30 October 2020

3 Principles for Building and Sharing Your Family Tree

Where do you build your tree? On your computer? On a website? Both? Please tell me it isn't on paper only.

I believe I lucked into the best situation. My husband gave me the Family Tree Maker computer software program for my birthday in 2002. When my tree was small, I'd duplicate my work on Ancestry.com, adding people and attaching documents. It was a tedious process, and my online tree was never fully up to date. But I wanted people to be able to find it.

Years later Ancestry wised up. They made it so you could synchronize your Family Tree Maker tree with your online tree. (They owned the FTM program at that time.)

Then I came to realize these 3 principles for building and sharing your family tree.

Principle #1: Share Your Family Tree

If you share your work, think of all the distant cousins you may help.
If you share your work, think of all the distant cousins you may help.

For years I've been able to build my desktop tree and sync it with the tree I display on Ancestry.com.

My enormous online tree is what my DNA matches see. It's how distantly related strangers find their ancestors in my tree. Having a good online tree is critical to connecting with relatives and learning more about your ancestors.

There's a man whose family comes from the same small Italian town as my 2nd great grandmother. Because he found my tree online, he wrote to me. He continues to send me links to documents for people in my tree. Together we're building the families of Santa Paolina, and looking for our own relationship.

If you don't put your research online, you won't have these unexpected collaborations.

Principle #2: Control Your Family Tree

If you let anyone edit your family tree research, much of your work may be wasted.
If you let anyone edit your family tree research, much of your work may be wasted.

I built a small tree on Ancestry for my friend once. At first I liked the experience. It was easy to add people and link to their documents as sources.

Then things got a bit screwy. I've seen this on other people's trees, and now I know isn't their fault. It's all too easy for a person to become duplicated. Then you have multiple lines connecting husbands and wives. Maybe one child belongs to one man and the other kids belong to the duplicate man.

I'm embarrassed by that tree. It looks as if I made a newbie mistake.

That's why I love the extraordinary control I have over my family tree in my desktop software. I can, for example, change an address in one place and see the change everywhere I've used it. This happened with a street name in my grandfather's town. In old documents, the street name looks like Costapagliaia. That's fun to say. It ends in ya-ya.

But a distant cousin from the town told me I had the second-to-last letter wrong. It's Costapagliara. And I confirmed that spelling in a book I bought about the town.

Thankfully, in Family Tree Maker, I can change the spelling in one place, and the correction reaches every usage. On Ancestry, each use of the address is stored separately.

I need complete control of my own family tree. Don't you?

Principle #3: Own Your Family Tree

Put your name on there because you're proud of the fine research you've done.
Put your name on there because you're proud of the fine research you've done.

That brings me to the idea of shared, one-world family trees. It's a nice concept, to connect the whole world. But are you going to trust that every wannabe genealogist out there isn't going to ruin your work?

FamilySearch.org has a shared tree concept. I see people complaining about it all the time. Someone messed up their tree, and now they have to go put back all the correct facts. That's crazy.

I uploaded my tree to Geni.com once. Big mistake. I can't even delete the thing! I get emails from people wanting me to update individuals in my tree. Unfortunately, at that time, I had about 600 people from my sister-in-law's tree in my own. I'm never going to do any more work on that branch.

I wanted to delete the branch, but I'd have to do it one person at a time. And other Geni users have staked a claim to some of them. Now, whenever someone asks me about that branch, I let them take over management of the person. It's like, "Here! Go on and leave me out of it."

I deleted my sister-in-law's family from my desktop/Ancestry tree. I exported them to a separate tree, just for her.

My family tree is the grandest, most detailed thing I've ever created. I won't allow anyone to mess that up. I am the master of my family tree research. I will maintain full control of my nearly 26,000 people. And I will share my uneditable tree for the benefit of others.

Do you care about your genealogy research, but won't pay for an Ancestry subscription? Get a limited subscription when it's on sale. Upload your tree to benefit yourself and others. For me, it's well worth the full subscription.

Your work is too important to:

  • keep it to yourself. Let the world see and benefit from your research.
  • let a website mess it up. Use a computer program for full control.
  • let other people mess it up. Prevent others from altering your family tree.

