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.
MyHeritageis 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) andFindMyPast.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!
Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with genealogy buddies or societies that might be interested! This week: Midwestern U.S. newspapers (Cleveland, OH and Chicago, IL) and records of Pennsylvania coal and canal workers’ and English and Welsh criminals.
CLEVELAND JEWISH NEWS. Technically this isn’t new content, but access to the Cleveland Jewish News is newly free, so it’s new to most of us! You do need to provide your name and email address for free access to 125 years of Cleveland Jewish newspapers. Subscribers have immediate access to all content as it is published; the public can access materials 90 days after they go online.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE ARCHIVE. For a very limited time–during beta testing of its new archive–old issues of The Chicago Tribune are free to search on its Archives website. Click here for their FAQ page or read a more detailed report on the National Genealogical Society (US) blog.
ENGLAND & WALES REGISTER OF CRIMINAL PETITIONS. Findmypast added over 77,000 records to its Registers of Criminal Petitions index to imaged registers of correspondence relating to criminal petitions. Documents usually give the outcome of any appeal and registers note the place of imprisonment.
PENNSYLVANIA COAL AND CANAL WORKERS. Ancestry just posted employee cards and applications from the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for first half of the twentieth century. “The cards may list name, marital status, occupation, birth date, record date, residence, spouse, nationality, number of children and their ages, citizenship, date range for jobs, who to notify in case of an accident, and pension date. Applications can contain other details, including parents’ names, schooling, employment record, birthplace, and height and weight.”
When searching digitized newspaper sites, remember that the search technology used (optical character recognition) is much less thorough for historical newspapers than modern text, especially for capitalized words. Use creative search terms if searches on an ancestor’s name aren’t productive, like the person’s occupation or death date. Click here to learn more about using Google to search digitized newspaper pages, or read Lisa Louise Cooke’s newly-revised and updated book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, available now both in print ande-book format.
Show Notes: Have you seen records from Geneanet popping up in your Ancestry hints? Here’s the answer to a Premium Member’s questions about the Geneanet records she is seeing show up as Ancestry hints. Learn how to figure out what new record hints like this are and how to decide how much weight to give them.
I received the following question from Monete, a Premium Member: What is this new thing I’m seeing on Ancestry hints, Geneanet community trees? It’s a good question, and a common one. Genealogy websites like Ancestryare adding new record collections all the time. It’s important to know how to quickly understand what the new record collection is about, where it comes from, the scope and most importantly, decide how much weight to give it.
Records Included in Ancestry Hints
It’s important to note that not all records are included in Ancestry hints. Only 10% of Ancestry® records appear as hints. So we want to keep in mind that although we’re seeing lots of new hints for records, they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination all of the records in the Ancestry collection. Hints are made up of the most popular record collections. There’s always going to be a need to continue to do your own research and to explore other records.
Where to find Ancestry Hints
You’ll find hints in a variety of places such as:
the leaf icon at the top of the screen near your account profile
attached to ancestors in your family tree
on ancestor profile pages
Ancestry hint in family tree
Reviewing and Comparing Ancestry Hint Information
View the hint by clicking the Review button. In the case of hints from the Geneanet Community Trees Index, you’ll see the pop-out panel prompting you to evaluate the record.
Click the Review button to reveal the side panel.
Compare the details of the hint to the known details in your ancestor’s profile by clicking the CompareDetails slider button. This allows you to review and compare each piece of information.
In a case like this where we are unfamiliar with the record collection, it’s important to learn more about it before we compare and make decisions about the information. That way, as you evaluate each piece of information you are considering adding to your family tree, you will have a much better idea whether you trust the source, and you’ll be better able to interpret the information it is providing.
To learn more about the record, it’s a logical next step to click the hyperlinked record name at the top of the panel. However, in this case we notice it just brings up to a full-size page where we are again being prompted to review and add the information to our tree.
