How to Make a Family Tree: Tips from Diane Haddad of Family Tree Magazine

How to Make Your Family Tree - Tips and Tricks from Diane Haddad from Family Tree Magazine

Twelve years ago I started working on my family tree when I found out that my dad had a cousin in California he thought I would get along with really well. (He was right, her name is Tree, and she’s wonderful.) It was then that I started to get into genealogy and started trying to figure out how the heck to make a family tree. I started asking my parents questions about other relatives, kept handwritten notes, and started hand-drawing my first family tree. Once I had gathered enough information I switched over to a desktop based family tree program and started to make my family tree.

I loved finding out about new relatives. I loved having the internet at my finger tips to search relatives’ first and last names to learn more about their lives. After two years I was frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t able to see my whole family tree at the same time, wasn’t sure what questions I should be answering next, and wasn’t able to make the software I was using understand that my grandmother’s brother married my grandfather’s sister. I packed all the information I had away into a large blue binder and didn’t look at it for 10 years.

This brings us to the present. About a month ago I got an email from about a discount on their DNA test and on a whim I decided to give it a shot. I still don’t have my results, but opening the site led me to typing in as much of the family tree as I could remember while procrastinating doing something else. (As all great projects start. Clearly.)

So here I am, ten years later, figuring out what to do with this family tree I started junior year of high school. I dug out my over-sized, blue binder and typed the information I had into while attempting to piece together my quick handwritten scribbles and running quick Google searches on each family member before closing their profile to see if I could learn any additional information. Now I have an tree with 423 people on it. I found myself paralyzed again not knowing where to go next. I knew somebody must have the answers to this, somebody must know how to make a family tree – and I was on a mission to find her.

That’s when I came across Diane Haddad, she runs the blog at Family Tree Magazine. She sounded like the perfect person to answer some of my questions – as well as some of yours. First, let me introduce you to Diane – then we’ll get into specifics.

Her background is in business magazines, but found herself taking a position at Family Tree Magazine – which was actually perfect since she’s always been kind of a history buff. She took this opportunity to learn about genealogy, research, and all sorts of resource available for genealogists. She keeps her family tree online. This is the place that she adds new information and uploads records to ancestor profiles. One of her next goals is to write profiles for each person in her tree because she has found that to be the best way to preserve those people’s stories. Eventually she hopes to blend each of these paragraphs together to create a single book.

(Please note that I/me in the questions below is me, Chrystina. Information that is not a personal anecdote is a tip or insight directly from Diane.)

How to Make Your Family Tree - Tips and Tricks from Diane Haddad from Family Tree Magazine 01

How do you begin to make a family tree?

Experts recommend starting with yourself and going backward.

The way I personally started was by asking everybody in my extended family for as much information as possible. I remember being super impressed when my grandmother was able to tell me the maiden names of her nephew’s wives. It was incredible. That was the first time I got the list of all of my parents’ cousins. It felt very cool.

Diane recommends looking through your house for any kind of paper records. Start filling out your family tree from there, whether it be on a paper chart, online tree, or whatever other methodology works for you. Write down where and when you were born, followed by your siblings, parents, and more. Then take a look at the census records starting with anyone alive in 1940. If you find someone, the website may recommend other matching records on the side. Then look at the records from 1930, 1920, etc to see if you can continue the story. The reason for starting with 1940 is because census records are private for 72 years and then they are released (and the genealogists go crazy).

Eventually, you’ll become known as the person in the family that people will want to give information to. Diane shared a story with me about how a family member purposely dropped off documents they no longer wanted at her house since she’s now the “go-to” family member. I haven’t quite reached that status yet.

We did, however, commiserate over the fact that every so often somebody’s withholding information that you want or need and it drives you bonkers when you finally find out. For me it was the fact that my mother was holding onto a box of old photographs of my dad’s mom, for Diane it was the fact that her dad had a note from the superintendent from the orphanage his dad was at as a kid in the early 1900s (which was super useful while gathering new information).

A good goal to work towards is to have at least one photograph of each person, which is good both for reference and to have as a profile photograph if you choose to use an online website to store information.

Would you recommend building your tree out horizontal or vertical?

