Create Your Family Tree

Welcome to my ultimate step by step guide to creating your family tree. In this blog I will aim to give you the foundations necessary to start researching your family and gathering the information your need to document it’s history. If you follow the steps in this post by the end of it you should have a documented tree. This will form the framework for adding more detail, history and bringing your ancestors stories to life.

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Step 1: Set a goal

Setting a specific goal for your family tree might seem strange but bear with me! It is worth taking time on this step as being clear on what you want to achieve at the outset has a number of benefits. It is very (and I mean very) easy to get side tracked as part of your family research. I have spent so much time and energy focusing on tricky areas, blockers or chasing down side branches of my tree. Whilst these diversions can be fun, and sometimes quite rewarding, if your ultimate aim to to create your initial tree then they will definitely prove to be distracting.

It is also worth having a clear goal in mind if you intend to make tactical use of free trial subscriptions to genealogy resources. Each trial subscription is time bound (normally one or maximum two weeks) so you want to get as far as you can towards achieving your goal with each of them before your time is up. 

Your goal should be personal to you and what you want to get from your family history research. I think it is better to set a straightforward and achievable goal at first and then build on this later. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Create a four generation pedigree chart (this is a version of a family tree that only follows your direct ancestral line)
  • Trace one surname line back as far as you possibly can
  • Identify an unknown relative or solve a specific family mystery (this one can be a bit trickier!)
Whatever your goal is, keeping it in mind as you develop you tree will help you stay focused and on track.

Step 2: Write down everything you already know

As a first step write down everything you already know about your family and the people in it. You can never capture too much information at this stage, even things that seem irrelevant at this point could provide useful clues as you broaden your research. Create a page in a notebook (or your preferred app/ software) for each of your family members as far as back as you know. Once you’ve done that jot down everything that you can.

Key things to capture include:

  • Essential details: for example name (including nickname, maiden name etc.), key dates (birth, marriage, death), partners name, children’s names and birth dates etc.
  • Beliefs: for example religious denomination and place of worship (excellent sources of records!).
  • Life details: Education, employment information and places lived. It can also be useful to capture any military service.
  • Interesting facts/ stories: This is what really brings your ancestor to life! What did they enjoy? What stories do your families tell? Has anyone done anything that might show up in a search of historic newspapers (this can be good or bad)?

While you are capturing everything you know about your ancestors, why not take the time to record key information about yourself. As well as capturing all the usual dates and places, it is useful to think about what future generations might want to know about you. What interesting stories or experiences can you share, and importantly record, that will help you great great great grandchildren (and beyond) understand you and the times that you live in.

Step 3: Ask your living relatives

Your family are an excellent source of information about your ancestors. You can spend time face to face, over the phone or corresponding by email. I have found it helpful to ask family members to write down everything they remember and then have a conversation to discuss it and ask questions.

Remember that whilst many people are keen to talk about the past there are some who are not. Be sensitive and empathetic when speaking to your relatives. What seems like family history to you may have been a core part of their earlier life. You might be interested in finding out all you can about your family, but your relatives might be less keen to discuss things like their parent’s illegitimate child or uncle’s criminal behaviour.  

You may return to this step as you deepen your search. You will undoubtedly find information that you want to discuss with your family or that may trigger new memories for them. Additionally, as your search progresses you may find living relatives that you didn’t even know existed. More people to get to know and ask questions of! 

Step 4: Delve into your family documents and photos

We all have that one box (or sometimes several boxes) that lives in a cupboard or up in the loft and barely comes out. The one that is stuffed full of old documents, keep sakes, letters and photographs. It is time to dust off that box and bring it out into the day light – and to ask you family members to find their equivalents too.

You can find some amazing things in these boxes. As well as official documents you can find newspaper clippings, letters and a whole trove of other information that can tell you things about your family. Read them and take note of the pertinent details, or even better take copies as it can be difficult to know what might be important later. The photo library on my phone is entirely made up of photos of my daughter, my cat and old documents! 

Old photos can be just as important. Especially look for photos of occasions that bring large groups of your family together, such as weddings, birthdays and family reunions as these can help when trying to identify who people are. Again take copies of relevant photos to include as part of your tree. Sadly, during these searches I’ve come across photos of family members who no one living recognises. I’ve still kept copies of them though in the hope that some day I can work out who they are.

Step 5: Choose how and where to record your family tree

You’ve gathered the basic facts, trawled through your family documents and have noted down everything that you and your family already now. It’s time to put pen to paper (maybe even literally) and start capturing your family tree.

Genealogy Websites

There are many options available to you to record your family tree but one of the most popular ways is via a genealogy/ family history website. Most of these websites will allow you to record your tree for free. However, they also include access to records, information and other users trees (where they have chosen to make them public) via a paid subscription. The reason why choosing a platform to record your family tree is step 5 and not step 1 is that many of these websites off free trial subscription periods. To make best use of these it is best to have as much information to hand as possible so that you can focus your search and access the records that you really need.

My preferred platform is Ancestry and this is where my main tree is recorded. Ancestry is one of the biggest providers and therefore it has the most records and a huge number of other people’s family trees to search and refer to. I find it to have the most intuitive platform for recording your tree and it has a hint function that is very useful. It is easy to search and filter records and to attach them to specific people in your tree. Ancestry has a 14 day free trial period which gives the option to access everything so well worth a try even if you don’t choose it as the final home for your tree.

