Finding Ancestors in Online Family Trees

By Rick Crume Premium

Whether it’s a great-aunt you knew well or a distant relative you’ve never heard of, someone has probably already researched at least one branch of your family tree. Why repeat that work from scratch? Databases of family trees other genealogists have posted online let you quickly review their research so you can harvest family history clues and build on their findings.

The online family tree collections described here have billions of names. Most of these databases have a lot of duplicates, so the number of unique persons is much lower. But there’s a good chance you’ll find ancestors among all those names. A search of one of these databases might even tie you into a tree that instantly extends your pedigree back several generations. You could find names, dates and places; digitized pictures, family photos and old documents attached to ancestral profiles; and distant cousins researching your lines. And planting your own family tree online spreads the research wealth and preserves your work for future generations. Our guide to online family tree databases will help you find—and share—choice genealogy fruits.

Planting trees online

To most easily contribute your family tree to an online database, start by using genealogy software to organize your research. Two of the largest genealogy websites have software that helps you keep the family tree on your computer in sync with your online tree:’s Family Tree Maker software (version 2012 and later) syncs with Ancestry Member Trees, and MyHeritage’s Family Tree Builder software syncs with trees on But just about any genealogy software can save your family tree as a GEDCOM file, a standard file format that you can upload to most online family tree databases. If you can’t generate a GEDCOM, most family tree sites let you build your tree, adding a person at a time.
Once you submit your tree, many of these sites make it possible for other researchers to contact you to compare notes and exchange information. Want to limit access to people you authorize? Some sites let you make your tree invitation-only.
Although online family tree databases are tremendous resources, they present certain challenges, too:
Privacy: When selecting information to submit to an online database, don’t include data on living people unless you restrict who can view the tree. Most sites automatically remove information on living people or at least display only their names. And of course, don’t include material that could be embarrassing to a living person or infringe on someone else’s copyright.
Ownership: Before you can start an online family tree, most websites require your consent to an agreement that preserves your ownership of the file, but also gives the site’s owner unlimited rights to use it. So whether you submit a simple collection of facts or a family history embellished with pictures, stories and digitized documents, make sure you’re OK with allowing the site to use your submission as it sees fit. Most, but not all, sites at least identify you as the tree’s submitter.
If you want to share your family history but retain greater control over it, consider creating your own website. Some genealogy software can create reports in HTML format for publishing online. I used Personal Ancestral File, which is no longer available, and Legacy Family Tree to create the genealogy reports on my own website. Unlike Ancestry Member Trees, the FamilySearch Family Tree or MyHeritage trees, my website is indexed by Google and other search engines. No one needs to register for anything to access it.
Duplication: The amount of duplication in a database can be maddening. You may find an ancestor listed multiple times in the same database, with identical—possibly incorrect—information from dozens of family trees. Most online trees are just copies of previously uploaded trees, and if you contact the submitters, they’ll typically have no idea who did the original research. Since I put my family file online several years ago, other researchers have downloaded it and then uploaded it, unchanged, multiple times. This benefits no one. Don’t just copy other people’s files to your tree or resubmit them to another site.
But in reality, realize that once you share your family file with someone or submit it to a public family tree database, it’ll probably be copied and shared. Before you create a GEDCOM, add your name and contact information as a source for every person in the file. That way, as long as others share the sources along with the file, you’ll be associated with it. If you use Legacy Family Tree software, use its AutoSource feature when you create a GEDCOM file. If your software doesn’t have a similar feature, Progeny Genealogy’s free GEDmark download lets you add your name and contact information to all the people in a GEDCOM file.
Errors: Websites don’t independently verify information in the family trees people submit. You’ll find online trees ranging from well-sourced and reliable to full of errors. Most family tree sites accommodate sources and notes, but few researchers include them. It’s up to you to verify information you find. Before you add details from others’ trees to your own, contact the tree’s submitter to ask where the information came from. Check out the claims with your own research in primary sources, such as government vital records, church records, census records and probate records.
It can be frustrating to see errors in online family trees, especially when they get copied over and over. One common mistake: Researchers may assume that two different people with the same name are the same person. You could try to contact submitters and politely provide corrections, but don’t expect such efforts to always be well-received. Family­Search’s Family Tree tool lets researchers collaborate to remove duplicates, correct errors and add new details in one, universal family tree. If you find errors in your own research or you discover new information, try to update or replace your online trees.

Contacting others: A major benefit of family tree databases is the opportunity to find other genealogists researching your family. When you locate an “internet cousin” this way, try to contact the person to exchange information and ask questions. If you use information from an online family tree (after verifying the facts with your own research), give proper attribution to the submitter and note where you found the tree. Don’t publish more than short extracts from someone else’s work in print or elsewhere online without getting his or her permission.

