In-Depth Guide to Ancestry – Part 1 : The Essential Tree

This is Part 1 of an in-depth guide to Ancestry DNA. We aim to take you from beginner to advanced use of Ancestry’s features. The series of tutorials will help you understand and master topics including:

  • Ensuring you have an effective tree on Ancestry
  • Making the most of your Ancestry DNA Matches
  • Understanding DNA to help your research
  • Strategies & Tips for using Shared Matches
  • Focused and effective record searches
  • Evaluating Hints and avoiding Rabbit Holes
  • Strategies and Tips for researching Public Trees

The guide’s focus is primarily on the DNA side of Ancestry. But I’ll pack in a truck load of tips and best practice from the more traditional genealogy side.

The complete guide to Ancestry will include at least ten in-depth chapters. We’ll publish a new chapter about once a week. This is the current list of chapters in the series:

In-Depth Guide to Ancestry – The Essential Ancestry Tree

You do have a tree on Ancestry, don’t you? I ask because many of my DNA matches don’t. No doubt you’ve observed the same, but have you been able to quantify the absence?

Back in 2018, I ran an analysis of tree availability of my own DNA matches. In 2020 I have significantly more matches, but the tree breakdown is similar:

The quarter of my matches who have no tree may only be interested in ethnicity. But some may have an extensive tree elsewhere and wonder: why have a tree on Ancestry at all?

The answer is that a huge amount of Ancestry’s functionality is driven by your tree, as long as it is set up in a particular way. In other words, your tree must meet certain criteria to be most effective to your research. We’ll explore what’s needed in this chapter.

So, what can a tree give you when it’s linked to your DNA test and is available to be searched? Here are the main benefits:

  • Focused searches through Ancestry record collections
  • Automated Hints* to census records, birth/marriage/death records, and other collections
  • Automated Hints* to potential common ancestors with your DNA matches
  • Efficient review and comparisons with other public trees

* If you’re starting with Ancestry, you may be overwhelmed by its Hints. In contrast, if you’ve been using Ancestry for a while, you may be a little jaded by never-ending waves of Hints. You may even have turned them off. I will devote a full chapter on sorting the wheat from the chaff with these little green imps.

Public or Private?

It’s important to note that a private tree still gets the benefits of Ancestry hints and automated searching. But if you’re comfortable with making your tree public, you get benefits that I’ll boil down to this: give and you shall (hopefully) receive.

When browsing your tree, a DNA match may spot the connections you haven’t discovered yourself. As a frequent Ancestry user, I’m usually the one reaching out and sending messages. But it’s so nice when I get a message saying, “I see John Collins in your tree, I have some documents that may interest you.”

The Linked Searchable Tree

Unless you have a good reason otherwise, be sure to have a searchable tree that is linked to your DNA test.
Your tree doesn’t have to be public, but it probably should be “searchable”.
I’ll explain that term a little later.

Even if you’re an experienced Ancestry user, you’re in danger of accidentally flouting this rule. Many of us create private experimental trees and temporarily unlink and link our DNA test from our preferred tree to another.

It’s very easy to take a break and forget that you’ve left yourself with the “wrong” linked tree. If a DNA match builds a great public tree while you’re in limbo like this, you could miss useful hints from Ancestry’s automated search system. And yes, I’m speaking from experience!

So whether you’re new to Ancestry or you’re logging in after a break, take a minute to answer these two questions:

(1) Is your DNA test linked to your preferred tree?

Click on “Settings” and scroll down to the Tree Link section. Make sure what you see is what you want. Otherwise, click the “Change” link and assign the correct tree.

(2) Is your tree searchable?

You should review the Privacy Settings tab of the tree linked to your DNA kit, especially if you tend to switch between “research” trees where you are creating tentative branches and are unsure on whether you have the right details. You may have set your working tree to being unsearchable.

Under the Trees menu, click on “Create and Manage Trees”, manage your linked tree, and take a look at the Privacy Settings tab.

The pic on the right shows a shortened version of the Privacy Settings.

If your tree is Private, be sure that the searchable checkbox in the Private section is exactly what you want it to be.

Usually it should be unchecked, which means that a private tree is still Searchable.

Why would you want an unsearchable tree anyway? Is “Private” not enough?

