Research Your Family Tree Online

Christian Cawley 04-11-2013

Table Of Contents

§1–Uncover Your Ancestors Using Your Computer

This guide is available to download as a free PDF. Download Research Your Family Tree Online now. Feel free to copy and share this with your friends and family.

§2–Different Types of Family Tree Applications

§3–Researching Your Family Tree Online

§4–Researching Your Family Tree with Ancestry

§5–Using Online Research for Offline Discoveries

§6–Family History and Multimedia


§7–Your Family History Is Waiting To Be Discovered


1. Uncover Your Ancestors Using Your Computer

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Your computer plays games, and with it you can check email or browse the web. You might develop presentations, run your finances through a spreadsheet and even contribute to a crowdsourced research project. But did you know that your computer can also tell you who you are, and where you came from?

A growing trend in computer use is that of researching a family tree, using online and offline resources alongside a customised database project to figuratively travel back in time and meet your ancestors.


Various specialist software tools are available to help you to map your family tree – so called because of the way the members of various generations of a family spread out in a diagram – and there are websites available that can help you out with everything from census results to finding graves.

1.1 What Is a Family Tree?

A family tree is two things.

Most commonly, it is a logical arrangement of generations from now (probably starting with you) and stepping back in history. As we are all biologically the product of two parents who are both a product of two more parents. This progression through time results in the tree – best demonstrated as a diagram – double with each generation.

However, the family tree is also the intangible connection that you feel to these people as you uncover their birthdays, their life events, and elements of their personality. Photos and recordings can be added to the most modern genealogy database software, along with stories that you might find from friends, relatives and even books and newspapers clippings.


These details help to turn your ancestors into real people, giving a stronger idea as to how they lived. A genealogy project can bring the past to life in ways that you might not have realised.

1.2 Why Are You Researching?

With this in mind, it is worth considering just why you are researching your family tree. Who are you looking for? What are you looking for?

Could you be trying to understand your family, and the values that you and your siblings have? Are you trying to establish a historical trend, perhaps for working in a particular industry or field?

For me, I was fascinated by the comparative mystery that surrounded my maternal ancestors, despite living around 20 miles from where they were born, lived and died. I can also tell you that my wife’s own family tree featured a mystery – just where did her great-great-grandfather come from, and was this farmer really related to a family of well-known journalists?


Once you can understand why you are researching, it can help you to focus your efforts on the information you’re looking for – and who to research.

1.3 Genealogy Explained

The term genealogy is derived from the Greek words for generation and knowledge. It is essentially the collection of data and information about families, enabling the researcher to trace both lineage (who is descended from who) and history (who married who, worked where, achieved what, etc.).

When you first begin researching your family tree you might begin by taking notes from older relatives before looking into historical records and visiting places where your ancestors lived. However, the Internet and specialist software can give you a considerable advantage, helping you to find new facts, dates and material from the comfort of your desktop PC, laptop or tablet.

1.4 How Computers Play a Part

Various software applications and websites can play their part in helping you research, collate and organize your family tree, enabling you to build up a picture of who your ancestors were, how and where they lived, what they did for a living, and so on.
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With census data perhaps the most commonly accessed information available online for this purpose, the Internet has become a major aspect of genealogy research. Military records, immigration records, newspaper articles and probate documents are also vital resources, and many of these are also archived or indexed on the web, ready for you to start digging up your family history.

As you build up your records, you’ll need somewhere to store the data. There are various applications that are designed to help you do this, basically databases with the focused aim of providing visualisations and reports that you can use to add the information that you’ve found. One application, Family Tree Maker, even integrates with the website, meaning that you don’t even need to manually add the data – the application does it for you! These are just two of the services we’ll be looking at later in this guide.

However you plan to conduct your research, at some point you’ll need a computer, and maybe some office software if you plan on keeping a diary or journal, or perhaps records of the contacts you have made in the process of your exploration.

1.5 Overview: Where Data Can Be Found

Beyond the web, there are other places where you can find data. Libraries, newspaper offices, graveyards, public record offices, schools, churches, military bases and local museums can all be vital resources as you research your family tree.

Coupled with the online tools described above, these places can provide data concerning birth, death, marriage, debt, baptism, conscription and perhaps even photos, not to mention probate records (wills), school records, details of employment and much more.

As a result, while the immigration and census records available online are important, these offline sources are just as relevant.

1.6 Who Are You?

You can’t research a family tree without first knowing who you are. This can be anything from appreciating family characteristics to knowing the names of your immediate family, specifically your parents and grandparents.

From there, you can then begin to work backwards, researching census results and birth records to trace your family further back. As you find out more, you’ll no doubt recognise some barely familiar stories, perhaps parallels with your own life and even photographs that might highlight a physical similarity with yourself.
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One thing to keep in mind: not everyone is ready to start researching their family tree. Even with the vast resources available online, this is a time consuming and often emotional process, one that can – in many circumstances – bring emotional wounds long since forgotten to the surface.