A submitter’s contact information accompanying a tree might be outdated, and some websites don’t identify submitters or give you a way to reach them. You’ll find tips for tracking down tree-owners’ updated contact information on our website.

Harvesting Family Tree Fruits

Except where noted, you don’t have to have an online tree on the following websites to search them for data—but in many cases, it helps: The site may allow you to search from within your tree, matching details in your ancestors’ profiles with historical records and people in other trees. The site might even do this automatically.
Most family tree sites are active with members constantly adding and updating trees, so repeat your searches periodically to turn up new data. But before you start searching, study these key facts and tips for using major online family tree databases.

Ancestry Member Trees
Public Trees
Private Trees
• Price: It’s free to build a tree, and you can invite others to access your tree for free. A paid subscription, $19.99 per month or $99 for six months for US records, is required to view details of trees in the database, see matching records and attach records from to your online trees. Note that you can view’s Public Member Trees and contact submitters for free on, at least while that site is in beta testing.
• Size: 2.1 billion names in Public Trees; 769 million in Private Trees
• Contacting submitters: To contact a Public Tree submitter, you can use Ancestry’s online Messages feature. If the submitter has made an email address publicly viewable, you can send an email from your personal account. Names in Private Trees show up in search results, but you have to contact the submitter through’s Connection Service to request permission to view the tree.
• Essentials: Register for a free account to create a tree. To create your tree, type in names and other information, upload it from the Family Tree Maker program, or submit a GEDCOM file created with other genealogy software. You can attach photos, sound and digitized records, and invite family members to view your tree and contribute to it. Family Tree Maker can synchronize the family trees on your computer and in online Member Trees. Designate your file as a Public Tree open to all subscribers, or a Private Tree accessible only to those you invite (names still show up in others’ search results, with a prompt to request permission to view the tree). Ancestry automatically searches its databases for the names in your tree. A waving leaf beside a name in your tree indicates a potential match in historical records or someone else’s tree. You need an subscription to view matching records and trees.

• Search tips: You must have a paid membership to see details in the trees matching your searches. Searching with exact dates of birth, marriage and death is useful for common names and when you don’t have a woman’s maiden name. You also can add family members’ names to your search. The keyword search option can save time: I’m interested in any Penningtons who lived in Culmstock, Devon, England. Instead of doing separate birth, marriage and death searches for each person, I can search trees on the last name plus Culmstock as a keyword. To search for records on someone in your tree, hover your cursor over the name in the family or pedigree view, and click on Search Records.
Learn how to start your own online family tree on in this short video:

FamilySearch Family Tree
• Price: free
• Size: 900 million names
• Contacting submitters: This database comes from collections including Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource File, the International Genealogical Index, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership records and ongoing user submissions. You can’t view the original submitters’ names, but you can see who’s made changes and added names since the current FamilySearch Family Tree went online—just select a person’s Details tab and click on an item under Latest Changes. By default, users who edit the Family Tree or add new names are identified only by a code, but they can adjust their FamilySearch Account settings to show their names and contact information.
• Essentials: No sign-in is required to access most of, but you must register here to search the Family Tree. FamilySearch’s goal is to create a universal family tree with just one profile for each individual. To help you avoid adding names already in the tree, the Family Tree Wizard asks questions about your ancestors as you enter their details, and then connects them to the Family Tree. Each time you add a new person to your tree, the Family Tree checks for an existing profile of that person. If it finds one, you can link the existing person to your tree. You can add photos, tag faces in them and link them to ancestor profiles. You also can attach stories to people. A new partnership with MyHeritage allows FamilySearch Family Trees to be matched with trees on MyHeritage. The FamilySearch Products page lists genealogy software that can reconcile data between the family file on your computer and your tree in Family Tree. Approved Windows programs include Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic.

• Search tips: You can search historical records from a person page in your tree. Click on a name in the Pedigree or Fan Chart view, click on the Person link and then click on Search Records in the Research Help section on the right. Another time-saver: To jump to someone you recently viewed, click on the down arrow by the Tree or Person tab and select a name.

FamilySearch Genealogies
• Price: free
• Size: 240 million names
• Contacting submitters: Submitters’ names and contact information aren’t shown here. Instead, a code consists of the submitter’s first initial and last name, plus a number. Submitters’ names and addresses are in old versions of Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, on CD and DVD at some FamilySearch Centers, but there’s a good chance the contact information is outdated. If you submit your family tree to the Pedigree Resource File, your contact information won’t be with it.
• Essentials: Two files make up FamilySearch Genealogies: Ancestral File has 40 million names in family trees submitted between 1990 and 2000, primarily by LDS Church members, with a great deal of information on Medieval families. It has no source citations and new information isn’t being added. Pedigree Resource File, the successor to Ancestral File, has 200 million names, includes notes and sources, and is still open for submissions. Scroll to the bottom of to upload a GEDCOM file.

