Posted by Ancestry Team on October 4, 2013 in Ask Ancestry Anne, Family History Month

When I first started my tree on, well, I made a big mess.  I mean a big mess!  Way too many people, relationships that didn’t make sense.  Confusion as far as the eye could see.  I have since learned my lesson, and here are ten rules I wish I had known when I got started:image04

  1. Enter what you know.  Sure this one is obvious.  But start with yourself and enter what you know about your parents and grandparents.
  2. Prep your tree for hints.  You want those shaky leafs.  Try to gather a first name, a last name, a date, a location and a relationship for your  person.  Sometimes you can get hints with less but this should launch you into shaky leaf nirvana.
  3. Apply the “does this make sense” test? Does it make sense that Mary Smith’s mother was 10 when she was born? Or maybe 82? Probably not. Or that Johnny was born 2 years after his father died?  Before you attach any record give it the “does this make sense” test and save yourself some grief.
  4. Go slow. This is not a race.  Take your time and look at each record and each image.  This will allow you to avoid mistakes. Which leads us to …
  5. View the image. Attaching a record to your tree is a good thing.  Viewing the image and thinking about what you see is a great thing.  You will mostly likely learn a few things about your ancestors lives that you would have missed!
  6. Not everything on the internet is true. Gasp!  Just because someone’s family tree says John is the father of Mary, doesn’t make it true.  Or false.  You need to evaluate for yourself.  And even historical documents can be wrong.  The informant may have  been confused, may have lied, or just flat out didn’t know. Look at the evidence in totality and analyze for yourself.
  7. Start by gathering all the census records. This helps you find where a person lived at a certain time and who they lived with.  If your census records say that your great grandfather was born in 1850 in Mississippi, that Massachusetts birth record you found probably isn’t him.
  8. Bigger is not better.  There are no gold stars for adding 50,000 people to your tree.  Having the 3rd great granddaughter of your great uncle’s brother-in-law’s nephew may just not be that useful.  And it may confuse you down the road.
  9. Family is important. Do make sure you add in brothers and sisters of your direct ancestors and their spouses as you go. You may be able to break down brick walls by tracing siblings.
  10. Be focused.  Work on one person or family group at a time finding everything you can.  Don’t jump randomly around in your tree.  This will help you see patterns and details that relate within the family.

What do you now know that you didn’t know when you started?

Happy Searching!


  1. Pam Collins

    Very good advice. A few years ago I reviewed a tree from a shaky leaf hint. At first I was intrigued that a lady from Canada had gone back so much further than I had been able to. Every time I followed her line, more generations would appear. Even though I was on dial up, and it would take quite a while for each new family to appear, I was so intrigued by the massive amount of research that she had done in finding so many ancestors, and I just had to find how far back she had been able to trace her family. After hundreds of generations, her forebears had no surname. There were, as I recall, names such as Urg and Orlf, or some such concoction. I was spellbound, and had to continue the slow trudge back in time. Finally, I came to what was surely the beginning of her line — Adam and his wife, Eve. Then her line went back four more generations. Although I did not add our common ancestors into my tree, I regret that I did not save some sort of link to her tree so I could check and see if she has been able to go back a few more generations.

  2. Ancestry Anne

    You should always view and evaluate before attaching. Four generations before Adam and Eve? Hmmm…. 🙂

  3. Beverly Blum

    About 55 years ago, my mother mentioned (in passing), that her friend married my father’s cousin. Now, while working on the family tree, I am only able to locate 6 of my grandmother’s 7 sisters.
    My mothers friend married her first husband 2x. Then married another man. My grandmother was from Russia. The other man’s mother was Polish. That leaves me to assume that the first (and second) husband, was my father’s cousin, and his mother, my grandmother’s sister. Is this assumption crazy?

  4. Ancestry Anne

    Mary Beth, if you allow others to add to your family tree, you will get hints for the people they add. Maybe you should make a duplicate tree for your nieces and nephews to work with.

    Beverly, it is not a crazy assumption, but I suggest that you keep digging to prove your theory.

  5. Lynn Steffen

    The MOST IMPORTANT THING I CHOSE TO DO EARLY ON (THANK GOODNESS) is CAPITALIZE THE SURNAME of all direct ancestors. Saves me lots of time when searching and changing data. Especially when there are three William Smiths but only two are direct ancestors.

  6. Carrie

    Good blog. Too bad not enough people know all this. Maybe it should be required reading before being allowed build a tree.

    Oops! Can’t do that. Ancestry might lose some paying customers!

  7. Dave Smith

    Can we at least make fun of the people who claim to have well researched trees of 200,000 + people that include Adam and Eve and Odin and Thor?

