Reconstructing Romances: 5 Family Tree-Building Tips

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

When building your family tree, it’s easy to neglect the branches—siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins—in favor of focusing on direct-line ancestors. Don’t! Learning about the whole family in each generation can enrich your understanding of your ancestors’ loves and life experiences. Those collateral branches can also point you to new records about your direct antecedents. Try these five family tree-building tasks to help make your family tree blossom.

1. Put a family tree on multiple genealogy websites.

All major genealogy websites have free family tree-building platforms, including, which recently launched its AncesTREES service. Upload your tree to as many sites as you can, even with just a free guest login.

Why? Different websites have different records. Their hinting and search systems may identify your folks in records the others might miss. At subscription websites, you’ll only be able to view full records with the proper access. If you’re not ready to subscribe, “save up” the records you want to see for a weekend binge. Then take advantage of a trial membership, or head to a library or family history center that has institutional access to the sites you want. Just be sure to keep track of your findings in a master family tree, which you can access and make changes to offline.

2. Target censuses and vital records.

For each nuclear family, review record hints and search results carefully, beginning with the most recent generations. Watch first for census entries and vital records for your person of interest plus their parents, spouses and children. These often provide the core information you need to build a solid tree.

In your list of search results, look for records that match on multiple, specific parameters–such as a spouse’s name and the identities of children. Attach only records to their tree profiles for which you have a high degree of confidence, but keep track of “maybes” for later reference. This article on accepting hints helps you know when to accept what you see in record hints.

Don’t forget that most of the 1890 census was destroyed, so you’re much less likely to find ancestors in them. Also, it’s important to learn what vital records exist for each place and time period, so you won’t waste time looking for something that’s not there. Download this free pdf of state vital records resources for help in narrowing down your searches. This vital records web seminar download  is another great resource to show you how to dig deep for the records you need.

3. Search the substitutes.

There will be times when a relative’s vital records simply don’t exist—or are privacy-protected. You may also struggle to find them in censuses, despite your best efforts. When this happens, search for substitute record types: those that may tell you the same kinds of information.

For example, if you can’t find a death record, search for obituaries, tombstone or other cemetery records (try Find A Grave and Billion Graves) and funeral home records. (Here are 9 different kinds of death records to look for!) Find as many different kinds of records for the same event as possible so you can corroborate and maximize what you learn.

Census substitutes can also be helpful. has assembled an 1890 census substitute database, compiled from all kinds of records creating in and around 1890. There are more localized examples of missing census data from other years; ask at genealogy societies and libraries local to your ancestor’s home what resources exist. Look for state censuses taken midway between U.S. censuses in this list of all state censuses.

4. Use one person’s records to identify another.

When you go to the trouble to find records pertaining to every member of a family, you’re more likely to stumble across what you need to know about your direct ancestor. Men are usually easier to find in records because their names didn’t change and because life gave them more opportunities to be documented. Here’s an example of how I identified a woman’s parents by finding her brother’s delayed birth record.

It’s not just the men whose records may shed light on the rest of the family. Relatives with unusual names, like Oglesby and Trossie Johnson, can become like beacons pointing to the rest of their Johnson clan with less-original names. Those searching for enslaved ancestors often must turn to records created about the slaveholders. (Read these quick tips and get a free ebook on searching for African American ancestors.)

5. Don’t ignore DNA clues.

Finally, let DNA help you identify missing members of your family: unknown parents, lost siblings, missing children. When you take a DNA test, link a tree to your account. Learn to sort your matches to one side or another of your family. Reach out to your matches and respond to those who contact you. Here are more tips on using DNA to help build your family tree.

New course: Cluster and Collateral Research

Dive into collateral research (focusing on indirect relatives such as siblings of great-grandparents) and cluster research (looking at those who don’t share blood but may have lived nearby) in this 4-week Family Tree University course starting Dec. 14.