,339 people of various nationalities who were buried in the Grosse Île cemeteries from 1832 to 1937.”

Library and Archives Canada also has other search engines that you may find helpful in tracking the journeys of your ancestors. There is a database of immigrants from the Russian Empire, for example. A database of immigrants from China 1885 to 1949, lets you search through 139,458 references found in three key data sources stored at LAC.

In an earlier post, I talked about the value of creating a timeline of information about your ancestor’s life – and this can be particularly helpful if you decide to buy credits, but not necessarily a membership, on one of the fee-based sites. If you have found an ancestor on the 1911, 1916 or 1921 Canadian census records, for example, make a note of where their children were born. If some were born in Ireland or Scotland, for example, and then some in Canada, it is a safe bet that the family emigrated in the years between the two sets of births – and this narrows done the years you search.

One caution about the information on ship manifests, especially earlier ones. It reflects what the passengers told the shipping authorities. In working with a South African cousin to research our shared ancestors, I discovered the manifest for the journey our ancestor and her children made from Scotland to South Africa. The children’s ages did not match what I already knew about four of the five children, however. It turns out that the shipping companies charged less for younger children than for young adults, so some creative energy had gone into making the children seem younger than they were.

The British “Home Children” – a sad story

One of the saddest family history stories involves the British “Home Children” – orphaned, abandoned, or poor children who were sent from Britain to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia starting in the mid-19th century and in some cases, continuing well into the 20th century. While some did get a chance for a better life, many were forced to work on farms or in homes, and many were abused.

More than 100,000 children were sent to Canada between 1869 and the late 1930s. They arrived by ship and then were sent to distributing homes and then on to farmers in the area. Some were sent as far afield as the Prairies. Some of these children were very young, and for the most part, they were effectively cut off from any family they still had back in Britain.

After World War II, to as late as 1970, about 4,300 more British children (aged 3 to 14) were shipped to Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Australia.

The result, in family history terms, was a huge gulf – children who grew up in Canada not knowing anything about their family in Britiain, while in Britain, siblings often didn’t know they had brothers or sisters who had been sent overseas. For them, and for their descendants, getting the facts that would help them find their family was extremely difficult, if not impossible. Many of them, in fact, seem to have never told their own children that they had been British Home Children.

The internet, and its ability to connect people, changed things. The British Home Children story became much more widely known, largely thanks to British social worker Margaret Humphreys, who created the Child Migrant Trust in 1987 to help children find their birth certificates and their parents.

The British and Australian Prime Ministers apologized for the scheme (although Canada apparently saw no need to do so).. Websites began to spring up; more resources became available; and long-separated families began to be reunited. 2010 was the Year of the British Home Child, Canada – and Canada Post issued a special stamp.

You can read some of the stories of such searches and reunions on the British Home Child Group International site; they are tremendously moving. One example is Susan Brazeau’s story about her great-grandmother Grace, who was sent to Canada in 1902 and did not see any of her birth family again until 1965, when she travelled to England and met six of her seven siblings, and two step-siblings. Learning her grandmother’s story made it possible for Susan, like many other family history researchers, to trace her family in England – in her case, back to the 1400s.

I am so glad that resources like this exist, and can help people find their British Home Children ancestors. I well remember, some years ago, trying to help a woman find out what had happened to her grandfather, who had been sent out to Canada as a young child. Unfortunately, he had a very common name, and without knowing his date and place of birth, or any details from his file, she could not confirm she had found find him in any of the records.

Apart from the British Home Child Group International site and Facebook page, resources exist on the Library and Archives Canada site. The Toronto Public Library has a page of useful links, as does the Ontario Genealogical Society. Pier 21 offers an extremely useful research paper.

Among the men and women, from many countries, who fought on Canada’s behalf in the First World War, there were a number of British Home Children. And on November 11th,  the BHCGI will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph at Queen’s Park that commemorates all of them.

You can read more about the children sent to Australia on the PRONI website, and on the National Archives of Australia website. In fact, if you google Home Children, you will discover a wealth of resources.

Lost your cousins? Find them through the census

Finding living relatives is one of the main reasons why many people start researching their family history. But this can be a challenge, because more recent census and vital statistics information is protected for privacy reasons. Additionally, message boards like Rootsweb discourage the public posting of information that could identify people who are still living.

And sometimes, when people choose to research only their direct ancestors, they limit the possibility of connecting with living cousins who are descended from their ancestor’s brothers and sisters – so it is useful to track the whole family, and not just your direct ancestor..This has implications for who you add to your family tree.

