Why is family history research harder in the UK than the US?

…or is it just my impression?

So, I’ve been researching family history on a casual basis, as my family seemed to have sprung out of the ground in 1925 with the birth of my gran, and nobody knew much else before that. (My gran wasn’t secretive, it’s just that nobody else in my family bothered to care much about it).

Thanks to various searches and sources I’ve managed to push back my genealogy in most parental lineages to around the 1840s, but beyond that, with the advent of systematic national censuses, data begins to dry up and become quite unreliable and contradictory.

Meanwhile my American friends, and my wife’s American family, all seem to have great pride and knowledge of their family histories, many claiming descent from some contemporary of Washington or even the Mayflower. One of my friends said he’s traced his back to Pennsylvania Amish from the early 1600s, and is quite definite about it, and his distant Italian and Japanese roots, too.

It seems to me that Americans, even the poorest of them, seem to get imbued with an interest in lineage that permits them to record their ancestry and build upon it, while in the UK (to me at least), it was seen as an aristocratic concern that the working masses didn’t bother themselves with, and nobody seemed to care about.

So, is this just me, or is this the experience of other American or British dopers? Europeans and rest of world, how fares it with you?


Well Americans don’t have all that much history to look back on so I’m not surprised that they take care of it - I think I might have some underpants that are older.

But in all seriousness - records are fragmented and held by a plethora of different and unconnected agencies - there are masses of different sources, and they are not centralised because no-one wants to pay for storing them

You’ve obviously got census records, but then you’ll have church records, - many of which don’t exist any more, school records, many of which do not exist any more, local authority records many of which have been reorganised remapped and replaced. You have some good options if someone has a military background - you can go quite a long way. Its not a lack of information, there’s so much of it but the problem is tying all together and knowing where to look

Add to this extensive internal migration as people move around - from one set of fragmentary record holders to another, and it can get pretty chaotic

Try the Mormon site - familysearch.org

The problem is that before about 1837(?) births (rather, christenings) and marriages were registered by the church(es?) by law. I thnk the government took over that function and also collected the old parish registers.

I managed to buy the parish registers on CD for the area my family was from.
Plus, even the parish priest/minister couldn’t spell very well. I find someone listed as Robt or Robert, Danyll or Danyell or Daniel, etc. Sometimes the mother is not listed in the baptism record. Somewhere about 1800 an “s” was added to the family name (i.e. Robert to Roberts)

Plus, around the 1800’s as industrialization took hold, people began moving off the farm and migrating around different cities, so it gets hard to follow them. If you are lucky, before 1840 your folks were on a farm and everyone in the family is found in the same local collection of parishes, you can guess who’s who by common parents in baptisms.

Some of the parish information is transcribed by commercial groups and historical societies and can be bought. Some is also transcribed by the Mormons who have a different view on genealogy, but their site is a bit harder to search.

Those are both good answers, but I am more interested in finding out why Americans seem to have an easier time.

casdave, you say Americans have less history, but I don’t think that answers the point. Americans at the time of the Revolution didn’t suddenly go ‘welp, we’re not British any more, so we can’t treat it with seriousness’.

Were births/marriages/death registration secularised in the US much earlier than Britain then? That would explain how so many can trace back to the Revolution. But earlier surprises me, a colonial, remote society would have a less durable infrastructure to maintain such records…right?

I mean, a lot of the examples you give as why records are flawed in the UK could also apply to the US.

This part is no mystery. Standardized spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to somewhere around the mid- to late-1800’s, nobody particularly cared if you were spelling something the “right” way, as long as you could sound it out.

I think a big part of the problem is that genealogy is a popular hobby stateside, so there are more volunteers to collect and prepare records, and more commercial interest in gathering and digitizing records. It’s not that the records themselves are necessarily better or more abundant, but that convenient access to the records is more common.

