How should you document a broader search?

The FFANs principle neatly categorises the people in a broader search as family, friends, associates or neighbours. Family can be included in your family tree, but how should you document research into friends, associates and neighbours?

What information needs to be documented?

First we must consider the type of information that needs to be documented. We are researching FFANs because that research may provide information which contributes to the history of someone in our family.

The key information, therefore, is:

  • name of the FFAN
  • vital dates and locations (birth, marriage death)
  • name of the person in your family that they are connected to
  • nature of the connection
  • information obtained from researching the FFAN that is relevant to the person in your family
  • source citations for that information.

Research plans

Including FFANs in research plans helps you focus your research on specific research questions that are necessary to progress your research and identify which FFAN is most likely to provide the best information.

You could include FFANs in the research plan of the ancestor that they are connected to. For example, I create research plans in Excel and add extra worksheets for FFANs. One worksheet lists all potentially relevant FFANs, then worksheets are added for more detailed research about those which have the potential to yield useful information.

Alternatively, you could create separate research plans for each FFAN or group of FFANs.

Family trees and associated documentation

When you research family beyond your direct line, you should add them to your family tree as this identifies their relationship to you. Friends, associates and neighbours can also be included in your family tree as unlinked individuals. You can then add their families, if that information is relevant to your research.

Another option is to create separate family trees for different family lines and for friends, associates and neighbours. I personally do not like having multiple trees. Family history software and online family trees have tools to help you with your research and I find that these tools work better if the people are all in the same tree. Having them all in the one tree also keeps all the information together, which minimises the risk that you will lose information or forget about some of the people that you were planning to research.

You should also extend your organising system for associated documentation to include FFANs. For example, I organise all my files by paternal and maternal sides, then by surname. I store documentation about FFANs under the surname that they are connected to.

How do you link FFANs to your ancestors?

Regardless of which approach you take to research planning and family trees, you need a system to document who each FFAN belongs to.

Using unique identifier numbers greatly assists this process. Family history software automatically adds a unique identifier number to each person. If you do not use software, you can set up your own manual system. The numbers are used to distinguish between people of the same name and as a short reference to a person.

You could use your master list of research plans to provide cross-referencing between ancestors and their FFANs, as demonstrated below.

Example master list of research plans using unique identifier numbers to cross reference to FFANs.

Another option is to add information about the FFANs and their connections on the profile of the relevant ancestor. Ideally they should appear with the information about the shared connection. For example, I added each of the men who were executors of John Townson’s will to my family tree as unlinked individuals, and then I added their names and unique identifier numbers to the fact about the will on John’s profile. I can use this information to search my tree by their names or their identifier numbers. Adding information about their connection to John on the profiles of each FFAN also allows me to trace that the link back to John.

DNA matches

DNA matches can be treated as FFANs, because the DNA results suggest that they are probably part of your extended family. DNA matches should be added to your family tree, if you have sufficient information and they are relevant to your research.

If you know, or think you know, the most recent common ancestor between yourself and your DNA match, you could include that DNA match in the research plan of that common ancestor. You could also list the DNA matches on the profile of that ancestor.

If you have not yet identified the most recent common ancestor, you might find it useful to have a research plan for a group of DNA matches who appear to be related to you in the same way, or have a DNA research plan for each of your four grandparent lines. A single DNA research plan would also be feasible.

You might like to read a post I wrote a while back, Research Planning with DNA.


Customise your family tree

Customising your family tree can help your research planning and improve the way that you communicate the results of your research.

There are many ways to customise your tree, but this post uses Legacy family tree software and Ancestry trees to demonstrate the main techniques.

Set your direct line

While it is important to research beyond your direct line, it is also useful if you can instantly tell which people in your family tree are on your direct line. This makes it easier to navigate up and down your line, and focus your research when necessary.

In Legacy, you can mark the entire direct line in one step by selecting the starting individual (usually yourself) and then choosing ‘Set Direct Line’ from the Tools tab. Legacy marks the names of people in your direct line in bold typeface.

In an Ancestry tree you have to mark each individual manually, by adding a ‘tree tag’. The direct line tag is called ‘Direct Ancestor’ and it is under the group called ‘Relationship tags’.

How are they related to you?

Knowing how someone is related to you is another useful bit of information as you work on your tree.