I found it challenging to find the descendants of my great-uncle Robert, the one who moved from Ireland to Lancashire about 1902. First I had to find marriage records for the daughters (I have more than a few certificates I ordered from the GRO that are for other people); then track any children they had; and then find their death records to see who the informant was. Then I had to track the informant. My search was ultimately successful; I found one of Robert’s grandchlidren by searching online once I had confirmed the relevant marriages and birth records to confirm I had the right person. I found another one through online records once I had confirmed the linkage back to Robert.

Occasionally, people find one another as they are searching for relatives through message boards like Rootsweb, but this is comparatively rare. If you have a paid membership to a site such as Ancestry or Find My Past, you may find family trees that include your ancestors, and you can send a message to the person who owns the tree and connect that way. This does, however, cost money – which you may decide to spend after you have been bitten by the genealogy bug :).

There is, however, a simpler, more direct and free method, that uses various census records to match cousins – and the more people who enter their relatives, the faster such matches will occur.

Created by Peter Calver, the  Lost Cousins site allows you to enter the names of ancestors you have found on various census records, and matches your entries with others who have entered the same ancestor. When it finds a match, you are notified, and then you can connect via the site (normally, only paying members can connect, but Lost Cousins periodically has free weekends that will allow you to connect even if you are not a paying member.)

Lost Cousins began with the 1881 England and Wales census, and has since expanded to include other census records, including the 1841 and 1911 England and Wales censuses, the 1881 Scotland census, the 1880 and 1940 US censuses, the 1881 Canadian census, and the 1911 Irish census.

The value of using census records is that if you have entered an ancestor from the census, and someone else has entered the same ancestor, you are likely related – if not cousins by blood, at least related by marriage. I have found several people through Lost Cousins, and do wish that many more people would enter their relatives from the census records so that the number of matches will increase still further.

Peter publishes the Lost Cousins Newsletter regularly, and it offers stories, hints, puzzles, and updates on genealogy sites and government actions related to family history research. It is free – you can subscribe through the Lost Cousins site.

A great value of Lost Cousins is that it lets you search for cousins from all of your lines at the same time, in a range of countries. He advises: “Remember that your cousins are descended from your collateral lines – that’s what makes them cousins – so the key relatives to enter are the members of your direct ancestors’ extended families.”

Sometimes such connections bring surprises – you may know something the other doesn’t, and vice versa. You may provide an answer to a puzzle that they have been trying to solve for a long time.

My grandfather, who was Scottish, was married and widowed in Scotland before he married my grandmother in Ireland. After I found the marriage certificate on Scotlands People, I was able to track the family of his young bride (who tragically, died in the 1918 flu epidemic after only a few months of marriage). Then, through a tree on Ancestry, I found a descendant of that bride’s family. When we exchanged information, I discovered that his family had believed the young woman was pregnant when she died. I shared the death certification information with him, which showed that she wasn’t. In turn, he shared information about her family, so both of us benefitted from the connection.

Searching for family in Canada

One of the great things about helping others research their family trees is that I learn a lot about what records are available where. I have lived in Canada for much of my life, after my family moved here from Ireland, but it is only in the past year that I have had occasion to spend a lot of time in Canadian records.

I researched information for a friend who was born in New Brunswick, and also did some research for my sister-in-law, whose grandparents came from Ukraine and settled in Manitoba and Alberta. Thus I had some experience with researching records on either side of Canada – east and west – and I must say that if your ancestors lived in New Brunswick or British Columbia, you are lucky indeed. Both of these jurisdictions have made a lot of their records freely available online. Alberta is a much tougher place to research, especially online.

You can find a great many birth, marriage and death records for New Brunswick here, thanks to the Provincial Archives. The coverage of records is listed here. One of the great features of the NB records is the late registration of births, which means that you may find information about births before registration began in 1888 as well as finding out more information about relationships than you would normally find in a standard birth certificate. Here is the explanation from the website:

“There was no official civil registration of births in New Brunswick prior to that required by the An Act to Provide for the Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in 1887 (50 Victoria c.5). Beginning in 1888, the Registrar of Vital Statistics could record as official the birth of an individual years after the fact as long as there was verification of the birth by the doctor or others who were present or had knowledge of the event. This still occurs but is less frequent because of modern, comprehensive registration systems. After 1888, the oldest birth recorded was for someone born in 1810. The forms used to register the births include information such as the place of birth, full name of child, sex of child, date of birth, background information on the father and mother, name of doctor, name of informant, date of registration. Up to 1900, these documents are arranged according to the year of the birth, and coded by letter of the alphabet. Beginning in 1900, they were given a sequential number each year and filed in numerical order.”