You should, therefore, be completely prepared for the possibility of revelations. More importantly, be ready to spend a lot of time researching your family history, as it is a fascinating subject that you can quickly get lost in. In fact, it might even take over your life!

2. Different Types of Family Tree Applications

Various types of software exist for researching and managing the research of your family tree. These range from database applications that present your collated research in an attractive tree-based format to utilities for converting data between applications and websites and even mobile apps.

Furthermore, there is free and premium software that you can install. Premium applications can be bought online and even downloaded from the publishers’ websites, and often come with free trial versions.

Free alternatives often offer many of the same features, but whether you use a free or premium application, you’ll be able to add photos and notes to your collection of names, dates and locations.

All of the options listed below provide support for GEDCOM, the data standard for genealogy software. This basically means that it should be easy for you to move your data between software packages if you change applications. GEDCOM data can also be uploaded to the web and shared via email, as you will see later in the guide.

2.1 Premium Software

Probably the most famous genealogy database software on the market is Family Tree Maker. Other apps include Legacy Family Tree and MacFamilyTree, although there are many others, which you’ll find listed in the Appendix.

2.1.1 Family Tree Maker

If you have attempted to start research into your family tree in the past you may have downloaded a trial copy of Family Tree Maker or found it mounted to the front of a related magazine. Originally released in 1989, the application has had a number of owners over the years; it is now published by, the main online database of census and other genealogy records worldwide.
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Although there are some very good alternatives, both paid and freeware, if you are planning to research your family tree using online resources, Family Tree Maker has the advantage of being closely integrated with See chapter 5 for more details about this and using Family Tree Maker as your genealogy research tool.

Family Tree Maker is available for as little as £30 or as much as £80, depending on which package you buy. More expensive releases come with bulky guides and free subscriptions to You can see why this is the most popular option for many researchers! A Mac version is also available: Family Tree Maker for Mac 2. Full details can be found at

2.1.2 Legacy Family Tree

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Dating back to 1997 and still going strong, Legacy Family Tree is a freemium app, meaning that although available free initially, additional features are on offer that you must pay to unlock. As such, it comes in two editions, the free Standard version and the Deluxe release, which starts at $29.95.

Like Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree is a family history database tool, and although the Deluxe version offers many more features, the basic tasks are available in both:

  • Adding family data.
  • Running reports and alternative views.
  • Keeping track of notes, research and logging sources.
  • Adding pictures, sound and video.
  • Finding duplicates (a common problem with any family tree research)
  • Creating a website from your family tree data.

As you can see from the screenshot, Legacy Family Tree looks very different to Family Tree Maker, and the software certainly feels different, with a focus more on personal research rather than pulling in results from the web.

Legacy Family Tree 7.5 is for Windows Vista, 7 and 8, although older versions are available for previous Windows versions. Head to to download your free copy.

2.1.3 MacFamilyTree

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[Image Credit:]

A Mac-only application, MacFamilyTree is similar to Legacy Family Tree in its approach, preferring database tools and multimedia enhancements to your records to the built-in web-based data import that Family Tree Maker can achieve.

Offering views, reports and even an innovative 3D Virtual Tree, MacFamilyTree has been going strong since 1998 and can handle databases of 10,000 people without your Mac’s performance being affected.

Furthermore, data from this application can be saved to Apple’s iCloud service – ideal for if you also choose to use the MobileFamilyTree Pro app for iPhone and iPad.

A free demo version of MacFamilyTree is available and the full app can be purchased for $49.99. More information can be found at

2.2 Free Software

Although Legacy Family Tree is available initially as a free product, this isn’t the only free tool that you can use to aid you in your research. Several free and open source software alternatives are available, such as Gramps and GenealogyJ.

2.2.1 Gramps

Available for Linux, BSD and Solaris as well as Windows and Mac OS X, Gramps is the ultimate cross-platform desktop genealogy application, enabling full database editing and the specifying of personal data, relationships and geographical information.

Despite its open source status, Gramps is a polished piece of software, offering a selection of data analysis widgets (known as “Gramplets”), detailed events for your research subjects, repositories, notes and the all-important inclusion of media such as photos and videos. The app also supports printing customised family tree charts Gramps Lets You Print Free Customised Family Tree Charts [Cross-Platform] At some point in your life, you've probably considered looking into your family tree and making sense of it all. If you're the technical guru of the family, you've possibly also considered how you might... Read More .

Ideal for anyone not using Windows or Mac OS X, find out more and download your free copy at

2.2.2 GenealogyJ

Another cross-platform, open source option is GenealogyJ, which requires you to have Java already installed on your computer.

The user interface may seem basic compared to that of other apps, but GenealogyJ offers data and associated reports for family trees, tables, timelines and geography.