Use the Ancestry Card Catalog
When you run across something like this, the first thing to keep in mind is that this record collection they are referencing is obviously part of their total collection, which means we should be able to find it in the card catalog. That’s the best place on Ancestry to learn more about it. Copy the name of the record and then go the Card Catalog. You’ll find the Card Catalog in the menu under Search > Card Catalog. It can be helpful to access the Card Catalog in a new browser tab so that you can jump back and forth between the catalog entry and the record you’re reviewing. You can open it in a new tab by right-clicking on Card Catalog when selecting it from the Search menu.
The card catalog is something that we don’t think of using that often. But really, we should because this is where all the other records are that are not coming up in our hints are listed. It’s also a really terrific resource to tell us more about the record collections that we’re running into as we’re doing our research and evaluating our hints.
On the Card Catalog page, paste the name of the record collection that you copied in the Title search box. If for any reason it doesn’t come up right away, try typing just the keywords into either the Title box or the Keywords search box.
You should see the collection in the search result. When you hover over the collection title it tells you when it was published, if it was recently updated, and the beginning sentences of the collection description. You will see what type of record it is by the category in which Ancestry placed it, and get a sense of the size of the collection.
Searching the name of the record collection in the Ancestry Card Catalog
In the case of Geneanet, the category is family trees. So, without knowing anything more about it, we would expect this is probably user-contributed information, rather than, let’s say, a census record created by the government, or a birth record recorded by a pastor in a church. These family trees were created by many other genealogists. They may or may not include source citations or even be accurate.
Let’s learn even more about the collection. Click the title of the record collection. The next page will feature search fields and related records. Skip that for now and scroll down to the bottom of the page. This is where you really get to the heart of things about the collection. First you’ll see SourceInformation. Basically, this is saying Ancestry is the source (that’s where you found the hint) and Ancestry got it from Geneanet.
Next you’ll see the About section. This will help us determine the original purpose of the collection, how it was created, and so on. The About section tells us that this is an online database. And it tells the original data came from the Geneanet Community Trees Index in Paris, France.
Next you’ll find Using this Collection which provides an overview of the kind of information you can expect to find in the records. Next is Collectionin Context. This explains “Geneanet was created in 1996 as a way to connect genealogical resources. They use a unique, collaborative model to share family resources while building community. Genealogists, both amateur and professional, are connected with users and genealogical societies. Anyone may upload content.”
“Anyone may upload content” is the key phrase here. People add information to family trees for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are just testing out a theory and they aren’t even sure it’s accurate. And many people copy and paste information from other people’s trees. All of this means that we can only use this information as clues, not as facts. We must do our own research and homework to find the records that back up the assertions made in the record. Family tree records if used unwisely could easily introduce errors into your family tree.
Finally, in the About section we find the Bibliography which includes a clickable link over to the original sources for these records: Geneanet. Take a moment to visit the site. You can also learn more by some quick googling. Typically, companies like this are going to be listed on Wikipedia pages as well. That’s a that’s a good place to get a basic summary about when was this company founded, find out when it was purchased by the big genealogy website, if it is currently active, and the main website link. All that kind of stuff we can typically find over in the right-hand kind of summary column on the Wikipedia page.
Using and Managing Ancestry Hints
Hints can be great clues, but they can also put rabbit holes in your genealogical path and derail your research goals. This hint might not be your top priority right now. It might not be the most important aspect of your ancestor’s life. Or it might be super interesting, and in that case you can go for it. But I encourage you not to get addicted to just responding to hints. It’s OK to put it on the back burner, leave the hint and don’t even deal with it. You can mark it Maybe and then come back to it later. But don’t let it sidetrack you from your research goals.
That’s the thing about genealogy. It is becoming more and more automated. Have you found that it just feels like it’s happening more and more on its own? It’s sort of being fed to us through the automation, the machine learning, that’s happening on these websites. However, first and foremost, we need to keep our brains engaged. We need to be the one who does the evaluation and ultimately makes the decision as to what we think is accurate about our ancestor and our family history.
In the case of Geneanet, Wikipedia tells us it was created in France and ultimately was acquired by Ancestry in August 2021. We saw on the Card Catalog entry that the index was published on Ancestry in 2022. So, we are looking at information coming from an index. We’re not looking at the actual record. These records are housed on the Geneanet website. You can access the actual record by clicking the View on Geneanet link on the Ancestry record hint page