Stop ‘Saving’ Records to Your Ancestry Tree Until You Read This

It’s no secret that we love free genealogy sites here at Family History Daily. But, we have to admit, we also like Ancestry.com. Next to FamilySearch.org, you’re not going to find a larger, more diverse genealogy website — and many of us are willing to pay their subscription fees for that reason alone.

But we also like Ancestry for the convenient free family tree they offer. It’s easy to get started with, maintain and share (or keep private). Plus, they’ve made it extremely convenient to add records from Ancestry’s databases. A couple of clicks and you can easily attach any number of sources, or names, to your tree (although we could tell you why that’s generally a bad idea).

But it’s this very convenience that poses a serious problem for many family historians.

Most people who keep their trees on Ancestry.com probably regularly attach records to individuals using the ‘Save This Record’ function as seen in the screen capture below. Please note that the following images show the classic Ancestry view. The newly updated site looks quite a bit different but the important save buttons are in approximately the same position.


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This can also be done when viewing a record image, and is done automatically in the ‘hints’ section when reviewing and adding data to your tree.

At first, this seems like a quick and easy way to attach relevant records to people in your tree – and it is. The problem lies in the fact that when you ‘save’ a record this way, you are not really saving it at all. Instead, Ancestry is simply linking that record to the correct fact.

This causes two vital problems:

1. If you decide you want to download your tree as a gedcom and import the data into another family tree program (other than Family Tree Maker) you will not have any copies of these files.

2. If you stop subscribing to records on Ancestry, or access records during the a trial subscription and then don’t subscribe, you will no longer have access to these records if they were in a paid database — which most are. This is true even if you currently have a paid subscription that doesn’t cover the record you want to view (such as having a US only subscription when trying to view a record from England). You can read Ancestry’s statement about what happens when you cancel a subscription here.

If you have been using Ancestry for awhile you may already be aware of this and have taken actions to secure these documents. But it can be surprisingly easy to overlook this fact and be left wondering why you no longer have access to a record you saved to your tree.

We respect that Ancestry has to support their site by limiting access to records, but we wish this fact was clearer to subscribers.

The first thing to know is that you can download records to your own computer for safe keeping.

Here’s how to download the records so you’ll have access to them later. 

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Get two full weeks of free access to more than 18 billion genealogy records right now. You’ll also gain access to the MyHeritage discoveries tool that locates information about your ancestors automatically when you upload or create a tree. What will you discover about your family’s past?

1. When viewing the record’s landing page, as seen in the first screen capture above, click on the image to view it.

2. Now look for the green ‘Save’ button and click on that. There are several options, one of them says ‘Save to Your Computer’ – this is what you want.


3. After you select this option Ancestry will likely just download the file to your default download location (usually your ‘downloads’ folder or your desktop). You will now need to find the file and rename it something you will recognize later, since the file name is usually a string of numbers. Once you do that you should move it to a folder on your computer for these files specifically.

Of course, you can also print files.

You should save every single record you attach to your tree on Ancestry and any record you want to view later that you have not attached. Adding records to your ‘Shoebox’ for later review is easy but, again, you will have no access to these files later if you end your subscription.

We recommend that you create a section on your computer for your downloaded records, and then create folders for each surname or line for easy reference later. You can also upload these files manually one by one back in to your tree so that you can view them later in context, since manually uploaded media files continue to be accessible after a subscription ends.

Taking these steps is no big deal for a few records, or when doing so one by one as you research, but what if you’ve already linked many records to a current tree?

You have a couple of options in this case, but neither one is ideal:

1. The first is to simply go through and manually download, one by one, each record as outlined above. Work on it little by little everyday in order of importance so it does not become overwhelming. Make sure to rename each file for easy organizing and place it in a safe location on your computer where you can find it later. This takes a long time for large trees but is worth it if you want permanent access to these files.

2. If you already use Family Tree Maker, or plan to, then you can download all of your media files quickly by syncing the program to your online tree. Unfortunately, it is another expense if you don’t already have a copy, but if you cancel your subscription to Ancestry all of the media files you downloaded to Family Tree Maker will still be available. This makes the purchase price of this software reasonable if you have many records to download, plan to hold a subscription to Ancestry only for a short time, or want to try their free trial and download many records to use later.