Essentially a viewer and editor, GenealogyJ is provided as a no-frills tool for quick data entry and editing, and of course offers GEDCOM support.

2.3 Mobile Genealogy Apps

Whether you have regular use of a tablet computer or just want to do some family tree updating while you wait for the bus, there is a selection of good genealogy apps available for tablets and smartphones.

2.3.1 Companion Apps

There are many genealogy apps for Android and iOS, some of which are standalone apps; individual database applications for smartphones and tablets. Others, though, are companion apps, small-scale versions of the full desktop software.
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One example is the app, free for Windows 8, iOS and Android. This acts like a portable Family Tree Maker, enabling you to easily connect to the website and pull the relevant family census data back to your tablet or phone. Naturally you’ll need an Ancestry subscription for the best results, but this is truly a superb option and one that you should at least try out – especially if you’re using Family Tree Maker on your desktop. The data is saved to your Ancestry account and can be imported into the desktop version. The app is so good, you’ll find it in MakeUseOf’s Best iPad Apps list!

Another companion app you might try is MobileFamilyTree Pro, designed as a portable version of the MacFamilyTree software for Mac OS X. Again, this offers portable family tree research options, and proves an able replacement for the full application if you don’t have access to your Apple computer.

2.3.2 Android

Android users have a wide selection of apps to choose from, but most probably don’t cut the mustard. One app you should try if you’re not using the Ancestry app is FamilyBee [No Longer Available] (£6.20, trial available), a handheld GEDCOM viewer that is ideal for use on-site, such as at graveyards or in record office. Annotations you make are sent via Gmail to your computer. FamilyBee is reliable and can handle up to 65,000 names.

2.3.3 iOS

If you’re the owner of an iPad or iPhone, there are several apps you can use instead of or alongside Ancestry and MobileFamilyTree.
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Family Tree History and Genealogy Coat of Arms of Last Names is available as a free and paid ($4.99) app, enabling you to find the meaning and origin of a surname, a useful tool in the discovery of your family history.

Family Tree ($0.99) is a useful genealogy database tool that is best used on an iPad although it is available for iPhone too.

In addition, you’ll find Family Tree Magazine and Your Family Tree available to purchase and download to your device.

An expanded list of available genealogy software on many platforms (both current and discontinued) can be found in the appendix.

3. Researching Your Family Tree Online

If you’ve been reading through this guide from the beginning, you’ll know by now that there are some great family tree database tools that can help you to put your discoveries together.

But where do you find the information?

While there is a strong case for talking to elderly relatives, old family friends and reading diaries, newspaper cuttings and other material that your parents might have kept (not to mention photographs!), these are all things we’ll come to later.

Before you get started talking to anyone, you need questions, and the best place to find them is online.

3.1 Ancestry

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There are several websites offering a wide selection of resources to help you uncover the secrets of your family’s history. Perhaps the best place to start is (there are versions around the world) where you can search records for free.

While the resulting searches will yield little in the way of first hand sources – you’ll have to subscribe for the pleasure of viewing census returns and birth, marriage and death information – you should find enough in their searchable index in terms of names, where events occurred and when to start building up a picture of your ancestors. Of particular note is the optional hints system, which cross-reference the people in your tree with other records to help you build up a better picture of your family history.

Ancestry is the first online stop for anyone interested in researching their family tree, and we’ll be looking at its use in more detail in the next chapter.

3.2 Cyndi’s List

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Not every genealogy website is about databases and scanned documents from hundreds of years ago. Some of them are just lists.

Cyndi’s List is one of the oldest bookmarks on my computer. Offering 290,000 links across 180 categories, Cyndi’s List (created by Cyndi Howells) first went online in March 1996.

Not only does Cyndi’s List offer a collection of excellent links, many are grouped into regional categories, enabling you to find information specifically tailored to the areas you’re researching.

You’ll also find access to census returns, some of which are available free – don’t research your family tree online under the apprehension that only offers census results!

3.3 Rootsweb

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An Ancestry subscription will cost money, at least $120 a year.

While Cyndi’s List offers an incredible number of resources, it is important to narrow down your research very quickly. One way of doing this is to take advantage of Rootsweb, owned by but offered as a free online community.

We mentioned earlier how it is important to talk to relatives when researching a family tree. Rootsweb offers a way of doing this by connecting you with other people studying the same family.

In addition, this service also offers mailing lists for family names, templates, charts and forms to print out or send to fellow researchers/family members online and hosts many websites and volunteer research projects such as FreeReg for the UK or CanadaGenWeb.

Other resources available through Rootsweb include:

Whatever you think about the prospect of paying for research through Ancestry, the options offered through Rootsweb are certainly worth further investigation.

3.4 World Vital Records

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Heading to will open your research to a vast archive of census results dating back to 1790, along with social security death details, old newspapers and resources from 39 European countries.

Costing just $8 a month ($90 a year), census results for the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK and Ireland are included in the price; a free 3-day trial is also available.

