How to Find, Create & Understand Your Family Tree: Step-By-Step

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Thanks to the popularity of DNA kits and ancestry websites, more and more people are piecing together their family tree. Do you know where your ancestors come from? How far can you trace your family line back through generations? Most people know their parents, grandparents, and maybe even their great-grandparents. Anything beyond that isn’t always clear. 

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Luckily, the best time to start your family tree search is right now. There are more tools and resources than ever before to create your own family history, even if you’re not sure where to begin. In this guide, we’ll explain how to find, create, and understand your family tree.

What’s a Family Tree?

Most people are familiar with the concept of a family tree, but what does it really mean? It’s much more than an elementary school project where you write the names of your parents and grandparents. A family tree is a diagram that shows the relationships between people over several generations. 

The tree itself is a symbol. The many branches sprouting from the same trunk symbolize how a family diverges but still rests on the same foundation. Family trees include things like marriages, children, deaths, and so on. They’re a living, evolving story of a family. 

Who’s Included in a Family Tree?

Family trees come in all shapes and sizes. Most of us have created a small family tree at one point or another, usually as part of a school project. Who exactly should you include in your search for your family tree?

While it might seem straightforward, things get complicated quickly. Adopted children, step-siblings, divorce—all of these things make the family tree a little less clear. Who exactly should you include? The short answer is you should include everyone. No family exists in a vacuum. People lead complicated lives, and relationships often reflect that. Including all of these complex relationships within the family tree gives a full picture. 

The breakdown of a family tree is relatively simple, despite all of these concerns above. Every person can be classified as either a parent, child, or spouse (or combination). Here’s what that means: 

  • Parent: Everyone has parents, even if the lines are blurred. You’ll also want to indicate the specifics of the parent relationship. For example, adoptive, step, foster, guardian, or other relationship. 
  • Child: Children are also essential to a family tree. Again, list whether this is an adopted child, step-child, foster-child, or other relationship. 
  • Spouse: When someone marries another person, they combine family trees. With the spouse or long-term partner, indicate the status of the relationships (married, domestic partner, or divorced). 

Your mom, for example, is your parent. She also likely is the spouse of your dad, and she is the child of your grandparents. This is the basic breakdown of a family tree, and it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. As long as you indicate the status of that relationship (step-parent, divorced couple, etc.), you’ve covered all your bases. 

How to Create Your Own Family Tree for Free

You don’t need any fancy programs or tools to create your own family tree for free. You might have more resources at your disposal than you realize. Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating your own family tree.

1. Gather the information you already have

The first step is to gather any information that you already have. Most of us already know a few things (or a lot of things) about our family history. You’ll need to input all of these facts and numbers into your family tree, so gathering what you have before you begin helps you hit the ground running. 

Aside from family basics, where else can you find family information?

  • DNA testing kits: DNA testing is a great resource, and it’ll help you determine where to start with your search. If you and other family members have done DNA testing recently, gather this information. 
  • Family bibles: Family bibles usually have a space in the front specifically for a family tree. If you or a loved one has a family bible, ask to use the family tree for your own recordkeeping. 
  • Family photos: Family photos are also a great tool. A picture really is worth a thousand words, so look through old albums and ask around. 
  • Certificates: Collect or ask family members for birth, marriage, and death certificates. We’ll touch more on how to request a death certificate or other documents later in this guide. 
  • Obituaries or newspaper records: Another way to learn more about your family is through obituaries or other written records documenting important dates or events. 
  • Journals and letters: Finally, ask your family members for any old journals, letters, or diaries they might have that contain family information. 

Because all of these documents are a lot to keep track of, make sure you handle everything with care. You don’t want to lose track of important documents or family records. If possible, make digital copies and store everything online for safekeeping. You might be surprised by what you find. Another idea is to create an ancestry folder or binder with everything important so it’s in one place. 

