This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclaimer policy for more information.

In this article I’m going to be talking about why you should make a family tree, and exactly how to create one using Ancestry.

What exactly is a family tree?

A family tree is an easy to reference chart which shows all your direct line ancestors, i.e. your parents, grandparents, their parents and so on.  You can make it as detailed as you wish, and if you want to, you can include indirect lines to your family tree as well – that means the siblings of your grandparents or great-grandparents for example.

Why should I have one?

Having a family tree is not only helpful for you to keep track of who your ancestors were, but if you have it somewhere online it can help you find other people who are also related to those same ancestors and it can really help you if you decide to take a DNA test for family history.

How can I create my family tree?

My preferred tool to make family trees is actually using Ancestry.  Whilst there are many, many options to help you make a family tree (plain old pen and paper, numerous software solutions and many online/cloud based solutions as well), I love Ancestry trees for their sheer ease of use, the fact I can search for genealogical records directly from it, and I can link it directly to a DNA test to carry out genetic genealogy investigations.  In fact, I run all my professional genealogy research through Ancestry trees, since they make it really easy to create private unsearchable trees (a must if you are a professional genealogist doing research for confidential clients).

To show you how easy it is to create a family tree, I’m going to talk you through building a tree using Ancestry.  I’m going to start by creating a tree for a recently-departed British institution, Dame Barbara Windsor, who sadly passed away in December 2020.

How to start a family tree on Ancestry

Some people are put off building their trees on Ancestry as they think they will have to pay for a subscription, but you can actually create basic trees on Ancestry for free (Ancestry don’t exactly advertise this).  All you need to do is register for a free account.  This page (https://support.ancestry.com/s/article/Free-Registered-Guest-Accounts explains how to do that and what you can and can’t do with a free account, or you can skip directly to the free account page here: https://www.ancestry.com/account/create/?_ga=2.38415907.1813440005.1627315034-852523078.1626357964.

First steps – what do you already know?

In order to start a family tree, you first need to know a little bit about the first person on your tree.  Obviously if you are creating a tree for yourself, you already know you.  But for Barbara, I need to go online and search for some information about her.  For well-known individuals I usually try Wikipedia first (although bear in mind that information is not necessarily 100% correct all of the time).

Wikipedia tells me that Barbara Windsor was born Barbara Ann Deeks on 6 August 1937, to John Deeks, and his wife Rose, maiden name Ellis.  Great! I can start off my tree.

If you are logging into the site for the first time, it will probably prompt you to create a family tree.   Otherwise you can go to ‘Trees‘ in the menu, and ‘Create & Manage Trees‘, then Create a new tree.

You’ll be met with an image like this:

Starting a new family tree on Ancestry

When I click Add home person, I can add Barbara to my new tree.  I’m going to use the name she was born with rather than her stage name.

Adding first person to your family tree

Next I need to add one of her parents, as soon as I do, I will be prompted to save my tree, and Ancestry has created a name for the tree which I can overwrite if I want to:

Saving Ancestry family tree

Here I can also decide whether I want to make my new tree public or not.

From here, I would need to consult records to find out more about John Deeks and Rose Ellis, and for this I would need to start making use of Ancestry’s paid subscription, or another site, like FindMyPast, or I can still search for free if my local library provides access to any genealogy sites like these (check directly with your local library or Google your library and Ancestry; some institutions also let you use Ancestry Library edition remotely using your library logon).

Obviously if you’re creating a tree for yourself, you can carry on adding names and dates (approximate dates are fine, you can fine tune later).

Searching for information about Barbara’s parents

Since Barbara was born in 1937, there’s a good chance that her parents are on the 1939 Register.  I won’t cover searching for records in this post as that’s a different subject for another day, but if you’re using Ancestry and following along, you’ll probably find that Ancestry finds the right record for you.  I got a Ancestry ‘green shaky leaf‘ hint for what looks like the right record, and I can now add that extra info to my tree:

Starter family tree - parents

Ancestry does have a great ‘hints’ function which can help you find the right records for the people in your tree (although it is not infallible).  I can use this in conjunction with searching for records.

I can search the free General Register Office online indexes for John Deeks in 1914 (+/- 2 years) in case the year is wrong on the 1939 register, and I instantly find an entry for a John Henry James Deeks birth registered in Jan-March 1915 (another reason to add a +/- 1 or 2 years, I wouldn’t have found it if I had left it as 1914 since he was born at the end of the year), with mother’s maiden name given as Ewin.  Yay, I just found something out about John’s mother!

If I search on Ancestry, I quickly find John’s baptism record since Ancestry has these for London thanks to the London Metropolitan Archives making its records accessible via Ancestry.  I now know his father was also John, and his mother was Mary Ann.  I can now add a new branch to the tree:

Adding grandparents to your family tree

I can do the same for Barbara’s mother Rose, this time I have to do a bit of creative searching to find the identity of her parents since I couldn’t find a helpful baptism record.

If look a bit longer I can search for records which confirm her great-grandparents, resulting in a four generation tree for Barbara after half an hour to an hour or so of research:

a Four generation Family tree

You won’t always be able to do this so quickly, it depends on how many records you can find online, whether you need to order records, and whether you are dealing with particularly common names or not, but the principle behind tree building is always the same. find out as much as you can about the person you’re building the tree for, if that’s for you and your family, ask questions of your family members and relatives! You can then try and search for the right records in order to progress your family tree further.

Tree building with unknown parents

If there’s unknown parentage in your tree, you may be thinking that you can’t build a tree, but tree building and learning how to research is really important if you want to harness the power of DNA testing and genetic genealogy.  So practice using a friend’s tree, your adopted family, or a celebrity like I’ve done here.  The important thing is to get comfortable with it, and the first step to that is to try!

The only limitation I find with Ancestry trees is if I want to fancy schmancy reports or pedigree charts.  But no worries here either – I use my Family Tree Maker software to import the Ancestry tree, and then run whatever reports or charts I want through that.

I also like building trees through Ancestry as it means I can do my research wherever I am with an internet connection.  There’s also no limit to how many trees (that I’ve hit so far, anyway!) you can create which means you can create research trees for all kinds of purposes.