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Beginner’s Guide to Building a Family Tree

Have you decided to build a family tree? Genealogy is such a fun adventure, and I’m so glad that you have made the first step to getting started: deciding that you want to build a family tree.

You’ve come to the right place for learning how to build a family tree!

Beginner's Guide to Building a Family Tree

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • How to choose a place to build a family tree
  • Beginning steps to building a tree
  • Where to find records and documents about your ancestors
  • Tips and tricks to build your tree further back

When I first got started in genealogy, I had no idea how to build a family tree. I had only seen pedigree charts that my older relatives had compiled, and had never considered getting involved in the hobby myself.

It has turned out to be a wonderful experience. I have learned so much about my ancestors and have become the go-to person in the family for all family history related questions.

Where should you build a family tree?

There are lots of places online to build a family tree. It’s best to build your tree on a website where you can access it wherever you are.

If possible, try to build your tree on a platform that allows you to access it from a desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet.

My favorite place to build a family tree is Ancestry. One of the reasons that I prefer Ancestry over many of the other sites for building trees is because I also tested my DNA on the site.

By connecting my DNA results to my family tree, I am able to access a lot of additional features.

Some of the most popular places to build a tree online:

There are also some software programs that you can download to build your tree on your computer (i.e. not keep it online). If you prefer this option, you might be interested in Roots Magic, Family Tree Maker, and Legacy.

I have used Legacy personally and found it an adequate and affordable alternative to keeping my tree online (though I still prefer online trees!)

If you are interested in learning exactly how (from a step-by-step technical standpoint) to build your tree on Ancestry, you might be interested in this post: “How to Build Your Tree on Ancestry“.

Ancestry is absolutely free to use to build a family tree, but you do need to have a subscription to get access to most of the records on the site.

What are the first steps to building a family tree?

Once you’ve decided to build a family tree and you know where you’d like to build it, you are now ready to start thinking about where you’ll get the information you need to start adding people to your tree.

While doing research, it is important to take good genealogy notes. I would recommend keeping your notes in a notebook or journal, like this one:

If you haven’t yet started building a family tree, definitely check out my book which is a guide to family tree building basics.

Your immediate and extended family can provide information about your family tree

Most people quickly jump to online sources of records, but there is one thing that I’d like to recommend that you do before you start looking in internet databases.

Talk to your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents (or even great-grandparents, if you can), and siblings of your grandparents.

During your conversations with these family members:

  • Take notes
  • Ask for copies of documents (like marriage, birth, or baptismal certificates) pertaining to your ancestors
  • Inquire about photographs of your ancestors

For a nice journal-style book that you can use to interview your relatives, complete with questions to ask and space for notes, check this out:

Or, you can learn about the downloadable printables available by clicking on the image below:

You might be surprised at what you learn!

To complete this step, make sure you add all of the immediate and extended family members that you know about/learn about to your family tree. Don’t forget to add the details that you learned from your family interviews to your tree.

Try to locate your ancestors in all US Federal and state census documents

Once you get the basic people added to your tree (like your mom, dad, grandparents, even great-grandparents), you will want to start looking for documents pertaining to the older generations of ancestors.

My favorite starting place to look for documents is the US Federal Census. It’s a relatively objective collection of information that was taken at regular intervals, and as such is very valuable to genealogists (especially budding genealogists like ourselves!).

The most recent Federal Census that is available for public use online is the 1940 US Federal Census. If your grandparents or great-grandparents were born before then and lived in the US, then you will probably be able to locate their nuclear family in this collection of documents.

Even if you already know a lot about your grandparents or great-grandparents, locating their family on the 1940 Federal Census is going to be the best place to start.

Pay careful attention to each detail reported to see if it lines up with what you know. If you don’t know anything, then this information will help you know where to look for additional documents.

For example, from the 1940 Census, you can learn whether or not your grandparent lived with their parents in a home that they rented or owned. If they owned their home, then you know that you might be able to look for property records in that county/town pertaining to your ancestors.

Every census document typically reports the names of all of the members of the household and their place of birth. By determining each person’s relationship to your ancestor, you can add them to your tree and discover new information.

Plus, since everyone’s place of birth is listed, you now know where you should look to find records. You might find new information that you never would have known.

