Advantages A huge repository of genealogical information. A 'must' for the serious amateur family historian
Disadvantages Some may baulk at the price but given what you get it's reasonable
INTRODUCTIONThe world of genealogy is a fascinating pastime and one which becomes more pervasive and demanding of time the more you put into it. I have spent the last eighteen months converting our own records history from a hand written collection of notes into a computerised database and a web based family magazine. I outlined the steps in this journey and gave some general advice and thoughts on lines of research to anyone who might wish to follow me in a recent article published in these pages. ("If CIAO is caffeine, this is my crack cocaine" at http://www.ciao.co.uk/Member_Advice_on_Researching_Family_History__Review_5546748)
This review features Ancestry, a huge repository of historical information. It is written on the assumption that you are looking beyond your immediate family members and the creation of simple three or four generation tree charts. It also assumes that you do have some knowledge of the genealogical data which has been extracted and collated and made available across the internet and what to do with it. I am starting with this site which claims to be "the leading online network connecting families with their histories and with one another".This is the first of a series of occasional articles on the tools of the trade, concentrating on specific software programs that I have useful and worthy of recommendation. Each takes a significant step beyond the casual dabbling and requires a degree of learning, time, patience and cash. I do not claim that they are the only packages on the market or that I rely solely upon them in my own researches.
WHO ARE THEY?The Ancestry family (Ancestry.com in the US; Ancestry.co.uk in the UK) is part of the MyFamily.com, Inc which also includes Rootsweb - a site offering search engines, genealogy forums, links to other family history resources, tutorials and training and a repository for your completed tree - and Genealogy.com - the parent of Family Treemaker [FTM] - the widely used family history database software. The 2006 version of [FTM] is currently available for $29.95
WHAT DO YOU GET?Ancestry is a subscription site. It offers subscriptions on a monthly or an annual basis and within that there are a variety of databases that can be chosen. Enrolment is a simple matter and can be undertaken on line at either site (with payment in the appropriate currency by credit card). You can also go online at either site although at times Ancestry.com has recognised that I am logging on from the UK and has switched me to Ancestry.co.uk - unless I made a formal protest!.
UK membership gives access to the complete 1851 to 1901 census records; the indexes of Birth Marriages and Deaths (1837 - 1983); Parish, Probate and Military records; Pallot indexes of Births and Marriages prior to 1837; Irish Immigration records and access to the Ancestry Community.If you choose the American site or choose the Worldwide membership route, you will also gain access to US Federal Censuses (1790 - 1930); Slave schedules of 1850 and 1860; a Veteran's Schedule; a Merchant Seaman schedule of 1930; Social Security Death Index; Births Marriages and Deaths; the US Immigration collection and the Obituaries Collection. There are also many other collections including the US First World War draft cards and newspaper indexes.
GETTING GOING WITH ANCESTRY.CO.UKSo let's have a look around our new research facility. The dominant feature of the home page is a general search facility which trawls the full set of Ancestry databases. This is the portal to the majority of your research activities. You are invited to enter a given name and surname as well as (optionally) the year and country of birth and death. Two options can be chosen: "Ranked Search" which uses a soundex key, listing the results as approximations of the spelling of your search criteria and ranking them (1 to 5 stars) according to the closeness of the perceived match; and "Exact Search" which uses only the strict spelling of your search criteria.
However before we begin searching you might initially want to find your way around the site. At the top of the page, below the site logo, is the navigation bar ("My Ancestry"; "Search"; "Family Trees" and "Ancestry Community") and we will explore these areas later. Below the search box is an area containing links to the twelve UK censuses (six for England; six for Wales - the returns for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands can be accessed through a separate link) carried out between 1851 and 1901, and the other main database areas (the UK and Irish Probate and Parish Records; the England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes; the Pallot Birth and Marriage Indexes and the index of Irish Immigrants: New York Port Arrivals.On the right hand site of the page is an announcement panel which may advertise the latest additions and facilities or special offers (at the time of writing - January 2006 - there is 30-day free trial offer). Below this is your personal activity panel. This area will become increasingly customised the more you use the site. It will remind you of areas that you last explored, maintain "A list of people I am looking for" and find other Ancestry members who may share your interests.
