Ancestry Blog » Family Trees The official blog of Ancestry Fri, 31 Jul 2015 22:23:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Five Mistakes to Avoid When Researching Your Family History Sun, 05 Oct 2014 13:16:53 +0000 Read more]]> We all make mistakes! The key to success in family history research, as in life, is to learn from them. In an effort to guide you through your genealogical journey, we have created this list containing the top five mistakes to avoid when researching your family tree.

1. Assuming a family name is only spelled one way

Family names can be spelled in a variety of ways. Just because your family name has been spelled in a particular way for as long as you can remember doesn’t mean it always has. Our ancestors, and indeed those people who entered information on our ancestor’s behalf, were not infallible. Mistakes in the recording of your family name may have created the family name you know today. Callaghan could be Callan, Dillane could be Dillon, Smith could be Smyth etc. Search for phonetic variations of your surname and use an asterisk to return more results. For example, searching (John*) will return results for John, Johnson etc.

2. Assuming you are related to a famous person

We all want to find a famous person in our family tree. Many of us will have royal connections, rock stars or heroes from history in our tree, but many of us will not. Never accept a family story or hearsay as proof of a connection. The temptation can be to start with the famous person and then try to find a connection to your family. You should always start with yourself and work back. If there is a famous connection it will appear if you have diligently researched back through the generations of your tree.

3. Researching the wrong family

I know what you’re thinking. How could you possibly research the wrong family? You know who you’re looking for – right? Researching the wrong family can easily happen if you jump to conclusions early in your research. Just because the James Smith you have found seems to fit the bill does not necessarily mean that he is your James Smith. Always wait until the sources prove a connection before moving on. This helps to avoid accidentally researching the wrong family.

4. Skipping a generation

Our ancestors had little regard for the toil they were creating for the family history researchers of the future when they named their children. Many of us have family trees containing more than one Michael, John or Mary! With names running through generations like this it is important to write down and match up your dates and locations for each person with the same name. This will help avoid inadvertently skipping a generation.

5. Not documenting your sources

Keep calm and cite your sources! Always document where you have found your information. Your research is your legacy to future generations who research your family tree. One simple mistake or un-sourced addition to your tree could cause others to make assumptions and in turn make mistakes in their own research.

Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!


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The Dreaded Brick Wall. What to do next? Sun, 28 Sep 2014 09:18:02 +0000 Read more]]> The Dreaded Brick Wall


How can I get past a brick wall?

When you run across a brick wall in your research, what do you do? You may be tempted to send your laptop on an expedition out of the first floor window, and who could blame you? A brick wall can be incredibly frustrating.

Some researchers might advise you to abandon the individual concerned for a period of time and move on with the rest of your family tree, and there is some wisdom to that. You’ll want to check back on that individual from time to time though. Ancestry is constantly adding new records to the site and other members are adding trees every day. A brick wall today may not be a brick wall in a few week’s time.

Review your research and revisit the card catalog

Sometimes the answers to our questions are waiting in the research we’ve already conducted. Revisit the records you’ve gathered. You may find that you have overlooked an important detail or missed a connection.

Survey what resources are at your disposal. Ancestry members will want to head for the Card Catalog to see what collections may hold the answers they seek and search them directly. A new collection may have crept in under your radar. Use the filters on the left to narrow your search by geographic location, and if you like, by record type.

Take a step back . . .

In family history, a step back may mean revisiting more recent ancestors. In your haste to move on to the next generation, are there records you overlooked or that were previously inaccessible to you–records that may knock down that brick wall? Seeking them out will give you a more rounded picture of those recent ancestors, and you may uncover new clues.

Talk to family members again

When you begin researching your family history, it is important to talk to other family members who may have information on your shared ancestry. When you hit a brick wall in your research, revisit these relatives or have a discussion with them over the phone or through email about what you have found since your last conversation. Share your recent discoveries with them. New names and locations may jog their memories and you may hear previously untold family stories.

Go beyond the direct line

Go beyond your ancestor and his or her siblings and expand your search to include distant relatives. The records of in-laws, half-siblings, cousins, step-parents and whoever else you can dig up, may include details missing in the records of your direct ancestors.

Use social media and other online resources

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you use Facebook you can search for living relatives who may hold the key to your brick wall. Feel free to post research questions to the Ancestry Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our online communities are an amazing resource with many experienced researchers who are willing to help other members. All you have to do is ask!