The other great thing about the New Brunswick records is that you can see the actual record itself, for free (you only pay a fee if you want a paper copy of the record).

You can also see actual records in British Columbia, either on the website of the Provincial Archives or on FamilySearch, which allows you to see records not yet been digitized by the archives. Death records are a particularly useful source for information about when and where a person was born, the names and birthplaces of his or her parents, and the name of his or her spouse. Marriage records are similarly helpful in giving parents’ names and birthplaces.

You can find Canadian census records at Library and Archives Canada, The list is extensive, beginning in 1825 with Lower Canada (now Quebec) and reflecting the growth of Canada over the years since then. If you are researching immigrant ancestors, such as the Ukrainians, you may find the 1870 Manitoba census and the 1906 and 1916 Prairie census records extremely helpful. Spelling of surnames, however, can be quite problematic – it seems to depend a lot on who did the enumeration. If they were familiar with spellings of Ukrainian names, for example, then the names may be quite accurate; if they were operating phonetically, however, you may have to use your imagination in searching the census records.

Two other useful resources for those researching ancestors who emigrated to Canada are the Naturalization Records (which begin in 1915) and the Land Grants of Western Canada records. Apart from the one page Letters Patent that names the grantee, describes the homestead, and provides the date of land grant, there are homestead files and applications made by the settlers on the land, which are available through provincial archives. In the case of Alberta, volunteers of the Alberta Genealogy Society created an index to Homestead records in Alberta. Once you find your ancestors listed there, you can order the relevant records for a fee.

In terms of Alberta BMD records, there is an index that covers the period 1898 to 1905. Records after 1906 can be searched by request, but unfortunately, if you don’t know when an ancestor was born or died, you may be out of luck. When I was looking for help in finding Alberta BMD records, another person researching Ukrainian ancestors commiserated that Alberta was the most difficult jurisdiction in Canada in terms of accessing vital statistics information.

If you are looking for information on your immigrant ancestors that is freely accessible, do consider visiting the volunteer-run Prairie Souls website. It provides pictures, and transcriptions (and often relationships), of grave markers in Alberta cemeteries.

Library and Archives Canada has a very helpful website with many useful family history resources. You should definitely spend time there if you are researching Canadian ancestors.

In terms of other archival resources in Canada, you can search and access online images for Nova Scotia here; search Prince Edward Island records online through the Public Archives and Records Office PARO; search Saskatchewan records online through e-Health Saskatchewan; and search Ontario BMD records (births 1869-1910; marriages 1869-1927; and deaths 1869-1937) online at FamilySearch. The Archives of Ontario offers a range of resources for genealogical research, as do most of the provincial archives. You will normally see a button on the menu for genealogy or family history research, which will help you identify what resources are available and how you can access them.

Finally, obituaries can provide you with a great deal of information about ancestors. Try Googling their name (in apostrophes, on either side – as in ‘my ancestor’s name’ – which will limit the search), as this will sometimes help you find an obituary. There also are several websites that will allow you to search directly for obituary notices.

Finding your Irish ancestors – ‘a lick and a promise’

Many people in North America and the British Commonwealth eventually discover that their ancestors came from Ireland, and for a long time, that discovery was a brick wall for many people – although this is changing. Entire books have been written on how to do such searches, but I am focusing on how you might start your search, using freely-available records.

As you work your way back in your research, you may discover on UK, US or Canadian census records that your ancestor was born in Ireland –  but that may seem like a dead end because you don’t know where in Ireland they were born. Looking for church or other records in Ireland depends on knowing a county, and a townland. Townlands are the smallest unit of land in Ireland, and many townland names occur in a range of counties, so it is important to know both the county and the townland. (I remember, at my first Irish family history conference, giving a townland name to a resource person, and being politely informed that this townland name occurred in five or six counties.)

So suppose you have traced your ancestry back to Ireland…what do you do next?

First, look for your ancestors in all the UK, Scottish, US or Canadian census records you can find. Look at the birthplaces of their children, which should give you an idea when they came from Ireland. Narrowing this down will help you find (a) their emigration to North America or (b) the date they came across the Irish Sea to England or Scotland or Wales. Make a timeline. Look at the birthplace noted on every census record – sometimes, in one census, you will find a county listed, and that narrows your search.

If your Irish ancestor moved to Scotland, you are lucky, because if your ancestor married or died in Scotland, the record will list the names of their parents (including the mother’s maiden name). These Scotlands People records are pay per view, but the information you will gain is definitely worth it because having two names will make your search easier.

