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Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree and What to Do Instead

Why You Need to Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree

By Patricia Hartley

Genealogy is a lot of things. It’s fun. It’s addictive. It’s time-consuming, engaging, and irresistible. It exercises your sleuthing skills, introduces you to new people and places, and occasionally gives you the satisfaction of really hard work paying off. 

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I started my research at age 20 when I realized I had a half-brother from my father’s first marriage. I knew nothing about my dad, his first family, or his parents or siblings since he died when I was four. I met my half-brother, started working to fill out my paternal line, and became hooked. That was 30 years ago.

Today, I couldn’t be more proud of my work – but I have made mistakes along the way. And I’ve learned more than a few hard lessons. Not the least of which was that getting addicted to the process of adding to my tree, rather than really building it, would never be fulfilling.

What about your own family tree makes you the most proud today? Is it the fact that you’ve never copied another person’s online tree to yours? Or that you have broken down a seemingly insurmountable brick wall in your research? Maybe you take pride in the detailed source citations you include with each piece of information you add to an individual’s profile.

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If any of these are true, then you certainly have a valid reason to brag. You’re building a strong and well-researched ancestral history.

However, if you’ve been focused on the number of individuals you’ve plugged into your family tree, your goals and priorities may need to be reevaluated. Sure, it’s interesting to see a tree with thousands of names (if they are all accurate and well sourced) but there is more to growing a family tree than adding branches. You may be missing out on all the best parts.

But, more importantly, a poorly fleshed out tree is prone to errors at every turn. It is just too easy to make big mistakes when we know little more than someone’s name and birth date. 

Who Are All Of These People, and Why are They in Your Tree?

If you trace only your direct lines back six generations to your fourth great-grandparents, you would have 126 people in your family tree, or 63 couples. If each of these direct ancestor couples had eight children together on average (seven in addition to your direct ancestor who’s already in your tree as their child, which is on the high side for recent generations), you’d add another 441 or so people.

If you added those children’s spouses, and account for multiple marriages and above-average kid counts, you’d have around 1,000 individuals in your tree. Add another generation of children and spouses to those children, and you might top the 4,000 to 6,000 mark.

That’s a LOT of names, and, if you’re doing your research, a LOT of work to verify and document their existence. If you’re looking for busy-work, are trying to rival FamilySearch’s 1.2 billion-individual shared family tree, or hope to eventually make a connection to George Washington, you’re doing great.

Chances are, though, if you’ve collected that many names, you haven’t had a lot of time to devote to the actual research of who these people were — where and how they lived and died, what they did for a living, and all those interesting facts that make an individual a person rather than just a name.

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Each of the people in your tree should, ideally, represent a life lived rather than just a name that fills in a blank

This is not to say that you shouldn’t spend time adding important individuals to your research. You should. But you want to make sure that you really understand and grow at least a decent proportion of these relatives so that you gain a clearer view of your family’s past and avoid making unfortunate mistakes that can get you off track.

Read: Are You Sure They’re Your Ancestors?

Go Beyond the Names, and the Basics

Performing in-depth research into a person’s life will reveal a story that is fascinating and rewarding to research, no matter who the ancestor was. And the process will likely reveal clues about others in your tree.

Newspaper articles, obituaries, land records, and probate records often mention other family members as well as friends, associates, and neighbors (a.k.a. the FAN club) who played a role in your ancestors’ lives. Finding out that a great-great uncle moved out west to claim and cultivate farmland may explain why your third great-grandparents suddenly appear in a Texas census when 10 years earlier they were in Georgia.

To learn more about each person in your tree, start with the basics and the begin to move outward. Every profile should include at least eight facts, including (but not limited to):

  • Date and place of birth,
  • Date and place of death,
  • Burial place,
  • Name of spouse and date and place of marriage,
  • Occupation(s),
  • Faith and participation in religious events like baptism or christening,
  • Military service, and
  • Places they lived throughout their lives

The process of finding the above details should open up a variety of sources that can be further explored and branched out from. For help with this process, and building your tree in general, you might find Family History Daily’s online courses helpful.

Now, Step Back and Think About Your Motives

Why did you start your family tree in the first place? Perhaps you intended to…

  • Solve a family mystery
  • Verify family stories or countries of origin
  • Find or discover more about your birth family
  • See if you’re related to anyone of note
  • Trace the history of certain medical conditions through the generations
  • Further an ancestor or family member’s genealogy work
  • Compile or verify information you’ve found in other sources, like a family Bible
  • Learn more about a person after whom you’re named
  • Prove lineage for a heritage society

There are countless other reasons, of course – but, whatever yours is, take a moment to step back and make sure you are fulfilling it and not just adding names for the sake of adding them.

You might also enjoy: Can Your Family Tree Pass the 5 Step Proof Test?

For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about ancestry. She has a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama and a M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.

6 thoughts on “Why You Need to Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree”

  1. I built my trees from information from a close Aunt and late in her life we found that possibly she had it all wrong! We all were using the same information so we now have a huge mess! As much as we love our family members, that can be a BIG mistake. Research is important and even if it looks solid…it can be a mistake. Just sharing…..I mean hundreds have sued her information and the sad part is there is no link, no information or source to unblock the block??
    No one seems to know how to find the truth….we have a wonderful heritage on the one hand and on the other, we are all stuck in someone else’s story that is not ours after all, most likely???

  2. I have been researching since about 1979, when you wrote letters with SASEs. At first, I mainly concentrated on direct ancestors and a few siblings, when needed to figure out parents. But, now that genealogy has moved into DNA, I have found I need the children of all the siblings, and their children, etc. to make it easier to figure out where the DNA match comes in and break down my brick walls. I’ve been adding lots of siblings and their descendants in the last few years. Some of the brick walls date to the very beginnings of my research unfortunately, but so far I’ve broken down or confirmed a couple of them using DNA.
    Early research and moving from paper to online, as well as one program to another has meant that my online tree doesn’t have many attached “official” Ancestry sources, and people can’t see my notes because of the way FTM synchs with Ancestry (I will copy them into the comments section, if they include important or hard-to-find info, like wills). So, I’m sure people look at my tree and think it’s not “sourced,” when it really is. But, I don’t have time to go back and add all those records I looked at over the years. Some don’t even exist online. So, I say add as many people as you can (who are properly researched, of course) and don’t skip over a tree just because it doesn’t have many “sources.” Check their research and see if it is solid, then use the good stuff and rest as hints.

    1. Yes. Exactly. And by adding those collateral relationships I’ve answered quite a few FAN questions. I’ll add everyone connected to my ancestors. That’s where the answers lie.

  3. I will look at others’ trees to see if they have source information. When their only source is “_ Family Tree” I could contact them, but will not copy their information. This is to protect myself and others viewing my tree from being misled. Thanks for your article.

  4. Using online family trees to create a mirror tree has been a huge time-saver in searching for my father’s bio-father. It’s at least a place to start sometimes when there aren’t any names or family history, such as the case with NPE and those adopted. I wish you would not paint with such a broad brush when saying copying other’s trees are a bad thing. You can usually tell with a little digging if the tree owner has done the research too and nothing wrong with SHARING good trees and info, at least as a starting point. Not everyone has family bibles or relatives to ask and verify information, so online tree info is a great starting point when you start with only some DNA relatives from a DNA test.

    1. You are exactly right. If you research, you find people. What is the point of researching if you are going to throw away everything you find that doesn’t have your ancestor’s name on it?

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