Try searching for an elusive ancestor into your favorite search engine. You may be surprised at what you can uncover in this way. The most important thing is not to lose hope. We have all faced a brick wall in our research, but with perseverance all things are possible.

Photo: Lars Thomsen. Flickr creative commons.

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Introducing Shoebox From – A Scanner in Your Pocket Mon, 15 Jul 2013 17:44:00 +0000 Read more]]> As you probably know, we acquired 1000memories – maker of the popular Shoebox photo-scanning app – in late 2012. Since then we’ve integrated our teams and today we’re taking a big step towards integrating our products.


We’re excited to introduce Shoebox from – a brand new version of the Shoebox mobile scanner that allows you to upload photos directly to your family tree on There has never been a simpler, faster, and more beautiful way to scan your old photos.

Shoebox puts a powerful photo-scanner in your pocket. Just take a picture of an old paper photo with your iPhone or Android camera, and our edge detection and perspective-correction technology will make sure that your scans turn out beautifully.


What You’ll Find on ShoeBox 3.0 login

You can now use your credentials to log into Shoebox. You can also sign up for a free account through the app.

Tag family members

Our face detection tells you when it spots a person so you can tag them in your photo. Tag people in your family trees and your photos will automatically upload to

Simpler, faster, and more beautiful

We’ve totally overhauled our design to make it cleaner and more intuitive. We’ve made your photos larger and faster than ever.


The completely redesigned Shoebox app is available for download on iTunes and the Android Market. You can scan an unlimited amount of photos and it’s totally free.

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Take Your Tree with You This Summer Mon, 01 Jul 2013 16:46:16 +0000 Read more]]> Summer is prime time for research trips, cemetery visits, and family reunions. For family historians, these trips used to take extra planning. Along with the sunscreen, bug spray, and potato salad, family reunions required choosing which books, papers, and photos to bring along for research or sharing—and the inevitability of forgetting something important. With the App and an Android, iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch mobile device, you don’t have to leave anything behind. Your research is always with you and as current as your online tree.

Here are five ways you can take advantage of the App this summer.

1. Cemetery visits.
Use your mobile device to take photographs of ancestral gravesites and tombstones. To add the photo to your tree, select a person, click Gallery at the bottom of the panel, select Add Photo at the top, and then choose the photo from your photo albums. You can also edit that person’s information and add any new details you found on the spot.

2. Family reunions.
Not only can you show off all of the records and stories you’ve uncovered, you can also update the details for your living family right there on the spot. That story Uncle Fred’s sharing with you? Type it in the notes as he’s telling it. No more trying to remember the details after the fact.

3. Taking pictures of family heirlooms.
Even if Aunt Edna won’t give you her grandmother’s Bible, she’d probably let you take a picture of it and the pages documenting the family history.  Same with the gallery of ancestral photographs that line her walls. Digital photos of them in their frames will do until you can convince her to have copies made.

4. Trips to courthouses, libraries, and archives.
When precious onsite research time is of the essence, the camera on your mobile device can save the day. Take a picture of records that you can attach to your tree right then.

5. Researching in the great outdoors.
If you’ve got Internet access, you can be researching. Take your device to a park or the beach.  A nice day to sit in the yard is also a nice day to research in the yard.

If that’s not enough inspiration to load the app and start updating your online tree, how’s this? Your online tree (and Family Tree Maker 2012 as well, if you have it), will auto-sync with your mobile tree so your new details will be waiting for you at home when you get there. No more having to catch up on data entry after the trip. The App lets you enjoy your family history vacation even after you get home.

Learn more about the App

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Unmasking The Lone Ranger’s Leading Men: Real Life Heroes in Hammer and Depp’s Family Trees Wed, 26 Jun 2013 16:05:28 +0000 Read more]]> Before there was the Lone Ranger and Tonto, there was… Elizabeth Key and Chief Kanagatucko? New research from reveals both Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp – the leading actors of Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Lone Ranger” – are direct descendants of two real American freedom fighters. Armie Hammer Is Descended from Cherokee Chief Kanagatucko and Johnny Depp’s 8th Great-Grandmother Is Elizabeth Key, the first African-American Slave to Sue for Freedom

Origin stories are the new movie magic for Hollywood, with the genesis of leading characters from comic books, fairy tales and fan fiction serving as the foundation for the latest blockbusters.

Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” is no exception, as the movie follows the transformation of betrayed lawman John Reid, played by Hammer, into a masked outlaw who fights for justice with the help of his guide, Tonto, a Native American spirit warrior played by Depp.

To celebrate the release of the film, investigated the two stars’ family trees and found that the fight for justice is not just a trait in their characters, but one than runs in their blood.

According to’s expert family historians, Hammer is of Native American ancestry and the descendant of one of the earliest documented Cherokee leaders and known peace advocate, Chief Kanagatucko.

Moreover, Johnny Depp’s eighth great-grandmother was Elizabeth Key, the first African American woman in the American colonies to sue for her freedom from slavery and win.

Who Was Cherokee Chief Kanagatucko?
Cherokee Chief Kanagatucko, also known as “Old Hop” or “Stalking Turkey” because of his old age and limp, Chief Kanagatucko was a known advocate of peace and friendship during the French and Indian War and the Seven Years’ War. He also carried the title of the First Beloved Man, which was the spiritual leader or high priest for his tribe. Given Hammer’s ancestry, it seems only fitting that Tonto’s moniker for the Lone Ranger is the Native American phrase ‘kemo sabe,’ which means faithful friend or trusted scout.

Who Was Elizabeth Key?
Unlike Johnny Depp’s vigilante character Tonto, his ancestor Elizabeth Key worked within the law to win her freedom. Born to a British Aristocrat father and an African American mother, Key successfully sued for her freedom and that of her infant son in the mid-1600s. Invoking British colonial law, which stated that civil status as being determined by the father, she won her freedom on July 21, 1656 in the colony of Virginia, where some of Depp’s family members have lived since the early 1600s.


  • Michelle Ercanbrack, family historian for “Many actors choose projects based on their personal connection to the character or the story. It’s unique to discover that not one, but both of the stars of ‘The Lone Ranger’ have proven ties to historical figures who shaped American freedom struggles over the years. I imagine their eighth-great-grandparents would approve.

Celebrities aren’t the only ones with prominent ancestors in their family trees. Find out who may be hiding in yours by doing a little research of your own family tree. Start with what you know and ask your family for more details. Then use billions of online records we have to discover new connections to your past.

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Six Ways to Jump Start Your Family History Research Fri, 24 May 2013 23:47:35 +0000 Read more]]> Are you brand new to genealogy and not quite sure where to start? Maybe you’ve been doing this for a while and need some inspiration to help you break through that long standing brick wall. As we head into the long weekend, I plan on spending a little time working on my own family history research. If you are going to do the same, here are six ideas to help jump start your genealogy weekend.


1. Talk to your family

Memorial Day was originally a time to pause and remember those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Many of us now use it as a time to memorialize any of our loved ones who have passed on. Still others use the three day weekend to get together with living family members. If you fall into that last category, take advantage of the time you spend with family this weekend to talk to them. Record their stories. Go through that box of pictures and see who they can identify. Ask if anyone knows about a family bible or copies of military service records held by someone in the family. Then take a picture of those people or those documents and attach them to your tree. Speaking of attaching things to your tree…


2. Document your work

That shaky leaf leads to a record hint. Record hints need to be analyzed and considered in context to determine if they really pertain to your person. Then they need to be attached. (Don’t forget that step.) Also, remember that those shaky leaves only provide hints to a small percentage of our most popular databases. There are more records to find. Be sure to search for your family members. Which brings me to…


3. Try a new search technique

I often find myself in a groove. I find something that works and I stick with it. But, I’ve learned that when I try something new, I usually learn something new and, sometimes, I discover something new as well. If you always view your search results by record try viewing them by category. If you only check the Card Catalog to find what databases are available, try using the place pages. If you aren’t sure how to search or you aren’t getting the search results you expect…


4. Watch a video

There’s a video for that. If you aren’t quite sure how to find your immigrant ancestors, there’s a video for that. Need some tips on creating memorial pages to honor the men and women in your family tree who have served in the armed forces? There’s a video for that, too. has a library full of helpful videos and tutorials that just might give you the information you’ve been looking for or that spark of an idea to help you break down that brick wall. And, while we are discussing brick walls…


5. Post your brick wall

Have you posted yours to the appropriate surname or locality message board? The process of writing out what you know, how you know it, and what you are trying to find out is a super useful exercise that might help you see your genealogy challenge in a new light. Posting it to a message board gives you the opportunity to interact with thousands of others who are researching that same surname or that same small county in West Virginia. You never know who may have the information you need.