For example, if your grandparent was born in Ohio and your great-grandparents were born in New York, you might not know that your great-grandparents lived in Pennsylvania for a time, where your grandparent’s older brother was born, but you could learn this from the 1940 Census record.

Every little detail, no matter how small, can provide a good clue as to where to look for more documents or records.

The US has taken a census every ten years since 1790, but you will probably find that the most helpful records are from 1850-1940. So, make sure to trace your family back through history by locating them and their ancestors in every census record available.

Fill in the story about people in your tree with additional supporting documents

Once you’ve filled in the basic generations of your tree, you can now focus on finding supporting documents to support (or dispute) what you learned from census records.

Supporting documents might come in the form of birth, marriage, and death records, state census documents, property and tax records, court documents, wills, employment records, and even newspaper clippings.

Just like with the census records, pay attention to every detail and record it. If it doesn’t match what you learned from another source, still take note of it. Eventually, you will find enough evidence to help you determine what you feel is the truth.

You can also look to other people’s family trees online for clues about your ancestors, but I recommend only using other’s trees for guidance.

Someone else’s family tree would not count as a supporting document or evidence for your tree (more on this below), but it can help you figure out where you might need to look to find evidence.

Add generations in your tree slowly

When most people get started with family tree building, they find themselves focused on building their tree back as far as they can as quickly as they can, typically only adding names an basic information to their tree.

This is called “name collecting” and we don’t want to be name collectors! We want to learn complete stories about our ancestors, and so this is why I advise people to go slowly and collect as much information as they can about each ancestor.

Moving too quickly can cause errors, and errors can cause us to add dozens of people to our tree who aren’t even related to us at all. By moving slowly and carefully, we will save ourselves more headache in the future.

Be careful of information obtained from public family trees online

As I mentioned above, finding information on other people’s family trees can often provide clues, but it’s important to be cautious about using unverified information from someone else’s tree.

Since you don’t know how careful they are about their research, you want to be sure not to copy a mistake from their tree.

This is why I always recommend verifying information that you learn from someone else on your own.

How to find records and documents to build your tree

You might be surprised at what type of information you will be able to learn about your ancestors.

Contained within birth, marriage and death records, census documents, church records, city directories, property records, newspapers, school yearbooks, online photographs, and public family trees are the clues that you need to figure out who your ancestors were and where they came from.

Sometimes we have to pay for access to these records, and other times we don’t. The following is a list of a few places that you can check to find documents relating to your ancestors.

  • Family Search (free records, required to create a free account
  • Ancestry (has lots of indexes that aren’t available anywhere else)
  • Find My Past (best for UK records)
  • My Heritage

If you find yourself struggling to find records pertaining to your ancestor, you might be interested in my post, “The Best Websites for Family Tree Research“.

Tips and tricks to build tree further back

Building your family tree is a fun activity, but really getting good at it can take a little time. It’s easy to get frustrated if you find yourself stumped on a particular ancestor.

The following are some suggestions for helping you get past your temporary “brick wall” to get one more generation further back in your tree.

Talk with older relatives

Hopefully, you took my advice and spoke with your older relatives about your family’s history. Take a fresh look at your notes every once in a while to see if there is a small detail that you overlooked.

Listen to family stories

Don’t ignore family myths or legends. Sometimes there is truth to them, and it is worth pursuing the possibility that there is an element of truth.

Put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes

Try to imagine “out of the box” places to look for records about your ancestors. Put yourself in your family members shoes and take a mental walk through their world.

Who did they interact with? What was their profession? What type of paper trail would they have left while going about their lives?

Some of the more unique records I’ve seen are elementary school records, a liquor license application my great-great grandfather submitted for his saloon, and a handwritten affidavit from my fifth great-grandmother as part of a bounty-land warrant application to receive land due to her as the widow of a Revolutionary War veteran.

Search wide in your family tree

Don’t ignore your ancestor’s siblings. I wrote more on this below, but this is such an important topic that it deserves an additional mention. When I first got started in genealogy, I typically ignored my ancestor’s siblings.

Then, I realized that I was making a huge mistake and missing out on a lot of information. You never know if your ancestor was living with one of their children (or even grandchildren!) from whom you are not descended, and if you don’t research everyone in their family, you might miss out.

Do a Google Search on your ancestor

You never know what you might find. I like to search my ancestor’s name along with their year and town of birth.

