Building a family tree is one of the first and most important things you do when you begin your journey as your family’s genealogist.
While many people draw up a simplified family tree during childhood as part of a poster project, putting together an in-depth family tree from historical records is a much bigger endeavor.
Creating your family tree involves interviewing family members, investigating genealogical records, and using genealogical resources to build up a master document that illustrates the relationship between relatives.
Family trees can be simple one-page documents or archives full of data.
A family tree is a long-term endeavor that can take months or even years to put together depending on how complicated you decide to make it.
Keep reading to learn more about family trees and how to build your own.
Building a Family Tree
A family tree is a type of chart, either informal or formal, that people construct to show the relationships between people and their various family members.
Family trees are started at the point of the person creating the tree and then worked backward through the person’s parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, and so on.
Family trees are commonly taught in education for people to learn about their own families.
They’re also used in foreign language classes to teach people how to refer to different familial terms in a foreign language.
When you begin studying genealogy, a family tree is usually one of the first charts you create.
Your family tree becomes a master document for documenting and archiving all other information you find about your genealogy.
The most basic family trees only relay the relationships between family members, but more complicated ones can include all sorts of data.
Why Would You Build a Family Tree?
There are several different reasons why people decide to build a family tree other than the very basic forms they’re taught to create in school.
Here are just a few of them:
- Genealogy as a science: As a subset of historical and sociological study, genealogy is an interesting pastime. It is a somewhat niche field, so the ability to work your way up from an amateur genealogist to a semi-professional one is not that difficult. This is especially true with new access to technology and digital archives for genealogy.
- Connecting with personal heritage: For a renewed sense of intimacy with your family and personal history, genealogy allows you to look back at your family with a broader scope. This can give you insights into your living relatives through examination of the past. As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
- Engagement with living family members: For some people, becoming the family genealogist is a way to actively engage with extended or older family members. Interviewing living relatives can teach you things about your family that you never even considered.
- Medical history: Genealogical study can be a good way to document medical records if there is a history of genetic conditions in the family that need to be tracked. Including causes of death and medical records in family trees as part of each individual history is a good way to get an overview of your family’s overall health.
No matter what your reason for wanting to build a family tree is, the benefits of doing it are well worth the effort.
Even if you only document the most basic information about your family, this data can be used as documentation for other genealogists in your family fifty or a hundred years from now to construct their own family tree in the future.
Constructing a Family Tree
Getting started constructing a family tree isn’t difficult.
There are two major parts of the family tree to consider: the branches and the leaves.
The “branches” of the family tree are constructed by different subfamilies and pairings within the larger family three.
The “leaves” of the family tree are each individual within the family.
Branches of the Family Tree
The branches of the family tree are constructed from the different relationships that people in a family have with each other.
The main trunk of the family tree features parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, all along a single bloodline.
The branches of the family tree are created when siblings have their own children, who then have their own children.
Branches of the family tree can also be constructed using relatives by marriage or adoption.
Biological vs. Non-biological Relatives
Some family trees include non-biological relatives, and some family trees exclude them.
Whether or not to include non-biological relatives in the family tree depends on what your end goal is with the tree.
Are you trying to document DNA relatives or construct a family tree with a medical history in mind?
You’ll likely want to stick to biological relatives only to make the job easier.
Non-biological relatives won’t have any bearing on your DNA family tree and their medical history won’t be relevant to yours.
However, if you’re trying to create a family tree for historical purposes, you’ll want to include any relative that is related to your family by marriage or adoption as well as through blood.
If your family tree is just a way for you to record the relationship between yourself and the people in your life you care about, you might even want to include some off-shoots to record dossiers for close family friends and pets.
Wide Trees vs. Tall Trees in Genealogy
When you’re constructing a family tree, the first reaction is usually to try and make your family tree as old as possible.
And the first thing you’ll learn in response to this is that genealogical records get very sketchy and difficult to track even after just a few hundred years.
This is part of what makes contemporary family tree construction and genealogical documentation so important.
Without genealogists to archive the documentation for family trees and other genealogical data, historians and future genealogists don’t have the records available to build their own investigations.
Wide Family Trees
For some family trees, making the family tree “wide” is more useful for activities such as DNA matching.
For DNA matching activities, a family tree only has to go back around six generations.
To make a wide family tree versus a tall one, genealogists should focus on the following (Source: Your DNA Guide):
- Identifying siblings
- Identifying spouses
These collateral relatives are the relatives that your DNA matches are created from.
Tall Family Trees
To create a tall tree in genealogy, you have to have detailed historical records going back hundreds of years.
The furthest that most people are able to trace back their genealogical records is typically the 1600s.
Before this time period, many genealogical records have been destroyed, went missing, or were never made at all.
So how is it possible to build a tall family tree?
Here are some of the factors that go into it:
- Luck: Some genealogists are just lucky enough to uncover a treasure trove of records about their ancestors that other genealogists don’t have access to simply because of where their family members lived and died. This all depends on things like obituaries, military records, and other official documentation and how it survives.