6. Sign up for a genealogy conference

We are smack dab in the middle of the genealogy conference season. There are opportunities – large and small – all around to attend a conference or Ancestry Day, interact with others who are interested in genealogy and learn some new skills that will help you in your family history journey.


Which of these are you going to try this weekend?

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Lessons in Genealogy Collaboration Thu, 14 Mar 2013 03:16:46 +0000 Read more]]> I got an Message today from a woman related to a man in my family tree.  In her research she had come to a conclusion regarding the identity of his wife that was different from mine.


When was the last time you read and responded to your messages?


Of course, my first reaction was an internal roll of the eyes and the arrogant thought that I would educate her about how to do real genealogy research.  I immediately navigated to the man in question in my family tree.  As I began to review my research notes so I could craft a response to her (and I make extensive notes in Family Tree Maker on every person I research), I had the fleeting thought that maybe I shouldn’t have made my family tree public because clearly this woman didn’t know what she was doing and she was probably going to attach someone from my tree to someone in her tree when it was obvious that they were not the same person.

As I read my notes my ego quickly deflated to an appropriate level.

Several years ago I was searching for the husband and children of Thelda M Jones.  I knew she was enumerated in the 1910 census with her parents as a ten year old child.  She was not enumerated with them, her older brother or any other known family members in the 1920 census.  My assumption was that she married sometime between 1916 and 1920.

I knew from her father’s obituary that my Thelda married a man named Cecil Christian sometime before 1936.  I wasn’t able to locate a marriage record for Cecil and Thelda but I was able to locate Cecil in the 1920 census with his first wife.  So, where was Thelda in 1920?  Did she have a first husband?

I searched in vain for a marriage record.  I searched the 1920 census for all women named Thelda, born about 1900 in Utah.  Only two came up.  I was able to exclude one of them by tracing her to her death and finding an obituary that listed her parents’ names.  That left one possibility.

So, I added this man and these children to my family tree with a note that I needed to find a marriage record, an obituary, or further documentation to support that this Thelda and my Thelda were one and the same.

Then, as often happens, my research on that branch of the family got side-tracked.  For four years.

I made my family tree public (warts and all) a few months ago so that I could more readily connect with DNA matches.  But, in that time I have received messages from many more people than just those biological cousins.  Including this one.  As I re-read the message from this woman there were a few things that stood out to me.

She explained what she believed to be the truth about this man and his family.  She referenced the exact records she used to come to this conclusion.  She very specifically pointed out the discrepancies between our two trees.  She then said this, “I can’t see the actual documentation that you have in your tree… I am just wondering if I could find out a little more about the records that support your tree…  Thanks for any direction you can give here, I would appreciate it.”  She concluded with directions for how to find her public tree so I could view it for myself.

Between the records that she had attached to her tree and the previous research I had done on this family, I was able to conclude for myself that the Thelda in her tree and the Thelda in my tree were two different women.  I corrected my tree and sent this woman a thank you note for bringing this to my attention.

There are several things I re-learned today because of this experience.  Here are just a few lessons I hope you’ll consider:

  1. Reach out to others who may or may not have accurate information in their online trees.  Be nice!
  2. Not everyone approaches genealogy research the same way you do but we can all do it better if we work together.
  3. Keep good notes. It will help you keep your sanity and keep you from having to redo research.

Anything else you learned?

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Family Tree Maker for Mac 2 Update Is Available Mon, 04 Mar 2013 17:39:28 +0000 Read more]]> A free update for Family Tree Maker for Mac 2 is now available. It contains improvements to TreeSync and a number of new features. When you open Family Tree Maker for Mac 2, you should be notified that an update is available. If you aren’t, go to the Family Tree Maker 2 menu and select “Check for Updates.”

TreeSync Improvements

  • Private media items. If you have personal media items like birth certificates and photos of living family members that you don’t want to include in your online tree, you can keep them private on an item-by-item basis when you sync (or export) your tree.
  • Improved backup and restore. It’s easier to keep your online and desktop trees synced if you encounter an issue; previously, if you had to use a backup file, your tree wouldn’t sync anymore and you’d have to upload a new version. With this update, you can back up a synced tree and restore it if you have any problems.
  • Synced Web links. If you’ve added Web links for individuals or URLs in source citations, these will now be included when you sync your tree.
  • Printable sync log. Now you can print a list of all the changes that will be made to your online tree.