Then, too, there is the case for American exceptionalism. The old-line families of New England and the Mid-Atlantic (who often became the pioneer stock in the Midwest and Upper South) all knew they were descended from those who went through the Revolution, and quite early on descent from the heroes of 1776 was a big deal (the Daughters of the American Revolution, e.g., dates from the late 19th century, around the same time as the great celebrations of the centenary of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution). “We are great people in part because we descend spiritually and genealogically from these other great people who forged a new nation out of the wilderness; the Spirit of '76 lives on in us.”

One side of my family mostly came over during the Great Migration of the late 19th century; once I traced them back to the old country, though, my lack of linguistic skill does not permit much further work. On the other side, I have deep southern roots, and I know all about “quite unreliable and contradictory” and flat-out missing records (a big chunk of the family records were between Sherman and the sea). The American South tends to have much sparser records than New England; in the latter, a strong local government had the support of most settlers, so quite good records are available from the very beginning. In the South, though, distrust of government has a long history, and the regional society was dominated by a quite small class of wealthy planters, with a much larger group of poorly educated smallholders and uneducated slaves leaving far less of a written record.

In many ways, English records are more centralised than the US ones. That’s because English government has always been so much more centralised than American government, so for earlier periods you get a vastly wider range of records concentrated in the National Archives. At a more local level, English county record offices are just the direct equivalents of US state archives. And the Scottish archives are even more centralised than the English ones.

The real difference however is the statutory framework. Local councils may resent funding their archives services. But over the past century central government has imposed on them obligations to preserve and make available not only many official records but also ecclesiastical records and some private records. Moreover, the tax system encourages the most important private papers to pass to the government, which then requires the archive it deems most appropriate to look after them. Nothing did more to preserve the great private archive collections of the UK than several generations of penal inheritance taxes.

Again, if anything, British archives have the edge. In both countries, forms of civil registration date from the mid-nineteenth century. But in the US this was unsurprisingly a matter for individual states. So the British records usually begin slightly earlier than their US equivalents.

Before then, Britain had church registration going back several centuries (in the case of England back to the sixteenth century) and those systems were theoretically comprehensive. But all this depends on the survival of the individual registers, so what’s available does vary. In America, on the other hand, the equivalents tended to be registers kept by individual towns. Those were rarely as comprehensive in their coverage as in England and their survival is just as haphazard.

That people only began migrating in nineteenth century is a myth. From the medieval period onwards the English population was, in European terms, remarkably mobile. A significant proportion spent at least part of their lives living at some distance from their birthplace and, as this was particularly true for the years before they married, couples often came from different places. This is just as much a problem for genealogists in earlier centuries as it is for the nineteenth century and later. But then populations in the US also tended to be mobile.

But that mobility may nevertheless hold part of the key for the OP. Americans have conventionally seen themselves as people who have come from somewhere else. So they have always been more inclined to take an interest in family history. Genealogy has long been big as a hobby in the US in a way that it was not in the UK. Moreover, that reflected a very different set of social attitudes. In the UK your family history was either something you already knew, because your ancestors were so important that it had always been known, or you just assumed that your ancestors had always lived in obscurity in the same area, even if that was often not the case at all. Being descended from peasants had no cachet at all, so why bother confirming that you were? Of course, all this has changed. But the genealogy boom in Britain hasn’t removed the snobbery, merely inverted it. Boasting that you’ve traced your ancestry and found that you’re descended from William the Conqueror seems to most British people - in one of those fine social distinctions that only they can understand - to be really rather, well, common.

Hah. In that case, may I brag that every generation of my family before my father’s is listed as ‘domestic servant’, and two generations spent time in jail for petty theft from a canal boat? preens

I have no idea as to the truth of the OP’s belief, but some hypotheses for the reason, if true:

