22 February 2022

Using Color to Understand Your Family's Last Names

I have zero regrets about my time-consuming family tree research. The countless hours spent downloading and renaming every available vital record? Worth it. All the spreadsheets for tracking my projects? Worth it. I see the benefits of my work every day.

Why Use Color-Coding?

My latest project (and it's a whopper!) makes me realize how much I love the color-coding feature of Family Tree Maker. It's been around for at least 2 years, and I borrowed the idea to use on 2 of my favorite genealogy spreadsheets:

In Family Tree Maker (FTM), I wanted a visual way to distinguish my 4 main branches—1 for each grandparent. Choosing each grandparent one at a time, I:

  • clicked the Color Coding button
  • assigned a color to the grandparent and their direct ancestors:
    • yellow for my paternal grandfather
    • pink for my paternal grandmother
    • green for my maternal grandfather
    • blue for my maternal grandmother
See if your family tree software has a color-coding/tagging function and start reaping the benefits.
See if your family tree software has a color-coding/tagging function and start reaping the benefits.

Now I can see right away if someone in my family tree is my direct ancestor. And I can see which of my grandparents descends from them. Better still, since Dad's parents were 3rd cousins, I have a bunch of double ancestors. They're recognizable because they have both yellow and pink colors.

Other Uses for Color-Coding

It makes sense to use the same colors in my other charts because then I know exactly who's who.

In my grandparent/Ahnentafel chart, I filled in all the numbers and colors ahead of time. (You can download one for free.) Having the numbers in place made it very simple to put a newly found ancestor's name where it belongs. And the colors keep my branches straight. That's very important when I have so many repeated last names in my tree.

When it comes to my double ancestors, I enter them in two places in the Ahnentafel chart, and I give them a blended color. They are orange, a combination of yellow and pink.

You can expand the color-coding concept to your other family tree tools.
You can expand the color-coding concept to your other family tree tools.

In my surname chart, I added a tally to show how many times each of the 115 last names appears among my direct ancestors. The winner is the name Zeolla belonging to 17 of my direct ancestors.

Then I added color blocks to show which branch(es) contains each name. Some names belong to only one branch. That's the case for all but one name on my maternal grandmother's line. Except for one, all her ancestors' last names are unique to her branch of my family tree. Three of my ancestral surnames, including Zeolla, belong on 3 of my branches. Several other names belong on my 2 paternal branches.

Reaping the Benefits

I mentioned above that my latest project is a whopper. It's the big one. The one I've been working up to for years. And it could take me years to complete. But I'm absolutely loving it!

Two weeks ago I wrote about my plan for this project (see "Laying the Foundation for a Solid Family Tree"). Ever since then I've been adding about 100 relatives to my tree each day. It has been amazing. I'm reviewing every vital record from Grandpa's hometown and finding missing details, like:

  • exact dates for births, deaths, and marriages
  • parentage that proves 2 same-named people are the same person
  • early deaths that connect to a family from the town's 1742 census.

It's wildly rewarding. In 2 weeks I've completed all the records for 1809–1816. That doesn't sound like much, but it's the vital records for 2,730 people. Even though I'm only up to line 2,504 in a 38,351-line spreadsheet, I'm chomping at the bit to move on to another town.

As I go through the records, adding and updating people, I may find that a person's previously unknown parents are already in my tree. When I add the child and see their ancestors' color-coding, I'm thrilled! I've taken someone who was a dead end and turned them into my true cousin.

Three weeks ago I wrote about "How to Find the True Cousins in Your Family Tree." My true cousin count was 6,095. Since then I've added many more. Each day I'm turning relationships like "1st cousin 3x removed of husband of aunt" into actual blood relatives. It's so gratifying.

The only other color-coding I'm using in Family Tree Maker is purple for DNA matches. What other types of relationships would you color code?


  1. I love the idea of color coding the family tree. I wish that we could do that on Ancestry, too. I have Legacy software, but haven't had much time to explore it. Hopefully, it has a color coding feature, too.

    Thanks for the free download link for the grandparent chart.

    I was given a mind-boggling relationship listing earlier. It had so many twists and turns that I'm sure the lady ended up being her own grandma. haha

    Have a blessed week!

  2. Hi DiAnn -- You can also color code the folders and files on your computer/cloud to match using FileMarker and FolderMarker freeware. The paid versions even have genealogy-inspired icons.

  3. I love this! Already did the first part. Looking forward to using it more.

  4. I color-coded my 4 lines in FTM as you did, but also my folders in One-Note and the Excel spreadsheet of all my direct ancestors. I also chose to color-code all the men who were of the age of fighting in World War One (according to the laws passed in France) since the French government had opened a lot of great archives for the Great War's anniversary and I didn't want to miss anyone. I also color coded unrelated individuals according to the lines where they might belong eventually. I love that feature in FTM. Annick H.

  5. Legacy also has a great colour coding feature. I use colour coding for all my family history files,both paper and computer. I have used a basic colour for each direct ancestor such as green for my fathers line, with a paler green for his mother's line. I then use the appropriate coloured dividers in front of each family in my paper folders. for their children I use a white divider to separate them behind their parents. This works well for me.

    1. Thank you! I look forward to learning my way around Legacy and using this feature.

  6. Is there no way to do this on an online Ancestry account? It's where my main tree is... I have used FTM in the past but find the suncing tool scary, worried I will upload FTM to Ancestry, whereas what I want to do is download Ancestry to FTM because it's mostly online...

    1. Ancestry has a tagging feature as an alternative. It sounds as if you have two different versions of your tree. If you have anything in FTM you don't want online, you can mark it private in FTM. I did that with all my photographs.

  7. If you do not want to sync you can download a new tree from Ancestry to FTM. I was having trouble with syncing and the FTM techs could not fix the problem so they told me to just download a new tree each time. Keep in mind that you have to make all your changes in Ancestry.

    1. I was forced to download my tree from Ancestry once, and it blew apart all my source citations. It makes so much more sense to me to do the work in FTM and simply share it on Ancestry. You have better control in FTM.