New Features

  • More reports. This update includes a number of new reports: an index of individuals that lists every individual in your tree and their birth, marriage, and death dates; a notes reports that lets you display person, research, relationship, or facts notes for an individual; and a surname report that lists the surnames in your tree, including the total number of individuals with that surname.

  • New report options. The descendant and Ahnentafel reports have been updated and the descendant report includes additional numbering systems. New sorting options have also been added to the custom report.
  • Organizational tool for places. The larger your tree gets, the more locations you have to keep track of. On the Places workspace, locations are now grouped together by country, state, county, and city to make them easier to look at and sort through.




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Member Trees: Merge Duplicate People Fri, 07 Dec 2012 19:11:56 +0000 Read more]]> A lot of people have asked over the years how to clean up duplicates in their Ancestry Member Tree.  If you are one of the people who discovered that your mysterious distant cousin Mary was really the same person as Uncle George’s wife Mary, then you’ll be happy to learn that we have a solution that makes it simple to merge two duplicate people without losing any of the relationships, facts, photos, or stories you’ve entered.

How does it work?

Select one of the duplicate people in your tree

Go to the person’s overview or profile page and from the “More options” menu, select “Merge with duplicate.”

Select the other duplicate person

On the left side of the page, you’ll see the person you’ve already selected. On the right side of the page, you can select the person’s duplicate in a few ways.

  • Select a possible duplicate. We’ll suggest people who might be duplicates (for example if they have the same first and last names and their birth years and birthplaces are similar).
  • Type the person’s name.  If you know the duplicate’s name, simply type it in the field and select the person from a list of individuals who match the name you’ve typed.
  • Select from a list of people. You can browse a list of everyone in your tree and select the correct individual.

Select the facts you want to display

After you’ve chosen the duplicate individuals, they’ll be displayed side-by-side so you can compare the two and choose which facts you want to display for the merged individual.

  • If facts are identical. A same label shows which facts are the same; they’ll be merged into one fact.
  • If facts are different. Both facts will be included in the merge, but you can choose which fact is preferred (the default fact that displays). The other fact will be added as an alternate.
  • If you’re not sure what to do. You can click the Compare button to see more details about the two individuals.

Already, I’ve been able to clean up some of the messiness that existed in my own tree by using this new feature and hope it helps those of you who have been looking for a solution for merging duplicate people in your own tree.



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Ancestry Member Trees – A New Look for the Person Overview or Profile Page Fri, 19 Oct 2012 20:01:38 +0000 Read more]]> You may have noticed that the Person Overview page has a new look (the page with the details for an ancestor in your tree).  The intent of these visual changes is to start moving toward a simpler design that is more subtle than the previous design so that it more effectively showcases the content about your ancestor.  This is just our first step and we plan to make updates based on feedback.  With these design changes we worked hard to preserve the same functionality of the page and to keep most features located in the same place.

We’re interested in your feedback so we’ve set up a specialized survey for it.  If you have feedback for us please share it through our survey here.

We also recognize that the Person Overview page is very heavily used and that changes of any kind can sometimes be frustrating.  We are really trying to improve the site for all our users.  We’ve gotten a number of helpful suggestions already, but the main concern we’ve heard is that there is sometimes a greater need to scroll with the new design than there was with the old design.  We wanted to reassure you that we’re actively working to address that.

If you have additional feedback you can share it through our survey here.

UPDATED 10/24/2012

We appreciate the feedback that you’ve provided over the last week after changes were made to the person profile/overview page in Ancestry Member Trees.  In response, we’ve made a few tweaks that we hope will address the majority of the concerns.  Here’s a list of the key changes we’ve made:

  • We’ve added a subtle gray background color around the different page elements
  • We’ve reduced the font size of the events and dates in the timeline
  • We’ve reduced the spacing around the timeline elements
  • We’ve added boxes around the sources and member connect containers on the right side of the page

These changes should help reduce the amount of scrolling, help to differentiate between the various elements on the page and help to increase the contrast.  Please let us know what you think of the page with the latest updates by leaving feedback here.

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