5 Tips for Finding Your English Ancestors Online

By Vanessa Wieland

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Aside from keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, the British have been known to preserve a document or two. If you come from English or Welsh stock, that leaves you with tons of possibilities for finding your family history.

Of course, no genealogy research is without its challenges, and (for once) the difficulty facing English researchers is not a lack of records—it’s how to find your ancestors within them. Between common names (John Smith, anyone?) and geographical boundaries, researching your English ancestry sometimes resembles looking for a needle in a haystack.

Check out these five tips for researching your English ancestry online:

1. Follow the bread crumbs (or in this case, scones).

Like with most genealogy research, start working backwards in US records to try to pinpoint your English immigrant ancestor’s town or place of origin. Not everyone came from London or Liverpool. Once you know where your ancestors came from, get to know the area through maps and gazetteers, and learn about the history of their place of origin. That will give you insight into what records are available and the time periods and information they contain.

2. Use website catalogs.

The Card Catalog shows more than 300 English genealogy record collections. From vital records and censuses to wills and pension records, a search for your English ancestor can turn up a lot of results.  

FamilySearch has plenty of options, too. If your family came from Durham or Kent, check out the record collections that aren’t yet indexed, but have browsable images.  

Of course, if you’re searching English records, you’ll need to turn to the site that specializes in UK genealogy research: Findmypast. While the site’s collection of US and Canadian records is growing, the real treasure is all the English, Welsh and Irish records they have in their collection. You can find all their records in an A–Z list.

3. Get familiar with the available records.

Knowing what’s available and when will save you time and keep your efforts from being wasted by hunting fruitlessly for a record that doesn’t exist—or isn’t yet online. Know what kinds of records were created and which are available. you may know there’s an alternative record that you can get the same information from and put your effort in where it’s more likely to be rewarded. Start with the FamilySearch Wiki to learn about researching in the British Isles.

4. Put the “re” in research.

Continue to evaluate and explore what you’ve learned and what documents you have already. Sometimes, those older documents will shed light on a problem once looked at with a fresh eye. Have you gotten all the leads and information from your census and vital records? What about those passenger lists and naturalization records?

5. Keep calm and carry on.

This phrase may be overdone, but it’s still good advice, especially when it comes to your English genealogy research. Often, brick walls aren’t insurmountable. Just because you can’t find the solution to your genealogy problem right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a week or a month or a year. New items are being indexed and added to online collections all the time. Consider a new approach, tackle a different problem, or do some cluster and collateral research. Come back to your English genealogy question later, and repeat tip No. 4.

Related Reads

Rule, Britannia (research)! Discover your English and Welsh ancestors’ records in these must-search British genealogy websites.

Last updated: December 2020