- Religion: Religious sects such as Catholicism tend to keep more detailed documentation of births, deaths, weddings, and other major family events than other cultural groups. Depending on how religious your family is, you may be able to find more archived documentation about them.
- Fame: The more famous your relatives are, the more likely it is that you’re going to be able to find information linking them back to your family tree. You’ll also be able to find more detailed information about them than if they were average, nondescript citizens.
When it comes to building a tall family tree, getting access to online genealogical resources and records can give you a significant leg-up for your research into relatives that are several hundred years old.
Leaves of the Family Tree
Once you know how you want the branches of your family tree to look, you can start focusing on the individual leaves.
These are the family members that you want to document in your family tree.
For a family tree, you’ll want to keep the record as accurate as possible, so don’t include information you aren’t sure about or at least footnote the information as speculation if it is.
Here are some of the details you might want to include for each leaf of your family tree (Source: Find My Past):
- Official full name
- Places the person lived
- Birth date
- Marriage date
- Death date (and cause of death if known)
- Noted accomplishments
The more detailed you can make your family tree, the more useful of a resource it will be to you and others.
You might have more details for some family members than others, or more interesting stories for some than others, but that’s part of what makes each family tree unique and interesting.
It’s a good idea to keep in mind what you should leave out of a family tree too, however.
Going through genealogical records can lead you to digging up some skeletons about your family or family members.
Be tactful when it comes to interviewing living relatives and make sure that you don’t publish any family secrets with the permission of the people involved.
This is out of courtesy to your family members, but it’s also a practical concern.
If your family members are worried that you’ll expose them through your interviews or questions about them, then they’ll be a lot less forthcoming with information and stories than if you get them relaxed about the situation.
Finding Genealogical Data for a Family Tree
So how do you go about building your family tree?
Building a family tree involves going through archived documentation to find records verifying your family members and their relationships to each other.
It also means building your own genealogical documentation through the construction of the family tree chart.
Documenting Data for a Family Tree
The data you collect to construct your family tree can come from many different sources.
Here are just a few of the places you can find the data you need for your family tree chart:
- Official records: There are many official records created by governments, churches, and other organizations that are available for genealogists to find and document. Some of these records include census records, marriage records, death certificates, birth certificates, prison records, and many others.
- Memorabilia: Family scrapbooks, photo albums, and newspaper clippings can be a great source of information for genealogists. If nobody in your family keeps a good record of this memorabilia, consider becoming the photo album keeper for your family moving forward to create a living genealogical record.
- Living relatives: While genealogy may look like it is focused completely on the past, living relatives can be very useful for setting up contemporary family trees and genealogical records. The benefit of living relatives is that they can be interviewed in much greater detail than your ancestors.
- Libraries and national archives: In some parts of the world, genealogists are lucky enough to have access to detailed national archives with all kinds of genealogical data to be analyzed. Thanks to the web, most of these archives are now available online no matter where you live. These are especially helpful for American immigrants.
- Online resources: There are many genealogical databases such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch that are dedicated to compiling genealogical data and records. These resources represent one of the most complete genealogical records in contemporary culture and often include DNA information as well.
The type of data you focus on while building your family tree will depend on what your focus is in building it.
If you just want to create a more complete family history of the last several generations of your family, focusing on family memorabilia and interviews with living relatives are where you should start.
However, if you want to create a historical record, you’ll need to go to more in-depth genealogical records.
Methods for Family Tree Documentation
Family trees are usually documented both physically on a chart as well as in online records.
Many genealogical databases include family tree creation kits as part of their basic software capabilities.
Since the family tree is the primary genealogical chart that all other data is attached to, it’s usually the first document that any genealogist focuses on.
Building a physical family tree can be a good way to display the documentation that you’ve done, especially if you want to share it with other people in your family.
However, many genealogists rely on digital family trees due to their convenience and archival features attached to them.
It’s a good idea to build your family tree using a combination of both physical and digital resources.
Here are a few tips for how to improve documentation when you’re building your family tree:
- Use a simple, legible layout. While you might enjoy looking at fancy fonts and convoluted formats in the short term, these can be tedious to read through once the family tree becomes larger.
- Invest in a scanner. Having a scanner will allow you to take physical memorabilia such as photographs and newspaper clippings and scan them into your digital family tree as attachments to individual family members.
- Keep a journal. Keeping a journal documenting your genealogical research can give you an interesting record to look back on as the researcher of the project. It is a form of genealogical documentation in and of itself that can be used for future generations to preserve your family’s history.
- Learn how to protect family records and photographs. One of the reasons that genealogical records and other historical documents are so spotty from a few centuries back is due to the degradation of the documentation. Protect family photos and newspaper clippings by treating them with preservatives or enclosing them in plastic.
- Make backups of everything. Digital data is fragile, and while you can rely on genealogical databases to archive your data to some degree, it’s always a good idea to keep your genealogical data backed up on a flash drive or other external hard drive in case your computer fails.