Ancestry adds that information automatically to individuals as you add them. With Legacy, you have to switch it on by choosing ‘Set Relationships’ from the Tools tab.

Divide them into your grandparent lines

Dividing your family members into groups based on your four grandparents is a great organisational tool. It helps with navigation, research planning, filing and sharing information with others.

Legacy uses the four-colour scheme and it can be applied by choosing ‘Set Ancestor Colours’ from the Tools tab. This adds a small block of colour on the individual’s screen and colour codes the box for each person in the pedigree chart. The colours can also be applied to printed family tree charts such as the one below.

Ancestry does not have a specific system to group your family by grandparent. However, you could create four custom Tree Tags for this purpose.

Identify research groups

You may find it useful to create customised groups of your family members for research purposes, based on common characteristics or common research questions. For example:

  • convicts
  • everyone who migrated to Australia
  • people born in Ireland
  • parents not yet identified.

Legacy has both two systems of tagging custom groups. The tag system uses the numbers 1-9 which appear at the top of the individual’s screen. The hashtag system allows a seemingly limitless list of tags.

Ancestry has ‘MyTreeTags’ under the categories of DNA, life experience, relationship and research status, and you can also create custom tags. The tags appear below the person’s name on their screen.

Both Legacy and Ancestry allow you to search your family tree for everyone containing a particular tag and create a list. Legacy also allows you to print the list in PDF format or a CSV file. The latter is great for research planning, as the file can be opened and modified in Excel.

Note the status of research

Noting the status of research on individuals may help make your research more manageable and help you focus on those individuals who need to be prioritised to progress your research.

Ancestry tree tags have the following pre-set tags: actively researching, brick wall, complete, hypothesis, unverified, verified.

Legacy does not have a specific system to note the status of research, but you could use the tags or the To Do List for this purpose.

Even if you do not want to use most of these tags, the unverified tag could be extremely useful because it draws attention to the inconclusive nature of the information which affects the accuracy of your family tree.

Record DNA conclusions

I have written before about methods for recording DNA conclusions, so I won’t repeat that here other than to emphasise that it is important to establish a system for doing so and both Legacy and Ancestry have tools to assist this process.


Research planning with DNA

How do you use DNA in your family history research?

Do you approach it with a specific research question in mind and see if the DNA data provides evidence to help you answer it? Do you analyse the data and draw your research questions from what you find? Do you incorporate your DNA questions into your broader research planning?

All of these approaches are reasonable, but are they the best way to approach research planning with DNA?

I have emphasised in my previous articles that research planning in family history is all about being more systematic, so that we generate a more accurate family history and progress our research more quickly. We need to be careful that the questions we ask of DNA evidence are the right questions to achieve our goals. If you haven’t read those posts yet, you might like to do so before you read on.

Three ways to generate research questions

Asking the right research questions

Managing your research questions

Apply DNA evidence to your whole tree

One of the fundamental standards in family history research is that our conclusions must be reasonable and defensible. To achieve that we have to use the ‘best sources’ and conduct what is referred to as ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’. Last year I wrote a post arguing that DNA evidence is the best source, when used in combination with documentary sources and that DNA evidence is essential evidence.

One of the key reasons that DNA evidence is essential is that DNA can disprove documentary evidence.

On that basis, DNA evidence needs to be applied to the whole family tree.

By whole family tree I mean all four grandparent lines back to 3x or 4x great grandparents. Beyond that, autosomal DNA is currently unreliable.

Start with yourself

When we first began our family history, we started with ourselves and worked backward through time. We did this because we needed to start from a ‘solid foundation’ where identities and relationships were well established.

DNA is new evidence and this means we need to reapply this principle.

We need to go back to ourselves, apply DNA evidence and test whether what we currently think we know about our family history is still reasonable and defensible.

If we approach our DNA results with a specific question about someone a few generations back without first confirming the generations between that person and ourselves, then any conclusion we reached could be inaccurate.

Take a systematic approach

Step 1

First we need to examine whether or not our DNA test results confirm our existing conclusions.

Given the DNA evidence, are our conclusions about the identity of our ancestors and the relationships between them still reasonable and defensible? Are the ethnicity results consistent with where we think our ancestors came from?

If the evidence does not support our existing conclusions and if there are any inconsistencies, these issues need to be resolved before we move on to using DNA to fill gaps in our tree.