Here’s the thing with private trees: it’s true that they can’t be viewed or browsed by other people. But unless you choose complete privacy, the Ancestry search results will include deceased individuals who match the search terms.

The searcher will see the birth year and location (if you added these details), your username, and a way to send you messages. If you want to avoid even that, then you need to tick the box that keeps your tree out of Ancestry’s record index you want to avoid even that, then the little box at the bottom needs to be ticked.

Let’s say you are exploring a tentative branch that you suspect is Uncle Charlie’s hogwash. He always claimed that great aunt Jemima was cousin to Harry Truman. You create an experimental tree, but you don’t want to lead others astray. That’s when to tick the box to exclude this tree from the search index.

Two mistakes to avoid in a public tree

I do wonder why nearly a quarter of my matches have only an unlinked tree, having gone to the trouble of creating one. But I’m still grateful when a search leads to an unlinked tree with verifiable sources and useful information.

Of course, not all trees are useful – either to the tree owners or their fellow researchers. Many of our matches have tiny trees with one or two entries.

I assume these Ancestry users aren’t interested in genealogy, and I mean no criticism of other people’s interests. The concern of this guide to Ancestry is for people who put in the effort of building a tree but end up sabotaging the benefits that Ancestry offers.

(1) I see no dead people

Eight percent (8%) of my matches have what I call “I see no dead people” trees. The tree is public, but every entry is set to living.
(Bruce is baffled by these too).

The pedigree page displays like this:

all private entries

Ancestry does not display the details of living entries, and many of these trees accurately represent the family genealogy. Yet I’ve messaged with matches who didn’t enter a date of death for deceased relatives. If that’s because it’s a pain-point, then do what feels right for you. But in some cases, they didn’t know the exact details when making the tree entry and forgot to come back to it.

The public tree owner is at a disadvantage here because DNA matches do not have an ancestral surname list to compare with their own.

(2) Single Surname

7% of my matches have “single surname” trees. These trees usually have just a few entries, but occasionally there are several generations of male ancestors with no female entries.

Now, you may have a very good reason to set up a tree like this, particularly if you lack parental information. And there are some people who genuinely want a tree that represents the patronymic line (yup, male ancestors only).

But sometimes it’s just a tactical mistake. This encounter sticks in my mind:

I messaged a 4th cousin DNA match because I recognized her grandfather’s entry in her tree. She hadn’t entered his spouse, and I wondered if that lady was unknown to her descendants for some unfortunate reason. I offered links to birth and marriage records if needed. My match replied that of course she knew all about her gran! She was doing her tree to fill in the blanks on gramp’s side.

Account of messages between myself and a match in 2017 – Margaret

Well, what’s the problem? Just one example: a marriage certificate may carry a wealth of information such as witness names and parent address. The more facts you feed Ancestry, the higher the chance of getting good hints and leads for your research. We’ll go into this in depth in later chapters in this guide to Ancestry.

The right kind of entries in your Tree

Many of you have already created your linked tree and added many generations. But have you got the details that are most likely to kick start the Ancestry engine into helping your research?

I’m talking BMD: dates and locations for births, marriages and deaths.

One common mistake is not entering these details for parents and grandparents because “I already know that.” But you need to feed Ancestry as much accurate details as you can find. In return, its hints and focused searches will be more likely to be helpful.

Our grandparents may appear as children in public censuses from the early 20th century. Once you’ve verified and accepted an Ancestry hint to a census, the name and location details may lead quickly to earlier census entries for older generations.

I crunched the numbers for my matches who had a linked tree that included a grandparent. A whopping 30% had at least one grandparent with no birth date details. Not even a year.

I’m not casting stones here! My own tree is like that. I have been unable to determine basic facts for two of my grandparents, who were born before the introduction of birth registration in their native country.

But I see plenty of trees where the grandparents are sparse entries, and there are well-sourced BMD details further up the line. I think many Ancestry users simply forget to enter what they already know.

It’s also quite common to remember the year and even month of death of older generations, but not the precise date. Do your best to tie facts down to the day. Then go update your tree!

In-Depth Guide to Ancestry: Your Exercises

Do this right now, so you know that you have the right fundamentals in place. Open your preferred tree in Ancestry, and check the following:

In-Depth Guide to Ancestry: What’s Next?

In the next tutorial, we’ll take an in-depth look at entering dates into your Ancestry in formats that are most likely to help your research.

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