2. Create your tree

You have a lot of options for creating a tree. The best solution is to choose something digital. A digital tree is easiest to edit, and you’ll be doing a lot of that. There are a number of free ancestry charts you can download online that are easy to use, but you might also use a familiar program like Google Sheets, Excel, or Word. 

To set up your tree, you need a space to input names, relationships, and to draw connections between these. It doesn’t have to make the shape of a tree, but it’s usually helpful to stick to a similar shape so everything is easy to understand. Your family tree should include room for the following information:

  • Names: Of course, your family tree wouldn’t exist without any names. Always list the full name when possible. For women, use the maiden name. The married name is implied by their spouses within the tree. More information is always better. 
  • Places: Because you’re telling a story with your family tree, include the place whenever you know it. Be as specific as possible. Including birthplaces, death places, marriage location, etc. shares a fuller story of your family. 
  • Dates: Finally, list any and all dates. As you start to dig deeper into your family’s history, these dates aren’t as easy to find. They’ll be even more significant because of it. If you’re unsure of the exact date, estimate or use the words before, after, or about.

3. Start with yourself

Now that you’ve set up the basic outline for your tree, it’s time to start inputting information. One of the biggest questions is where to begin. The answer is simple—begin with yourself. 

Why start with yourself? First, you already likely know your immediate relatives’ names. You’re more familiar with these dates, relationships, and so on. You’re also likely the most recent person (or your children are), so you can easily work your way back. 

To begin, list your name, your important dates, your spouse (if you have one), and your children (if you have any). From there, work your way back. Fill in your parent’s names, grandparents’ names, and any other relatives you know about. Utilize those documents you gathered in step 1 to piece together as much of your story as possible. 

4. Conduct family research

No matter how many documents you gathered in the first step, you’re likely to find yourself with some gaps in your family’s story. Don’t worry, this is normal. Not all families keep accurate, easy-to-find records, and there are a number of circumstances that act as roadblocks. 

It’s time to put on your detective hat to conduct some family research. Identify these gaps in your family history. What do you want to learn? Maybe you’re interested in the place of marriage for your great grandparents. Maybe you want to find the parents of your great aunt. Try to limit yourself to only a few questions while you’re still getting a feel for this type of research. 

Now, it’s time to search. To make this process a little bit easier, start by searching online. There are a lot of free and paid tools that search through records on your behalf. These are:

These online databases help you identify important certificates, documents, and information relating to your relative’s lives. There are many reasons you may need a death certificate, like determining when a family member died or the place of death. Not all relatives keep documents after death, so sometimes you need to take matters into your own hands. 

If you don’t have success with online search tools, it might be time to dig a bit deeper. Not all records are digital, unfortunately. This means you might need to look into the following resources on a local or national scale:

  • Local courthouses
  • Libraries
  • National records
  • Museums

The good news is that, while difficult to search if you’re not located in the area, these resources above are usually free or inexpensive to use. Calling a local courthouse, for example, might be all you need to get the information you’re looking for. You’ll never know what’s possible until you ask.  

5. Share with others

Last but not least, don’t forget to share your family research with others. Including your family members in your search not only brings them into your process, but it helps you fill in those gaps quicker. After a bit of research, your grandmother might remember her sister’s birthplace, after all. You never know what you’ll uncover when you work together. 

Your family history is a deeply personal thing. Creating an ancestry tree is a beautiful way to tribute your family’s past, present, and future. This is a gift not only for yourself but also for future generations. 

How to Draw a Family Tree on Paper

One of the best ways to create a family tree is also the easiest: with pen and paper. It doesn’t get more old-fashioned and traditional than that, but it works. Not only is this a fun craft for the entire family, but it’s also an easy activity you can do yourself. You don’t need any complicated supplies to get started. Here’s how to draw a family tree on paper. 