- Use a tape recorder and a camera. Along with creating a family tree of your ancestors, you’ll want to create some detailed genealogical records of your living relatives through recorded interviews and family portraits. With modern technology, these bits of genealogical data have the potential to last in digital archives for centuries.
- Stay organized and move slowly. It can be tempting to try and build your family tree as quickly as possible so that you can see the lay of the land, so to speak. However, building your family tree slowly lets you put more effort into each family member. This will result in a more rich and detailed family tree over time.
Building your family tree shouldn’t be a stressful process.
Instead, sit back and enjoy documenting your family leaf by leaf to see what you come up with!
Best Online Resources for Building a Family Tree
Many modern-day genealogists get their start in the research through a genealogy website.
These websites not only provide a way for people to trace their ancestry through archived genealogical records, they’re also a great training ground for genealogists to learn how to document their family histories.
Here are just a few of the benefits of building your family tree through a genealogical database:
- Built-in family trees: Most major genealogical databases are built off the premise of constructing a family tree in the software. If you’re unsure what kind of family tree software to use, going through a genealogical database makes it a simpler choice.
- Connection with other researchers: Genealogy can be a lonely business if you’re the only person in your family that’s interested in family history. Connecting with other researchers online can provide a social outlet that lets you treat your family tree like a proper hobby.
- Additional records and resources: Along with traditional genealogical records, genealogical databases offer tools such as tutorials or webinars on how to deepen your research. You also get access to the research of other genealogists, so if you share an ancestor this can give you a larger pool of information to work from.
So a genealogical database can be useful, but which one should you choose?
It’s an important question since many of these databases require a yearly subscription, so you may be restricted in how many subscriptions you can afford.
If you’re just getting started building a family tree, you should probably stick to some of the more popular genealogical databases.
These databases are reputable and have been around long enough to collect a huge archive of genealogical information.
These are a few of the best genealogical databases you should consider to start building the digital portion of your family tree:
- Ancestry: Ancestry is one of the most well-known genealogical databases, and also the most popular one in the world. Ancestry.com focuses on North American genealogical records.
- MyHeritage: MyHeritage is similar to Ancestry.com, with the largest difference being the origin of their genealogical records. While Ancestry.com focuses on North America, the records featured at MyHeritage.com are more European.
- FamilySearch: FamilySearch is a good option for beginner genealogists who don’t want to commit to a paid subscription for their online family tree. FamilySearch allows you to look through their genealogical records for free. Another benefit of this software is that it also allows you to set up a free family tree on the website.
When you’re choosing an online database to start your genealogical research, it’s best to start with one and then expand from there.
You don’t want to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you’re getting, and it’s smarter to learn the ins and outs of one genealogical program thoroughly before taking on more.
One family tree at a time is plenty.
Related: How Long Does AncestryDNA Take?
How Far Can You Trace a Family Tree?
While many budding genealogists want to trace their family tree back as far as humanly possible, many aren’t able to trace their family tree back as far as they’d like.
Tracing your family tree and its related records are limited by many factors, including some of the following (Source: Family History Fanatics):
- Country of origin
- Socioeconomic status
- Use of surnames
- Naming traditions
When you’re getting started building a tree, it isn’t worth worrying about how far you can trace back your ancestors or how many ancestor names you can gather.
Instead, try to enjoy the journey of researching your family as well as the final results.
You’ll get a lot more satisfaction out of the process if you take your time while you document things accurately and thoroughly.
Sharing Your Family Tree
Once you’ve gotten into constructing your family tree and you have a considerable amount of information gathered, you might want to get to the point where you’re willing to share your research with others.
This can help preserve your genealogical research for posterity.
Here are just a few other ways you can share your family tree once you’re done constructing it:
- Make copies for your family members. This is the easiest way to share your family tree with the people who matter most. You can either make a simple digital copy of your tree for each of your relatives and email it to them, or you can make physical copies complete with calligraphy or other embellishments.
- Upload your family tree to genealogical databases. Sharing your family tree with a genealogical database lets other genealogical researchers use your gathered data for their own investigations. It gives you access to the other resources available at those websites too.
- Make a website for your family. Building a website for your family and your family tree can be a treasure trove of memories that your entire family can access and share any time they want. Along with installing your family tree on your family’s website, you can also include other records and memorabilia such as photos and videos.
- Write a family history. If you have any kind of writing skills at all, composing a family history and some biographies for your living relatives is a genealogical resource that will potentially be used in research centuries after you’re dead. Composing a family history allows you to put your own stamp on history and leave a mark when you’re gone.
Genealogical records are great for your own entertainment, but a family tree is at its best when it’s being shared with others.
Once you’ve finished your first family tree, you should consider showing off all your hard work with family, friends, and other genealogical researchers.
Related: Is Genealogy a Good Hobby? We Say Yes. This Is Why.
Build a Family Tree to Discover Your Roots
It doesn’t take many resources to get started building your family tree, and once you start to uncover some interesting things about your ancestors, you may find yourself getting more and more involved in the process of researching your family history.
Using free online resources, all you need is some simple background information on your relatives and you’re ready to go!