If you were to attend a beginner’s class on how to build your family tree online, it would almost certainly focus a lot on Ancestry.com. Classes for experienced genealogists would move beyond this to more obscure websites and specialized websites for certain types of genealogy. But, for beginners just getting started with conducting genealogy online, building their online family tree and doing it accurately are usually the main goals. With these things, you will find Ancestry.com truly excels more than any other site on the internet.
Ancestry.com has the easiest family tree–building interface, and it connects you to other records and other family trees that might have additional information on the people you are researching. It also lets other researchers find you and reach out to exchange information. Other genealogy websites don’t offer as much in the way of genealogical resources and opportunities to contact other people who may be researching your line. Ancestry must be the primary focus. A beginner can get thorough with researching their family tree and building that tree online using just Ancestry.com before they may need to branch out to other websites. If you’re a beginner to genealogy and are looking for a comprehensive guide to building your online family tree, here’s what you need to know.
Make an Account at Ancestry.com
Although Ancestry.com is a paid-membership site, you can start an account there for free. A handful of databases are available there for free, too, such as the 1880 U.S. Federal Census. The site periodically makes other collections free on a limited basis each year, usually for certain holidays. As an example, it makes military records free on and around Veterans Day each year. If Ancestry.com introduces a new collection that will be of benefit to a large number of its users, it may make that collection available for free for a limited time to introduce users to it as well. It recently did this with its new and incredible U.S. Wills and Probate collection, which gathered a lot of documents from courthouses across the country that would normally take an in-person visit to access.
You can also start your family tree online on Ancestry.com for free. However, to use its most useful features, which are those that connect you to records and other people’s family trees that mention your ancestors, you will need to buy a subscription. You can choose to pay monthly, twice a year or annually. You can also choose to subscribe to American-only records or worldwide records. In addition, Ancestry.com offers a free 14-day trial, where you can check out the site without having to pay anything, to decide if it’s something you can use in your genealogy research. You can get your online tree started during this free-trial period, and this is the way it is recommended to begin. With your free trial of Ancestry.com, you can access all of its connecting features that will help you build your tree online.
Create Your Tree
Once you’re logged into your Ancestry.com account, go to the tab at the top of the page that says “Trees,” then select “Create and Manage Trees” from the drop-down menu. You can create as many individual family trees here as you like. You can make one big family tree for all the branches of your family or individual trees for individual branches or trees for clients or friends you may be doing genealogy work for as a professional or a volunteer.
Once you’re on the page to begin a new tree, start with you and go back, if you’re doing your “all lines” family tree. If you are doing an individual line tree, start with the person whose line you want to research. There will be little boxes for you to enter your information for each person, and the Ancestry.com family tree–builder interface will prompt you to add mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses and children for each new person you enter. You can also enter birth, death and marriage dates, record your sources, and add photos and any notes on an individual person you deem appropriate to your research.
You will be given the option to make your tree public or private. If you make it public, any Ancestry.com user will be able to see it. If you opt to make it private, other users who are researching your family will be able to see that the tree exists and will be able to see what type of records you have in it but won’t be able to view it. They will have to contact you through Ancestry.com’s message feature to ask for access to your tree, and it will be up to you whether or not to grant it to them. Private trees have features in which you can send invitations to other users to view the tree; the invitations are sent using the requesting person’s email or Ancestry.com username.
Be sure to name your family tree when you create it. Although you can give it any name, it’s usually best to name it by the surname of the main family being researched. If more than one line is being researched in the tree, use the names of the top three or four main families in the tree, such as the surnames of all four of your grandparents.
Once you start entering names, you will be able to select whether to view the tree with the main person to the side, generations going backward fanning out to the side (pedigree view) or with the main person at the top and subsequent generations below them (with generations before them being located above them, out of sight until you move the tree downward—this is known as family view). Whoever is the first person you put on your tree will always be considered the “home person,” unless you manually change it to someone else. If you ever want to go back to the beginning of your family tree, just click the house icon to return to the home person.
Add Details for Each Person
When entering names into the basic tree that gives you the pedigree of family views, you won’t have room to add too much information about them. To add details, including photos and sources, click on the name of the person for whom you want to enter details. You will get a larger version of their “quick profile” from the tree. Click on “Profile,” and you will be taken to a page devoted to just that person, where you can enter all the information you want to about them.
The profile page of an individual has a lot of different options for entering information. Some of these include:
- Adding children
- Adding spouses, including more than one spouse and children for each spouse,
- Parents (if you didn’t already add them on the pedigree or family view page)
- Sources you used to compile the information
- Links to websites outside of Ancestry.com you used to get your information
- Adding any other facts with dates about the person, such as immigration, naturalization, military service, locations where they lived, etc.
