12 October 2021

What You're Losing With Your Private Family Tree

My family tree software almost gave me a heart attack. I routinely make a backup of my Family Tree Maker file after working on it for a while. It's not uncommon for me to make 3 or 4 backups in a long day of research. Then I close and compact my file before I synchronize any changes with Ancestry.com.

Still, there's a feeling of dread when my file takes to long to respond. Last week the FTM program stopped dead. I'd opened my family tree file to make one change and output an updated family tree chart. I began clicking my way up the generations, trying to get to the eldest Ohama in my husband's family tree.

But I couldn't click anything! Nothing was responding. I decided to leave it alone and do something else for a while. But the program was still stuck. After an hour, I held my breath and killed it.

When I relaunched Family Tree Maker, I saw the expected error message. I clicked Continue. I was confident I'd made only one edit that day, so I restored my tree from the full backup I made the day before.

Everything was fine! I repeated the change I made earlier and output that family tree chart I wanted.

Why do I stick with Family Tree Maker when it can cause me so much worry? Because I can share my up-to-date, uneditable family tree with every member of Ancestry.com. I want people to find my research, but I don't want them to change it. The shared trees of Family Search, Geni, and elsewhere are horrifying to a control freak like me. Plus, Ancestry has the best interface for viewing a family tree.

Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.
Share your family tree on a big stage for your own benefit.

I've been building two other family trees lately that I'm not sharing online. One is for my son's girlfriend and one is for my college roommate. These trees don't belong online because I wasn't asked to share this information.

But my enormous family tree is another story. When the Italian government started posting vital records online in 2017, my genealogy goal changed.

I'm not satisfied with documenting my direct ancestors and cousins. I want to connect everyone from my ancestral hometowns. I don't care if someone is the mother-in-law of the 2nd husband of my 1st cousin 5 times removed. She's from one of my towns and has a connection to me. She belongs in my tree.

Strangers often thank me for the people, facts, and documents I've put together for their family. Sometimes they turn out to be a DNA match to my parents or me.

When all goes well, I can build onto my new contact's branch of the family. I can follow their ancestors to America, picking up what might otherwise have been a dead end. Sharing your family tree is the surest way to open up those dead ends.

The latest person to write and thank me for his ancestors turns out to be my 5th cousin once removed. Just knowing who my mom's 5th cousin is blows my mind. Thank you, internet.

This week I'm gathering vital records for his ancestors, adding them to my family tree, and sharing them with him on Ancestry. To me, this is the ideal collaboration. Don't touch my work. But let's work together. We can benefit one another.

You can talk to me all day long about your preferred family tree software. But nothing compares to the combination of Family Tree Maker on my desktop and Ancestry.com.


  1. DiAnn, My tree is still private because my living relatives fear that even older information can be used in a harmful way. My tree is nowhere near the scope of your tree but everyone in my tree is documented. When I look at many of my DNA's matches trees I find glaring errors. Many people love to do point and click research at Ancestry and copy information from someone with the same name who doesn't even come from the same town. I had never had one person come to me with new information. I have been helping my DNA matches correct and add to their trees one tree at a time. I am hoping someday to have someone like you research my Sicilian hometown. I would be ecstatic.

    1. Living people remain unnamed in a public tree, so that doesn't concern me at all. I often have people write to ask my relation to their ancestor in my tree. And that's where I can learn a lot.

  2. I have private research trees, but my main tree (the one that includes Daddy) and my biological paternal tree are both public. I find private trees, or public trees with only private people, very frustrating, but I understand why they happen. Adopted people, and those like me with misattributed parentage, may not know who goes in those blanks. Thankfully, I do know now.

    Although I think it can be very embarrassing to open up about a misattributed parentage event, opening up can be a great way to get help from one's DNA matches.

    Very rarely do I have someone contact me about my tree, but I have contacted many along the way in the building of it. Their information has helped me to tweak it and to place other DNA matches along the way.

    Sharing helps everyone!

    1. Thank you for sharing that. I know there are also lots of people out there who took a DNA test--or were talked into it--and have a 1-3 person private tree. This isn't their thing. The person who talked them into it is the one who's interested in learning more.

  3. I use FTM to back up my ancestrydotcom tree and sometimes use the FTM tools to cleanup the tree, for example standardise place names.
    I attach documents and photographs to ancestrydotcom and thus share them with others. Sometimes I contact those who have downloaded a photo or document to find out how we are related, but more often than not the connection is distant.
    Recently I have been adding my research to Wikitree as a way of preserving it into the future and making it freely accessible to cousins. I add slowly, person by person, revisiting how I know of the connection and citing the source, eg baptism, will, census… it is useful to revisit and verify my research and feel confident it is likely to survive.

    1. I built a tree on Ancestry for a friend once. At first I thought, this is easy. I just attach all the records I find. But it's too easy for things to get screwy with repeated people and crossed connecting lines. I prefer the control of FTM and the display of Ancestry. Either way, it's important to put your work out there.