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Family Crest

and be prepared for some surprises growing on the family tree

Intrigue, secrets, red-herrings and unexpected revelations - they hint at sub-plots in a spy thriller or murder mystery. Actually, these are just a few of the elements that can be encountered when tracing family origins. For anyone who enjoys pitting their wits against the sleuth in a crime story, a foray into the world of genealogy could prove a rewarding alternative. It's not as stuffy as it might sound and there are quite a few already doing it who will testify to that. But if you do decide to start your own investigation, be prepared to have your eyes opened. Your family may have been hiding a dark secret or two which, once uncovered will have you wondering what else you were never told about. Maybe they weren't as straight-laced and ordinary as they hoped people would believe. If status and reputation matter to you, perhaps it would be best to let this sleeping dog lie; but if you wouldn't mind exposing the odd skeleton in the family closet, get ready for a trip back to times when life was not as uncomplicated as history might suggest.

Obviously the place to start is present day. You will probably already have seen a family tree and, at first glance, the design would appear to be quite straight forward. With you at the bottom alongside any brothers and sisters, the line traces up to your parents, then splits into two - three or more if your father married again. The father always carries the bloodline and the family name - sorry, ladies, but that's the way it has been up to now - however, the mother's side is just as pertinent, particularly so where she was from important, influential, or even noble stock. If your main area of interest is the family of your father, or your mother, the tree will be like a main stem or trunk and few if any lateral off-shoots. There could be some sprouting from the outer branches, however, that might bear investigation and to ignore them as irrelevant can result in a sudden halt to the search, as we found during our own investigations. Tracking one member of a family, especially the youngest of the brood, is sometimes only possible by taking into account the relatives, distant or not, with whom they might have been living at a certain time. So, aunts and uncles, in-laws and cousins, no matter how far removed, are clues the genealogy detective must always keep in mind.

As an overview, that suggests a relatively boring trudge through a few old records, but there's more to it than that. Fortunately, there are shortcuts to actual hands-on browsing which may be totally impractical. The most powerful investigative tool at your disposal is the Internet. There are numerous genealogy websites which have gathered information from official sources such as birth, marriage and death registrations, plus national census data. One in particular that we use regularly and have found extremely useful is mentioned at the foot of the web page version of this article. For further information, simply click on the direct link to go straight to their website. As part of their services, each of these sites provide a helpful guide instructing how best to use their facilities. You will find that many will only release information to subscribers, so it will cost you to access their pages; but it is worth the money because they have done the hard work for you. There is, however, a trap in accepting this data as gospel. The information is about people, provided by people, recorded by people, transcribed by people; and everyone is fallible.

Taking a look at some of the original documents, many of which were hand-written, it is understandable how mistakes could be made when transferring entries to a different medium such as a computer database. Someone inputting hundreds, even thousands of these records, can't spare the time to analyse every single word and reads most at a glance. Some errors can be minor and easily recognised - Frog Lane transcribed as Frag Lane. In this instance, it shouldn't be a problem to check, always assuming a street map of the area in question is available. But when it comes to names of individuals, a mistake can send a researcher off on a wild goose chase. Two of the examples we spotted may explain this: the first was obviously wrong - Percival transposed as Ricival; but the second might have gone unnoticed - Isaac input as Jane. As far as was known, there was no Jane in the family, whereas there was an Isaac. Examination of the hand-writing and comparing it to other entries in the original record suggested the ' I ' had been read as a 'J' and the rest had been assumed. So, it does pay to be very particular and not take any information at face value. Wherever possible, findings need to be cross-checked.

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