Downsize Your Unnecessarily Large Family Tree

Sketch of a multitude of people and the overlay Downsize Your Unnecessarily Large Family Tree

Though it may seem sacrilegious to ask, “Do you need to downsize the unnecessarily large family tree that you’re attempting to maintain across multiple platforms and/or in a genealogy software program?” If you have a family tree that is upwards of 10,000 people, you need to consider downsizing your tree to become laser-focused on quality research.

How my family tree grew unnecessarily large

If you’re anything like me, when you find a new person connected to someone on your tree, you quickly add them on your tree. You found them after all.

These new people in your database may the same surname as you or be a spouse of your cousin. Soon, you follow rabbit trails and your family tree quadruples in size.

Or, you may do advanced genealogy and add your ancestor’s FAN club (friends, associates, and neighbors) to your family tree. By researching your ancestor’s ‘social network,’ you may find new family members. If you’re wise, you’ll keep the FAN club in separate databases trees, but many people don’t. Their family tree expands exponentially.

Why An Unnecessarily Large Family Tree Is A Problem

Unless you are working on a specific project that warrants a large tree, the quality of your research suffers.

Let’s say it takes 15 hours to conduct reasonably exhaustive research for one person in your family tree. If you have a family tree with 10,000 names in it, it will take:

  • 150,000 hours, or
  • 6250 days, or
  • ~ 17 years

… to conduct reasonably exhaustive searches for everyone in the tree.

That’s working 24 hours a day! It will likely take 60+ years to do quality research on everyone in your tree.

Additionally, if your family tree is online on a platform with record hints, you’ll receive a flood of suggestions from branches of your tree that are not in the area you want to target. Soon, you’ll climb ‘other people’s trees’ rather than your own.

To become a laser-focused genealogist, you should downsize your tree.

It Happens to the Best of Us

When FamilySearch rolled out its current online family tree in 2012, I excitedly began migrating sources, documents, and images to their website. It took me months to migrate all of the facts I had gathered into my tree of 8,000 names. Additionally, I had to merge duplicate profiles, fixing inaccurate relationships, adding explanations of my changes and additions, and adding new relatives to the family tree.

I could not make new discoveries because I was lost in the extended branches rather than the lines I most care about.

With the advances on the FamilySearch platform, and tools like RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker, I could reduce the months of work to a few weeks, but the problem still remains. I was managing people that were not in my target research group.

In short, the trouble with an unnecessarily large family tree database is the amount of time it takes to manage, maintain, and process the information.

Are Some Large Trees Necessary?

Your tree should only be as large as necessary to work on your current research project and make a few cool pedigree charts.

If you are working on researching your maternal ancestors, expand your database to accomplish that goal.

If you’re conducting a One-Name Study, your database will be larger, but keep it narrowly focused. If you’re researching Howse’s don’t add extensive Zumsteins family members into the tree. Only add the Zumsteins necessary for you to reach the Howse lines.

Use Technology to Help Your Downsize Your Unnecessarily Large Family Tree

Several years ago, I broke from the temptation to collect people and add them to my genealogy software program or my online family trees with reckless abandon. I downsized my research family trees to focus only on curating information on the lines I’m actively researching and curating.

Step 1: Build an Extended Family Tree on FamilySearch or WikiTree

Since FamilySearch and WikiTree strive to have one world tree, you can utilize their platforms to maintain the extended lines. This is where you can store research for all of my family lines your 512 seventh great-grandparents (if you don’t have tree collapse or other complications) and beyond.

Additionally, you can add in-laws and those FAN Clubs that you previously added to my database. Whenever you need to revisit these individuals, you go to those platforms and leverage the research others have conducted.

FamilySearch and WikiTree also store your theories. While researching, you likely build source-based theories. If those theories don’t lead to your family, you’ll likely abandon those lines. However, your investigation and conclusions are still valuable.

Instead of discarding your discoveries, use FamilySearch or WikiTree as a repository of information for other researchers who may need the answers you uncovered.

FamilySearch and WikiTree can track biological, adopted, step, and guardianship relationships. This is important when you see how to focus your family trees using MyHeritage and Ancestry for DNA discoveries.

Step 2: Create a Biological Family Tree on Ancestry and MyHeritage for DNA Matches

Ancestry ThruLines and MyHeritage Theories of Family Relativity released technology that has changed how their platforms provide clues for DNA test-takers. As such, you should create a biological tree so as not to confuse the platforms as they make relationship suggestions.

For more information on the struggles Ancestry ThruLines has with distinguishing biological and adopted relationships, watch this video.

Who to add to your Ancestry or MyHeritage tree?