Owned by the MyHeritage, World Vital Records is essentially a competitor to Ancestry. To all intents and purposes the information offered is largely the same, although naturally World Vital Records won’t enable you to easily import data into Family Tree Maker in the same way Ancestry does. On the other hand, the Family Tree Builder software (see Appendix) allows remote database searches, but isn’t as friendly an application as the superior Family Tree Maker.

3.5 The USGenWeb Project

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Available at this volunteer-lead project has the lofty-but-admirable aim of making genealogy research free in the USA, and covers every county and state.

Ethnic research, military records, obituaries, primary sources of historical information from the Civil War through to Vietnam can be researched, all without putting your hand in your pocket (or your credit card number into your browser).

Mailing lists and newsletters can also be subscribed to, and if you feel passionate about the subject you can also volunteer your time to the project.

3.6 Family Search

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Operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – which has a long-standing interest in genealogy – is perhaps the biggest of the family history sites, offering a more social type of research.

While you can spend time mapping your family tree, browsing records and uploading old family photos (par for the course with online genealogy databases) Family Search has a focus on collaboration with other users.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that when you start (or continue) a family history research project you should do the utmost to verify any information you can find online, and be sceptical when it comes to trusting family trees uploaded by distant relatives – there is a lot of margin for error, something that can easily lead to adding complete strangers to your family tree!

Records on Family Search depend on having being submitted by other members, so don’t be surprised to find that you can’t find what you’re looking for. It is worth uploading your family tree however, as there is always a chance that distant relative will do the same, potentially enabling you both to fill in the blanks.

3.7 DistantCousin

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With 10 million records available from over 4,000 sources online, (think newspaper obituaries, school yearbooks and of course the obligatory census records and immigration passenger lists), is free to use. Essentially a massive library, you’ll need to do all the work here.

There are no Ancestry-style automatic hints to other people who may be related to the person you’re researching here, just endless, raw data.

While it might not suit the beginner, DistantCousin is a strong resource that you should certainly be aware of.

3.8 Facebook

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Over the past few years, one online resource has linked up more living relatives than any other. If you have connections to uncles, aunts, cousins and other older relatives via Facebook, then this can be a great way to find out more about your family, either in the present, the resent past or further back.

Whether you’re simply following a relative in your newsfeed or communicating with the directly for questions, notes and even sharing their own research, Facebook is like a ready-made tool enabling fast and instant communication, photo-sharing and more.

Although a useful resource, avoid Facebook apps claiming to offer genealogy help. These are potentially insecure and don’t offer anything that you can’t find elsewhere online. Facebook should be limited to providing you with quick and easy collaboration with relatives, and little else.

3.9 Find Census Data and More on eBay

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No, you didn’t read that wrong – it is perfectly feasible to find genealogy records on eBay!

A browse of eBay right now will reveal a multitude of listings offering discs and documents featuring local histories, notable families, church records, census data, old newspapers and maps and much more.

If you have hit a wall in your research and travel overseas to your ancestors’ place of birth isn’t feasible, eBay might be the most cost-effective option. Never won an eBay auction? A technique known as sniping How to Start Winning eBay Auctions by Sniping With Automatic Bidding eBay automatic bidding can win you auctions and help you save money. Though allowed by eBay, it remains controversial. Let's look at how eBay sniping works. Read More might help here.

3.10 Which Online Research Should I Use?

Above you will see ten of the most popular and relevant online resources with all of the bells, whistles and newsletters that they offer. There is something for every type of family history researcher in this list.

However, I wouldn’t recommend sticking to a single resource. For years I was on several mailing lists for my family based on surname and location, and drew a blank with every single email. It soon seemed that I was the only person researching those people.

This wasn’t the case, however; others were researching my ancestors, but using different websites and communities. As such, you should always hedge your bets and spread your use of genealogy research sites. Even if you are paying a subscription for one site, make time to check out the free ones too. If money is a problem, is a good free online resource Make Your Own Free Family Tree Online Using Geni For those of you who have considered doing your family tree using an online service, you may have noticed that there’s a lot of variance between what is available from each service – and for... Read More .

Remember, the better chance of results, the further back you can trace your family and build up a better picture of who your ancestors were.

4. Researching Your Family Tree with Ancestry

There are many different places to find the data to get started with your family tree.

You might question an elderly relative, or find an old photo album with notes on the back of some pictures. Diaries, wills and birth certificates can all help if left by older or deceased ancestors, but building up a picture of who they were and what they did can be difficult.

This is where comes in. Rather than suggesting you pack up a laptop and head out to local record offices or even overseas to view graveyards, I’m telling you to stay put and use this superb website to put together as much information about your forefathers and mothers as possible.

Once you have as much information as possible and determined what information you’re still missing, you can start thinking about travelling to the relevant places to fill in the gaps.