If your Irish ancestor moved to the United States, Canada, or Australia, you may be able to find a death record (depending on where they died) that names their parents, who you then may be able to find on FamilySearch and Find A Grave. This may help you locate the county and townland your family came from. (Immigration records, on Castle Garden or Ellis Island, also may give you a place name.)

FamilySearch now has so many records, from so many countries, that a ‘parent search’ may be very helpful in locating a family scattered by emigration. In the search engine, enter only the surname and the parents’ names and hit enter – this may bring up records of marriages or deaths in other countries, which will help you track siblings and may help you discover that the whole family moved to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Many British families lived in India in the 19th century, and FamilySearch has indexed many of these BMD records.

If you have had no luck in locating where your Irish ancestor came from, your next steps depend on when you think your ancestors left Ireland. If it was before 1901, consider turning to the Griffiths Valuation, a list of heads of households done in the mid 19th century that serves as a census substitute (national census records no longer exist before 1901, apart from fragments). Searching for your ancestor’s surname on the Griffiths index will give you an idea of possible counties and townlands you can consider, and then it becomes a matter of looking more closely at each of the likely possibilities.

So – assuming you have discovered which county in Ireland your ancestors came from,, or you have narrowed down the possibilities, where do you look next? I am focusing on freely-available records, but there are also pay per view sites for each county. (I have found Ancestry Ireland, which has BMD records for Countries Antrim and Down, extremely helpful in researching part of my tree.)

Resources that have recently come online may help a lot. The Irish government has been indexing church and civil records, and here you might find baptismal or marriage records for your ancestors. I recently found baptismal records in Dublin in the 1840s for members of a family which had ended up scattered in Australia and the UK – most of which I had not been able to find anywhere else.

If your ancestors did not leave Ireland until after 1901 or 1911, then you should look at the Irish census records that are online, courtesy of Irish-Canadian co-operation. You may be very lucky, and find them in the census, which will help you in further research. I spent years searching for my great-grandparents in Belfast, as my aunt had told me they had both died before 1900 – but once the census came on-line, I found them in the 1901 census, and then was able to find their death records because I now knew their street address in Belfast.

By the way, if you think your ancestors came from Belfast, you can search the Belfast cemetery records. Once you find an ancestor, you can find the names of everyone who is buried in a particular grave. This has been extremely useful to me in pointing me to marriages, names of spouses or children, or giving me death dates which I then use to search for wills at the PRONI Wills Index or the Calendar of Wills and Administrations.

This post has been what my aunt would have called ‘a lick and a promise’ . Entire books have been written on researching your Irish ancestors, and professional genealogists can spend much time researching a single line of a single tree. But I hope I have given you some ideas about where to start looking, without spending a lot of money in your initial search..

One cautionary note – if you Google your ancestors’ names, you may find an existing tree or information that seems to match your research. You might be tempted to just enter all this information into your tree – but it is much better to do your own research. See this cautionary tale about Annie Moore, the first Irish immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island.

Great UK Resources – Online Parish Clerks and UKBMD

The world of family history is blessed with wonderful volunteers who give of their time to index resources so others can freely find information about their people.

In England, for example, there is a growing network of ‘online parish clerks‘ that index birth, marriage and death information from church records. The online parish clerks can give you access to records that go much further back in time than the official records you can access through FreeBMD and the General Register Office, which start in 1837.

Lancashire Online Parish Clerk is the one I am most familiar with. I first encountered it (and the amazingly generous Lancashire lists posters) when I was looking for great-uncle Robert. Lancashire OPC lets you search by parish or generally across the county. You can limit your search by date, by the names of fathers or both parents, or by the names of spouses.

The Lancashire BMD site also is part of a larger family – the UK BMD network. Its focus is on indexing births, marriages and deaths after civil registration began in 1837, and making these indexes freely searchable on the internet. As of today, the Lancashire BMD contains indexed entries for 9.5 million births, almost 4.5 million marriages, and almost 5.5 million deaths.

A few years ago, the Lancashire BMD volunteers began adding the mother’s maiden name to existing records, which is a great boon for researchers who previously could only find the mother’s maiden name for post-1911 records. Other aspects of the site can help you solve mysteries in your tree – in the case of a woman who is remarrying, for example, the record is indexed under both her maiden name and her married surname. And the site offers ‘soundex’ searching, so if you can’t find a surname as you’ve spelled it, you can tick ‘soundex’ on the search engine and it will look for records that sound like the spelling you have offered.