• Search tips: Instead of running separate searches by birth, marriage, death and residence, search on any life event to cover all at once.

• Price: $53 per year
• Size: 654 million names
• Contacting submitters: Whether or not you have a paid subscription to this site, you can email submitters from your own account.
• Essentials: This French genealogy database also has trees from elsewhere in Europe and in North America. You can do a simple surname search for free, but you need a subscription to search on a full name and other criteria. Subscribers also can automatically match their own family trees with other family trees, books and indexes.

• Search tips: From the Search tab, select Main Search to search family trees, plus record indexes from French family history societies and from books (including American city directories and county histories). Use the Email Alert to save an automated search and receive a weekly email summary of the latest matches.

Genes Reunited
• Price: Standard subscription, $33.95 a year; Platinum subscription, $31.95 per month or $128.04 per year
• Size: 236 million names
• Contacting submitters: You must be a subscriber to contact a submitter; messages are sent through the site.
• Essentials: Based in England, Genes Reunited’s family trees and records are especially strong for the British Isles. Search results show just a name, a year and place of birth, and the tree’s owner. You need to contact the tree’s owner for permission to see more details, so the process is more cumbersome than with most family tree databases. To see trees you’ve obtained permission to view, select My Contacts from the Messages tab.

• Search tips: To find potential relatives, search on a surname and add a parish in the birthplace box. For instance, I entered Robertson as the surname and Killin as the birthplace to find anyone with that last name born in my immigrant ancestor’s hometown of Killin, Perthshire, Scotland.

• Price: A basic account is free. A Pro account costs $119.40 per year and provides enhanced searching and unlimited media storage.
• Size: 73 million names
• Contacting submitters: You must be a subscriber to contact a submitter and view details in trees.
• Essentials: Now owned by MyHeritage, Geni focuses on helping family members collaborate on building an online family tree. Geni’s World Family Tree (not to be confused with’s World Family Tree) uses MyHeritage’s matching technology to find your relatives in other trees on Geni, and to find historical records pertaining to your relatives. You’ll need a MyHeritage subscription to view most matching records.

• Search tips: Use the search box at the top of the screen to do a quick search for a surname or full name, then use filters to refine the results.
• Price: free, but a Premium membership may require a fee once beta testing concludes
• Size: 2.1 billion names (the site claims 5.3 billion, but that number includes living people, who come up in searches as “private”)
• Contacting submitters: To identify the submitter, click on a name in family or pedigree view. Then under More, select View Profile to see who posted each item. Click on a name, then on Contact to send a message through the website. Or, if the person provided an email address, contact him or her directly.
• Essentials: created Mundia in 2009. You have to log in with an user name and password, but you don’t need to be a paying member to search. Mundia has all’s Public Member Trees. You can set up a tree and add photos of the people in it. Changes made to a tree on Mundia are reflected in the tree on and vice versa. Just as with Ancestry Member Trees, a shaky leaf on a person’s profile indicates a possible match in’s data collection. You need an subscription to access most of the records. You can invite relatives to access your tree for free, and let them edit it.

• Search tips: Click on the Find People tab to search the site’s family tree database. Unlike other search engines, Mundia’s results show just the top 10 matches. If your target person doesn’t show up, try searching on different criteria, such as place and year of birth or parents’ names. You can search on exact dates of birth and death, but they don’t show up in the results list. You have to go to family or pedigree view to see them.

My Trees
• Price: It’s free to build an online family tree. A subscription is required to view others’ information and costs $20 per month or $120 per year. You get one month of free access when you upload a GEDCOM file or build a family tree with at least 15 families and 60 people.
• Size: 307 million names
• Contacting submitters: Only subscribers can view a submitter’s email address.
• Essentials: Your online tree can include photos, and you can invite family members to view it even if you’re a free member. Searching and viewing matches could use improvement: You can’t narrow a search by place, and the pedigree view is unconventional and confusing.

• Search tips: Instead of searching for one name at a time, do an Every Name Search, which automatically compares all the names in your file to the site’s Ancestry Archive database.

