Tips for Sorting Complicated Families, by Juliana Smith

twisty tree.jpgMost of us have probably heard the song “I Am My Own Grandpa.” (For those of you who haven’t, it’s online.) In the song, a man marries a widow with a grown-up daughter and his father marries the widow’s daughter. As both couples have babies, through the twists and turns of their family tree, the man determines that he has become his own grandfather.

It’s a cute song that originated in the 1940s, and while most of our families don’t get that complicated, we will occasionally run into some complicated family trees of our own. With siblings marrying siblings of another family, various degrees of cousins marrying, multiple marriages, families taking in nieces and nephews, families reusing the same given names of children who have died, and any other number of complications, we may find ourselves singing a similar tune and having a hard time sorting out who belongs to which family. (Plus, is it just me or does this kind of thing typically take place most often in the families that also have the most common surnames? It’s kind of a Murphy’s Law of Genealogy.)

Since I often hear from readers writing in with complicated family mysteries, I thought that today we’d discuss some methods for sorting out complicated families.

Gather Records on Everyone
Make sure you have gathered as many records as you can. The more information you have to work with the better. If there are discrepancies and pieces that don’t seem to fit, do more searching and see if perhaps you just picked up on a similar family, with your family still hiding behind a mis-transcribed name or in a location you didn’t expect.

Arrange and Rearrange Records
Sometimes with complicated families, and when you’re trying to sort out several families with similar names, it helps to lay the information out in non-traditional formats. I used a spreadsheet and color-coding to sort out what seemed like a million James Kellys in New York City to try to determine which one was mine.

Another simpler method would be to use note cards that can be sorted. This is my mother’s favorite method. Make a card for each record, including source information and a transcription (where possible) on the card. Using clues found in each type of record such as occupation, children’s names, ages, etc., sort as many of the cards as possible into piles by family or individual.

Transcriptions Can Help
While you’re transcribing records onto cards or worksheets, you’ll probably also pick up some additional clues that you may have missed or forgotten about. I hand-type every record we get and find it very helpful because I tend to analyze each thing that I type.

Make Notes
As you find clues, make notes of them right away. If you’re using the index card system, you can even create separate cards for your notes. If you’re sorting the family in either a spreadsheet or word processing document, you can insert notes or comments with your thoughts. Be sure to date them and clearly state your train of thought, and the records you referenced.

If you find that one of the records you have collected is not related to your family, make a note of that too, detailing why you believe they don’t fit in with your group. Keep these in a “miscellaneous file” and that way if you run across other records for that person, you don’t have to re-analyze the situation and can rule them out quickly.

Family Structure
I like to create a summary of family structures as I know it. For example, if I’m missing a family in the 1860 census, I put down the names of everyone I expect to find in the household, along with years of birth, and the ages I expect them to be in 1860. I also include a column to show the age I find in the census once I locate them. I have posted an example here:

Kelly Census Grid-lgr.bmp

(Click on the grid to enlarge it.)

Once you get your records sorted by family, create timelines by chronologically arranging the records you have found. Then use the information from the records to estimate dates for other events. For example, with my Kelly family, Mary Ann was born in Ireland around 1815, and the next youngest child, Jane was born in June 1819 in New York. From this I can estimate their year of immigration between ca. 1815 and June 1819. I insert these estimates in the timeline with a description that gives my reasoning so that I won’t be scratching my head a year from now wondering where I got that range of dates.

Timelines also can help you pinpoint where a family was at a particular place in time. They will also bring discrepancies to the forefront as you begin plotting events. I like to include ages for family members, estimating where the age isn’t actually given in a record. That way if you see the mother having a child at age sixty-five, since that is highly unlikely, you can reexamine the family and see if maybe you missed a generation. It also gives you a better sense of the family. How old were the children when Mom died? Were they married at an early age or later in life? At what age did the children begin working? These are the kind of things that really add interest to your family history.

Explain the Problem
I’m very fortunate that my mother works closely with me on our family history. When I’m trying to sort something out, I give her a call and we can put our heads together to solve the problem. Sometimes, the answer will come to me just through vocalizing the problem. If you don’t have a partner in your family history, try an understanding spouse. (I’ve found it helpful if you bribe them with good food. They can’t run as fast on a full stomach.)

If you’re not looking for answers, pets are great sounding boards too, and you look slightly less silly than when you’re just talking to yourself. (Although mine will sometimes cock their heads and give me a look that says, “Lady, are you serious? How should I know why you can’t find the Kellys in 1860? I’m a dog.”)

Another good technique is to write an article about the family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made discoveries through writing for the newsletter. Other times, the writing exposes holes in my research, and although it’s a bit of a downer at the time, it will eventually help set me on the right path.

What’s Your Secret?
Do you have a trick for sorting out complicated families? Please share it with the rest of us on the blog.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

27 thoughts on “Tips for Sorting Complicated Families, by Juliana Smith

  1. Don’t I know it! I was fortunate that an uncle mapped out this family for me back in the 1970s, so my struggle was not quite so difficult.