Limit your biological family trees to your 5th great-grandparents. You have DNA from 120 ancestors (to learn more, watch this video), and as such your DNA matches will typically link only to this generation of common ancestors.

Then add all the necessary descendants of the 5th great-grandparents that enable you to sort out your matches, but you don’t need everyone.

  • You might add at least one generation of children to your 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th great-grandparents.
  • Add another generation of descendants you are not interested to filter DNA matches.
  • Add all the descendants for the lines you are most interested in researching.

Ensure you set these trees to ‘Public’ to enable the DNA match relationship suggestions to work.

Use this tree for DNA matches, not for record research

Your DNA tree can explode in size as you add more individuals that you typically would for genealogical purposes. You will not deep dive into these relatives, so don’t build it with the intent to maintain record research. In short, ignore record hints on this tree!

When you find a discovery for that would benefit your downsized family tree, you can add the information to your second tree.

Step 3: Create a Genealogical Family Tree on Ancestry and MyHeritage for Research

If you have a subscription to Ancestry and MyHeritage for record research, keep a separate research tree on those platforms. These trees allow you to take advantage of the auto-hinting features of both platforms but you will keep your trees downsized to the projects you are working on.

Keep the tree narrow so you can stay focused on thoroughly research your ancestors.

You can also link these trees to your genealogy software programs such as RootsMagic or FamilyTreeMaker to back up your family tree.

For more tips about Downsizing with Family History in mind, pick up our book by the same name.
Downsizing and preserving family history does not have to be difficult. #downsizing #familyhistory #decluttering
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Step 4: Downsize Your Genealogy Database

Many genealogy experts say you should keep a backup of your family tree on your computer to:

These principles are not wrong but to increase your efficiency you want to downsize your unnecessarily large family tree and focus on just the lines you are actively researching or need to create a family tree.

In addition to organizing your genealogy research, software programs are great for organizing digital media files on your computer and writing family histories. Your database file should be downsized to the point where you can accomplish these goals.

How Big Is My Database?

My database had exploded to 10,000 names before I began downsizing. I am actively researching the Geiszlers, Hoppes, Zumsteins, Townleys, and Townsends. I am not researching Clabaugh/Claybaughs or the Comforts.

From my database, I removed all Clabaugh and Comfort relatives who are not spouses to my main family lines. If I need them, I can find them on my DNA family tree or in WikiTree of FamilySearch.

When I transfer information between FamilySearch and my genealogy software program, I use the Tree Share feature and only exchange information about my downsized list.

Since I have many generations of small families, I now only have about 1,000 names in the database. An unnecessarily large would exceed that number for my family. My DNA trees have about 3,000 names but ‘my’ FamilySearch Family Tree has 1 billion names!

Find out what your necessary number is and delete the rest from your database. For you, 5,000 names would be optimal. It might climb higher. However, if you brag about a database with 100,000 names or more, I recommend you downsize.

Free Yourself From the Burden of Unnecessarily Large Family Trees

Unshackle yourself from the burden of an unnecessarily large family tree in your database and online trees by downsizing it. It is freeing to take ‘other people’s relatives’ out of your database. They are accessible online if you need them again.

Free yourself from digital clutter of removing images, citations, and facts pertaining to extended lines you’re not actively researching from your database and harddrive.

By downsizing your family tree, you can free yourself to begin writing your family’s history or make cool videos to excite your children, grandchildren, or nieces about their legacy. And you might also do a little housework (Okay, I still find ways to avoid housework, but it is possible.)

picture of a cluster of sketched people with caption Downsize Your Unnecessarily Large Family Tree
Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

4 thoughts on “Downsize Your Unnecessarily Large Family Tree

  1. How timely this post is. I've "trimmed" my family tree because I had several unverified lines going back to the Middle Ages– so time to cut 'em and focus on more recent, verified ancestors. My rule with collateral relatives in my tree is that I include siblings of direct ancestors (not their children though) only up to 3rd greats… unless there's a sibling of a direct ancestor who's notable. Spouses of family member are included, but not their families… my brother-in-law (sister's hubbie) has his own family tree that I started working on.

  2. Danni, Thanks for the chuckles. It's pretty amazing once you recognize that you're impossibly burdened and you cast it off. I am only one person so I need to learn what is practical and what's a wee bit insane. Thanks for making me not feel too alone in getting lost in tangent world. Happens far too often.

    I am trying to be more focused on my direct lines. The maiden name line is stuck. But there are openings throughout the tree extending backwards to research that are not often neglected in favor of my maiden name line.

  3. You mean people are actually successful in unshackling? I am in awe of those who have succeeded at this 😉 I tend to get off on genealogical tangents and eventually wander my way back but I get distracted very easily. I guess my goal should be to learn to be more focused on my direct line, huh? LOL

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