Feb 2016 Update: In late 2015, Ancestry announced that it would discontinue Family Tree Maker and no longer offer updates or support for it after 2016. However, on Feb 2nd Ancestry has stated that Software MacKiev, the company that has developed FTM Mac for Ancestry for 6 years, will continue to offer the program as well as updates and new versions. This is great news for FTM users. They also announced that Rootsmagic, another respected genealogy program, will be working to connect their program with Ancestry by the end of 2016. This may offer a new way to easily back up and save your records. You can read all about it here.

March 2017 Update: TreeSync from Ancestry has now been discontinued and replaced with FamilySync in the new FTM 2017 only. See this article for more information.

May 23 2017 Update: FTM 2017 has still not been released to those who purchased it. MacKiev continues to test it and it should be available soon.

We’d love to hear from anyone who has heard of a better way to download all attached records to your computer. So far, we have found no good solution beyond the two options above.

Backup Your Ancestry Tree Data Too

And while we’re talking about backing up, you should download your Ancestry tree gedcom regularly as well, even though you will still have access to your tree data if you end a subscription. The gedcom does not contain actual images of records you have attached, so it can’t be used to save those, but it is always good to have a backup of your other data. To download this, go to your tree, click the ‘tree pages’ dropdown, select ‘tree settings’ and the look for the green ‘export’ button on the right sidebar of the setting page. Find our tutorial here.

Backup All of Your Data Somewhere Safe

We also highly recommend that you backup all of your genealogy data to a second computer, thumb drive, respected online storage site Amazon Cloud, or some other safe location — you don’t want to spend hundreds of hours researching only to lose all of your files. It happens more often than you think.

Also read: Why You Need to Quit Attaching Records to Your Family Tree, and What to Do Instead

Image: Chinese ambassador gives latest war news to newspapermen. Washington, D.C., Sept. 25, 1937. Library of Congress

169 thoughts on “Stop ‘Saving’ Records to Your Ancestry Tree Until You Read This”

  1. I know this is an “old” response to an even older article but the “while you have a subscription” is critical to the idea that you don’t need to do some manual backups. I can’t always budget money for a subscription so my membership is stop and go. I’ve lost a lot not realizing that was the case especially when downgrading from International to US only. In addition, make sure you know the exceptions to what FTM 2019 will Sync to either Ancestry or FamilySearch. Here from the Help section on Synch for FTM 2019:

    Item that don’t synchronize:
    • Research notes
    • Fact notes
    • Relationship notes
    • Media notes
    • Source media
    • Saved charts and reports

    Some of those aren’t too critical (depending) but you still want to take care if don’t want to lose or don’t have a b/u for those exceptions. The next part pertains even more to idea that all media, etc

    Media considerations
    As noted above, person, fact, and citation media all get synchronized between trees. However, there are some other exceptions to media synchronization. Media that fall in these conditions cannot be synchronized:

    • Media that are linked to an Ancestry source record
    • Media that are linked to a Family Tree Maker source (rather than linked to a citation, which is synchronized)

    So you still need to take care that everything you think is synched, and downloaded, actually is.

  2. I am not trying to be snarky, but that will last about as long as the flash drive holds up and/or as long as the technology lasts. Remember floppy disks? Remember CD’s? Everything everywhere is becoming subscription-based-only or so it seems. An external hard drive might hold up better than a little flash drive.

  3. Yep, that’s why I never made my tree public, but was shocked to see a photo of my parents attached to a stranger’s tree. I private messaged him through ancestry and he messaged that he had just captured it – His wife what is the relation through marriage to my sister. I read terms of service that the photo was my own until I marked my tree public, but obviously that’s not the case… so there is a little bit of disingenuous claims going on there. That experience really left a bad taste in my mouth and I don’t think I will ever make my tree public; it will probably die with me, as family members seem disinterested. For the record, most of my tree is fairly well documented and verified. I have made mistakes which I rectify as unfolding and as I have gained experience, I learned to slow down in my research.

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