4.1 Getting Started with

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Your family tree is waiting to be discovered at, where initial searches and summary results (those omitting scans of the primary sources) are free.

An initial search of yourself, confirming the identity of a parent and gaining access to the results, however, requires you to agree to sign up to the Ancestry newsletter; once you’ve done this, the website will display the information that you can use to start building up your family tree.

The presence of scans of original birth, marriage and death records – not to mention census returns – is often too much to ignore, however. As such, Ancestry offers several subscription options.

4.2 Signing Up for a Free Trial

It is always possible to sign up at Ancestry with a Registered Guest account, which is free. It doesn’t matter which Ancestry locale you sign up for, as your account can be used throughout all of the Ancestry sites.

From time to time, Ancestry also offers a free trial of their premium services, typically lasting 14 days. To take this offer up (and of course you can cancel before the trial is up, although the number of times you manage to do this is limited, along with the access you can gain to the data on offer) you will be able to sign up to one of available paid membership types for continued access to premium features. When your paid subscription ends, your account will revert to a Registered Guest account, so you will always be able to access your data.

In the USA, these are:

  • U.S. Discovery ($19.99/month or $99/six months) – this offers all US record collections, online tree management, free hints and the ability to connect with other members to share research.
  • World Explorer ($34.99/month or $149/six months) – all of the above is available with this subscription, along with access to all of Ancestry’s 1 billion-plus records from around the world, access to passenger lists and border crossings and view 16th century records from the UK.

Meanwhile, if you’re researching your family tree in the UK, you have these three membership programs:

  • Essentials (£9.99/month or £99/year) – offers a basic package of birth, marriage and death records for the UK and Ireland, census records and the online tree builder tool. Many more options are available, such as member connect, and search tools and hints.
  • Premium (£14.99/month or £149/year) – with this package you get all of the above, plus parish records from 1538-1980 and military records.
  • Worldwide (£19.99/month or £199/year) – here you can enjoy all of the above along with worldwide emigration records, access to 11 billion records from across the world; this is essentially the same as the World Explorer package above.
  • Pay as you view (£.6.95) – gives access to a total of 12 record views across a 14 day period.

Please note that the listed prices are subject to change. Also note that due to the geographical limitations of the premium packages, you should ensure you sign up for the country that will serve you best. Australians get an added bonus in that their paid subscriptions automatically include UK results as well as Australian data.

For the best idea of the benefits of an Ancestry subscription, taking advantage of the 14 day free trial is recommended.

4.3 Start with a Search

We’re going to continue with the assumption that you have signed up for a trial package on
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The first thing you will need to do is perform a search. This might be for yourself (if you want to start building your online tree right away), or for an ancestor.

If the site hasn’t already presented you with some search options, and you haven’t been side-tracked into reading something else (there is a lot to get through!) click the Search button on the toolbar and select Search all records.

Here, you will be prompted to input the First & Middle Names of the person you want to search for (typically a parent or grandparent, if you want the best results), along with their Last Name and any other information that you can lay your hands on.

The more information you can provide, the better. Try not to be intimidated by the number of available options – as long as a name is entered, the website will be able to return results that you can browse through.

As more data is added to your search, the better the chance of an accurate result. You can narrow things down by specify a particular life event, date range or even data type, from census results to probate records (wills) and even the family trees of other members.

4.4 Analysing the Results

You’ve narrowed down the possibilities and made a search. The results are back are back – but what do they mean?

Depending on how you have searched, the returned results will need to be viewed in a particular way. For instance, census results will provide a summary of the information, accompanied by a scan of the original census return, as long as you have a paid Ancestry membership.
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Such summaries can provide you with full name, age, other family members, the town and parish or county, address, occupation, marital status, education and a few other details.

If you’re happy that the results match someone in your family (perhaps you’ve been told a bit about them and the information fits) then use the Save record… option in the top left to add the person to your tree. Printer-friendly versions are also available, and the data can also be saved to your “shoebox”, which makes it easily accessible without having it on your family tree database.

Note that there are also options for sharing records via Facebook, Google+ and email, while alternate information can be added – this is only wise if you have access to original documents, or have spotted an error in the transcription of the original document.

Reading other document types is largely similar, certainly before the 1960s, after which the majority of historical records such as registers, records and other documentation relevant to researching a family tree were typed.

4.4.1 Deciphering Census Data

Census data is returned on Ancestry as a summary. However, this may be inaccurate.

Over the past few years Ancestry and some other groups have been transcribing census data in the USA and United Kingdom dating as far back as the late 18th century and coming as close up to date as the early years of the 20th century.

Understanding how this data was collected and how mistakes can be made can go a long way to getting to grips with what mistakes may exist, and why things like Soundex (a system that groups similar-sounding names in databases) are so important.
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Prior to the mid-20th century there was no standardised form of written English until the introduction of formalised, national curriculums of education, and the provision of free education for the masses.