• Price: A family tree with up to 250 names and 250 MB of storage is free. Up to 2,500 names and 500 MB of storage costs $6.25 per month. Unlimited names and storage costs $9.95 per month. You must have a paid subscription to view details in another person’s tree. To access most historical records on the site, you need a MyHeritage Data Subscription ($76.20 a year) or credits (5,600 credits valid for 180 days cost $39.95).
• Size: 1.5 billion names
• Contacting submitters: The names of submitters (“site managers”) are shown for everyone. Just click on the link beside a person’s profile to contact the site manager through the site. To go to your email inbox, click on the envelope on the upper right part of any screen.
• Essentials: You can submit your family tree here in one of three ways: Type in names, upload your file using the free Family Tree Builder software for Windows, or use another program and upload a GEDCOM file. Family Tree Builder automatically syncs your online and desktop trees. You can include pictures and videos, and make your tree public or limit access to members you invite. You also can allow others to edit your tree. MyHeritage’s Smart Matching and Record Matching looks for matches between profiles in your tree and the other trees and historical records on MyHeritage—and now, in trees and records on

• Search tips: When you’re viewing a personal profile, click on the link to “Research this person” in the upper-right corner of the screen to search in family trees and records (called SuperSearch). You can’t search on a range of years, but if you enter a year, your results are ranked with the best matches first. The Save Records feature lets you save any record you find with SuperSearch to one or more relatives’ profiles in your online tree.

WorldConnect Project
• Price: free
• Size: 720 million names
• Contacting submitters: A submitter’s email address is displayed as an image to ward off spambots. If you have a tree here, to update your email address so people can contact you about it, log on to RootsWeb and click on My Account at the top of the page. If a tree’s database ID begins with a colon, it was originally submitted through These submitters aren’t associated with Roots­Web member accounts, so their contact information can’t be updated.
• Essentials: The WorldConnect Project looks plain and doesn’t accommodate pictures, but it’s large, easy to use and offers multiple search options. It’s also free, making it one of the most useful online family tree databases. When acquired RootsWeb in 2003, it combined its Ancestry World Tree with RootsWeb’s WorldConnect Project. Data contributed to either site was also added to the other one, so they had the same names. no longer offers the Ancestry World Tree (Member Trees replaced it), but data that was contributed to it is still in the WorldConnect Project.

• Search tips: Experiment with searches on different combinations of terms. You don’t need to include a surname, which can be useful if you don’t know a woman’s maiden name (especially if she had an unusual first name or you know her exact birth date). Use “Post-em Notes” to make corrections or add comments to a profile.

Tribal Pages
• Price: It’s free to create a family website with up to 10 MB of space, and to search other family sites. Fees start at $24 per year to find connections in other trees and to add more than 50 photos on your family site.
• Size: 115 million names
• Contacting submitters: You can contact a site administrator through Tribal Pages.
• Essentials: It’s easy to create an online family tree here, generate charts and share photos. To set up a family website, either upload a GEDCOM file or type in names. You can optionally make your site private. Visitors to your site can view your photos as a slideshow.

• Search tips: Search options are limited here: You can’t specify a place when searching family tree sites, but you can specify a state of residence for searches of censuses and other historical records.


When it comes to family tree websites, the database that includes your ancestor is the perfect size no matter how many names it holds. That said, the bigger the database, the more likely your relatives are in it. Search for your ancestors in the sites in our large-to-small listing, plus the sites for which stats aren’t available.
Millions of Names: Database
2,916: Ancestry Member Trees (2.1 billion in Public Member Trees; 769 million in Private Member Trees)
2,147: Mundia (
1,500: MyHeritage
900: FamilySearch Family Tree
720: RootsWeb WorldConnect Project
654: GeneaNet
242: (242 million before merging, 190 million after merging)
240: FamilySearch Genealogies (40 million in Ancestral File and 200 million in Pedigree Resource File)
236: Genes Reunited
183:’s World Family Tree
115: Tribal Pages
73: Geni
33: GenDex Network
29: DISBYT (Swedish)
200: Mocavo Plus
15: Genebase
11: GEDBAS (German)
6: Family Tree of the Jewish People
6: WikiTree
2.5: WeRelate
.6: Evangeline’s Cousins
.2: Heredis (French)
unknown: Findmypast
unknown: GenCircles Global Tree
unknown: NokTree
unknown: SharedTree
Tip: To make your name and email address publicly viewable in your Ancestry Member Tree, hover the cursor over your user name in the upper right corner of any page, select Site Preferences and make the change under Connection Preferences.
Tip: When you’re at a research brick wall, online family trees can provide clues about your ancestors. These trees aren’t independently verified and often contain errors, so research the claims in genealogical records before adding the information to your tree.

More online

From the January/February 2014 Family Tree Magazine

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