Seeking English
9/28/2009
There will always be an England in the ancestry of millions of Americans. Here's how to get started tracing and celebrating your English roots.

To start finding your English ancestors and discovering their stories, you need to begin with English records such as civil registrations, census returns, parish registers and probate records. English records are remarkably complete and in many cases go back centuries. But, because of the way records are organized and stored in England, it is actually easier to do research from this side of the ocean than in England itself. Research in England involves traveling to many different record offices; in the United States, you can access them via the Internet and your local Family History Center.

Because of the microfilming efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), almost all of the original records you need to begin your research are available from the church's Family History Library. You can borrow these records through any of the church's 3,400 Family History Centers worldwide. To find the center nearest you, call Family History Support at (800) 346-6044 or visit the FamilySearch Web site at www.familysearch.org/Search/searchfhc2.asp. For more on using Family History Centers, see the article in our April 2000 issue.

Many genealogists have made the mistake of finding that an ancestor was born in England, finding someone by the same name there, and assuming that they've found their ancestor. A mistake like this can lead to years of tracing an incorrect family line. It's essential that you have enough information about your ancestor to distinguish him from the many others of the same name in England. Find out anything and everything you can about your ancestor. It's helpful to know your ancestor's full name; place of origin; dates of birth, marriage and death; name of spouse; children's names; names of parents; date of immigration; occupation; religion; and names of cousins, friends and associates. Of course, you don't have to know all of that before commencing English research, but the more information you have, the easier it will be to identify your ancestor in English records.

It's important to try to examine the original records (or microfilm of the originals) rather than merely relying on transcripts or online databases. Let's look at an example from the 1881 census of England to see why:

Say you have an ancestor named Henry Goddard, who is listed in the 1881 census transcript as living in London, St. Pancras, occupation "Door Keeper H+." The "+" sign means that the occupation stated on the census record was too long to fit. He is living next to a man named Karl Wass, an "Author Politi+." A doorkeeper with an unknown author living next door might not seem interesting, but the original census tells a different story: Goddard's occupation in full is "Door Keeper—House of Lords." His neighbor turns out to be a German "Author, Political Economy," whose mistranscribed name is actually Karl Marx. Yes, that Karl Marx. The moral? Always go to the source.

Certain British given names can also cause problems when consulting the records. Some names get abbreviated (William to Wm.), some can be interchangeable in England (Elizabeth and Isobel or Edward and Edmond), and sometimes nicknames were used (Will, Dick, Betty or Molly).

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