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.
Republished August 8, 2013
by Lisa Louise Cooke
Download the Show Notes for this Episode
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
In this episode, I chatted with Margery Bell, Assistant Director of the Oakland, California Family History Center. Her own family history journey started in her 20s with a visit to a relative’s house. She didn’t even know what to talk about! But it was a start. Years later, she visited the Northern Ireland home of her great-grandmother, and felt like she’d come home. Learn her tips for getting started and two inspiring stories of “genealogy serendipity.”
In the second half of the show, you’ll learn why choosing a database for your family tree is your first essential step. Hear about some of my favorite databases—both free resources and products you can pay for. Don’t spend too much time fussing about software: I’ll tell you why you should just pick something and go with it.
Choosing a Genealogy Database
Whether you want to build an elaborate family tree, or just want to know who your direct ancestors were and some of the stories about them, the place to start is to get yourself a family history database. You don’t have to be highly computer savvy to use one. They are VERY intuitive and user friendly. Basic data entry skills is all you need.
Now I know you’re anxious to get started finding out about the folks who came before you and contributed to putting you on this planet. But this step is key to long term success and enjoyment. I know too many people who have gotten all excited and jumped in, getting all kinds of information about their family, but without a database they very quickly end up with huge stacks of paper and stickie notes. With all this chaos they often end up duplicating efforts they forgot they already did which is a waste of precious time. And worst of all, when someone shows an interest in what they are doing, it’s impossible to coherently pull out the information from the jumbled stacks in order to share it.
Having a family history database will keep all of your findings organized, with proper background information on where you found the data, as well provide a place to pull together photographs, documents and everything else you discover along the way. It’s like painting a piece of furniture. A little prep work goes along way to a really nice finish.
Now there are lots of family history software programs out there, but you only need ONE, and all of them will serve your basic needs. So I’m going to give you my top choices. It’s you’re decision how much you want to spend and how sophisticated you want your database to be.
If FREE is your price range, and you’re looking for a place to stay organized with streamlined screens to work in without a lot of startup time, then Family Tree Legends Online is perfect for you. (Family Tree Legends Online is now Family Tree Builder by MyHeritage.
Don’t let FREE fool you into thinking it won’t do the job. Legends offers lots of family history charts; custom reports; helps you share your data and pictures on a CD or DVD; allows you to back up your files to CD or DVD; and includes genealogy programs for Palm handheld devices and the Pocket PC. I’ve used it and it’s great. You can download the software FREE at the above link.
If you’re a PC user and are willing to spend $30-40 dollars, there are several really good and easy to use options available. You can order the product or purchase a digital download which will save you some money. And frankly, I really don’t think you need to the physical boxed product. All the help you need is online. And all of these products offer a free demo that you can download to try it out before you buy.
The top seller is Family Tree Maker which is from the folks at Ancestry.com which is the largest online records website which we’ll be talking a lot more about in future episodes. Click on its name to learn more about Family Tree Maker. This is probably the most commonly used database out there.
If you’re looking for great printed reports that you can share then RootsMagic is a great choice. It’s available as a digital download from their website at RootsMagic.
Some of the differences you’ll find between these products is the types of reports and charts they produce. So if that’s important to you, you can try the demos and see which you like. But again, I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of these products. They are all well established and fully supported.
And I want to stress, it’s just important that you take the steps and get started. Don’t get bogged down in analyzing software forever. If you really want to change to a different program down the road you can always do that. But the important thing here is that you have a place to put the information that you find and be able to retrieve that information so you can share it with others.
Now if you’re a Mac user I have two solid programs you could use. Again, both of these programs offer free demos if you want to test drive them:
- iFamily for Leopard is the most affordable at $29.95.
- Reunion 9 is fairly pricey at $99.95. If you’re interested in Reunion 9, I highly recommend that you listen to Episode 51 of my more advanced Family History show called The Genealogy Gems Podcast. In that episode you can listen to a review of Reunion 9 by my contributing partner Ben Sayer, the MacGenealogist, who’s an expert on everything Mac for family historians. And if you want to compare iFamily against Reunion to see what you’re getting for your money, you can also listen to Ben’s review of iFamily in Genealogy Gems Episode 53.
Now when you fire up your new software database it’s going to ask you to fill in information about yourself, then your parents and so on. In family history we always start with ourselves, and then work our way backward. So enter everything you know. By just enter data on you and your parents, you’ll very quickly get a feel for how the program works. And once you get everything in there that you know, go ahead and try and print out a pedigree chart.
And there’s our first family history term: “pedigree chart.” You’ve probably heard the term used for pure bred dogs, but pedigree just means lineage or ancestral line. It shows your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. No aunts, uncles or siblings. Just the folks you directly descend from.
Another type of chart your database can print is a descendant chart, which shows all the people who descend from one person. So if you had two kids, your descendant chart would show you at the top, and two children directly under you. This comes in real handy when you want to have a reunion of all the descendants of let’s say your great grandpa Marvin. You would go to Marvin’s card in the database, and then print the descendant chart from there. It would then include Marvin, all his kids, his grandkids, his great grandkids and so on. But it wouldn’t show the kids spouses, or Marvin’s parents. It’s just going to tell you who was born directly as a result of Marvin.
So enter what you know, and once you’ve got all that in there, play around with your new database by printing out a pedigree chart and a descendant chart. And next week we’ll start uncovering more clues to your family history.
Here’s a final thought for today: A famous idea taken from one of Shakespeare’s plays is that what is Past is Prologue. It seems to me that a key to moving forward in your life is to look back and see what’s come before. How things were done. What worked, and what didn’t. It can inspire you to continue family traditions or give you the motivation to create something new for the next generation.
Up next: Episode 2: How to Interview Your Relatives.