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