  1. All American families started as immigrants. There’s often immigration records.
  2. Newspapering was a seriously popular pursuit in the early US, at least. The US was basically founded on the backs of newspapers. (Though, I’ll admit that it’s possible that it was just as popular in the UK. I don’t know.)
  3. As a new nation, founded on secular notions, storing town records may have fallen more on government bureaucrats rather than parish churches. Bureaucrats probably care more about paper trails than priests do.
  4. The US liked electing officials. This could leave lots of voting registries lying about.
  5. Mormons. For whatever reason, they love geneology. They’ve been building up resources for it for quite some time now, in the US.
  6. Americans, in general, are probably more interested in their geneology because of the immigrant thing. To an American, if your ancestor was Welsh, that’s exciting and foreign. To a British Londoner, it’s far less thrilling. So even besides the Mormons, we’ve probably had a greater interest in preserving the means by which to do this sort of research.
  7. Climate is more variable in the US. All of the UK is grey and damp, but regions of the US are perfectly dry and sunny. This could create better conditions for paper records to last, in certain regions.

My impression is that it’s harder in Ireland than in the UK. We only have census records from 1901 and 1911. While there are parish records and civil records dating back to the early nineteenth century, these are either held locally or in an office in Dublin and not generally available on line. For non-landowning families, the records fade from sketchy to non-existent once you go back a very few generations. I can find out the names of my grandparents’ grandparents, but nothing further back and no other information about them.

The Irish authorities made a great effort in the late 19th/early 20th century to gather up parochial and civil records and store them “safely” in the Public Record Office in Dublin. Then, in 1922, the Treasury building immediately next door was used to store ammunition during the opening battles of the Irish Civil War. BOOOOMMMMM. A thousand years of Irish records went up in smoke, and despite efforts to reconstruct them, Irish genealogists face great difficulties.

Probably the answer. More records have been digitized and made available in the US the last 10-15 years.

I have done a lot of research in UK records, and not so much in American (not being American), but my impression is that UK records are actually pretty good. In the US, probably only New England and Quaker records are arguably better than what you are likely to find researching families in the same period in England. I think the difference, to the extent that it exists, is partly due to a wider interest in genealogy in the US among those with colonial ancestors, and partly due to the existence of population bottlenecks in the US which simplifies things once you go back far enough, and makes it more likely that someone has already done work on the family (although not always reliable work).

Many Americans claim ancestries they have no records of. See: Cherokee princesses; high yellow (people who by the one-drop rule were black but who could, and often did, pass as white); people who claim an ancestry without being able to say how they got it (“I’m 16% Italian!” “Oh, nice, my great-grandfather was Italian. Which side do you get it from?” “Uh?” “Which of your ancestors were Italian?” “Oh, I don’t know! But I’m 16% Italian!”).
For Spain, the situation is similar to England, with an exception for Navarre and Euskadi, the so-called “Foral Regions”. You have your Civil Registry, where the spellings can sometimes be atrocious (my grandfather, his two sisters and their mother had their common lastname spelled four different ways), and eventually you have to go to parish records, and any of them may have been done sloppily or have been burned in one war or another. We’ve had half a dozen wars in our territory in the last 200 years.
For the Foral Regions: back in the 18th century, Philip V wanted to call our Parliaments but was told that possible attendance wasn’t limited to maybe a hundred people, it was pretty much “if you are here and wanna come, bring your own chair”. He required us to prove that our ancestors had attended our Parliaments, if we wanted to attend the new one. Both many of the people who have those proofs, and many who weren’t able to get them because of having some “outsider” ancestors between the 15th and 18th centuries, have kept careful private records since.

Hang on, not so fast!

One of the most striking features about family historians in Britain today is that most of them are genuinely as interested in their low-born ancestors as in any who might have been better-off. And quite right too. Also, most of them are smart enough to realise that as it’s the actual research that’s interesting, the obscure are at least as interesting to reseach as anyone. The makers of Who Do You Think You Are? were quick to grasp this. This has a parallel in the way that British visitors to historic houses are now often most interested in the kitchens. Or as interested in events downstairs in Downton Abbey.