    I have a family of ten kids that I am researching, with two brothers marrying 2 sisters of the Baldwin family, and one remaining brother and sister marrying these Baldwins’ first cousins. THEN, if that wasn’t complicated enough, their other brother married these Baldwins’ niece!

    The name I’m researching? Why, Smith of course.

  2. Extremely interested in the Timelines technique and am frustrated because I can’t read the tiny sample you have given. I tried enlarging to print, but that doesn’t enlarge the print at all. I think this might be the most helpful technique on a family of mine that I’m having trouble sorting out. Can we get a bigger chart sample to look at??? What are the column titles across the top of the chart???
    Many thanks – really enjoyed this article

  3. I can’t read the columns at the top. I tried to blow it up; but still can’t read. I’m having the same problem as Laurie.
    Thanks for all the help. I enjoyed the article.
    I always knew that my mother’s aunt married my father’s uncle; but until I started getting deeper into genealogy, I didn’t realize how many other family members had done the same thing or more complicated.

  4. How do you trace your grandpa who ran away from Germany in 1880’s and never told anyone where he came from or names of his relatives. The Church is not cooperative, we’ve had 2 wars in which records may be been destroyed- so where do I go now??

  5. All (blessed with ridiculous eyesight) — the column titles in the Excel sheet are for each census year, estimated and annual. Reading across, it’s “1820 est.,” “1820 actual,” “1830 est.,” “1830 actual,” etc. The body of the table just shows ages and years at each time point for each family member. The black cells in the table are for years after a person had died or before they were born (i.e., they wouldn’t be in the census).

    This isn’t a timeline, but it is helpful if you’re missing a family in one census year (Juliana was looking for 1860), but you have their info for the years before and after.

  6. My husband of over 62 years is still confused about my two “Aunt Helens”. My mother’s sister, Helen Martin (1894) married Robert Redding. My dad’s niece, Helen Love (1900) married Rob’s brother, Arthur Redding. Cousin Helen was closer to my mother’s age than to mine (1925) and we always called her “aunt”…..her daughter, Marjorie is just a couple years younger than I.

    To make matters more confusing, Helen who married Rob has a daughter, Polly (1916). who is first cousin to both Marjoie and me but Marjorie and I are First Cousins once removed.

    To go back farther, my grandfather Philo Potter Steele married Helen Boone. His sister, Hennrietta married her brother, Daniel Morgan Boone. For years we had a yearly Steele/Boone family picnic, and it was not until I started doing the family history that I realized that there were double cousins in my father’s generation.

  7. Thanks so much for the ideas. I had started a timeline; but they were in notebooks and it is so much more realistic to do it on a spreadsheet format. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it since I love to work on spreadsheets. All the tips you have given in this article are great and again, thanks so much.


  8. P.S.

    Same here for reading the small print and I also tried to enlarge it but to no avail…help !!

  9. Thanks for this helpful way to consolidate information. The print IS small, but I’m pretty sure that the column headings identify the census year, with each year having its own color and two columns. For example, the information for the 1820 census is in turquoise. The first column shows “1820 est.”—i.e., what you expect to find; and the second column shows “1820 actual”.

  10. Sorry for the trouble with the grid. I’ve updated the image, so if you click on it, it will enlarge it to a more readable size.

    Joan is correct, the first column is my estimated year of birth/age for each person in that census year, and the second is what the census actually listed. Now if I could just fill in those darned blanks! 😉

    For those interested in a timeline example, I meant to put a link to a previous article I wrote on how to create them. It’s available in the Ancestry Library.

    Had to laugh at Laini’s comment. Why is it that the most complicated families come with the most common surnames?!

    Good luck all!

  11. I just right clicked on the picture and e-mailed to myself after enlarging it. Or you can right click on the picture and save it wherever you like. And I am no computer whiz!!

  12. I got a chuckle reading about the strange families – I guess we all have them. My husband’s grandfather Gardner was raised by his grandmother (from Scotland). I believe he considered his Aunts his sisters! His wife’s brother (a Smith) married his youngest Aunt (a Gardner). Talk about double cousins – there were 100’s of them (I was not part of this family so a lot of this information was fed to me by one of the double cousins which was part of that union(bless her heart for keeping them all straight on 3×5 cards). As I understand they used to have the Gardner-Smith reunions and that’s the only way she could keep them straight. While we may never be done -so many loose ends that need old information, she has been a blessing to work with, because I knew absolutley nothing and we have uncovered a LOT!!!! We even found out who my husband’s great grandmother was. That was kept hush hush. Even things she didn’t know for sure. It’s like a comedy of errors.

  13. P.S.

    Does anyone know how to make the colored backgrounds in this chart?