  8. Carlette Kyler

    I want to add a name I know belongs but I don’t know his parents’ names or connection. How can I add an unrelated person so that I don’t lose him and I can look for proof of his tie to my family?

  9. Dave Smith


    Add him as a child or parent of someone in your tree then immediately go to the relationship tab on the profile and delete the relationship.

    He will now be “floating” in your tree unconnected.

  10. Jill Selak

    Ancestry Ann, as you stated in the opening of this article, your tree was a mess when you began. Well…in my enthusiasm/naivete of a new genealogist (?) I appeared to slap everything up on my tree. Now that I am “seasoned” (questionable), how do I clean up my tree so that when you search for a person, they don’t show up in 5 different branches? I cannot merely delete a name because they each have varied information that I want to keep. How do I merge information? And what steps do I take to trim this danged tree? Sign me,

  11. Lynn David

    Very good advice here. If I were to disagree with any one it would be that there are sometimes that bigger is better (8) or in the least, unavoidable. I grew up in a somewhat insular Catholic farming community in SW Indiana. Like many when I started my genealogical research I had one main goal in mind, work the pedigree. The secondary goal was find the descendants of my emigrant ancestors.

    Simple right?

    No. Not when you find out that back in NW Germany your immigrant ancestor’s wife had two sisters who married men and also those families also came to your same county – and their descendants then sometimes married cousins of your from emigrant ancestors from Luxembourg in Belgium, Moselle in France, Jura in Switerland and the old Netzekreis in Germany, now Poland. Then you find other relationships among people from Moselle, France, and Luxembourg, Belgium. I’m just happy my Belgian Brabant emigrants came to Indiana alone and didn’t bring the bunch (and the entire family of the wife) that emigrated to Door Peninsula area of Wisconsin. But I’m still following those Wisconsin cousins as well.

    I have people who are not just cousins via 2 ancestors but cousins 3 or 4 times over are common and some few now who are cousins via 5 lines. And so, it is situations like that which make the family tree more of a strangler fig than an oak. And to do it correctly, one does have to grow the tree to explain the relationships.

  12. beth

    ancestry ann
    as jill selak (11) i have made a mess out of my tree and dont want to loose any info. i need help…advice on cleaning it up….thinking about starting a new tree…dont know if i have to go that far though…!….

  13. bmz

    #13 & #11,
    To merge duplicate persons, go to one of the duplicate’s profile page. When your cursor hovers over “More Options”, click on “merge duplicates”. This will give you the opportunity to merge duplicate persons without loosing information. Hope this helps!!

  14. Carrie

    Yeah, I laugh at the trees with 50K, 100K, more or less people, but with all the mistakes probably in it, there likely are some parts, groups, or little family clusters which are true. But Adam and Eve? That’s a real stretch.

    Anne’s blog is so true and straight forward. I wish I had that advice when I first started. I did learn that lesson in short order when I had to toss out 4 generations because I used my mother’s work. She can be forgiven because when she did her work there were no computers. I wish she was alive today so I could show her what I have done, and it is all documented.

    Ancestry’s advertising could be partly to blame for people jumping in with the, “You don’t even have to know anythng, just get started” attitude. Of course that is marketing. And the appeal to use computers is well suited to today’s generation, and some of us oldsters too.

  15. Monika

    Even when you get feedback from your immediate family you need to proceed with caution. My mother had prepared an ancestry tree of her family for me. Within minutes I was able to tell that the person she had listed as her maternal grandmother was really her maternal great-grandmother. When I pointed that out to her she was deeply offended by my suggestion and said “I should know who my own grandmother was! I grew up with her!” As I proceeded with my research by obtaining the original birth, marriage and death records of her great-grandmother, as well as the vital records of all of her great-grandmother’s children, I discovered that my mother’s maternal grandfather had died 20 years before my mother was born and her grandmother died shortly after my mother’s birth. So, the person that my mother grew up with and knew as her “grandmother” was the person that her mother referred to as “grandma”! Unless I can attach copies of the original vital records (birth, marriage, death records) to an individual on my tree, I do not consider having researched that ancestor properly. I have traveled to Europe three times to go to various archives and churches to obtain these vital records and have obtained other vital records by writing to individual churches, archives or recorder’s offices. What caused me to make my trees private is that this did not stop the junkologists from coming onto my trees and copying portions of my data onto their trees only to then leave out the vital records and “allow” these people to die in different states and to be buried in different states, just because they found someone by that same name on who died in Pennsylvania, while the correct individual by the same name died e.g., in the state of Washington. It hurts too much to see people distort your well researched data to fit their needs. One of the “beefs” I have is the people who will change the names of an individual on an vital record or census record, by claiming that the correct name is a “transcription error” (even though it is accurate and very easy to read on the original record), just so that they can fit that record to someone in their tree thereby adding junkology to a legitimate record. I understand that does not have the manpower to control that, but it irks me when people change accurate data to inaccurate data just to fit their needs.