Family history research is a step-by-step process. You work backwards from what you know for certain. You also become increasingly more specific in terms of locations you search as you learn where your ancestors came from. If you have traced your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents back to England or Wales, these freely available records can help you a great deal in your research. And bless the volunteers who give their time freely to make it so much easier for others to research their tree 🙂

You can also find volunteers through the Rootsweb message board network, which offers you access to message boards by place, or by topic. Find the message board that covers the area your ancestors came from, and post a message that explains clearly what you are looking for. Maybe you can’t find your ancestor on a census record even though you know where they lived, maybe you can’t find a birth or marriage record, maybe you have hit a brick wall. Whatever it is, make sure you give the names of the ancestors and any relevant dates and places. The clearer your message is, the easier it is for others to help you – and they will!

Researching doesn’t have to cost money

Often people think they have to pay for a membership in one of the main genealogical sites in order to do research – and these sites work hard at adding resources and information regularly that helps searchers. But researching your family tree doesn’t necessarily cost money. There are a lot of free resources that you can access, and one of the most valuable of those is FamilySearch.

The Church of Latter Day Saints created the site to share access to records the church had been collecting and indexing, and it is an extraordinarily valuable resource, growing in value as more and more records are added from more and more countries. For example, you can find census records from the United Kingdom (up to 1911), the United States (up to 1940), and Canada (up to 1921).

Census records show your ancestors in context, in a neighbourhood and community. You will find out what your ancestors did for a living, where they were born (although this is not always completely reliable!), and their age (although again, this is not always completely reliable). And as you trace them from census to census, you may see changes in their occupation which can help you understand more about the society in which they lived; changes in their economic status; and possibly regular changes of residence.

Census records can help you uncover marriages, when a daughter or son in law appears as part of a household. Or you may find mothers or fathers living with sons or daughters, or nieces and nephews, or cousins. All of this information can be extremely helpful as you work your way backwards in your search.

I spent years searching for a great-uncle who had moved from Ireland to England. Family stories claimed he had met and married an English nurse during WWI, had at least a son and a daughter, and lived in Blackburn, Lancashire. It was not until the 1911 census came out that I was finally able to begin tracing him properly. I discovered he had married an Irishwoman who worked as a laundress, and they had four daughters.

It took me a few more years to find more information about him, as I kept looking in Preston – but he and his family had moved to Blackburn. Eventually, over time, I managed to trace what had happened to Robert and his wife Philomena, and their four daughters. And through that research, I made contact with cousins who were descended from two of their daughters, and heard stories about Robert that I never would have found in any records.

Similarly, when I began researching my family in Ireland, I got a great head start when I went to a conference run by Ancestry Ireland (then called the Ulster Historical Foundation) and was introduced to the 1901 and 1911 Irish census records. At that time, they were in paper format only; but thanks to work by Ireland and Canada, these two sets of census records are now searchable online. See here.

Where do I start?

As the song goes, you begin at the beginning….and that is with your parents. Names, birth dates, birth places, date and place of marriage, and – if they moved from one country to another – dates and modes of emigration.

This is probably fairly straightforward, if your parents are alive – ask them for that information. Ask them who their parents were. And ask if anyone in the family has created a family tree.

But it is not always so simple. Often people only become interested in researching their family’s history when they become older, like me. Your parents may not know much about their ancestry, for a variety of reasons, or they may be reluctant to talk about earlier history of the family. Your parents may have died before you became interested in asking these questions.

So what do you do if you can’t ask your parents, or if they don’t want to talk about their parents? You can start with your own birth certificate, which will name your parents. If you were born in the community where you still live, getting your birth certificate should be quite easy. If you were born somewhere else – in another country, for example – you may have to begin by ordering a copy of your birth certificate.

Once you have the certificate, which names your parents, you can look for their marriage, and that record should give you the names of your grandparents. Then you can work backwards from there.

Suppose you were born in England. A great free resource called FreeBMD will let you find the information you will need to order your birth certificate (if you were born before 1983). Using this information – name, registration year and quarter, registration district, county, volume and page – you will be able to order your certificate online through the General Register Office. 

After 1911, birth certificates include the mother’s maiden name, so it should be fairly straightforward for you to find your parents’ marriage in FreeBMD. Once you work your way back to 1911, you should be able to find your ancestors in the census records, which you can access for free at FamilySearch. (See the list here.)

You could, of course, hire a genealogical researcher to do the research for you. There are people and agencies who do this for a fee. But for many people, the joy is in doing the research themselves – and this is made much easier by the efforts of thousands and thousands of volunteers who index records, host message boards, or help others solve their mysteries.