We will have a look at the search page next. I am going to use the surname "Nessworthy", a family which originates from South Shields. This can be found on my wife's maternal line and has a very interesting story attached to it which we have told in the Blue section of our website:"THE NESSWORTHY GENESIS": http://www.craxford-family.co.uk/simppage5.php
I want to get "a feel" for the family as a whole at the moment rather than to find any one individual or to find spelling variants. So I am going to carry out "An Exact Search", will not put in a First Name and will confine this initial search to England. I will not set any year parameters. This gives the following results:
1901 England census: 47
1891 England census: 23
1881 England census: 13
(there are no returns at all from the earlier censuses)
There are also 102 entries in the Civil Registration Index between 1837 and 1983 and a further 43 births, 36 marriages and 27 deaths between 1984 and 2003.
"View Image" brings up a scan of the actual handwritten page from the census book. The information again varies from census to census but should offer the "Condition as to marriage" - helpful in tracking down a spouse who appears on one return but not on the next. The 1881 census also included a column which was headed "If (1) Deaf-and-Dumb (2) Blind (3) Imbecile or Idiot (4)" although a value was rarely entered here. Think what would be made of a suggestion like that for the next census in 2011!! It is always worth while looking at these scans to confirm spellings. You can also scan forwards and backwards along streets.At each stage there is the option to save or print out hard copies of the page.
We'll turn our attention to the England and Wales Civil Registration Index (1837-1983) now. Again the Nessworthys are listed in alphabetical order, ten to a page. The one option here "View Record" brings up a version of the index listing showing the type, year and quarter of registration. The district where registered and the volume and page number. These latter items are of vital importance if you are considering applying for the actual certificate.The page link lists the names other individuals registered at the same time. This can be useful in narrowing down the name of a spouse from the marriage indexes.
Be aware that these indexes are not complete. Ancestry.co.uk is a sponsor of the FreeBMD site although the data on the two sites does not always correspond.An important caveat
I gave this warning in my first article and it is one that you should remember whatever the source of information you are looking at. You must bear in mind that any of these indexes have been re-written and often interpreted from the original hand-written forms by volunteers. You should also remember that when these censuses were being taken that a large swathe of the population were illiterate and that regional accents often interfered with the way that surnames were spelled. Then there are individuals (or whole families) who were known by names other than their given name. This often means that if your surname is even slightly out of the ordinary you will have to consider all the variations of spelling. In this line of the family we have found relatives under the names Nesworthy, Nosworthy, Norsworthy, Nurseworthy and all the combinations losing the final 'Y').THE ANCESTRY EXTRAS
It is now time to have a look at the other resources and facilities that are on offer. On returning to the home page you will notice that your "Last Record Viewed" and "Last Search You Did" have been filled in (in this case it notes '1881 England Census' and 'Nessworthy'. This is helpful as it will quickly return you to the point you reached at the end of the last session.The "Ancestry Community" is your gateway to like-minded researchers out there on the internet. You can create your own public profile which may help other people to find you. You can read or take part in surname or keyword based message boards - these are sorted alphabetically. You can also use the membership directory to search out other people with common interests.
"Family Trees" allows you to start building your own tree with information you have found in your searches. There is a general consensus that information about individuals born after 1930 is kept hidden from public view. This is also the area where you can search for other trees registered with Ancestry that may contain names belonging to your family. This section contains a "celebrity tree" feature. Current incumbents include Brad Pitt, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey and Albert Einstein.The Ancestry World Tree is a repository for individual family trees around the world and is claimed to be the largest collection of its kind on the internet. Currently it contains 400 million names (including 25 million from the UK and Ireland). It is possible to build your tree 'by hand' but the quickest way is build a GEDCOM file (a standard genealogy information output file) with your computer software and then export it to the Ancestry web site. Full instructions are given on the World Tree page.
The "My Ancestry" page allows you to collect together information, contacts, links and other information into a single place. Currently in beta test mode, Ancestry is piloting an "Obituary Hunter" facility. At the moment this will search newspapers in the US for obituary notices with a plan for an extension to the UK.A WORKED EXAMPLE
I knew from my father that my grandfather's name was James Ernest and that he had died about 1950. He had originated from Cottingham, a village in Northamptonshire somewhere near Rockingham Castle but I did not have a date of birth for him. My father was born in 1916 so it was reasonable to presume that James was born in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I discovered from the village web site that the publican of a now disappeared inn (The Three Horseshoes) in the 1880s was a Thomas Craxford. Could this be my great grandfather?I should perhaps explain at this point that the three villages historically linked with our family are Gretton, Cottingham (about 5 miles to the west) and Middleton (another mile or so to the west of Cottingham). It has to be remembered too that individual and population movements were must more difficult and slow (horse, cart, bicycle) in those days.