Start with yourself and move back through the generations.

My Tree Health Assessment tool will guide you through this process and help you document your results. You can download an article about this tool on my Free Stuff page.

Extract from a Tree Health Assessment family tree

The Leeds Method will help you group your DNA matches and examine whether there is evidence that you have the correct four grandparents in your own family tree. Apply the Leeds Method first, then check the trees of your matches to see if they correspond with the lines of your grandparents.

Use the analysis to update your documentation, such as your family tree. Add DNA as a source citation where it confirms or strengthens your existing conclusions. You may also need to revise your evidence summaries or evidence arguments (also known as proof summaries and evidence arguments) or write new ones.

Step 2

If the DNA evidence raises doubts about your conclusions or reveals inconsistencies, this should be used to generate research questions and hypotheses for your research plan(s).

For example, if you have close DNA matches for whom you cannot identify a relationship, or if you cannot identify any DNA matches for a particular family line.

Misattributed parentage and adoption may be the cause, but you need to investigate other possible causes too – such as flaws in your original research or errors in the documentary sources.

Create research tasks based on your questions and hypotheses. These may include additional DNA testing and documentary research. Prioritise your questions and tasks, working from your ‘solid foundations’. If you are using the Tree Health Assessment tool, this means starting where a yellow line branches off from a green line.

Revise your research plans or prepare research plans if you don’t already have them. Research plans based on family groups will usually suffice, but in some circumstances it may be appropriate to create a research plan for extended family.

Conduct more research and analysis, revisiting your research questions and hypotheses periodically.

When your research is concluded, update your family history documentation (such as your family tree, source citations, evidence summaries, evidence arguments).

Step 3

Now that you have used DNA to confirm your family tree, you can start asking other questions:

  • Are there gaps in your tree that DNA evidence may help you to fill?

For example, who was my father’s biological father?

  • Are there identities/relationships in your tree where the documentary evidence is inconclusive, that DNA may shed light on?

For example, does DNA support the rumour that X was the biological father of Y?

Use your research goals to prioritise the questions based on your interests and the potential they have for progressing your research.

The research process for Step 3 is similar to Step 2, except that a family group may not be the most appropriate planning unit for your research plans. You may need a research plan that applies to a group of DNA matches, or to an entire family line.

Final thoughts

DNA cannot answer all your research questions. If you are not clear about the limits of DNA evidence, you might like to read Diahan Southard’s article.

Focus on what will have the greatest benefit to your research. Don’t waste time pursuing matches that don’t contribute to your research goals, spending weeks analysing clusters and matches for a line that is already well-documented and for which the DNA is not showing any red flags.


Using negative evidence in family history

Negative evidence is something that helps you draw a conclusion from the absence of a situation that should exist given the circumstances.

With negative evidence, it is the absence of something that is significant.

Here are some examples.


In family history research, there are patterns of events. If those patterns are broken, this could be negative evidence of something that is not immediately obvious.

Before birth control, most couples had their first child within two years of marriage and then continued having children at gaps of between 18-24 months. If either of those patterns do not exist in a family, then this is negative evidence that something else has occurred. Perhaps the father had to leave for work or military service, or perhaps there was another child but you just haven’t found any records of them.

Women under a certain age (it differs by location) need parental consent or the consent of a guardian before they can marry. If a marriage records does not mention that consent was granted, this is negative evidence that couple were of legal age. Similarly, convicts needed permission to marry. If no permission exists, this could be negative evidence that they had served their sentence.

A fan chart showing my confirmed DNA matches were all maternal

Negative evidence is very important in DNA research. The absence of DNA matches with descendants of your known ancestors is negative evidence of a non-paternal event or adoption along that line. In my own family history, for example, a complete absence of any matches on my father’s side provided negative evidence that he was adopted.

Missing or undiscovered records

If you have not yet found a death record, negative evidence may help you gather clues to the approximate date.

For example, if you track an individual through census records and they suddenly do not appear, this could be negative evidence that they died between the date of that census and the previous one.


A research question can be converted into a hypothesis to provide a scenario that can be tested through research. The scenario is then used to predict events about which sources would have been created. If no such sources are found, this could provide negative evidence that the scenario is incorrect.