Another great choice is Findmypast, which offers a free trial period of 7 days. I found the interface is less intuitive than Ancestry but other people swear by it. One good feature is that you can search by address – so if you’re trying to trace the history of a house or building this might be a better option. Findmypast is also the only place that you can access the 1921 Census of England and Wales online, although this is not included in the free trial and requires a premium subscription.

Genealogy Websites – Free Alternatives

There are a number of places where you can document your family tree online and access helpful information completely free. Check out WikiTree where genealogists with a shared interest in tracing their family history (and helping others to do the same) are working collaboratively to create one big family tree. You might even find that parts of your family tree have already been recorded here by others. Note that this is a collaborative platform meaning that other users can edit your tree, additionally there is no option to keep the details of deceased ancestors private if you wish.

Paper/ Scrap Book

If your goal is to create a basic family tree or if you are a particularly creative person you might want to create a version of your family tree by hand. There are some beautiful hand drawn family trees and ideas for genealogy scrapbooking on pinterest if you’re looking for inspiration. Genealogy scrapbooks can make lovely gifts and will be treasured as part of your family keepsakes for generations.

If you don’t fancy creating something by hand, but still want a more picturesque tree, there are many templates available on Canva to capture your family tree. This includes everything from basic family tree templates to templates to create your own family history book. If you have an eye for good design you can have a go at making you own.

If you intend to create a more detailed family tree I recommend at least housing the basic details in electronic format (a genealogy website or even a spreadsheet) just for ease of searching and keeping your research notes organised.

Family History Software

I’m assuming that you’re reading this blog because you’re just starting your genealogy research. If you want to expand on this or create multiple trees then it might be worth investing in specific Family History Software. I’m not going to go into the detail here – it’s a complete other blog post and this one is long enough! It may be something to keep in mind as you interest grows.

Step 6: Research basic registration records: births, marriages and deaths

There are multiple places you can search birth, marriage and death indexes, many of them completely free. If you can’t find what you are looking for in one place then it’s often worth trying another. The indexes can be searched in different ways on different sites. If you have chosen to create your family tree on Ancestry or Findmypast then you can search for records directly from there. Other helpful sites include Family Search (totally free) and FreeBMD (also completely free). 

Be warned that the index information doesn’t include everything that you can find on birth, marriage and death certificates. This naturally leads to the question of whether it is worth buying these certificates or not. In my view it definitely is, you can find out so much more about your ancestors this way. It also avoids wasting time chasing up false leads. You can order copy certificates from the General Registers Officer for England and Wales, Scotland’s People for Scotland and GRONI for Northern Ireland.

Step 7: Review census data

Census data can be really useful because you can see groups of your family in one place. It can help you identify other family members, find out where your family were living and even tell you the occupation of family members. Different census years have different information but they all tell you how old the person was at the time of the census, giving a rough indication of birth year. 

The 1939 Register of England & Wales which was created at the advent of World War 2 and used to issue Identity Cards at that time is a really useful source of information. For one thing it contains the actual date of birth for each individual instead of an age – a gold mine of information for a genealogy super sleuth!

Census data for England and Wales is available on Ancestry and Findmypast. However only Findmypast has the 1921 England & Wales census and this can only be accessed via premium subscription.

Step 8: Explore parish registers

Churches also keep extensive records including baptisms, marriages and burials as part of the parish registers. These are particularly valuable as you go further back in time with your research. Churches were keeping records a long time prior to general registration! 

Again there are many sources to search online including Ancestry and Findmypast. Free sources include FreeReg and Family Search (where some of the records are only available in the image search). if you want to see original records you will need to visit the relevant local archives.

Step 9: Get spooky: Gravestones and memorials

There is so much you can learn from gravestones and sometime you can find them without even leaving your home. There are two completely free websites that I recommend for this: Billion Graves and Find a Grave. Both of these sights rely on volunteers across the world photographing and transcribing graves. Typically gravestones can be searched for my location, cemetery, name and death date.

A gravestone can tell you someones death date and sometimes birthdate too. People were often buried with or alongside other family members who might also be listed on the stone. Some gravestones even tell you where the person lived and their occupation.

If you can’t find a gravestone there are still ways of finding out where your ancestor was buried or cremated. This includes parish registers and burial registers many of which are available online or can be found at a local archive or library research centre.

Step 10: Delving deeper - sources to add colour to your family history

Once you have gathered all of the basic details there are loads of other fantastic resources to help you understand your family history. Old newspapers can be a fantastic source of information, with everything from family announcements to major stories. I search for each member of my family tree on and the British Newspaper Archive even if I don’t know that they’ve done anything newsworthy. It is also worth looking up any addresses that came up in your search of census records. 

Local directories can also be a fantastic source of information, especially for your family members who practiced a trade. In addition old maps, local history organisations, archives, local libraries and photo archives can also throw up unexpected gems.

Basically, use whatever you have found out about your family and follow those leads. There are so many places you can find information and the best part is a lot of them are totally free!

Congratulations! If you have followed the steps above then you should have created your very own family tree. This was a long post, so thanks for bearing with me, but in reality we’ve only just scratched the surface of the information available to you as you research your family history. Please do browse through my blog for more information, pointers and resources.

Please feel free to ask me if you have any questions or to leave feedback on this post (I am always looking to improve). Leave comments below and I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.

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