As such, what we would now consider to be spelling mistakes were rife, with many forenames and surnames – not to mention the names of villages, towns and cities – having multiple spellings.

Census returns are huge documents completed by a person assigned to go from house to house to collect names, ages, places of birth and occupation. Often taking place over the course of a week or two, the work could be intensive, and of course, mistakes could slip in.

Now, bearing in mind that these census returns have also been transcribed by an immense team of researchers, there is the possibility of further errors.

When you use Ancestry to search for your ancestor’s census records – in order to find out their living arrangements, address and occupation at a given time – keep in mind that the summary information that is displayed before you view the scan might not be accurate. Furthermore, you may have difficulty reading the census return.

Finally, don’t overlook the possibility that your ancestor’s census data – as well as birth, marriage and death certificates – could be recorded under a different, similar name.

4.5 Building Your Tree with Ancestry

After you’ve added a few ancestors into your family tree, there may be some amendments that you wish to make.

Using the Family Trees view you can open your current set of records arranged by relationship. While it isn’t possible to create new people here (you’ll need software on your computer to do that, and then upload the resulting GEDCOM file – more on this in the Appendix) you can take advantage of the Ancestry Hints, useful cross-matching performed by the website to find the people in your family tree in other records.

You’ll see the leaf icon representing hints at the top of the screen; this will be accompanied by a number to tell you how many hints need reviewing. If you’re currently in the family tree view – which can be switched between Pedigree (left to right) and Family (bottom to top) views – the leaf symbols will appear against the names of individual records.

Hints might come from cross-referencing performed in the background by across their vast library, or they might come from other family trees or even photos.

4.6 Managing Your Online Family Tree

Ancestry provides options for the management of your family tree, enabling you to manage privacy and sharing settings, invite family members and even print out your current view.

Note that if you ever get lost when browsing your family tree database, click on the Home button to jump to the record of the first person added to the tree.

Other than the search tools, the tree is perhaps the hub of the service. It is here that you can view your entire lineage (the path from you back to your oldest recorded ancestor) and a search tool is provided that will enable you to quickly jump to a specific record.

The Tree Pages menu offers further options.

  • Family Group Sheet – displays the immediate family of the currently selected record.
  • Tree Overview – provides a summary of each of the following screens.
  • Media Gallery – displays all uploaded images, audio and videos. See Chapter 6 for more on multimedia.
  • All Hints – presents a list of all cross matched hints (accepted and discarded) for all of the people in your family tree.
  • Facebook Import – enables quick population of data from family members on Facebook. See below for more details.
  • Tree Settings – name the tree, add a description, and decide upon a Public Tree or Private Tree (information about living people is obscured when a tree is viewed, and hidden from search results) in Privacy Settings.
  • Share Your Tree – here you can invite people by email or by Ancestry username to view your tree. Permissions can be set in the Tree Settings page.

Spend some time taking a look at these pages, and work out how you can use them for your family tree project.

4.7 Finding Living Relatives with Facebook

Entering information into your family tree can be a tedious affair, especially in the early stages when you invariably find yourself adding living relatives in order to bulk the tree out a bit.

One way of saving time here is to use Facebook, using a connection with the social network to import names, birthdays, gender, and profile images of your relatives (existing images are kept as default).
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Use the Facebook Import option in the Tree Pages menu to begin, clicking Get Started and agreeing to allow Ancestry access to your Facebook profile. You may wish to uncheck the Post to my News Feed when I use Facebook Import option before starting.

Next, you’ll be asked to confirm that Ancestry has correctly matched your own record. Following this, Ancestry will compare the names in your database with your Facebook friends list, asking you to confirm or deny whether the displayed records match. In a few moments time you should have more information about some of your relatives, including some all-important multimedia to help bring your family tree to life!
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Note that no information is shared by Ancestry, and that Facebook contacts can only see your research if you’ve given them permission to do so. Disconnecting a family tree from Facebook is quick and easy – open the person’s Ancestry record, look for the Facebook Import section and select Disconnect this profile. It’s unlikely that you will have too many family members imported from Facebook, so if you want to disconnect them all this shouldn’t take you too long.

If you’re searching for living relatives who aren’t on your Facebook friend’s list, your next option is to use Ancestry’s Living Relative Search button, which takes you to a new search tool that works with the help of PeopleTracer. All you need for this is a name and a location – the search tool will return the details you’re looking for, although these are limited to 10 a day unless you purchase credits.

Not using Ancestry or Family Tree Maker? There are many other ways that you can find people on the Internet 13 Websites to Find People on the Internet Looking for lost friends? Today, it's easier than ever before to find people on the internet with these people search engines. Read More .

4.8 Searching with DNA

Family tree researchers in the USA have the advantage of using Ancestry’s $99 DNA service, used to determine your personal ethnicity.

Discovering whether your ancestors were Irish or Scottish, Nigerian or Cameroonian or descended from any other ethnic grouping can help in determining your background, finding distant relatives and even provide some background to the decisions, lifestyles and origins of those who came before you.