But there is another aspect to this as well. The smartest family historians know that other peoples’ families can seem really boring. So ancestor bragging of any type rarely impresses anyone. That’s the sort of thing that vulgar Americans do.:smiley:

I took up genealogy a few years ago, as my mother was in her 90s and I thought I ought to get what I could from her. I still have my notes from hours of chat/interview and it is all pretty useless because it is mostly wrong. She got her mother’s DOB wrong; her father’s place on birth wrong; Her grandparent’s names wrong.

On the genealogy websites I soon learned about the people who ‘claim’ all kinds of ancestors because of coincidences and similarities. Anyone can ‘claim’ descendancy from Henry VIII; proving it is much harder.

For most of us, the trail tends to peter out a couple of centuries back amid a plethora of ag labs and domestics.

Yes, this makes sense. When I started out on Ancestry.com I got pretty far through a series of verifications and checks, but out of curiosity I also set up a second tree and saw where Ancestry.com’s ‘suggestions’ would lead it to, and it ended up linking to one of William the Conqueror’s knights. I had stopped taking it seriously around the Tudor times and had stopped ‘verifying’ in the 1800s.

My sister, however, immediately started getting excited that I had ‘proved’ descent from the Normans. I had to burst her bubble pretty adamantly!

The British record allegedly start somewhere in the mid-1500’s when the government tasked the church with recording births, deaths, and marriages. However, a lot of people were not formally married (“common law marriage”, anyone?) and even births were not registered. I think I saw a comment once that each church ceremony cost money, something some people did not have.

So for various reasons, records are relatively sparse. The church disruptions of Henry VII and subsequent monarchs probably disrupted record keeping too (except in Bray). Then the records basically disappear for the 30 years or more surrounding the Civil War and Puritan revolution - Church of England wasn’t keeping records. So I can find records I’m fairly confident are my family back to about 1700 or 1680, and two or three entries before that (1610, 1612) that might be grandparents or great-aunt of those people. I assume the European countries that did not turn protestant, or did earlier and were not as disrupted, have better church records. (although some English parish registers lists have the note “lost in fire”)

Also, I saw some comments about members of churches other than the Church of England not being recorded (“dissenters”?); or weird cases like on family in my tree where the mother and 5 children were baptised the same day, it looks like about the time where the husband died. There must be an interesting story there. I also note both a lot of fairly late marriages (husband in his 40’s and wife 10 years younger) and a number of baptisms only a few months after the wedding (or in one case, after the twins were born…)

Yes, people moved around. There are spouses that appear from nowhere; either migrate in or their birth was never recorded. The entire paternal line switched villages around 1780, and one couple was married in the nearest large town about 40 miles away (3 months before the first baptism in their family). However, as an example one branch of my family appears from a town about 50 miles away in the next county. Whereas, by the 1840’s, people start wandering from rural towns to London, over to Bath, then to York and to Leeds and to Birmingham - basically all over the country.

Britain did not do a census until about 1841 (?), and no complete one until the next decade or two. Whereas IIRC the census in the USA was mandated from the start of the federal government. I’m guessing my ancestry by baptism records - “Sally Dale, daughter of John and Mary” and match it up with the only fit “John Dale marries Mary Smith” a few years earlier in the same or neighbouring parish, and then all the other children with the same parents. Once the census records appear, they list household including relation (“head”, “wife”, “son, age 5”, etc.) plus birthplaces, so it’s a lot easier to match names and births.

I should also note that contrary to the “breed like rabbits” theory, I see very few large families before 1800 - although in a lot of cases where birthdates are recorded, they would wait up to 3 months for baptism. It’s only about the 1800’s that families jump from 2 or 3 to 5 or 6 or more children. The saddest case was three daughters in a row in about 5 years given the same name, as the first two apparently died young.

Just to throw more confusion into the mix, many babies did not survive infancy. Even though they may have been baptised, it was quite normal to re-use the same name. So you can have one “John” born in 1815 and another “John” born to the same parents three years later.

Then, of course, there is the dates confusion when we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The Pope ordered this in October 1582, but Britain, who weren’t going to be ordered about by him… put it off until the mid-18th century.

For a good explanation go here