For example, if my great great grandmother Sophia was 101 when she died in 1931 and was born in Muswellbrook (as her death certificate states), then I should be able to find some evidence of her birth or her family in that locality at that time. However, a comprehensive search of the records for Muswellbrook around 1830 failed to reveal such records and this could be negative evidence that her name, age or the location were incorrect.

Negative evidence does not necessarily give us a definitive and defensible conclusion, but it can provide us with useful research leads. Investigating these leads may provide us with direct evidence from which we can draw defensible conclusions.


Ten more uses for family tree charts

A family tree chart is not just for documenting names dates and locations. It can also be used in analysis and to display other information of interest. Here are ten examples to inspire you.

A photo tree

A photo tree is a visually appealing version of a family tree chart, with photos of each person, or a headstone or place if a portrait is not available. The name of the person is usually the only text used. A photo tree can be created manually, for example in Excel, or using family history or charting software.

Photo family tree chart of the parents and grandparents of Heather May Hend
Photo chart created using Legacy Family Tree software

Place of origin tree

A place of origin tree provides a visual summary of the locations where your ancestors were born. It could focus on countries or subdivisions of a country. Names are optional. The tree shown here was produced by creating a fan chart in Legacy Family Tree software, then opening that in Paint where colours were added.

Fan chart of the ancestors of Heather May Hend, coloured based on where each person was born.
Origins chart –
dark yellow Australia, light yellow China, blue England, pink Scotland, purple Switzerland,
green Ireland, dark blue Germany

Occupation tree

If you are interested in patterns of occupations within family lines or between families, an occupation tree could be useful. Names are optional and this tree can be created in the same way as a place of origin tree if you wish to use colours for each occupation, or, if you prefer text you could create the tree in Word or Excel.

Contextual tree

When writing a family history or a family history story, a small extract of a family tree chart can be a useful way to orientate the reader, and help them figure out who you are discussing and how that person or people relate to you or to the reader. A contextual tree may need to be created manually, depending on what you want to include.

Family tree chart showing the mother's line of Ivy Elizabeth Rusten
Extract of tree showing ancestors of Ivy Rusten created using Legacy Family Tree software

Relationship tree

Similar to a contextual tree, a relationship tree illustrates the pathway of relationships between two individuals. A relationship tree can be created manually or using family history software. In Legacy, for example, select the tool ‘Relationship calculator’, choose the two people and click on Print to create the chart.

Relationship family tree chart showing how Ivy Elizabeth Rusten is related to Edward Webb
Relationship tree for Edward Webb and Ivy Rusten

Connections tree

‘Connections’ is a fun tool on Wikitree. It takes the relationship tree to the extreme, by illustrating how you are related to someone famous. To create such a tree you need to add your family into the collaborative tree on Wikitree, then click on Find – Connections. It will list famous people that you are connected to, but as I am Australian I often do not recognise the list that Americans consider to be famous. I search for people I know, copy their Wikitree ID, then manually enter that ID into the Connections tool.

Family tree chart from Wikitree showing Danielle is related by 18 degrees from Mick Jagger
Connections tree from Wikitree showing how I am related to Mick Jagger

Tree health assessment

The Tree Health Assessment tool is an example of how a family tree chart can be used to analyse your family history research. I have talked about it here and you can download the free PDF from my Free Stuff page.

DNA confirmed tree 

A family tree chart can be used to provide an illustration of the people whose relationships have been confirmed by DNA. To create a DNA confirmed tree first produce a tree with names (dates are optional), then add colours using a program such as Paint. The chart below is a fan chart, but you do not have to use that format. I just find that the compact format of the fan chart fits nicely onto an A4 page or presentation slide.

Quarter fan chart with names shaded green representing who has been confirmed by DNA
Fan chart manually coloured to show confirmed relationships on my mother’s side

DNA analysis tree

Family tree charts can be used to illustrate how DNA matches may be related to you. Information about the match are included, such as centimorgans and relationship.

ThruLines chart from Ancestry
Extract of a ThruLines chart from Ancestry, on my father’s biological line

There are more great DNA analysis charting examples at Family Locket.

What are the odds tree

Jonny Perl created an online tool for DNA analysis called the What Are The Odds (WATO). It uses a family tree chart format to illustrate and analyse different hypotheses for how you may be related to your DNA matches.

What are the odds chart from DNA Painter tool
A WATO chart analysing my grandmother Ivy Rusten’s ancestral line