1. Familiarize yourself with genetic symbols

In healthcare and genealogy, there are special symbols used to create a family tree. These different symbols act like a key for your family tree, making it easier to understand complex structures within your family without any unnecessary designs. While you’re free to choose any symbols you’d like, here are the most common ones and their meanings:

  • Square: A square is used to represent a boy. 
  • Circle: Circles represent girls. 
  • Diamond: If the sex is unknown or nonbinary, a diamond is used. 
  • Triangle: Triangles are used to indicate a miscarriage or stillbirth. 
  • Horizontal line: A horizontal line between two individuals indicates a marriage or partnership. 
  • Vertical line: A vertical line is an offspring or child, typically the result of a marriage.
  • Dotted vertical line: A dotted vertical line symbolizes an adopted child or foster child. 
  • X: If there is an X through the individual, this indicates a death. 

Create a clear key that works for your own family tree. You might choose to use different colors, shapes, or these above. It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with this before you begin. 

2. Download a free form or chart

Another step that’s optional is to download a free ancestry form or chart. These are premade forms or charts that are designed to guide you through your family tree. Even if you don’t use one of these forms below, they’re a great tool for starting the process. 

Once you’ve chosen one of the free forms or charts above, continue to the next step. If you’d prefer to make your own, consider the above tools as a starting guide to draw inspiration from in your own work. 

3. Create an information standard

Next, create a clear standard for your organization. While the symbols above are a good first step, taking the time to think out your information in advance will save you time and stress. Always list the male and female in the same positions (e.g., male on the left) for clarity. 

Consider what information you’d like to include. You can include as much or as little as you want. Most family trees have some combination of the following:

  • Name
  • Place of birth
  • Date of birth
  • Date of marriage
  • Date of death
  • Place of death
  • Photo

While you certainly don’t have to include all of the above, it’s a great way to be consistent. You can always leave spaces blank for those you don’t have the full information about. This is an opportunity to make an interactive, accurate historical record. 

4. Compile your family data

Next, it’s time to compile your family data. Consider the information you already have and look through free genealogy websites to determine what else you need. You’d be surprised just how much you can find with a web search. With so many databases nowadays, there is no shortage of information. 

If you have a large family tree, it can easily get confusing to compile all of this while creating your tree. To combat this, organize your data in advance. Create a clear list in chronological order so it’s easy to place your family members along your timeline.

5. Start with the oldest entries

Now it’s time to begin your family tree. Start with the oldest entries to your family line. Make these entries at the start of your family tree, typically at the top or the far left depending on the layout of your document. 

From there, begin making your way down the line of your family tree. Take your time to make sure this is accurate. It might be helpful to make a rough draft before finalizing your entries. 

6. Share your family tree

Last but not least, share your family tree with your loved ones. This is never a one-and-done task. Many families add to these family trees throughout the years, and it becomes a collaborative effort everyone enjoys. 

Better yet, when you share your completed family tree, you can get feedback and help from loved ones. You might not know the full story behind certain branches of your ancestry tree, so it’s important to include more perspectives. Ultimately, it’s fun to bring your entire family in on your history together. 

How to Make a Family Tree Online

Another option is to make a family tree online. Making a family tree online is an easy way to update it long-term, especially if you’re working with it as a family. There have never been more online tools to choose from, so follow these steps below. 

1. Compile your information

To begin, compile the information you already have. The benefit of creating a family tree online is that it’s easy to do research while you work. However, before you get started, prepare any family tree information you already have. This might include family documents, vital records, photos, and so on. 

2. Choose an online tool

There are so many different online tools to choose from. Some of these are designed specifically for making family trees, while others are more basic design tools. You might already be familiar with many online family tree makers. 

The most common tool is Ancestry, but this requires a paid membership. Ancestry creates your family tree automatically as you do research, so this is the most comprehensive tool. However, you don’t have to use a dedicated family tree maker. Other options are Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. Both of these are easy for anyone to use, and they have online versions that are collaborative. 