  14. To find what census year I am missing on each family, I have what I call my ‘year census’ spreadsheet. All it has on it is the census years and check marks for found census. I include birth or immigration year – to know when their first census would be and also their death year (if applicable) – that would tell me which would be the last census for them. At a glance, I can see what census years I am missing (the blank columns) on that relative.

  15. I did not see any replys to Doris’ question – so I will give it a try. Open Excel – Under the view menu look for toolbars and be sure the format tool bar is selected. On that tool bar you will see an icon of a spilling paint. This is where you will find your colors. If you click on the dropdown arrow by that Icon, it will show you some color choices. Now go to the column you wish to apply color to. For the entire column, click in that column header, – the column is highlighted or selected. Go to the paint can icon drop down arrow, and select your color choice by clicking on it. The color should fill the entire column. The same procedure applies to rows. To fill portions of a row or column, select the portion by clicking and dragging your courser from start to end of the portion you are interested in. Now follow the paint can icon procedure to fill the section with the color of choice. Good Luck.

  16. My Bradford brothers Reuben and tim, married Summers sisters, Mary and Martha Summers. Mary already had a son name Edmond who carried her maiden name. Mary and Reuben’s oldest son married a Goss. Their oldest child Merle Bradford married Jonathan Summers who was the son of Edmond. Jonathans daughter who Esther married Tim and Martha’s only child’s youngest son.
    Also, Reuben married a Mary and Tim’s second wife married a Mary and their sisters name is……… guessed…..MAry. It gets worse. LOL

  17. Virginia, You are an angel, bless you. Your instructions were very clear and easy to understand. My Excel calls “spilling paint” “fill color” and that made sense and it worked perfectly. I’ve only had a touch of Excel training many many moons ago – I think it was Excel 3 or some such…lol.

    I don’t know if I can make a copy for others that might desire it, but I will try in another comment following this one. If you don’t see it, you’ll know I couldn’t make it work in this small frame.

    Again, Thanks for your generosity.

  18. The grid is absolutely fantastic, I will now use it for my familly.

    Thank you


  19. I too could not make out the headings. I left clicked on it like it said to in order to enlarge it. When it filled the screen, I did a Print Screen, went to my Word program and pasted it there. It was still small so I went to the enlargement numbers above and took it to 200 and it enlarged it nicely. Hope this helps others.

  20. I’m going to make a similar grid for about 7 of us who are DNA-related. Each line will have the genealogy for each of the 7 with paternal line ancestors. The columns will be for decades. Then each line will have name, date, place of birth death for each of the 7 under the appropriate decade. Hopefully we can trace the 7 lines back to our common ancestors. The color-coding should help a lot. I hope it works horizontally. Thanks.

  21. I enjoyed your article and the comments. My problem is that my surname is also used as a first name. How do you sort to only get surnames. I also have a problem with Thomas C Carroll – did all the Irish name their children the same names? It seems that way sometimes. Not only are there a great many Thomas Carrolls, but more than one have the same birth date too and they are not repeats or related. I really like your spreadsheet with color coding. I’m going to set up one today. Thanks.

  22. I loved your article and am getting ready to use your suggestion on arranging records. The use of cards is easy to understand but can you give me an idea what headings you use on the spreadsheet to sort the families. Do you do a spreadsheet for each record? The family structure was also very interesting.

  23. I like the index card idea for each person. Writing down the facts helps me sort through it all and it’s a great way to have them at your fingertips.

  24. I read with interest about your spreadsheet — right up my alley, as I have spreadsheets for just about everything.

    I’ve been drawing maps and family trees since the mid-to-late forties. Of course I have none of my scriblings anymore, but I do remember those funny trees with circles and squares.

    Fast forward to my retirement 5 1/2 years ago, and I really got serious. What I thought might give your readers a little diversion is to stop and plot the following:
    1) How many relatives do you remember knowing as a child?
    2) How many did you enter right away with your first tree maker program? (Have you switched from one software to another, and why?)
    3) How many distant cousins have you met online and what was your biggest surprise?

    I’m still crunching numbers!

  25. I am trying to figure out how to make my family tree – I am using and I was adopted, so I am trying to fill in 4 different families and can’t figure out how to do it! Any comments would be really helpful.

  26. On Julianna’s timeline chart:
    Review Catherine (Tobin)b. 1824.

    You show her 4 years old in 1824, but born in l824. Should she not have been 1 year old in 1820, 6 years old in 1830 and 16 yrs old in 1840 and 26 years old in l850. If this is not right I am misunderstanding what you are doing. I really need a workable timeline for several families and this spreadsheet idea is the best I have seen, but I am really confused now.


  27. I started a similar spreadsheet when I found my ancestors getting older (or in the case of one aunt) much younger each time the census came around. The one column I added was the birth year listed on the tombstone. In the case of my great uncle, Andrew Hanlon, his tombstone says he was born in 1861, yet he shows up in the 1860 census as 9 months old.

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