Learning how to make a family tree can be an easy and fun experience for everyone in the family.
You may be wondering how to make a genealogical tree, and in this article, we’ll tell you exactly what to do. You won’t need any specialized tree templates to make your tree chart, so don’t be afraid to dive right in.
WHAT IS A FAMILY TREE?
A family history is a diagram which charts the familial relationships of each generation of a family. In essence, a family history tracks your family genealogy and is the way you make a family tree: who is related to who, and how. You could also call family history charts genealogical trees, but it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well.
A very small family history chart might be one node for a mother, another node for a father, and then above them, nodes for their children. Most families who make family history charts want to go a bit further than the obvious, though.
Complicated family history charts look more like tree charts than simple diagrams because they contain a lot of information. Each node of the family history chart shows who gave birth to that person and also any children that person subsequently had, and with who. If you’re trying to establish your family’s lineage past a couple of living generations, you’ll rapidly find that things get difficult.
HOW TO MAKE A FAMILY TREE
Making a family history chart can be as simple or as difficult as you choose to make it. Some families prefer to hunt down distant relatives in other countries, whereas others are content to account for everyone within two or three generations.
You’ll follow four main steps to make a family history chart: tallying your living relatives, figuring out where dead relatives should go, hunting down more detail on dead relatives if desired, and compiling all of the information together.
If you don’t have a poster board, pins, and boxes of old photos, you should probably assemble those before starting. You can also use a software program to keep track of your family’s genealogy if you prefer.
ACCOUNT FOR LIVING RELATIVES
Accounting for living relatives is as easy as writing on an index card the name of the living family member, then pinning that index card to the board. Pinning a photograph to the index card on the board helps to see who is who at a glance.
Start from your immediate family first, then work your way outward. For everyone that has a maiden name or a nickname, you should write it on their index card. For now, pin older generations lower on the poster board and pin the younger generations above them.
As an example, let’s say your immediate family consists of your parents, you, your sibling, your spouse, and your two children. Your parents would each have a card, and have their index cards at the bottom. Above them should be your card, and next to your card should be your spouse.
At this point, you should work out a system for identifying the original bloodline of your family. Mark your spouse’s card to indicate that they weren’t a child of your parents, but rather a child of someone else’s parents—who you may or may not want to put on the tree. Put your sibling’s card next to your card, once again making sure that it’s clear that they’re your sibling and not your spouse.
Above you and your spouse, put a card for each of your children. Voila, you now have a simple family history chart which accounts for the founders of the family, their progeny, and then the latest generation as begat by those progenies. This basic family history chart will look more like a shrub, but it’s a start.
If you want to get fancy, you can write stuff like the country of origin or other data onto the index cards.
INTERVIEW LIVING RELATIVES ABOUT DEAD RELATIVES
You probably want to take the family history chart way beyond a simple bush, though. To fill out the roots and branches of the family history chart, you’ll need to start including dead relatives, including those that you may not hear about much.
Interview your living relatives about the ones who have passed is a great starting point.
You’ve probably heard your parents or grandparents mention their lost siblings or parents in passing, but now it’s time to pin down those relationships. Ask questions until you have an index card for all of the siblings, parents, great-aunts, cousins, and others that you may have never heard of before.
A great question to start with is “who did Grandma like to tell stories about that you never met?” questions like these build the basis for the harder-to-reach roots of the family history chart. You may not necessarily have enough information to place the new entries correctly—sometimes it won’t be clear who was on what side of the family.
The important thing during this step is to assemble names, ranges of years, and geographical areas. If your dead relatives were particularly talkative, you might have a huge extension of your family history chart just by interviewing some of their caretakers. It’s much more likely that you’ll have a lot of clues and only a few completed cards to add to the board after interviewing, though.
It’s worth interpreting “living relatives” very loosely during this step of the process. If you think you might be distantly related to someone with the same surname as you, call them up and ask them a few questions to see if you might be related. Reaching out to a stranger is a bit scary, but you can add a huge amount of depth and breadth to your tree if you’re willing to take a chance or two along the way.
Surviving friends of dead relatives are also good sources of information. They’ll likely know more details about the person’s relations in periods of time before their children were born.
After interviewing comes the hardest step: following the clues from interviews to finish those incomplete index cards so that you can place them in the correct spot on the tree.