  16. It’s a great post but the shaky “leafs” thing is driving me crazy. “Leafs” is a verb, i.e. She leafs through the pages of a book. The plural of the noun leaf is LEAVES.

  17. C

    Re: # !8 Loretta

    You are absolutely correct. Funny, I never caught that. Guess I wasn’t paying attention. I usually run my posts through a spell checker because I don’t want to be a bad speller. However there are always typing errors that are real words.

  18. Mark Thomson

    Is there a way to delete unconnected “limbs”? Like many when I first started I connected to a lot of rubbish. Later when I got wiser, I pruned my tree by disconnecting questionable “limbs”. Now i have a lot of junk “floating” in my tree and would like to get rid of it but I have no intention of spending hours deleting these dead branches one by one.

  19. Long time user

    Interesting responses in this blog. I have come across many trees that may have one of my ancestors in them connected incorrectly. On a few occasions I have contacted the owner and given correct information with sources. Some have made the corrections but most don’t bother. And the junk part of the tree remains.

    Other times I don’t bother correct folks because I’m not sure they would welcome it. One of the big problems I notice is duplications of people. One woman has my fathers’ family with nine of his ten children in her tree about 10 times for each! I mentioned to her there is now a merge utility on Ancestry but she has never used it. I don’t think I’d know how to explain to her how to go about deleting the duplications because she needs to keep at least one of the lines.

    Sometimes folks ask to see my whole tree and I feel uncomfortable with the possibility of them making more bad connections with others in my tree. I used to keep all my trees public, but I couldn’t keep up with the copiers and made the important ones private. I really would like to help but I’m not the genealogy police. There have been some good experiences with sharing though.

  20. FHC Librarian

    I take issue with Anne’s #7 (not the user’s post). Depending on when the census was taken in relation to the person, the birth record could be correct and the census wrong. I’m very familiar with the Massachusetts Vital Records and have used them long before Ancestry or Family Search had free access to them. Yes, the are some errors in them but when you have a record which is close in time to the person’s actual birth year, that one may be the correct source.

    People forget. Who is providing the information to the census taker? You must consider all records and all parts of the records. Who were the parents in the MA VR? Funny how some women didn’t age a full 10 years in censuses for their later years!

  21. Monika

    #22 – I asked a genealogist once why some of my female ancestors got younger with every new census record. He smiled and said “it made them more marriageable”! 🙂

  22. Linda Guthrie

    I had so many incorrect people and floating new people, my tree was a mess. I found all of the correct lines and then added an * after their first name. In this way I could find the correct person in my list of names. As far as information and documents, I save them to my hard disk just in case of problems. It isn’t fast, but I don’t add people and information from trees unless I know everything is correct.

  23. TC

    Good blog. Too bad not enough people know all this. Maybe it should be required reading before being allowed build a tree. Oops! Can’t do that. Ancestry might lose some paying customers!

    Carrie : why should it bother you – or anyone else for that matter – what someone chooses to put into THEIR online tree, or paper tree, etc

    If you are doing YOUR own research, their tree has nothing to do with you. I may look to see if someone public tree may be related but only so I can make a contact and see if they have pictures, otherwise, their tree – good bad and possibly mixed up beyond belief – is THEIR tree, and so long as I am watching what I am doing, my tree is as good as I can make it, with the research I put into it.

  24. Carrie

    Re: #25 TC

    I get hints to other peoples’ tree that may or may not help me. But I have to check them all to learn this. This is supposed to be partly about sharing, a cooperative effort. Other people get hints whenever I add a record or a person. It’s in the member connect utility and I have no control over that. I notice people “following” my lead in several trees. It’s part of Ancestry’s service.

    I do my own research and when I find a hint to another person’s tree which includes one of my known family members, I’d like to know how they made the connection. Maybe there is a mistake in my tree, maybe not. Maybe this is a person I want to contact.

    I don’t disagree that my tree is just that, my tree, but it would be nice if folks would at least check their math and do the documentation. This is more than a hobby; it’s a lifelong avocation and always a learning experience. It is just too bad folks can’t get a good start. It would be more satisfying to them. I would have appreciated help at the start rather than stumbling around. After all these years, no one does more documentation than I do. I have learned and am still learning as I get into other time frames and places.

    So…I do care but as #21 said, I’m not the genealogy police, but I too have had some very good experiences with sharing and helping others. Why should you care if I care. I still think it would be helpful for folks to have a good start.

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