Lastly, you can also use a basic design tool to create your family tree. A tool like Canva or PicMonkey works similar to making a family tree by hand, but you have more graphic freedom. These are both free, collaborative online tools that work great for family tree projects. 

3. Create an organizational system

Just like when creating your own family tree on paper, you should prepare an organizational system for your online family tree as well. While your tool might include built-in organizational features, you can also create your own key. This could be different shapes, colors, or graphics for each addition to your family tree. 

4. Make your family tree collaborative

Last but not least, make your family tree collaborative. This makes it easy for your loved ones to contribute to your family tree, as well. Ancestry and other family research websites have built-in collaborative features, as do free tools like Microsoft, Google Drive, and even Canva. 

When you add your family members, invite them to collaborate on your project. They might have more information to add, clarifications, or feedback. It’s normal to add to your family tree over time, so why not include everyone in the action?

Popular Free Family Tree Templates for Excel, Google Docs, or Word

There are so many free templates to choose from. While we listed some above, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Below, find a complete list of the most popular free family tree templates. You can use these in Excel, Google Docs, Word, or other suitable programs. 

  • Blank Family Tree: For a traditional tree-shaped family tree template, this free option from Family Tree Templates is downloadable as a PDF. From there, you can hand-write your edits. 
  • 5 Generation Family Tree: If you want to go back 5 generations or less, this 5-generation template is designed with this in mind. Because it’s clearly labeled, it’s easy to use this PDF. 
  • Family Tree for Children: This family tree is appropriate for kids since it’s simple to use and features a fun cartoon. 
  • Basic Pedigree Chart: This four-generation pedigree chart is by the National Genealogical Society. Designed with clear labels and descriptions, this is a ready-made template that’s easy to use. 
  • Standard Pedigree Chart: The National Genealogical Society also has a standard pedigree chart that is more flexible, going back even more generations. 
  • Adoption Family Tree: For adopted children, this family tree is designed to trace families back on both sides. 
  • Fan Tree: An alternative style is the fan family tree. This is easy to edit, and the PDF is available for free from Obituaries Help. 

Popular Family Tree Maker Websites

Lastly, there are many family tree maker websites designed to do the heavy lifting for you. Some of these are entirely free, while some require a paid membership. Try them for yourself to see what works for you. 

Family Echo

First, Family Echo has a free tool that doesn’t require any membership or login information. However, if you want to save your data, you will need to sign up with a Family Echo account. Through this simple chart, it’s easy to drag and drop your information. You can zoom in and out, search, and add special characteristics. 

DNA Weekly

DNA Weekly has a lot of genealogical tools that are easy to use. Their family tree creator is always 100% free, and you don’t have to register to get started. It starts by using your biographical information to build out your family tree. From there, you can save your completed document or share it on social media. 

Lucidchart

Lucidchart is an organizational tool that’s used for a number of different things, including making family trees. This is a visual workspace tool, and you’ll need a free account to get started. Use their family tree builder tools to drag and drop your own family tree as many generations back as you want.

Famberry

Last but not least, you can create an online family tree with Famberry. You’ll need a free account to get started, but this is a fully collaborative family tree tool. Create and curate photo albums within your family tree, making a unique work of art that tells your story. 

Build Your Family Tree

You have to become an advocate for your family’s story, no matter how difficult it is to find what you’re looking for. Nothing beats the satisfaction of solving a family mystery. You’ll feel more connected to your family’s past. While you might know your immediate family members, when was the last time you went deeper than that? Knowing where your ancestors are from, what they went through, and how your family developed through the years is a moving experience. 

Creating a family tree is one of the many ways to start end-of-life planning. By learning more about the life and death of your loved ones and those who came before, you realize the importance of recordkeeping and planning. Are you ready for what lies ahead?

Looking for more ways to preserve your family history? Read our guide on how to write a family history book or essay.


Sources

  1. Lawthers, Ann. “Getting Started: Tips to Help You On Your Way.” American Ancestors. AmericanAncestors.org

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