This is a safe and secure service, but may not be for everyone. To find out more, head to

4.9 Using Ancestry with Family Tree Maker

Although not necessary, a streamlined user experience can be attained using Family Tree Maker alongside Ancestry.

We discussed the application in Chapter 3, and while it is a very good tool on its own Family Tree Maker really comes into its own when used in conjunction with’s online databases.
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If you’ve already done some work on your family tree in Ancestry, you can import it into Family Tree Maker 2012 and later versions by launching the software, logging into the Ancestry website and clicking Download from Ancestry. You can also use the Export tree button on the Family Trees > Tree Settings page to create a GEDCOM file that can be imported into Family Tree Maker via File > Import.

The TreeSync tool is a great way to manage your family tree from any device while avoiding problems merging data, so don’t overlook this feature if your software supports it!

4.9.1 Using Family Tree Maker to Search Ancestry

With your family tree imported – or built from scratch – you can use Family Tree Maker to search
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The Web search button is the place to start, where you will find results displayed much as they are on the website, grouped by category or record, depending on your preference. Source material (such as census scans, etc.) can be viewed in the app, while information you want to keep can be imported into the Family Tree Maker database using the Web Merge Wizard. You can prompt this to begin using the Merge button in the results screen, making sure to review the information for duplicates before completing the merger.

Remember that information on (or any other online services) isn’t necessarily accurate.

For more information on using Family Tree Maker, please consult the application documentation.

5. Using Online Research for Offline Discoveries

Throughout the course of your research, you will find reference to items that need to be researched further. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates; some military records – all of these things need to be found by visiting other online resources such as public records offices.

Failing that, you may need to go offline completely.

Fortunately, there are ways of making contact with the archives and libraries that you will need to speak to using email and telephone (or Skype, if you prefer to keep costs low). You might even get in touch with a professional researcher overseas to find the information you need and mail it to you.

As important as the online research is to uncovering your family tree, if you go back far enough you will invariably find that the only details you can find are offline – in graveyards, local history and land records.

5.1 Where Are The Records?

Birth certificates and other records found via BMD searches can be relatively easily found via the national records office or local public archives of your territory.

For instance, if you’re searching UK records (and many Americans, Canadians and Australians will be at some point, as well as those already living there) you can use the BMD indexes to find the necessary information to order birth, marriage or death certificates from the local council authorities.

Additionally, some church records for marriages in the UK are held online at, for the dates 1837-1920.
Research Your Family Tree Online Family Tree image5 meanwhile has indexes of non-conformist births and baptisms, deaths and burials, and also some marriages prior to 1837 (typically covering the 17th-19th centuries) in the UK. Note that this service is chargeable, so you should only use it when necessary. It might be a good idea – as with other paid services – to get as much information together as possible before signing up.

(Non-conformist records refer to churches and parishes that were not Church of England or Roman Catholic, such as: Methodists, Wesleyans, Baptists, Independents, Protestant Dissenters, Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers [Society of Friends], Dissenters and Russian Orthodox).

5.2 Contacting Archives

Whether you’re in the same town as the archives you need to visit or overseas, you shouldn’t begin planning a visit without getting in touch first. Some archives and record offices operate on a part-time basis, for instance; others – such as national archives holding military, shipping and other important historical data – may require you to make get in touch primarily to discuss what you’re looking for and whether they have it.

Given the size of some archives, a phone call or email before travelling would be especially wise.

Contacting the relevant archives shouldn’t be difficult. A quick check on Google for the local records office or national archive (or even in some cases museum) you need to contact should yield at the very least an email address or phone number.

Provide all of the information you have in terms of the record you’re looking for, such as name, any birth, marriage and death information, where they might have lived and of course any record numbers from indexes or summary documents you have seen online.

Remember that these record offices receive a huge number of queries every week, so be patient in waiting for a reply.

In cases where language may be a problem, you might consider hiring a specialist researcher based in the region you need to find the records from. For instance, you might be Indian but not know enough of your ancestors’ particular dialect to be able to find the information you need.

There are many options here, from contracting a researcher to find and mail the certificates (always duplicates, of course) that you need, to finding someone at the relevant record office who is skilled enough in languages to help you out.

Now, the important bit: duplicate certificates and even viewing of historical documents doesn’t come cheap. Hiring a researcher will also cost you money.

As with any activity in this guide, only pay for what you really need, and don’t spend any of it until the time has come to get the information you need.

6. Family History and Multimedia

Family history isn’t all about databases. After all, databases are pretty dry, boring things and researching your family tree should be far more interesting than that.

Many people attempt to research their family tree, but few manage to do it well. One of the overwhelming reasons for this is a misunderstanding of what they’re trying to achieve.
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Like history itself, a family tree isn’t about dates and places, but about people and relationships, how they lived and worked, loved and died. The point of a family tree is to build up a picture not of a lineage, but of the people who are part of the picture.

