As you may have already noticed, a lot of websites these days host millions of family trees: MyHeritage.com, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Geni.com, FindMyPast.com, Archives.com and more. There are virtual forests and forests of family trees out there! How can you find a tree that includes your family? How can you be sure it’s yours? How do you know that what you see is accurate?
Get started with these 7 Steps: How to Find Your Family Tree Online:
1. Choose a site from the list above and create a free log in.
Which should you choose?
- FamilySearch.org is the only one that offers totally free access to all user-submitted family trees as well as the historical records that can help you with your research. However, the other sites offer a variety of free access options, especially to user-submitted trees.
- MyHeritage is known for its international user base (check out its user map here) and multi-language access.
- Some sites have different portals that specialize in records from different countries. For example, Ancestry.com (with a U.S. focus) owns Ancestry.ca for Canadian genealogy, Ancestry.co.uk for the United Kingdom and Ancestry.com.au for Australian records. Similarly, FindMyPast.co.uk (U.K. focus) also hosts FindMyPast.com (U.S.), FindMyPast.ie (Ireland) and FindMyPast.com.au (Australia). Check out additional sites for specific countries (including non-English-speaking) here. If your family recently immigrated, look for a site about “the old country.’ If you have pretty deep roots in your current country, or you’re not sure, pick a site that specializes in your current home.
2. Enter the name of one of your relatives in the Search bar.
Each site files its family trees a little differently: some with historical records and some separately. Search trees at FamilySearch here. On Ancestry.com, look under the Search option for Public Member Trees. Enter names of your relatives, along with any other details you know (like a birth date and place or a spouse’s name). Try different combinations, sometimes using the person’s first and middle name, trying a maiden name, entering a nickname, etc. Increase your odds of finding people by entering a range of years (like 1880-1890) for a date and a more general place, like a state, rather than the name of a little town. If you get too many results, enter more specific information.
Which relative(s) should you choose?
- One who is deceased, if possible. Records about living people may be restricted for some places (but not all).
- If possible, one with a relatively unusual name. They may be easier to spot.
- One you know several things about: a full name (including maiden for women), dates and places of birth, marriage and death; burial place; where they lived during their lifetime; names of their spouse(s), sibling(s) and/or child(ren).
- One who lived as long ago as possible, to increase the chance that someone has posted a tree. But a grandparent is a great starting point, if that’s as far back as you know. If your grandparent is still alive, ask them their parents’ names, and start with your great-grandparent.
- Need to learn more about your relatives first? Read this article on how to gather information about your family.
3. Click on results labeled as “family trees.” Are they “yours?”
Browse the search results. Do any of these names and details look familiar? Everything doesn’t have to be a perfect match for a tree to include your roots. Sometimes different information is handed down through different branches of a family. Sometimes people get their information from sources that don’t match yours. Sometimes people just guess or patch together parts of different family trees without looking closely to see if they’re right.
Tech tutorial: What exactly are you looking at when you look at a family tree online? Before the days of internet genealogy, researchers organized family history findings on their home computers in one of several specially-designed software programs. These programs could generate .GED files (often referred to as GEDCOMs) that would allow researchers using different software to share their findings. Many people have now uploaded their GED files to genealogy sites like the ones we’re talking about–or they’ve just built a family tree from scratch right on the site.
4. Evaluate the accuracy of what you find.
The best way to judge the accuracy of a family tree without researching it yourself is to see what proof is offered. Do you see any records mentioned (like footnotes) or attached to the tree? Common records include tombstone images; government or church vital records (birth, marriage or death records) and census listings. Do you see photos attached? Photos may indicate the submitter has access to family records or albums (bonus!).
If a tree mentions lots of sources, it’s more likely to be accurate–at least for the pieces of information that are sourced. If a tree doesn’t have sources, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means you don’t know if it’s right.
Sometimes you’ll find a “branch” on a tree that goes back many generations without a single source mentioned. Beware! Sometimes these branches are just copied from other trees. This may particularly be true if a branch is connected to a royal line. Royal lines are well-documented in history and some people have created family trees with the hope of running into royal relatives. These connections may not have been thoroughly researched–they might just represent “wishful thinking.” Again, look for sources.
5. Optional step: reach out to the submitter of promising-looking family trees.
Some sites allow you to contact them through confidential email routed through the site (you may have to purchase a subscription first). You might contact a submitter to meet a possible cousin, share information you have or ask for more details about what they posted. If you contact them, be polite–don’t open with “you got my grandfather’s birthday wrong” or you may never hear back. You may not hear back anyway, if the submitter is no longer researching, their email changed or they have passed away.
6. Google your surname along with the phrase “family tree” or “genealogy.”
See if any personal websites pop up with your family tree (or other family history information) in them. Evaluate the information by looking for accurate details (as far as you know) and lots of sources mentioned. Look for an “About” or “Contact” page to learn more about the submitter of this information.
7. Verify it yourself.
Wandering through forests of online family trees may give you the urge to create your own tree. An accurate, and sourced tree! If so, good for you. Keep reading the articles suggested below to learn how to get started!
Up next, read:
Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free. Perfect for the beginner!
Explore the Genealogy Gems website for more tools, tips and resources that can help you put together your family’s “bigger picture.”
Sign up for our free e-newsletter and receive my FREE ebook on using Google to find your family history.
Check out my step-by-step Family History podcast for beginning genealogists.
Post an Online Family Tree. Listen to a podcast episode (or just read the show notes) on how to post your own family tree online.