Wouldn't you agree?


  1. Hi, I'm Giuseppe from suthern Italy, DiAnn!
    I follow your blogposts with pleasure, and as you, I use FTM for my daily desktop research work. And I update my tree via synch on Ancestry, too, yet I found that without a subsciption that site has so many restriction... I use to upload via GEDCOM on MyHeritage, as I took a DNA test there, so it's pretty useful to have the tree updated. Again, also on MyHeritage you have to pay if you want to see other trees and get in touch with distant cousins.
    I absolutely HATE this approach, as I believe that we, as user, are sharing all the data that give those sites a reason to exist: I can understand if I have to pay to see an old document scanned by the company which own the website, but I don't agree if I have to pay to look into other people research, if those who made the researches agree...
    So, from my experience, if you want to share your work keeping control on it, without having to pay a subscription, with full opportunities to dive into other users tree, the best solution in my opinion is GENEANET: https://www.geneanet.org/

    Have you ever given a chance to Geneanet?

    PS: If you want, you can check my tree (I use to upload a full plain GEDCOM without images) at: https://gw.geneanet.org/glmuci?i=0&lang=it&type=tree

    1. Giuseppe, thanks for reading, and thanks a million for your suggestion. I havce heard of Geneanet, but I haven't looked into it yet. I certainly will now!

  2. I have a tree on Ancestry that's private, but it's based on the tree I built in FTM and Legacy years ago...and I NEVER add to it from other trees. I look at hints or the trees of people I know and trust for clues, but then do my own research.

    As for the FamilySearch tree, I participate, but more to try to correct mistakes others have made or add my branches that aren't there already. However, I'm cognizant of the fact that anyone can change it, so have learned to collaborate where I can, or, if people insist on changing something over and over, I just let it go.

    Like you, my main tree is on my computer, but in RootsMagic, though I do have it in FTM as well (I prefer the former). When I meet with patrons at work (library) to discuss their genealogy, I always advise that if they want an electronic tree, that they use software for their main storage.

    1. Tess, I appreciate your input. Between your comment and Giuseppe's above, I think the ultimate solution has yet to be created.

  3. DiAnn, like you, I work only on my desktop FTM offline, and when I'm ready to spend time researching, put it on-line. I have a World subscription with Ancestry and upload a tree annually or whenever I've made sufficient edits to make it worth the time. I also subscribe to My Heritage and uploaded a Gedcom tree there, which I admit hasn't been updated in too long. Both are public and visible to everyone. It's been a long time since I receive messages from someone who might be related. Mostly I want to be able to share my tree with my family members, none of whom is a genealogist or interested unless they need specific data from me for inheritance issues since we're still disposing of our paternal grandparents properties over 50 years after their death. I've been hoping I can build a website to add that tree and make it accessible to them but there doesn't seem to be a way to add a tree to a regular website. I'm wondering how else I could do it since none of them is going to buy memberships to genealogy sites so they can access the tree. Thanks Digna

    1. I really like how Ancestry displays a tree. I also have my tree on My Heritage, but I have no intention of updating it. Each time I log in it says my tree is too big, so chances are, they wouldn't let me edit it. I do long for another way to display it. I feel like I've been searching forever.

    2. On MyHeritage the workaround is: export your Gedcom from FTM and then upload it in MyHeritage

    3. Oh, that's what I did the first time, but I never thought to update it that way.

  4. I've had trouble with people trying to change my tree, as well. One person was determined that she had the right info, but kept spelling my mother's side of the family wrong. (I don't think she was a close relative, or she would have known the correct spelling. However, I correct it, explained why, etc., but then she tried to change it back. I finally kindly told her to back off, because I have lot of documents with the correct spelling. It is very frustrating, though!!

    1. That's just so unacceptable to me. If people incorrectly borrow parts of my tree, I don't even care anymore. It just shows me they're careless and will never get it right. I had someone trying to tell me that my mom's first cousin -- someone I have known since I was a little girl -- wasn't who I thought she was. OK, bye bye now. Take care then.