Making your family tree bear fruit

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sup00654440_croppedMike Bisson

continues his series on Jersey family history. Today he offers advice on the best way to identify ancestors

THE history of many long-established Jersey families has been extremely well documented over the centuries, long before public records became readily accessible to the general public. Much of the source information was, and remains, in private hands, although many valuable records are now being passed to the Jersey Archive.

It is to the many published family histories that those bearing, or with links a generation or more back, to traditional Jersey surnames often turn initially for their research into their own particular backgrounds. And it doesn’t take long to discover that all of us with names such as Bisson, Le Breton, Averty, de Carteret and many others have common ancestors not all that long ago.

Simple mathematics shows that this is inescapable. Everybody has (or had) two parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents, and so on. Go back 600 years or so, or roughly 18 generations, and we had some 130,000 16x great-grandparents. But the population of the Island at that time was a fraction of this number, so all descendants of Jersey families alive today will eventually discover that they share countless ancestors over the generations.

With my mother descended from Yorkshire and Lancashire families, less than half my family tree is rooted in the Island, but I can identify well over 70 long-established Jersey surnames, from Ahier to Vibert, among my ancestry. Most of these families are not particularly well documented, but some are, and as soon as you can link into them you can follow your ancestry back many generations, often into the 15th century and earlier, thanks to the efforts of earlier researchers.

There are, for example, books on the Le Quesne and de Gruchy families, websites devoted to the de Carterets and Poingdestres, among others, and any number of family trees with strong Jersey connections posted by researchers to comprehensive websites such as Ancestry, Rootsweb and Genes Reunited.

But how do you actually use all this material to trace your ancestors, particularly if you have not yet been able to link your own tree to those already researched by others?

As suggested at the beginning of the first article in this series, the starting point is inevitably going to be with immediate members of your family. Inform as many as possible of your parents, grandparents, siblings and close cousins as you can of your intentions. Not only will they be able to provide valuable information, but one or more of them may already have started down the same route as you intend, and there is little point in undertaking the same initial research all over again.

However good or poor your initial family information, you will be able to identify the oldest known ancestor who offers the greatest potential for research. That means that you know their date of birth, or at least the year; place of birth (the scope of these articles limits our interest to those born in Jersey); full names and perhaps addresses where they lived.

Don’t be distracted by other branches of the family, but concentrate at first on your best target. Ideally this should be a male in a direct line back through your father, his father and so on, but if this line is not Jersey-based you can work back through your mother’s father’s line.

It is as well just to check the line between this ancestor and your own generation, using birth and marriage certificates and cross-checking between those relatives who can help.

It would be a shame to trace ancestors back to the 18th century and beyond and then discover that someone has made a mistake in the 20th century lineage.

Look up your target ancestor in the central registry of births, marriages and deaths at the Office of the Superintendent Registrar, or in the indexes of church records of baptisms, marriages and burials for individuals who were living prior to 1843. These indexes are to be found at the Registrar’s office, the Archive and the library of La Société Jersiaise.

If you find your target ancestor’s birth or baptism, don’t immediately rush to identify the parents listed on the birth certificate or record index. Accumulate as much information as you can by unearthing marriage and death/burial records, and try to locate this ancestor in the various Jersey censuses held during their lifetime and available for inspection (currently 1841 to 1901 in ten-year intervals).

As indicated earlier, all these census records can be found on the subscription website but some are also available to inspect for free elsewhere.

Ancestry and other subscription sites usually offer a free trial, and the fact that memberships – which can be crucial to success in your new hobby of genealogy – can be less than the cost of a round of golf puts charges into perspective.

As you study your target ancestor’s life you will want to move on to search for their parents. They will be named on birth and baptism records and also in census returns when your target ancestor was still living with them. Unfortunately wives are given their husband’s family name in census returns, so some further detective work may be needed to identify their maiden names.

Although the research takes time and patience, you will find that it is usually possible to step back two or three or more generations fairly quickly, still pursuing the main lineage and just noting the names of wives for future research. If you are lucky there will only be one obvious father for each generation, but where your research becomes more difficult is when there were two or three individuals of the same name as that you have identified for the father of the ancestor you are currently researching.

You may be able to rule out one or more through marriage and death records. One or more may have died in infancy, only one may have married a woman with the correct given name.

Eventually, however, you are bound to do what genealogists describe as ‘running into a brick wall’. Either you can’t find anyone who fits the bill as the father of the ancestor you are researching, or there are two or more so it is just impossible to decide between.

Whatever you do, you must not guess because family history research must be based on fact, not supposition, to have any value.

You just have to leave this particular branch of your tree aside for the time being and pursue the same detailed research along another line.

As you go through this process you will identify that through marriage your family has connections with some of the prominent Jersey families that have been well researched by others, and you may be able to make a direct connection with a family tree already published on paper or through the internet and jump back several generations in one fell swoop.

But to repeat the warning above about guessing, please avoid the temptation when trying to decide between two individuals of the same name and vintage by choosing the one with better connections.

There are plenty of other avenues to occupy your time. To return to the figures with which this article opened, anyone born in the last 50 years is likely to have 64 or 128 family lines to pursue once they have got back to ancestors born 200 years ago. And believe me, although this can be impossible with some branches of your tree, it is not nearly as difficult as it sounds for many just by using those primary records of births/baptisms, marriages, deaths/burials and census records.

The next article will examine how much fun it can be if you can trace ancestors way back beyond 1800 and try to identify some prominent people in history those with Jersey surnames can claim descent from.

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