- Adding notes about the person that give personal details as to what they were like as people and things they did that aren’t in records but that you want others to know
- Adding photographs to the gallery
Use the Hints to Get More Information on Your Ancestor
This is where Ancestry.com becomes a truly interactive research tool in building your family tree. When you are on the pedigree view, family view or profile page of a person, you will be given hints to additional research on that person if it exists on Ancestry.com. This additional information could be records on the site in which your ancestor is named or to other trees submitted by Ancestry.com users that mention your ancestor. If you click through the links on these hints, you can see the actual records and decide if the pertain to your ancestor (or just someone with a similar name and/or similar pertinent dates to them). These hints will appear as green leaves on the person’s box on the pedigree and family view areas and as a green number next to the word “Hints” on the profile page.
If you decide you want to use the information in a record you find through a hint, you can use the profile page to automatically add that record to your sources with the “Save to Tree” feature. If you find someone else’s tree where your ancestor is mentioned, and that person is researching your family, you can send them a message directly to ask to connect and share information. You can also use the “member connect” feature on the profile page to be given a list of other users who are researching your ancestor who you might want to contact through Ancestry.com.
You can keep adding new family members to your tree going forward or backward in time. There is no limit to the number of people you can include on each tree. Some trees may have hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people on them. Just keep adding to your tree on Ancestry.com as you discover new information, and be sure to add your sources. Then, you will be well on your way to building an excellent, well-researched online family tree before you know it. With the search tools built right into the tree on Ancestry.com, finding new information to add to your tree, as well as new people to add to it, will be easy to do.
Use Other Sites to Supplement Your Research
While you can get a great deal of good genealogy research done on Ancestry.com, it shouldn’t be the only site you use to gather information. Yes, there is a lot of excellent information on Ancestry.com, but it doesn’t have every single record in the world. You will need to branch out to other websites to get the full amount of online information available on your ancestors. And there are still some records that are not digitized and online yet. Depending on how serious you are about your genealogy, you may want to take some road trips or even more extensive trips to find the information that is still hidden in courthouses, archives, museums and historical societies across the country. You can make scans of this information, take notes on what is in it along with where and when you found it and what type of record it is to include in your sources on your online family tree.
As long as you are just researching online, there are a lot of other places to go to get information you might not be able to find on Ancestry.com. The best sites are:
This is an excellent site for finding newspaper records that mention your ancestors. There are millions of old newspapers on the site going back around two hundred years. They are all digitized and searchable by name in the site’s search feature. You can often find a lot of information about your ancestors in old newspaper records that you won’t find anywhere else. This includes personal tales about them that aren’t in any official records. Genealogybank.com has some other features, such as the Social Security Death Benefit Index and recent obituaries as well as government records. But most of these things can be found elsewhere, including on Ancestry.com. You really need to add GenealogyBank.com to your bag of tools for building your online family tree for the old newspaper records. They are invaluable and worth the low cost of an annual subscription to the site.
This is a free genealogy website that is owned and operated by the Mormon church. Because the Mormons are serious about genealogy as part of their religion, they have one of the largest collections of genealogical records in the world. The physical copies are kept at their family history library in Salt Lake City. However, they are always digitizing more of these records and adding them to their website. Most of them are indexed and searchable by name, though some are not indexed yet, and must be browsed through page by page to find information on your ancestor.
This website is the largest collection of trustworthy genealogical records available for free online. They have vital records Ancestry.com does not yet have, though the two sites have recently partnered together to make FamilySearch’s collection available to Ancestry.com users (so they don’t have to visit a different site to get the information they need). You will do well to search through FamilySearch.org to add details to your online Ancestry.com family tree. You will find valuable information there, and it is a must for any genealogist’s toolbox online.
Use the “Search” feature to look through their record collections. You can also search through published genealogy books here as well as user-submitted trees that have been added to the site by Mormon church members and sometimes other genealogists who aren’t members of the church. If you use information on the user-submitted trees, make sure you verify it with outside sources or even vital record sources on the “Search” area of this website.
When you do genealogy, you will eventually want to get your DNA tested. It not only helps you confirm (or disprove) suspected relationships that don’t have a lot of (or any) documentation associated with them, but it will also show you where your ancient ancestors originated. Most DNA websites also have features that show you your closest DNA matches, your projected relationship, how much DNA you share and give you options to contact those people to determine which common ancestor or ancestors you share. Although Ancestry.com has a DNA feature, 23andMe.com has the best DNA testing program on the market.
You can see a percentage breakdown of your ancestry composition when you DNA test there. You can also see and contact your DNA matches. If you get both of your parents to also test, your DNA matches will show if they are related to you on your father’s or mother’s side of the family (and sometimes, they will be related on both sides). No other DNA website will give you this information. If you are serious about building your online family tree, this is a website you will eventually want to use. You can even build a family tree on the 23andMe.com website, which may be helpful in comparing results with other members. However, it is not necessary, as most members do not use this feature, and have their family trees elsewhere. You can use your family tree information wherever you keep it to discuss genealogy issues with your DNA matches here. Add this to your list of things to do in your genealogy, as it has a lot to offer genealogists of all levels.