Test your DNA (see below)

DNA testing is an incredibly valuable tool for genealogy. There is more on this below.

Build a “wide” tree

When building your tree, be sure to add the siblings of your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And the siblings of your great-great grandparents and the siblings of your great-great-great grandparents, too, if you get the chance.

While you are at it and adding the siblings of your ancestors in, why not find out who their siblings married, and who their children were? This is called building your tree wide, and it is the best way to have a complete family tree.

Plus, you might find helpful clues about your ancestors among the documents you find relating to some of your relatives (but who are not your ancestors).

Use Your DNA matches to help you add lines to your tree

What’s this? You haven’t taken a DNA test yet? If this is you, take look at my post, “Beginner’s Guide to DNA Testing: the Ultimate Strategy” to learn more about how DNA testing can help you with your family tree.

You can use your DNA match list to help you figure out who other descendants of your ancestors are. Using family tree information form your matches can help you build your tree even further back – how cool is that?

Check out my post about how DNA matches can help you build a family tree to learn more.

Beginner's Guide to Building a Family Tree Pinterest Image with Pedigree


I hope that this post has give you some good ideas about how to get started with your family tree. If you have any questions about something that you read here, or would like to share your own strategies for building a tree, please join us in the discussion below.

Thanks for being here today!

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Joseph Filip

Monday 24th of February 2020

Great suggestions, Mercedes! I would like to add a couple of experiences that I had when I first got started. (I also build my tree and had my DNA test on Ancestry.) I was under the impression that "official" records would have the correct names and dates. But many of my ancestors were immigrants, and there was a language barrier. What was entered in one Census as "Walate" turned out to be the correct "Valentine" in the next. My Czechs were big on nicknames, and also on "Americanizing" their given names, and sometimes their surnames.

Before getting started, I suggest that you decide on standardizing the formats for your information. For dates, I highly recommend dd mmm yyyy. E.g., 2 Dec 1925. Most of the dates in the documents will be in this format. Using a format of 2/12/1925 can easily lead to confusion, especially since many foreign systems would give the same date as 12/2/1925. And I chose to forgo using a format of 02 Dec 1925 because it creates problems if I copy records to a spreadsheet or word document. For places, I convert to Town, County, State, Country. I find that making adjustments as I work helps keep me engaged in the documents. If I don't know a woman's maiden name yet, I enter her husband's surname in parentheses. It doesn't interfere with the search engine, and draws my attention to a blank that I need to try to fill in. I also use parentheses for the first generation of a name change, such as "Mares" to "Maresh."

As you are getting started, pay special attention to what the transcribed records are actually telling you. For example, a date reported as a marriage might actually be the date that the marriage license was issued. Social Security records are notorious, as they use their own set of rules. A "date of death" is often the date of the last payment period, and "place of death" will be the address that the last payment was sent to. Once you have some experience, you get better at judging how much weight to give various pieces of "evidence."

And I have to second you in stressing the importance of examining each record for additional information that does not get transcribed in the digital world. One of my pet peeves is that Ancestry does not allow one to add parents from Texas birth records. I have to write down the parents' names and then add them manually. Or, I have to search on Familysearch for children, then go back to Ancestry to enter them. Handwritten records are especially important to examine with care. If you get a Census hint for an elderly parent who happens to be living with a child, Ancestry will not allow you to add the spouse and children at this point. Make a note of them and add them to your tree, and then they should show up as hints for the new entries. Otherwise, the search algorithms might not ever tell you that Ludmila Orsak is the same person as Millie Novak. In rural communities, you might also notice that the Orsak and Novak families live next to each other, more strong support for having the right marital connection.

Finally, take a break after a week or two and think about whether your goals have changed. Fortunately, I realized early on that I WAS interested in the families of marry-ins. I had neglected to add the "low-hanging-fruit" from Census records and had to retrace my steps. And always go to the Findagrave memorials! There might be a ton of information in an obit, or the photo of the tombstone might reveal a spouse or marriage date that hasn't been linked yet. I also found my great-grandfather's village of origin in the Old Country on his tombstone, which was the key to being able to add up to 5 generations of ancestors who came before him, found in the Czech Archives. And which also led me to identifying several of those "mystery matches" from my DNA list!

You are so right, Mercedes- It's not about the names and dates, it's about the PEOPLE! And WANTING to find out about them is the most powerful tool you have at your disposal!

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