Family trees are at the core of genealogy research. They're the starting point for understanding your family story. You can use them to store, organize, and share what you find, creating a detailed picture of your family history. Here are the basics on starting your own family tree.

A Family Tree: The Key to Your Family History

Many kids learn about family trees in school, drawing lines connecting parents and siblings to make a simple chart. As people grow up, they learn that families are more complex than that, with lines and generations extending far beyond a sheet of paper. But the structure of the tree can be similar. And it still covers elemental questions: Who am I? Where does my family come from? What is our story?

You might ask, “How can I start my family tree?” It's easy to start a tree on Ancestry®. Just enter some basic information about yourself, such as your name, date of birth, and birthplace. Then enter what you know about your siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members. If you don't know a birth year or maiden name, it's okay. Sometimes even an estimated date can help you locate records that will help you get started.

Family relationships can be complex, so Ancestry offers many options as you build your unique family tree. You can for instance add stepfathers, adoptive parents, unmarried couples, or half-siblings.

You'll also want to gather information from home. Family heirlooms like scrapbooks, Bibles, and correspondence are great places to look for clues. Talk to family members, because they might have other resources or remember important details about your ancestors.

A good way to think about your family tree is as a framework for organizing information and gathering the branches of your family together. All the details you uncover in your genealogical research will end up here. If you use Ancestry for your family tree, each person on your tree will have a “profile,” where you can enter details you learn about them and links to the records where you found information, like where and when someone was born. And you can even attach photos.

Ancestry Hints®  (also known as shaky leaf hints) can help you fill in missing facts, confirm estimates, and give you clues to what you don't know. Once you enter a few relatives’ names on Ancestry.com, the genealogy site will automatically start looking for other relatives, scanning billions of records for clues. It does a lot of the hard work for you. If a record looks promising, Ancestry sends you a leaf hint, which you can then verify to make sure it’s a record for your relative and add it to your tree. You may find an army enlistment card, a marriage certificate, or an obituary with the name of a distant relative.

You can also do simple searches of Ancestry historical records on your own, using the query button on each relative's profile page. It automatically plugs in the details you've entered in your tree and pulls up matching records like federal census records or birth records. Many record sets include images, so you can look at the actual record and zoom in to grab every wonderful detail. All of this information will allow you to see your family story unfold.

Building on Your Family Tree

Your family tree is probably full of surprises. It might include a sailor, a war hero, a convict, an inventor, a free person of color, an athlete, or even royalty. The only way to find out is to start digging.

Genealogical research is about more than hunting down biographical facts. It's about learning what your ancestors' lives were like, what motivated them, or how they spent their days. It’s a way to sew together all the facts you learn to weave your own unique family story.

Ancestry offers an array of historical records to help you piece together your family history.

Birth, marriage, and death records cover the milestones in your ancestors' lives. They include dates, place names, occupations, and parents' names. They'll help you trace the generations in your family, finding facts like the names of your great-great-grandparents.

Census records are rich with the details genealogists love: names, ages, residences, birthplaces, marital statuses, countries of origin, occupations, and the names of other household members.

Immigration and travel records can tell the story of your family's migrations. Check out ship passenger lists to see where someone sailed from and what year they immigrated to the United States, or naturalization records that could reveal your ancestor's birthplace in the old country.

The Freedman's Bank Records can be a great source for people researching their African American family history. The records are from the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, which was incorporated by an act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The bank’s purpose was to provide a place where people who had formerly been enslaved— and their dependents—could deposit their money and build their savings. These records can add valuable details to your family story, including information such as your ancestor’s age, height, names of any children, and more.

Military records, including draft cards, service records, and pension records, can be rich sources of information. They can tell you what your grandparents’ job was before the war,  their birth year, military rank, and the names and addresses of other family members.

Directories give names, addresses, marital statuses, and occupations of people in a town or city. They're like historical phone books, published more frequently than the census, so you can possibly track your ancestor year by year.

Each piece of information will give you clues about where to look next. For instance, a passenger list might tell you that you have ancestors who left Ireland in 1848. They were probably escaping the Potato Famine—along with millions of their fellow countrymen and women. Knowing that, you could look them up in The Boston Pilot, where Irish immigrants placed advertisements seeking information on loved ones who they had lost contact with. These records often include the person's hometown, immigration details, and the names of extended family. Next you can search parish records from Ireland to learn about previous generations.

The Power of DNA for Family Tree Building

DNA tests can also help you build your family tree. They can find relatives you never knew you had, connect your tree with other family trees, and even give some idea about what part of the world your ancestors may have come from. They are a valuable tool for filling out your family tree.

If you opt in, an AncestryDNA® test compares your DNA with millions of other people in its database and matches you with people who you share DNA with, your AncestryDNA Matches. Here’s how it works: You share DNA with people you are related to, and the more DNA you share, the closer the relationship. Anyone who shares enough DNA to be categorized as a 4th cousin or closer is almost certainly related to you. You are also related to many but not all of the more distant relationships. These DNA matches could be long lost cousins you’ve never met, who can provide important clues (and documents) about your family tree.

Beyond just your own family tree, you can also use ThruLines™, a tool from AncestryDNA that furthers connections by linking your tree with those of your DNA connections and other Ancestry members. Finding these relatives in ThruLines™ can help you expand your family tree and meet new cousins. You can also see how your genetic relationships match up with your family tree. This can lead you to family members you didn't know you had, helping fill the gaps in your research.

Get Started on Your Family Tree

Ready for a little detective work? With billions of records from around the world, Ancestry is the place to discover your unique family history. Build your family tree on Ancestry.