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What is a Wide Family Tree?

Have you ever heard someone say that you should build a wide family tree? In this post, learn what this type of family tree is, and why you should definitely make yours wide.

When most of us first started out in genealogy research, we probably had a main focus of learning who our ancestors were. This means that most family trees of beginning genealogists are “tall”, and not wide.

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As time goes on, the more seasoned family tree researcher notices that they are often able to learn a lot about their ancestors through researching people who are not direct ancestors. These relatives are related to us through collateral lines in our family tree, descended from our ancestors, but not actually ancestors.

If we add these relatives, their spouses, children, and grandchildren to our family tree, we end up with what most people refer to as a “wide” family tree. This type of tree can be contrasted with a family tree that only contains ancestors, which is a tall and spindly tree.

Why is a wide family tree better?

There are several reasons that building your family tree wide is better than only adding those who are our direct ancestors. Our wide tree will be more thorough, help us solve family tree mysteries, provide more information to future members of our family, and can help us find potential research partners among our relatives to learn more about our shared ancestors.

Plus, taking the time to build a wide tree as you go can actually save you time in the future.

A more thorough family tree

Most family tree researchers value careful, thorough genealogy work, and are proud of their results. By adding as many of our relatives as we can to our family tree, we can be sure to add to the completeness of our genealogy work.

Solve family mysteries

Relatives included in our wide family trees can often be the key to solving some of our toughest family tree mysteries. They can help us learn more about our ancestors through strategies such as cluster genealogy, but also may provide direct answers that we are searching for.

In my own research, I have often discovered that an ancestor, such as a great-great-great grandparent is living with one of their children, but not my ancestor. For example, my great-great-great grandfather spent the last years of his life with his daughter, the sister of my great-great grandfather.

If I had ignored my great-great grandfather’s siblings, I would not have discovered the name of his mother, who was listed as the “mother-in-law” of the head of household in a census record. This seemingly simple discovery helped me uncover several more generations of ancestors that had, until this point, been elusive in the records.

Help future generations

A well-researched, wide family tree can help our descendants, or other members of our extended family begin their research on solid standing. We might have information or make discoveries in our research that will be difficult for them to uncover in a few generations.

For example, my husband was adopted as a small child in another country, and we know who his biological parents were. Over the past few years, he has been able to form relationships with some of his biological cousins, aunts, and uncles, and has been able to piece together many names of extended family members.

Since he has done most of this research through many, many telephone conversations with relatives, we have been careful to document the names and relationships of all of the relatives that he learns about and add them to his family tree. His family tree doesn’t go back very far, but it is as wide as we can make it.

The hope is that the information that he has collected is helpful to his descendants, or another member of the family tree someday in the future.

Find relatives to collaborate with

At the end of the day, family trees are about family. They are a great way to meet family and find relatives that share your interest in genealogy.

These relatives can often be great research partners, too.

It saves time

If you add your extended family to your tree as you discover them, you will find that this saves you time in the future. You will be able to more quickly identify how you are related to other people who show up in your research.

Who should we add to a wide family tree?

We should add our known ancestors, as well as as anyone who can be identified as being descended from their siblings. The descendants of the siblings of our ancestors are often our first, second, third and fourth cousins.

For example, let’s take a family tree that has been built on all lines back to the great-great grandparent level. We should add the siblings of our great-great grandparents, if we know who they are, as well as their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

In addition, we would also add the siblings of our great-grandparents, their descendants, as well as the siblings of our grandparents and their descendants.

Some of us might know some of these relatives personally, which is always very helpful. We can also learn about these other relatives through researching the immediate families of our great-grandparents and great-great grandparents in genealogy records such as US Federal Census documents.

Another excellent way to find some of these extended family members is through DNA testing and the use of family tree information obtained from DNA matches to build a family tree wide.

How big should a family tree be?

During my many hours of research online, I have encountered family trees that contain anywhere from just a few people to a few hundred thousand people. From reading this article, you know that your tree should have more than just a few people in it, since all of your ancestors had children who had their own lines of descendants.

Is there a limit to how big a family tree should be?

My rule of thumb is to only add people to your family tree who for whom you are able to find adequate documentation as evidence that they really belong in your tree. In other words, only add people to a tree if they truly are related.

A very large tree is likely to contain many errors. So, I always recommend that our trees be as large as we can handle without having too many people to research.

My own personally tree, which I admit is not a fully “wide” tree, as I have not added every single descendant of all of my collateral lines, contains about 3,000 people. Each person in my tree has some sort of genealogy record or document verifying their existence and genealogical relationship to someone else in my tree, which is my own personal method to make sure my tree is as accurate as possible.

I never use other family trees or historical genealogical complications as sources, which means that sometimes I won’t add children for some ancestors if official records are not available. You can learn more about family tree building basics from my book on Amazon.

Where is the best place to build your wide family tree?

Now that you have a better idea as to the extended family members that you should add to your family tree, you might wonder if there is a best place to build your wide family tree. Since wide family trees contain many people, it is important that you build your tree using a software or website that can truly handle a large tree.

My favorite place to build family trees is on Ancestry because it is free to build trees. In addition, there is no limit to the number of people that you can have in your tree on the site – or at least, no limit that I am aware of.

I have seen many trees on Ancestry that are very large, such as trees containing more than 100,000 people. Most of us will have no need to build trees that large, which means that Ancestry’s software is very capable of hosting a family tree containing a few thousand people.

The other benefit of having a tree on a site like Ancestry, or other company, such as MyHeritage, that offers access to records, documents, and photographs, is that you can typically easily add these records to directly your tree during your research.

If you prefer purchasing a family tree software that you can run on your desktop or laptop computer, there are many companies that offer this type of product. One popular choice is the RootsMagic Genealogy Software.


I hope that this post has helped you understand exactly why constructing a wide family tree is the best strategy for doing family tree research, and how you should go about making your tree “wide” instead of just tall.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share your own reasons for building a wide family tree, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

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