How to Create a Family Tree – The Basics

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Sometimes you need to know the why before you figure out the how!

Why create a Family Tree, the reasons are as different and numerous as the branches on a tree. Everyone has a natural curiosity about their past. Who am I related to? Is there someone famous in my family history? Or better yet.. someone infamous. Many people get the ‘itch’ to start searching their roots but see it as too daunting of a task. Others get the ‘itch’ and can never satisfy it, I would fall in to this category.  Although, over the years I have had to put my research aside while ‘life’ got in the way I am always drawn back in again to the world of certificates, documents and cemeteries. It’s a world that I absolutely love and feel completely comfortable in.


Health Benefits of Creating a Family Tree

There are of course practical reasons to do the research. Health concerns are a prime example. You know you got your blond hair from your grandmother, and your prominent nose from your dad and your blue eyes from your other grandmother. These, however, aren’t the only things you may have inherited from your family. Many medical conditions, including heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease have also shown to be passed down through families.


Understanding your risk for developing diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, is an important reason to learn more about your family history. By knowing your risk, you can make informed decisions about your health through prevention and screening, and even participate in genetic-based research aimed at understanding, preventing and curing disease. For example, if your Mother had breast cancer at age 40, you should probably be having a mammogram at an earlier age than is typically recommended.


Get the Benefits of Another Citizenship

Another practical reason is to show lineage to enable a person to apply for dual citizenship. This can be important for anyone who has a desire to live and work in the land of their ancestors.


In the end, the main reason to Create a Family Tree really is the desire to answer the age old question – ‘Where do I come from?’



maxine hourglass family tree
Basic Family Tree

How to Create a Family Tree


Obviously the how is reflected in the why. For my purposes I’m going to assume that you are like me and are passionate, driven, enthusiastic, dedicated and more than slightly obsessive when it comes to your Family.


Step 1 – Gather Information You Already Have

First step is always to start with yourself and work backwards. You will be surprised at how much information you will come up with. Begin your family tree by gathering together everything you have in the way of newspapers, photos and documents. Sort through your attic, your basement, the filing cabinet, the back of the closet and the junk drawer. Then check with your relatives to see if they have any family documents they are willing to share. Be persistent. Clues to your family history might be found on the backs of old photographs, in the family bible, in newspaper clippings or even on a postcard. If your relative is uneasy with lending an original, offer to have copies made. Better yet, bring your computer and a portable scanner with you.


Step 2 – Talk With Family Members

While you’re collecting family records, set aside some time to interview your relatives. There are lists of questions to ask online, some may seem basic and some may seem silly but the more information you can get the better. I recommend video recording the interview not only do you get the information you are looking for but you also get a wonderful keepsake. Interview your Mom and Dad and then move on from there. Grandparents may seem nervous at first with the video camera but will relax once you get going. Try to collect stories, not just names and dates, and be sure to ask open-ended questions such as “What was life like during the war?”. Shown the interest, Grandparents, in general, love to share their life stories.


Step 3 – Pick a Family Tree Software

Write down everything you have learned from your family.

It is impossible to keep all the data you will find organized without setting up a proper family tree. Yes, you can do up a chart yourself and add people as you go but once you hit information overload and have cousins coming at you from all directions you will find it necessary to invest in some good Family Tree Software.  What software you use will be dependent on what you want to use it for.


Step 4 – Pick a Place to Start

Now the hard part, select a single family surname, individual, or family with which to begin. That is not to say you won’t work on the other names eventually but in order to keep your research on track, and reduce the chances of missing important details due to sensory overload you really do need to stay focused.


Step 5 – Search Easy Online Records

Explore the Internet. Start with Pedigree databases such as Rootsweb, Ancestry Word Tree and FamilySearch. Sift through some of the message boards like GenForum to see if someone else is researching your Family. If you find someone reach out and share any information that you have and they will most likely do the same. Do some searches in areas specific to your Ancestors. Just remember to track where you have been and to bookmark sites of particular interest.


Step 6 – Visit Local Vital Record Databases

Once you have exhausted your basic family sources you will need to look for the official records of your ancestors including birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, wills etc. The origin of your ancestors will dictate what method and how easy/difficult this will be. Most countries offer a service in which you can have certificates searched for and paid for online and delivered right to your house. If your family has not moved far and you are in the same basic location your local library may offer a treasure trove of information. Many libraries have a Genealogy Room complete with books on local history and quite often microfilm of local census records etc.