This was a big question that I had. I found that I was spending more time gathering information horizontally on the tree rather than vertically. (In case you’re confused, building your tree vertical means you’re going back further in time to find your great-great-great (etc) grandparents. Going horizontal means you’re finding more extended relatives, for example your second and third cousins or your great-grandparents’ siblings and their children.

Actually. I’m going to pause us right here. I’m going to try to explain something that people ask me all the time. Diagram below created by yours truly.

Family Tree Questions - an explanation of first cousin, second cousin, and once removed v3

Let’s pretend that you’re the green dot (labeled “you”). The level of dots higher than you is your parents’ generation and the level of dots two above you is your grandparents’ generation. Your cousins (shown in light yellow) are the kids of your aunts and uncles. Their kids are your first cousins once removed. That said, there are two different options for first cousins once removed. Your parents’ cousins are also your first cousins once removed. Your second cousins are your parents’ first cousins’ kids. I’m not going to try to explain why. You can read this article from Family Tree Magazine to learn more. Now back to the regularly scheduled program.

I found that it was easier to build your tree out horizontally rather than vertically because Facebook is such a huge people search engine these days – super useful when you’re trying to make a family tree. So anybody on the tree in my generation probably has a Facebook page (assuming I know how to spell their name). There’s a few people I’ve been able to connect with through Facebook and they’ve actually helped me piece together missing information. That said, I was worried it wasn’t the “right way” to build a family tree. However, Diane had a different mentality.

She said, “as far as down-the-road benefits for making sure that you’re researching the right ancestors, horizontal is the way to go.” At first I was confused, but she went on to explain, if there’s a brick wall ancestor and you just can’t find out who their parents are or where they were born, one of the first things a genealogist would recommend is to research their family, siblings, and even neighbors. People used to travel and migrate in groups, so chances are that someone else has records of one of those relatives and you can reverse engineer the answer.

Diane continued, “a lot of people’s goal is to go back as far as they can, but in doing that people will quickly learn that you can go back farther if you’ve also done the horizontal tree… When discussing researching deceased relatives horizontally, researchers will also find that records of ancestors’ siblings also are helpful. If you can’t find your great-great-great-grandfather’s mother’s name in any of his records, the records of his brothers and sisters might have the answer”

So maybe I was doing something right after all.

Do you have any advice for asking the hard questions?

During this process every so often I found myself needing to ask questions that were a little awkward and uncomfortable. Questions about people you don’t know, but the person you’re asking were very close to them when they were alive. I asked Diane if she had any tips for handling times like this.

She offered, “sometimes you can just get somebody started – ‘tell me about so-and-so’ – without asking specifically about the difficult subject. Showing pictures helps too.” She used to show her grandmother photos of family members and before she knew it, her grandmother would be sharing stories and talking about people from her past.

Also, remember that broaching a “hard subject” doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the person has passed away. A hard subject can be something a family just isn’t ready to openly talk about yet, for example a divorce or town scandal.

What’s the best sleuth technique?

This is the part where I got stumped. I wrote down as much information as I could get my hands on and then wasn’t sure where to go from there. So I definitely made sure to ask Diane where she goes when she needs information – how to make a family tree 2o1.

One thing she likes to do regularly is visit the free FamilySearch website. They have a collection of digitized records. While most are searchable, there are some that are just images. If you visit this site you can browse all public collections. You can even sort by what’s been newly updated. For now most of the information is US-based, but there is some international documentation – and they’re getting new records all the time!

If you’re on the search for international information, Diane had a piece of advice that surprised me. She said, “a lot of people try to jump overseas too soon. If you’re looking for an ancestor in another county you have to know exactly where they came from. The main international source of records is church records, and those are all sorted by town.”

She explained that she spent a long time looking for her grandfather’s immigration record with no success. The piece of information she was missing was that her grandfather was actually born with a different name than the one he used in the United States. Once she found the naturalization record (with his birth name on it) she realized she had looked at the correct record multiple times before and just didn’t know it. Moral of the story? Do as much research as you can before jumping ship overseas.