A first search for "James Craxford" on Ancestry.co.uk gave the following England census results: 1901 (2); 1891 (1); 1881 (4) 1861 (2); 1851 (1) - with 2 from the UK 1851 census sample. My initial delight was tempered when the 1901 detailed results revealed a Walter James from Kent and a William James born in Lincolnshire and living in London. This turned to consternation when the 1891 result was that of a James Craxford, admittedly living with his wife in Northamptonshire but in Middleton and aged 86 years.The 1881 return was much more revealing. There I found James E. Craxford (son - born about 1873) living at Water Lane, Cottingham. That's more like it! The "View Record" tab gave me the reference to the census - Kettering Corby RG11/1579 2 36 34 (Always keep any reference number you find with your notes or as part of your database entry for cross-correlation and future use). The view image link brought up the actual hand written entry from 1881 showing that James Ernest was 8 years old and a scholar. The page also contained details of his parents (John and Sarah - not Thomas!) and three sisters (Henrietta, Louisa and Sarah). I also stored away details of the three James Craxfords (born 1814, 1846 and 1871 respectively) and living in the Islington area of London for future research.
So far so good, but what happened to him in the interim. What else can we find out about him? The next search was of the England and Wales, Civil Registration Index: 1837-1983 which produced 13 births, marriages or deaths of James Craxford. None of these matched a birth about 1873. I then wondered whether the index entry could be wrong and looked for James Croxford (114 candidates) and James Crawford (a somewhat more daunting task returning over 1000 names). I drew a blank in both places. However, the 1891 census did show a James Croxford born in Cottingham in 1872 working as a servant in Spondon in Derbyshire and the 1901 census showing a James Croxford born in Cottingham living in Leicester with a Tom and Lizzie Scott.We've got as far as we can at the moment with James Ernest but what about the other question I posed at the beginning of this section? We now know that his father was called John. There are no John Craxfords listed in the 1871 index; but there are four (three in Gretton and one in Middleton in 1861). Let's try the latter. Sure enough, this entry gives us details of a William Craxford (born about 1806) a widower living with his two sons, John and Thomas. Further research has confirmed that this Thomas did indeed become an innkeeper.
We did subsequently discover that James had two other sisters and a younger brother. Armed with that information we were able to make contact with other descendents of this branch of the family tree that we had never met before. Several of them still live in Cottingham and the Water Lane cottage is still in the family. From various sources we have been able to put together a photograph gallery of the offspring of John and Sarah Craxford. You can see it at:http://www.craxford-family.co.uk/histories/feature8cottphot.php
SEARCH FOOTNOTE:I gave advanced warning of the problems of the spelling of names in my general article about investigating your family history. This is a case in point and very close to home.
I did eventually find my grandfather in the BMD indexes at www.freeBMD.org.uk - under the name of James Ernest Croxford registered in the September 1872 quarter (Kettering 3b 183). The actual certificate (http://www.craxford-family.co.uk/showphoto.php?photoID=160&showdocs=1) is clearly in the name of Craxford. The certificate also gave me his mother's maiden name of Claypole. His marriage certificate (1905 Bromyard, Worcestershire) confirmed that he was a rather peripatetic individual.THE LAST WORD
If you are developing a serious interest in tracing your family history, have computerised and are running a genealogical database, Ancestry should be high up (if not at the top of) your list of priority resources. It has centralised access to a formidable array of historical data from the obvious sources (the UK census returns and the civil registration indexes) to the not so obvious (Pallot indexes, newspaper indexes). At the outset, a subscription to Ancestry.co.uk should be sufficient for the needs of a UK resident whose main background is also in the UK. Later worldwide access becomes at attractive addition (at a price) for tracking down those loose ends and missing links.The prices I have quoted may seem high but then so are the basic tools or equipment for any hobby. There are other sources of the same information but you will quickly discover that none of them are either entirely free or complete. This is one resource that you will return to again and again - and as you become more versed with the ramifications of its facilities it will become increasingly invaluable.
POSTSCRIPT:The title of this review is taken from the opera "The Mikado" by Gilbert and Sullivan. The full quote, by Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, reads: "I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable."
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