Find out about your local Genealogical Societies these are managed by people who share a huge love and respect for the search of ones Roots.


Step 7 – Visit a Family History Centre

Visit a Family History Centre. Run by the Mormon’s these Centers are a wonderful resource. Here you can access the world’s largest collection of genealogical information. My experience has always been to find the people who run them as friendly and courteous. When you go for your first visit be prepared with some names, dates and locations you want to research. Remember to copy everything, even those things that your not sure about as someday they could be crucial in providing that missing piece of information.


Step 8 – Keep Organized

Keep organized. This is a tough one. Although it is tempting to simply gather information and throw into a file – you will regret it. Some of the MOST important pieces of advice I can give you is to keep organized, date everything, copy everything and record where and when you did what. File folders will become your best friend.


Step 9 – Decide how far back you want to go

Once you gather information on a few generations you need to make a few decisions on what you want out of your Tree. You need to decide whether you want to keep going back or go forward again and fill everything in. By that I mean do you want to track all your  ‘collateral lines’. Aunts, Uncles, Great-Aunts, Great-Uncles, cousins, second cousins etc. would all fit under this category. If you are planning a family reunion or simply want to know who all shares your blood line these lines are obviously important to do. However, if your end game is to trace back as far as possible you might be better to try to stay focused on your direct lineage. Personally, I love following all my ‘collateral lines’ as it’s amazing to see how many people have the same blood coursing through their veins.


Step 10 – Decide how much detail you want to document

Another important decision is do you want your Tree to simply deal with facts or do you want some details as you go. For example one of my Great-Grandfathers was born in a workhouse. I could simply record the date and location but the ‘sleuth’ in me wants to find out and document why was he born there, what were the living conditions etc. I call this the ‘leaves’ on the tree. The branches are the ‘facts’ but the leaves are the ‘story’.


Once you decide how you want to proceed. Take the time once again to make sure everything is organized and documented.


What to do and not to do when creating a family tree


Please don’t discount information, which seems to fit, because a date is off or a name is spelt differently. Remember many of our ancestors did not read or write or did so with a limited knowledge. Information given may have been deliberately given wrong as in the case of the age of a child born out of wedlock. Another example of a variation in information is census records. The information for the census was gathered by going door to door and the people transcribing had to deal with people who were illiterate. Many of my family names are spelt in different ways. Also, it would be wonderful if all Census takers had nice neat penmanship but sadly this in not the case.


Once you have exhausted your resources etc. Put aside for a bit and work on another one of your lines and repeat.


When you revisit your original Family Tree you will be amazed at how many things you overlooked!


Share your information. I have come across people doing research who ‘horde’ it. They are reluctant to share what they learned and how they obtained it. Not too sure why. Sharing is your best chance at gathering more information. Set up a site on the web for your relatives to go have a wee look at what you’ve done ask them for input and help. Always be respectful of people’s wishes for privacy. My rule is that if someone does not want something showing I will remove it from the public version without question, if they do not like a particular picture I will remove it.


Please note – that everything you find will not be welcomed by your relatives. You will probably (if your lucky) find out things that may shake some skeletons out of closets. I found a particularly salacious piece of information on one of my Ancestors and I thought one of my Aunts was going to disown me. She didn’t.


Although you need to be respectful of your family and what information you chose to share, you cannot re-write history. If your Great-Great Grandfather was a murderer you can’t make him be a choir boy…besides how boring would that be…LOL


Most Importantly – Have Fun Creating a Family Tree


Creating a Family Tree is meant to be a fun thing to do, when you find yourself stressed over trying to find that missing piece of information – take a break. Put your research aside, get some professional assistance or have someone go over your research to see if they can see something that you have missed.


Enjoy what you are doing and know that although some may not realize or appreciate it, the work you are doing is important. Not only does your family benefit but Your Tree has a historic benefit too. It is the collective lives of all the people that you are researching that have helped shape our history.


You are not just creating a Family Tree you are creating a Legacy for your descendants!!!


Oh, and just so you know…there is no end to your research. Once you begin there is no going back…get ready, set GO!!!!!


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How to Create a Family Tree

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