And in the case of adoption (one of my grandparent’s grandparents was adopted so I had to ask), a lot of people turn to DNA. They have to hope that somebody from the birth family also takes the test and that they will show up as a match on one of the websites that facilitate these alignments. Once you find these people, compare that person’s family tree – including locations, parents, etc – to see if there are any leads on where to go next. That said, there are specific experts at Family Tree Magazine who know more about this situation – and they have an Adoption Toolkit to help you out as well.

How to Make Your Family Tree - Tips and Tricks from Diane Haddad from Family Tree Magazine 02

What’s the best way to capture and store the information?

This is one of the biggest questions I wrestle with as a family tree investigator. You make a family tree, you’ve got all this information, what is the best way to capture it? Diane uses the notes feature on her family tree platform, but there is something really important she said – she actually backs up her family tree onto her computer just in case anything ever happens to the online site.

That was one of my biggest worries. As a blogger we’re always talking about what happens if you wake up one day and Twitter is just gone or Instagram is just gone. You need another way to reach your people. Therefore it was completely in my nature to ask, “what happens if goes away” – and the answer is that you need to have it all backed up.

As for whether theirs a way to see your whole tree at the same time online? Unfortunately the answer appears to be no right now. They just get too large and sections of it collapse down on most platforms. That said, there are family tree printing companies (like Family ChartMasters) that will take your online family tree file (your GEDCOM) and print a huge chart you can hang on the wall.

My favorite methodology for capturing information and stories is the one Diane’s hoping to facilitate soon (that’s listed above) one mentioned above, writing a blurb for each person in her tree about who they are. I’m going to try to do this as well. One person at a time. Slow and steady, right?

Here’s an example of one of the stories Diane uncovered on her own family tree journey. It was family legend that her great grandfather was a bootlegger. She was able to find out that it was true. While it was before prohibition, the Texas County he lived in was in was dry. He was sent to jail and his children all went to live in an orphanage. Her grandfather (not great-grandfather) ended up staying at the orphanage even after his father was pardoned. She even managed to track down the pardon records by contacting somebody at the Texas State Library and Archives.

What do you do when two people have similar names?

I’m Italian. There are people on my family tree who I’ve found go by John, Giani, Giovani, and more. And they’re all the same person. Not only that, but my family name was actually changed to Cappello from Cappella a long time ago. So there’s a lot of name options going on here. And sometimes the problem is even as simple as there are just a heck of a lot of John Smiths in the world.

I started by asking, “what happens when people’s names were changed at Ellis Island?” And then I learned something.

Apparently Ellis Island did not change people’s names! There are a few probable reasons why names on passenger lists and US records might be different from records in an immigrant’s homeland, though: (1) people would change their own names after they arrived because they sounded more American or (2) when they bought tickets to immigrate in their own homelands, the ship’s clerk would have written the name, so they totally could have messed that up. And in the instance that you find online records with a slight change in name spelling, it could be because when the records were digitized they were extra difficult to read.

I’ll stop holding out on you. Here’s what you do to check if two people are the same person. Make a chart showing each name, the birthdate, where they were born, etc. Then try to research both people and you’ll eventually come to a conclusion if one of them is your ancestor. (Yup, that’s right, the answer is actually that you’ve gotta do the work.) You can also compare people’s siblings, spouses, and neighbors.

If somebody goes by multiple names, make sure to keep all of this information (including birth names, alternate spellings, immigration names, various surnames, etc) in the person’s profile so you don’t need to do the research all over again later.

All this said. This is actually an incredibly double-edged sword. If you find a name match, don’t automatically assume that it’s the right person. Continue doing your research until you can tell that they fit into your tree.

How to Make Your Family Tree - Tips and Tricks from Diane Haddad from Family Tree Magazine 03

What do you do when it seems like other people have already completed your family tree? (and more search techniques)

This was another problem I was struggling with. Somebody on my mom’s side has already done our family tree – and somebody on my dad’s side has already done our family tree. Where the heck does that leave me? Diane assured me there’s always more work to do though.

She thought she was done with her mom’s family because her aunt did a bunch of the work, but her aunt had done this work before there were so many digitized records. “It’s always good to verify what they found and then start looking for details and the stories.”