REQUEST OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS ON DEAD RELATIVES
Thankfully there are many resources designed to help genealogists hunt down people to understand their lineage. Scour these resources with the partial pieces of information that you scrounged from interviewing your living relatives.
Remember to check nicknames, maiden names, and potentially misspelled surnames if your relatives immigrated at any point. If you have a common family name, your task will be considerably more difficult. Try to zero in in dates, locations, professions, and relations as much as possible given the information that you have.
Often, this round of research can create a lot of hunches that are not-quite-confirmed. If you can track enough information about a particular node on the family history chart, you can probably request a public record document that will put your hunch to the test. Birth and death records are retained for long periods of time at municipal places like town halls, so requesting the document (and showing that you have reason to believe you are related to this person) can put your questions to rest.
This process can get difficult for families whose family history chart spans multiple countries, as many do. The single biggest dead ends in family history chart record hunting are the barriers between countries, especially in the era of World War 2. Many records from that era were lost or intentionally destroyed, but if you’re lucky, the immigration bodies will have some record which will be of use for you—though not all will be forthcoming.
If you hit a dead end in your research quest, don’t feel too bad. Some families live in the same geographical area for many generations, which makes genealogical tree research very easy, and other families are more dynamic, making them much harder to pin down.
SHOULD I GET GENETIC TESTING?
In this day and age, you can get genetic testing which can give you additional clues regarding your family’s geographical ancestry if the trail has gone cold. If you don’t have an active lead to a specific geographical area after reaching a certain node, it might be worth getting your genome sequenced via one of the popular services to see what you can learn.
Genetic testing can typically clean up areas of ambiguity in your family history chart, provided that you have samples that you’re willing to part with and pay for processing. The more living members of your family that you can get tested, the more information you’ll learn. You might learn, for instance, that your first cousin is your second cousin, or that your grandmother isn’t related to you by blood.
Testing of this sort can unearth family secrets that some people would prefer to remain buried, so tread carefully.
For most people, this is a bit too much work for too little chance of reward, though.
ASSEMBLE THE INFORMATION
Once you’ve assembled all of the possible records on everyone that you can really find information on, it’s time to clean up and fill out the giant poster board. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch, just be sure to have the oldest generation at the bottom of the tree and the latest generation at the top.
Each generation accounts for roughly 20 or 30 years of life, so it may be a useful unit of organization to break up the tiers of your tree. Don’t get too hung up on having specific generations, though. People don’t always reproduce exactly in phase with the period that they “should,” and your tree doesn’t necessarily need to account for when people were born, merely their relationship to each other.
Seeing your entire family’s bloodline in one giant chart can be very interesting, and it can give your entire family a new sense of their place in history. The more information on each node that you can add, the more you can understand how your ancestors lived.
It’s acceptable to have gaps and uncertain connections in your family history chart; almost everyone does. It’s often very difficult to create much of anything of certainty in your family history chart beyond the “great-grandparent” level. At that point, you’re reaching back about a century in time, which is a feat.
TIPS FOR CREATING YOUR GENEALOGICAL TREE
Now that you know the basic process for making a family history chart let’s tie everything together.
Here are a few good tips that will set your family history chart on the right growth trajectory:
- Keep track of maiden names and be sure to search for them instead of newer names
- Use common sense when following the paper trail; don’t search randomly, search near where other relatives were or came from
- Churches sometimes have a different set of documents than municipal sources
- Sometimes finding a living friend of a dead relative is just as useful as finding the relative
- Don’t be afraid to reach out
- Immigration officials often have the best sets of documents
- Sometimes names get misspelled during migration paperwork
It’s also easy to get off on the wrong track while making your family history chart. Here are a few common mistakes to watch out for while making your family’s tree:
- Starting to chart from the branches rather than from the roots
- Assuming that nobody was adopted
- Assuming that a lack of official information on a person is a dead end
- Assuming that nobody had any illegitimate children
- Not reaching out to people who share the same surname as someone of interest
- Not including yourself in the family history chart
- Getting discouraged when you find a dead end
That wraps up our guide on how to make a family history chart. Get ready to start digging through records and interviewing your relatives! Once you view building a family tree like building an investigation, you’ll be well on your way to being a master genealogist.