Who was your granddad? How did your great uncle come to live in New York City? What was your cousin doing in Chicago in the 1930s?

There is only one way to bring a family tree to life and that is with stories. Snippets of information, family tales and rumours, newspaper cuttings and of course photos and videos of the people concerned is the best way to do this.

The vast majority of family tree database management software and websites enable you to add photos and videos to your records, with stories and notes alongside the documentation such as census results and birth certificates.

6.1 Recording Interviews with Elderly Relatives

One of the first things you should do when first setting out to research your family tree is to approach older relatives who will have long memories about how their lives were in the early-to-mid 20th century. You’ll want to ask them about people, what they can recall about their childhood, brothers and sisters and mums and dads – grandparents too.

Getting older people to talk while you’re recording them is difficult. Under no circumstances should you record them in secret; however, make sure your recording device (perhaps a small digital audio recorder, or even your smartphone or tablet 5 Great Tips For Recording Audio With Any Smartphone Or Tablet Your phone is very smart. With Angry Birds, Facebook and mobile office applications, it's all too easy to forget that some of the features we use most were often available on those very old mobile... Read More ) is kept out of sight once the conversation gets going.

Try to steer the conversation too, rather than asking direct questions; at the same time, don’t interrupt – you don’t want to miss anything!

6.2 Importing Images and Videos into Your Database

We’ve already seen above how Facebook profiles can be added to an Ancestry database, and other things can be added too, such as images, audio clips and videos.

It isn’t just Ancestry that offers this facility. The family tree applications listed in Chapter 2 should all enable you to import videos and images into your database, enabling you to get a better look at the people in your tree.

Better still, when you come to share your tree with other family members, the photos and videos might unearth long-forgotten memories, more material for you to add to your tree!

6.3 Sharing Your Research

There are many different ways in which you can share your family tree. We’ve already seen that a tree saved on Ancestry can be shared with relatives by sending them an email; they will receive access to view your research.

Don’t forget that you can also configure your tree as public, thereby sharing it online for others to view.

Family tree software often offers printing options that you can use to compile charts and reports. This is particularly useful if you want to keep a physical copy of your research. Family Tree Maker, for instance, offers a variety of charts and reports for building up a physical repository of your research so far.

Ancestry offers a very useful system, MyCanvas, which is available from This service – which often offers discounts in the holiday period – is essentially an online publishing system, enabling you to create:

  • Family History Books
  • Family Tree Posters
  • Photo Books
  • Calendars
  • Collage Posters

Different options and cover types are available for all of these, with prices ranging from $14.95 for the cheapest posters to $69.95 for a 20 page book with padded leather binding.

Clearly, this isn’t something you want to do after half a day on, but once you feel that your research has been completed (perhaps you have gone as far back as records allow) then this is a great way to compile and display your research. Of course, if you have the time to compile the data yourself, other self-publishing printing options Your Guide To Self-Publishing: From Print To Kindle And Beyond! They say everyone has a book in them. The moment of completion brings a mix of immense satisfaction… and a confused, horrified reality: “How on earth am I going to publish it?” Read More might be available.

7. Your Family History Is Waiting To Be Discovered

Few pastimes require the combination of patience, detective work and eventual pride as researching your family tree.

This isn’t a project to be entered into lightly, and immediate results can be hard to achieve. However, with patience and persistence (along with kind words from a friend, relative or partner and a lot of coffee) you can reap the benefits of having such a vast supply of information available to you directly and indirectly via the Internet.
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The websites listed in this guide should get you started. If you prefer to keep your research on your PC or laptop, applications offering database management and multimedia support are available, both free and premium.

Mobile apps can provide useful support; getting to grips with census data while you’re sat on the train really makes you feel connected to your research.

Furthermore, beginning a project like this and reaching a stage of completion (perhaps by reaching a particular date or pre-determined event such as establishing whether your ancestor really did sign the death warrant of a king) can prove to be a huge personal achievement for many. Having your work printed and bound for family members to peruse is a crown on this accomplishment.

As with any personal project that you put time into, remember one thing – enjoy it while it lasts!


Family Tree Apps

Although this guide discusses a small number of family tree database management applications, many others are available. The following is a full list of tools running online and on desktop computers.




Over the years, a variety of utilities have been developed to help with the discovery and collation of family tree records.

One that continues in use to this day is the GEDCOM format, a file format developed to handle the family tree data

When you export your GEDCOM data from one application, it can be imported to another; it can also be viewed on a website or with a specialist database reading tool. Be aware, however, that the GEDCOM file doesn’t store media.

As such, if you are exporting your family tree records from one application, you will need to make provision to manually add photos and scans to a new app.

Image Credit: Cover photo by mauroguanandi on Flickr.

Related topics: Genealogy, Longform Guide.

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