Look for newspaper clippings to add to the pile of records. Diane managed to find a small article in a local town newspaper about her great grandmother’s birthday party that listed all of the little girls who went to the party. She also learned of a distant uncle who played baseball in the early 1900s in the Federal League (an “outlaw” baseball league) who has his picture painted on a mural by the Ohio River – he’s even on baseball cards.

If you want to look through the newspapers, there’s a few websites you can check out, for example: (of course),, and the Library of Congress has a free online library of old newspapers. Libraries might have indexes about who was in the newspaper on what date (although you may need to get out the microfilm). Putting in an address or a local club they were a part of is a good option as well because it can help avoid name misspellings and inconsistencies!

When you’re searching Google, type in the word genealogy with the person’s name, try searching with quotation marks, don’t forget to try people’s nicknames, and if you’re searching for somebody who lived in the late 1800s or early 1900s know that a lot of the guys would go by initials instead of their full names. (For example I could be C. N. Cappello if I was born in 1900.)

What about those heritage DNA Tests?

And now back to what started this whole search, the DNA test, just one of the autosomal DNA test options out there. There are actually multiple companies that now provide this service including Ancestry DNA, Family Tree DNA, and 23 and Me. Diane recommends doing research into each company to better understand what type of information the results provide – and checking each site’s user Facebook group for inside details. You can also check in with what the genealogy bloggers (like The Legal Genealogist) are saying about how easy the results to use.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that doing DNA tests can uncover family infidelities. Scandalous.

How do you keep information safe?

In the 21st century this question had to come up. I asked Diane what mechanisms she has in place to keep her information safe on the internet. While she has the names of people who are still living on her family tree, she doesn’t post any other information about them. Most online trees will block the names of living people anyway.

It’s all a matter of comfort. If it’s something that would hurt people to know, don’t put it online. (This sounds oddly similar to the blogger mentality.)

Why do you think younger folks are interested in genealogy?

We also talked about why she thinks younger folks seem more interested in genealogy these days, which resulted in an unsurprising, yet originally unexpected, answer. Social networks (especially Facebook) have made it so much easier to connect these days and find people. And it’s even more useful that Facebook spans so many generations of people at this point.

Two final pieces of advice from Diane for you – 

  1. Once you start researching and get your feet wet you get better at it – and it’s so cool when you see a record with your ancestor’s name on it. That’s a feeling that you can’t really replicate.
  2. Don’t forget – a lot of people do this as a hobby so they don’t have all kinds of time to do research. So sometimes you do what you can do easily and then you go more in depth when you have time later on. Start where you can, get the records you can, and as you have the time to devote to it add it in slowly.

Thank you so much Diane for taking the time out of your schedule to chat about family tree research. I’m feeling incredibly inspired to keep moving – especially with all of these great tips and tricks. I hope you’re inspired to make a family tree as well if you haven’t already!

I’m excited to do more research into the censuses, double check the work done by other family members (which I still haven’t incorporated into my tree), attempt to write blurbs for each family member, looking into my great-great grandfather’s adoption, and to get my DNA results back (and probably take one or two more of those tests). Do you have any tips and tricks you’d like to add to the list above?

 Diane Haddad, Family Tree Magazine Diane Haddad is the editor of Family Tree Magazine, America’s No. 1 how-to family history magazine. In her 13 years of doing genealogy research, she’s learned stories of farming families, housewives, cigar store and tavern owners, a bootlegger, a baseball player, military service members, and lots of “everyday heroes” in her family tree.

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  • Julia Dent

    This is really interesting! My mom’s side is Norwegian and instead of Ellis Island changing their family name, three brothers came to the US and each one chose a different last name. We have no idea why! So that’s made it a little hard to track down our family in Norway.

    • Yeah, this seriously sounds extra tricky. Looks like you might need to track down those naturalization records (which I totally didn’t know was a thing until this interview). Best of luck in the search!

  • I’ve been working on my family tree for years, and it’s so interesting. I cannot wait to hear how your test turned out. I’m totally intrigued!!!

    • What I really need to do first is track down the information that other family members have already obtained. I just need to get to Connecticut first…